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PART 3: Economics, Theology, and Justice - Paul Heyne, “Are Economists Basically Immoral?” and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion 
“Are Economists Basically Immoral?” and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion, edited and with an Introduction by Geoffrey Brennan and A.M.C. Waterman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Economics, Theology, and Justice
Justice, Natural Law, and Reformation Theology*
The “crisis in law” is almost axiomatic today. The apparent impotence of positivistic conceptions of law in the face of the totalitarianisms of our generation has brought fresh urgency to discussions of natural law. There is general agreement that ancient or classical conceptions of natural law cannot simply be summoned back to life in the twentieth century. But theologians and, with increasing frequency, jurists are insisting that some way must be found to deal with the “lawlessness of law,” to recover a “natural rule of justice,” to establish a criterion of legality which “everywhere has the same force and does not exist by people’s thinking this or that.”1
Wilber G. Katz, Professor of Law in the University of Chicago Law School, has been an influential figure in the continuing conversations of theologians and jurists. He asks:
What is it that the Christian lawyer asks of the theologian? He is seeking primarily for help in dealing articulately with a widely held legal-ethical philosophy which he senses is inconsistent with Christianity. This is the philosophy of legal positivism (which attempts to insulate law from morals) and ethical relativism (which reduces morals to a matter of personal opinion and cultural history). The lawyer Christian rejects this position; he knows that law is not merely a means by which the powerful impose their wills upon the remainder of the community. He insists that criticism of rules of law is not merely expression of subjective preference. . . .
But the Christian lawyer runs into difficulty when he looks for satisfactory terms in which to declare his belief in the moral foundations of the law, when he seeks for the meaning of objectivity in legal criticism and for criteria in terms of which law may be criticized.2
In what terms can the Christian lawyer declare his belief in the moral foundations of the law? That is the principal question. But let us be clear about the question: Why should he want to?
And the answer is that the Christian lawyer believes right and wrong are not merely conventional, that they are in some sense rooted in the nature of things, that certain acts would be wrong though no law condemned them, and that laws themselves are capable of being illegal or, to avoid the apparent contradiction, unjust.
Thus the Christian lawyer asks for the standard of justice. He finds himself driven toward the conception of a law beyond the law, a higher law by which positive law may be judged.
Here, then, is the question with which this paper begins: Does Reformation theology have any answer for the jurist who asks for the standard of justice? In stating the question thus we do not intend to be bound by the specific declarations of the sixteenth-century reformers. But we do declare our theological starting point: the principle of justification by grace through faith, as understood in the Lutheran Reformation.
Lutheran theology has historically been guided—some would say obsessed—in its theological method by the distinction between law and Gospel. The Formula of Concord declares:
Nachdem der Unterscheid des Gesetzes und Evangelii ein besonder herrlich Licht ist, welches darzu dienet, dasz Gottes Wort recht geteilet und der heiligen Propheten und Apostel Schriften eigentlich erkläret und verstanden: ist mit besondern Fleisz über denselben zu halten, damit diese zwo Lehren nicht miteinander vermischet, oder aus Evangelio ein Gesetz gemacht, dardurch der Verdienst Christi verdunkelt. . . .3
God has two distinct ways of dealing with men, through the law and through the Gospel: this is the methodological presupposition. This schematization of God’s activity is in turn the basis for the doctrine of the two realms. The Christian is alleged to live in two kingdoms, one characterized by law, the other by grace.4 The kingdom which God rules by law is the kingdom of this world, the kingdom to which all men belong by virtue of their creation. But God also rules by the Gospel, in the kingdom not of this world, the kingdom to which only the Christian belongs and that by virtue of his redemption.
The inference drawn from this schematization of God’s activity is that the Christian lives by two different sets of lights, under two sets of imperatives, with two largely independent concerns. In the kingdom of law he pursues the goals of order, minimization of conflict, reasonable equity, and the preservation of physical life by preservation of the necessary conditions of life. This is justice. In the kingdom of the Gospel, however, mere justice gives way to the life of love. The Christian does not resist evil, forgives all, and is prepared to sacrifice his life or to risk the loss of the conditions of life.
Emil Brunner, though not a Lutheran, is the best-known of contemporary theologians employing this approach. It informs somewhat the fragmentary Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though we would hold he has definitely emancipated himself from the system. And it dominates the ethical treatises of Lutherans generally.5
These two realms are not, of course, to be thought of as separate and unrelated. They are always united in the person of the individual Christian. And rather than being an attempt to keep the world at arm’s length, this is a view designed to hold civilization and Church together—without permitting either to interfere with the proper autonomy of the other. It is the view which H. Richard Niebuhr ably describes under the heading “Christ and Culture in Paradox.”
For Luther there was simply no way to gain knowledge of statecraft from the Gospel; nor was it necessary to do so, since another source of such knowledge was available. Similarly, there was no way to extract the spirit of service, humility, and confident hopefulness from political principles. These areas had to be distinguished sharply, for the failure to do so would lead to a perversion of both. If rules for the political community are drawn from the Gospel, we are in danger not only of destroying the political community, but also of confusing the Gospel with human efforts, of substituting human self-righteousness for the righteousness of God, and thereby making the Gospel void and without effect.
Christ deals with the fundamental problems of the moral life; he cleanses the springs of action; he creates and recreates the ultimate community in which all action takes place. But by the same token he does not directly govern the external actions or construct the immediate community in which man carries on his work.6
This is the point to be emphasized: For Luther the rules to be followed in political life were independent of Christian or of church law.
But to say this is to seem to say too much. For Luther did not contend that the State was free to do as it pleased, that there was no higher law by which positive law could be judged. The law of the State was to be judged, not by the Gospel, but by the law of nature.
In recognizing the existence of a natural law all the reformers, with the possible exception of Zwingli, simply preserved continuity with the Middle Ages. The natural law is not a conclusion but an assumption of their thought. There is, according to Luther, a law of nature “inhering in the conscience,” “naturally and indelibly impressed upon the mind of man.” Even if God had never given the Decalog, Luther asserts, the mind of man would naturally have the knowledge that God is to be worshipped and our neighbor loved. Though Luther’s view of reason was more pessimistic than that of Aquinas, so that he was less confident of man’s ability truly to perceive the law of nature and to act upon it, he was nevertheless not willing to give up the assumption that all men had some knowledge of the natural law sufficient to provide a basis for human law.7
The Lutheran Confessions echo this view, speaking of “das natürliche Gesetz . . . in aller Menschen Herzen angeboren und geschrieben ist,” of “das Gesetz Gottes ihnen in das Herze geschrieben, und dem ersten Menschen gleich nach seiner Erschaffung auch ein Gesetz gegeben darmach er sich verhalten sollte,” and again of marriage as a “creatio seu ordinatio divina in homine” which is “ius naturale,” for which reason “sapienter et recte dixerunt iuris-consulti coniunctionem maris et feminae esse iuris naturalis.”8
As Lutheran theology began to systematize its differences with Rome and Scholastic theology, the concept of natural law gradually gave way to that of the orders of creation. Brunner defines them as
those existing facts of human corporate life which lie at the root of all historical life as unalterable presuppositions, which, although their historical forms may vary, are unalterable in their fundamental structure, and, at the same time, relate and unite men to one another in a definite way.9
Werner Elert speaks of “forms of existence” which “represent God-given realities. This structuralization of society does not create order, it is order.”10
Much of Continental theology has continued, consequently, to discuss justice under the doctrine of Creation. Emil Brunner’s Justice and the Social Order is probably the best-known example of this theological approach, illustrated also by his The Divine Imperative and the two-volume work on Christianity and Civilization. Brunner is not willing to concede to the positivists that there is no “law above the law.” Nor will he grant that justice, the criterion of positive law, can be known only by the regenerate. Justice is the demand of God as Creator, and it therefore sets standards for all human action, also in the secular state.
The doctrine of Schöpfungsordunungen is thus an obvious Protestant (more specifically Lutheran) counterpart to the Roman Catholic use of natural law. It would seem to differ only in the theological insight which it seeks to preserve: the distinction between law and Gospel and the doctrine of justification by grace through faith which that distinction is meant in turn to preserve. By placing their natural law teaching in the context of God’s twofold activity, as Creator and Redeemer, and thus developing an explicit or implicit doctrine of the two kingdoms, Lutheran theologians have meant to provide a social ethics without diminishing the radical tension between law and grace.
This paper in its effort toward the construction of a social ethics also wishes to preserve the tension between law and grace, insofar as the preservation of that tension is essential to the explication of the fundamental and determinative article of belief: justification by grace through faith. We are not convinced, however, that the doctrine of the two kingdoms is necessary to this end, nor that it succeeds in accomplishing today the purpose for which it was evolved, nor that it is even true to its own controlling and shaping insight.
Let us return to the concept of justice, a concept which we obviously hold to be fundamental for social ethics. Now no discussion of Reformation theology and justice can possibly ignore the Biblical message of the “righteousness of God.” It was Luther’s gradually clearer appreciation of the nature of God’s righteousness, referred to in both Old and New Testament, which eventually led to what is sometimes called the rediscovery of the Gospel. This is history that does not require retelling. Nonetheless, it is customary for Lutheran theologians to discuss the problem of justice without mentioning the Old Testament tsedeqah or the New Testament dikaiosune.
English usage distinguishes by a terminological convention the dikaiosune (or tsedeqah) of God and the dikaiosune (or tsedeqah) of men. Such a distinction via terminology, between the righteousness of God and the justice of men, may be rooted in a more basic distinction. But it may also serve to conceal a deeper unity. We have chosen to translate dikaiosune, tsedeqah, and their variant forms along with the German Gerechtigkeit and its variants with the single word justice. We feel this aids rather than retards understanding.
We would begin, then, by asking the question: What light is thrown by the Biblical message as a whole on the problem of law and justice?
The Third Ecumenical Study of the World Council of Churches states that
the Christian integrity of the Biblical teaching about law and justice can only be appreciated and safeguarded provided we acknowledge from the outset that the Bible’s first word to us concerns God’s justice which actively secures justice for men by the justification wrought in Christ.11
The value of starting at this point may certainly be questioned. But it must be remembered that we are concerned to relate Reformation theology to a problem of contemporary society. We may finish constructing the bridge and then find that the actual terminus ad quem is not the one we had intended. We may find that the bridge is too shaky to support more than a minimum of traffic, and then only adventuresome travelers at that. But at least we shall not find, at the conclusion of our task, that in attempting to build a bridge from here to there, we didn’t even start here. The terminus a quo is Reformation theology and, therefore, the Biblical description of God’s justice.
Justice, as the Bible speaks of it, is not best conceived as a quality of some persons or of some action taken in isolation, but rather as a personal contribution made within a concrete relationship. It is directed towards maintaining the security and the right of the parties involved, and toward rectifying the relationship where it has been damaged or broken. The relationship which is always in view when the Bible speaks of God’s justice is a covenant which he has made with human partners; a covenant by which he committed himself to establish mankind in an existence which secures the honor of both parties. This existence is a life for man in community with God and with his fellow-men which rests on the basis of self-giving love.12
The New Testament is especially clear that man’s status over against God and over against his fellow man has been re-created and secured against assault by God’s intervention, the justice of God.
The Ecumenical Study from which we have been quoting concludes:
There is a divine answer to man’s craving and man’s quest for justice. There is the justice of God. But this justice of God is active in his works and ways. It has a strangely “historical” character. It is expressed in particular acts of salvation which are indeed the very foundation of all history. It cannot be reduced to some abstract quality inherent in these acts, nor to some hidden mystery which these acts suggest. It is justice clothed in action and vested in power. All that enters into human experience under the names of law and justice stands related to it. . . . This conviction is one with which faith must wrestle, not only in theory but also in practice.13
It seems to me that this account necessitates a considerable departure from the two kingdoms doctrine. For it abandons the assumption traditional within Lutheranism (and much of Protestantism) that the basis for justice in human life is to be found by exclusive reference to the first article of the Creed. It abandons the notion of Schöpfungsordungen in order to treat the Christian concern for justice within the context of the Christian life, as a concern vitally related to God’s redemptive activity. While it undoubtedly runs the risk—this would probably be the orthodox Lutheran objection—of confusing law and Gospel, and therefore eo ipso of obscuring the cardinal principle of justification by grace through faith, it does have considerable merits even within the theological circle which it appears to threaten.
These may be detailed briefly. First of all, it strikes at the roots of the ethical schizophrenia which seems to characterize much of Lutheranism. It was indeed no part of Luther’s intention that his followers should live in two worlds, in one of which their faith was totally irrelevant. But this is what seems to happen. To fulfill one’s vocation in love has come to mean simply to fulfill one’s vocation, that is, to do whatever is normally done by persons stationed similarly. The alternative here suggested at least recreates tension where the doctrine of the two kingdoms had the effect of alleviating all tension.
Secondly, this view, however skimpy the guidelines which it eventually provides, at least does not suggest that the Christian has no peculiar direction in his political life. At minimum it allows room for such a notion as the Christianizing of the law or the re-structuring of society in accord with Christian ideals. These remain elusive and treacherous slogans, but the doctrine of the two kingdoms simply left the ordering of society exclusively to those, Christian or non-Christian, who happened to possess the best scientific information. Again, this outcome was not part of Luther’s intention.
Thirdly, the proposed view seems to take seriously the faith of the Reformation itself. We confess ourselves at a loss to explain the readiness of orthodox Lutheranism to limit and circumscribe so sharply its own controlling insight: the conviction that there is ultimately no justice save the justice of God. God’s justice has been deemed adequate to rectify the broken relationships of individual men. It has somehow not been deemed adequate to the needs of a community of men (in spite of the Old Testament witness). This emasculation of the controlling idea has gone so far as to deny the ability of God to justify entire classes of actions which Christians might feel compelled to take as they sought, in one of Luther’s favorite expressions, to “let faith be active in love.”
Finally, the doctrine of the two kingdoms compelled the development of a theory of natural law, one which took the specific form of the doctrine of created orders. Lutheranism does not seem ever to have asked whether this doctrine could itself be an integral part of Reformation theology. The answer seems to me to be a clear “no,” though a somewhat unusual kind of “no.” But in trying to show why this is so, we must examine the whole question of natural law and its relation to Christian theology.
Assuming as we do that the doctrine of created orders is just a special form of natural law teaching, we may ask: Is the Christian committed to some version of natural law theory?
What kind of evidence can be adduced in favor? Amos Wilder has called attention to “natural law equivalents in the teaching of Jesus.” He finds Jesus accepting common ground with pagan ethics and the ethics of the Old Testament. He finds him making appeal to or recognizing an existing “natural” goodness in his hearers, or voicing a protest against its absence. Jesus’ appeal, Wilder offers in conclusion, is “to the moral discernment of men” in his teaching. It is allegedly because the soul of man is naturaliter Christianum that natural law can prepare him for the ethic of the kingdom.14
Wilder argues persuasively, but he only establishes that Jesus was an effective teacher who took advantage of existing moral valuations to present his own teaching.
The classical conception of natural law, a universal standard of justice binding on all men and discernible by unaided reason, was early accepted by the Church. Romans 2:14, 15 was the sedes doctrinae which permitted natural law to become “a normal part of the mental furniture of Christendom.” It was, of course, accorded extensive treatment in medieval theology. And, as has already been pointed out, the sixteenth-century reformers made no break with medieval theology at this point. They were not only willing, they were anxious to retain the notion of a universal standard of right and wrong, binding in the absence as well as the presence of revelation.15 Thus the concept comes to us hallowed by long usage.
The argument from antiquity will not be dismissed lightly by anyone skeptical of the opinion that darkness reigned until now, but light came in this generation. We hope to show later, however, that antiquity is no argument in this case.
It must be noted that the decline of natural law in Protestant theology cannot be attributed to any mere theological tendency. The concept gradually came to seem untenable, irrelevant, or perhaps even unnecessary and embarrassing under the hammering of legal positivists. Protestant theology developed in the late nineteenth century in an intellectual climate captivated by the distinction between matters of fact and matters of value. It became the mark of contemporary wisdom to admit that no list of descriptive statements, however long, was sufficient to permit the legitimate deduction of a single value proposition. What is simply does not tell us anything of what ought to be. A philosophical argument which had been waged for centuries was finally settled in the Age of Science by popular vote.
The general thrust of twentieth-century philosophy has been to make the distinction between is and ought even more clear, the gulf more impassable, and any notions of natural law, as a consequence, increasingly untenable.
This is the point in history at which Protestantism has chosen to reaffirm the doctrine of natural law. In doing so it joins the small corps of Lutherans who have been affirming it all along, in disguised form, of course, with little enthusiasm, and to a somewhat captive audience. The reason for this renaissance is clear. The dramatic events of recent history, especially the rise of Nazism and of totalitarianism, have convinced many that, however difficult the task, some way must be found to recover the achievements of natural law. Civilization is threatened by legal positivism and ethical relativism.
It must be conceded by anyone who has inspected the literature of the past fifteen or twenty years that the efforts at effecting a renaissance have not been very successful. Theologians have spoken of the doctrine of creation, of the image of God in man, of the Eternal Logos and human reason—but none of these attempts has been satisfactory, for they all derive from theological premises. Grant a different theology (or no theology at all) and the argument collapses. If the term natural law is not a mere playing with words, the Christian must be able to discuss the moral foundations of the law in terms which non-Christian jurists can also appropriate.
Now if it were to be established that this cannot be done, then much of the current theological interest in natural law would evaporate. It is precisely our contention that it cannot be done, that there is no possible way to provide a more than positivistic theory for modern law, and that the joint efforts of theologians and jurists to do so rests upon a mistake. Let us see if this is not so.
We begin with a formulation of the question: Is there a foundation for law which can provide us with objective criteria for determining the justice or injustice of positive legal enactments?
What is asserted in this question? First, that the existence of such a foundation has not yet been established. There is no presently known way of discovering, to the satisfaction of both religious and non-religious jurists, such criteria.
Second, and most important, the question implicitly asserts a definition of “objective.” Objective criteria are those to which assent must be given, which make differences in opinion, if not impossible, at least rather odd. A man may assert that the sun goes around the earth. But we all agree on how to deal with such a person. We first learn whether he means to be serious. If we find that he does, we call his attention to the observations and experiments of scientists, especially astronomers. If he nonetheless persists in his opinion, or if he fails to see that the observations and experiments have definite bearing on his opinion, we scratch our heads and give up. He won’t accept objective evidence.
A convinced Roman Catholic may shake his head at a Protestant’s inability to “see” the natural immorality of contraceptive devices. He may think the Protestant morally obtuse. But he will not think him “odd” in the way we would almost all regard the twentieth-century Ptolemaicist as “odd.” The Roman Catholic does not accuse the Protestant of refusing to accept “objective evidence.” And this is in fact what we mean by the existence or non-existence of objective criteria. We are not content that we have located truly objective criteria until we can feel perfectly easy about ignoring as “peculiar” anyone who finds these criteria simply irrelevant.
It should not be necessary to go into metaphysics to gain acceptance for the proposition that the meaning of “objective criteria” will vary with culture, both in time and space; or, in other words, that the meaning of objective evidence is not everywhere or at all times the same. Anyone reading the first book of Plato’s Republic must be struck by this fact in the dialogue between Socrates and Thrasymachus. Arguments are concluded on grounds which we today find anything but conclusive. The arguments are only conclusive, of course, if the metaphysical presuppositions of the disputants are accepted. The vague sense of discomfort which we feel at Socrates’ tactics is an objection to his metaphysics, not to his debating technique. Socrates (or Plato) could only have established his argument within a certain framework of presuppositions.
Now the simple, undeniable fact is that most of us in the second half of the twentieth century do not share the metaphysics of Plato, nor of Aristotle, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, or the eighteenth-century philosophers in quest of the heavenly city. Yet we persist in asking questions which can only be answered within a metaphysics which these men held but we do not. We ask for the moral foundations of law, moral foundations which can be expressed in purely natural terms. But the question as asked has no meaning. It is logically absurd. It is like a blind man’s asking for a visual criterion of color.
Perhaps our age is metaphysically naive. Perhaps our metaphysics is intolerable to any man of broad discernment. To call for metaphysical reconstruction in such a case might be a hopeless plea, but it would not be self-contradictory. To ask, however, for an objective standard for positive law consistent with the metaphysics of our day is to ask for something inherently impossible.
It is impossible for Protestantism to reaffirm the theory of natural law at this point in history.16
There is great reluctance in many circles to accept this conclusion. Hands are wrung in dismay. Is there then really no difference between right and wrong? Were Hitler’s laws to achieve racial purity no more or less just than American laws forbidding sibling marriage? Is the definition of justice merely that which has been enacted into law? Is morality nothing but a matter of subjective preference?
These are the kinds of questions which the natural law devotees persist in asking. And because they cannot stop asking these questions, they do not stop searching for the natural law. Therefore, we cannot expect the search to cease until the absurdity of the questions has been recognized. We cannot (a) grant the assumption that normative propositions cannot be deduced from objective data, and then (b) prove on the basis of objective data that one ought not to persecute Jews.
But is this cause for despair? The Christian who is tempted to flirt with natural law ought to be aware of history. The Greeks found slavery in accord with natural law. So did the American South before the Civil War. And Martin Bormann, head of the Nazi party organization in 1942, wrote:
We National Socialists set before ourselves the aim of living . . . by the light of nature: that is to say, by the law of life. The more closely we recognize and obey the laws of nature and of life, the more we observe them, by so much the more do we express the will of the Almighty.17
James Luther Adams, in an instructive article written near the beginning of the current renaissance efforts, called attention to the tremendous ambiguity which natural law has always displayed. The conception has frequently been invoked in support of directly opposing contentions. After pointing to the varied history of the word “nature” and to the almost equally varied history of the word “law,” Adams comments: “The possibilities of confusion are legion; and—it should be added—all these possibilities would seem to have been realized.”18
Suppose for a moment that we secure a general metaphysical conversion which enables everyone to grant the premise of a genuine ontological status for Laws of Nature. Now how do we go about acquiring knowledge of these laws? Well, reason tells us that good is to be chosen, evil to be avoided. So far so good. That dictum would seem to be logically entailed by the very concept of natural law. The proposition is purely analytic. Reason has indeed told us. But just what things are good and which evil? How does reason go about putting flesh on the barebones of “choose good, avoid evil”?
Many would prefer to proceed by the a priori method, positing some kind of correspondence between the Eternal Reason which created the universe and the reason of man. But the apriorists have never been very successful in locating a body of natural laws which can actually be applied to positive law. At the crucial moment they generally abandon the postulated correspondence between the minds of Creator and creature and lean on some kind of revelation. We have no objection to revelation. But revealed law is not natural law.
The a posteriori method has yielded better results, if by better we mean more intelligible. But again it turns out that the laws discovered, the laws in this case which are found among all societies everywhere and at all times, furnish no practical guidance. The effort to move from this kind of comparative jurisprudence to the evaluation of existing laws has almost always involved a theological leap of some sort. To repeat: theological leaps are not forbidden. But where they occur, law is not natural.
Combining the two methods, perhaps in the manner of Aquinas or Hugo Grotius, has also not proved to be a satisfactory mode of procedure. We simply do not get any clear, generally agreed-upon, practical content.
Gerhard O. W. Mueller has probably summed up the case for most students of contemporary jurisprudence in his “answer of a positivist.” Why insist, he finally asks, “that morality and with it positive law have some immutable substantive ingredient—in the light of all the history that shows us the contrary?”19
Are we implying, then, that the Church must stand mute in the face of legal lawlessness? I doubt that this follows from what has been said. The proclamation of the justice of God is itself more than silence. But let’s turn the question around and ask whether the Church, relying on natural law, has historically had much to say (that was relevant) in the face of legal lawlessness. History seems to indicate that the Church might as well have kept its peace completely.
Why mourn the loss of a useless weapon? A formal burial of natural law is not, after all, an execution. The burial is only an act of charity when the patient is already dead.
But there may even be positive gains which would accrue from such a burial. Injustice, stubbornly defended, is bad enough. Injustice defended in the name of God’s Eternal Law becomes intolerable. In an age such as ours, where conflicting ideologies threaten to tear humanity apart and consign us all to a new barbarism, ought the Church to add further ideological faggots to the fire? Did Luther make a contribution to the cause of justice when he invoked the natural law and called on the princes to butcher the peasants? Did Calvin advance the cause of justice when he approved, as in agreement with natural law, the burning of Servetus? The Inquisition, let us remember, was carried on in the name of natural law. And today the Roman Catholic Church opposes some forms of totalitarianism, supports other forms, and creates its own ecclesiastical totalitarianism—all in the name of the law of nature.
In 1948 Emil Brunner consulted the law of nature and then addressed an open letter to Karl Barth, urging him to condemn Communism as he had once condemned Nazi-ism. It is difficult to find fault with Barth’s reply, from its opening “You do not understand” to its concluding reminder that there are times to speak and times to keep silent. The Church’s obligation, Barth answered, does not lie in fulfilling the law of nature, but in obedience to its living Lord. The Church for that reason never thinks, speaks, or acts “on principle.” It rather judges spiritually and by individual case, judging each new event afresh. Whereas Nazi-ism in the 1930’s had posed an insidious temptation, was a “spell with power to overwhelm our souls,” who in the Western world is tempted by Communism and needs to be warned away? It is not the duty of the Church, Barth comments tartly, to give theological backing to what every citizen can read in his daily paper or learn from President Truman and the Pope. If the Church witnessed against Communism, “whom would it teach, enlighten, rouse, set on the right path, comfort and lead to repentance and a new way of life?” The question is obviously rhetorical. No, Barth insists, for “when the Church witnesses it moves in fear and trembling, not with the stream but against it.”20
We seem to learn little from history. Each assured pronouncement delivered from the Olympian heights of natural law turns out eventually to be a product of time-bound man’s time-bound estimate of his own nature, generously mingled, more often than not, with extensive rationalization of his current behavior. Yet we persist in believing that our next effort to read off the content of the natural law will penetrate to the true essence of things. Christians should learn to evaluate positivism more highly than they have been accustomed to do. Positivism represents an ideological suspension of judgment, a refusal to overcome the plurality of values in public life by any kind of value monism or imposed value hierarchy. A church which proclaims the justice of God and of God alone ought to be able to make some common cause with a secular movement so keenly aware of man’s propensity to define justice in terms of his self-interest, given half a chance.
But if Christians continue to maintain that the idea of natural law is somehow a Christian one, let us finally ask for its Christian credentials. How is it related to the heart of the Christian faith? It must be related, if it is to be baptized, in some way more vital and dynamic than the Thomistic architectonic way or the neo-Lutheran compartmentalized way. That way has not yet been suggested. We doubt that there is any.
Once natural law is abandoned, of course, the traditional method of both Catholicism and Lutheranism for dealing with social ethics becomes impossible. Catholicism may be able to hang on: it has the metaphysics which natural law requires. But Catholicism runs the risk of irrelevance if the official metaphysics and the actual metaphysics of the faithful do not agree. Lutheranism, however, possessing no metaphysics of its own, has no choice but to abandon the doctrine of the two kingdoms and to work out once again, on the basis of the theology (rather than the metaphysics) of the Reformation, its answer to the question of justice in human society.
The direction in which we feel this reconstruction must move has already been indicated. Justice must ultimately be defined as the justice of God who was in Christ, reconciling man to God and man to himself. Whether such a beginning will be able eventually to provide much more than largely formal directives cannot now be predicted. But this is not necessarily an argument against the approach suggested. Even the formal relevance of the historic Lutheran social ethics can be doubted. We are not willing to despair at the outset of an effort toward reconstruction which takes seriously the central theme of the Reformation: the justice of God. And we believe it can be done—pia sententia—without prejudice to “the proper distinction between law and Gospel.”
The Concept of Economic Justice in Religious Discussion*
Identifying the Problem
What iseconomic justice? The concept is clearly a central concern for those who believe that the salvation and the righteousness of which the Bible speaks are social and not merely individual.1 Nonetheless, the concepts of economic justice commonly employed or assumed in theological essays and denominational statements do not seem to have been thought through with any care. A critical reader might wonder if those who use the phrase know themselves what they mean by it, and whether they could really intend what they seem to be asserting.
Justice is notoriously hard to define in any way that goes much beyond platitude and still commands wide assent. That probably explains, at least in part, why most people who use the term do so without defining it. They assume (or hope) that others will understand the word as they do. But by excusing themselves from the necessity of stating clearly what they mean, advocates of justice often fail to discover that what they are proposing has no defensible meaning at all.
The problem of talking clearly and sensibly about justice diminishes considerably, however, when we shift our focus and talk about injustice. “Injustice wears the trousers,” as J. R. Lucas has put it.
[I]t is when injustice is in danger of being done that we become agitated. . . . And therefore we should follow the example of Aristotle, and adopt a negative approach, discovering what justice is by considering on what occasions we protest at injustice or unfairness.2
What, then, do writers in the biblical tradition have in mind when they protest against economic injustice?
Unequal Money Incomes
They most commonly seem to be pointing to an objectionable inequality of money incomes. Since no one is willing to argue that all inequality is unjust, the question immediately arises: When and why is inequality of income unjust? When the question is seriously pursued, it proves extraordinarily difficult to answer satisfactorily.
A basic but generally neglected difficulty stems from the fact that inequality of current money income is not a reliable indicator of inequality in the power to acquire valued goods. There are many reasons for this. One important example is provided by the case of Americans over sixty-five. While their money incomes tend to be low, they often own capital goods (home, automobile, furniture, a lifetime’s accumulation of household tools) and special entitlements (reduced fares, tax exemptions, Medicare benefits) that make their money income a very poor gauge of their real income.
The situation of older persons raises the more general question of age. Since earnings typically change with age, it will always be misleading to compare the incomes of different groups without taking explicit account of their ages. The average income of U.S. families in which the principal earner is 45 to 54 is about twice the average of income of families in which the principal earner is under 25.3 This is obviously an inequality, but it is not an injustice. On the contrary, it would be unjust to allow a medical student to qualify for welfare assistance, on the grounds of low current income, rather than having to borrow against expected future income.
Choices and Incomes
Family size and composition also affect both money income and the welfare significance of that income. Other things being equal, people’s incomes decline when they separate or divorce, or when they choose to live alone rather than with relatives. Inequalities resulting from such decisions are not injustices unless we believe that people have a right to make these decisions without experiencing any income change as a consequence.
People make many other decisions that cause their incomes to differ in ways that few who thought about it carefully would want to call unjust. Some families have a single earner, others have two adult members pursuing careers. Some people work a forty-hour week or less, while others seek overtime, moonlight, or take up a trade or profession that enables or requires them to work twice as long and hard as their neighbors work. Some devote their resources predominantly to current consumption, while others opt more heavily for investment activities: schooling, training, or the purchase of assets that will yield larger future returns. Some simply manage their resources more carefully than others. Everyone does not have an equal opportunity to make such choices, of course; but it is surely not unjust to let these choices have some effect on people’s incomes. A quite substantial inequality of money incomes would seem to be compatible with even highly egalitarian concepts of economic justice.
But why do we focus so exclusively on money incomes and the goods that money will buy directly? Our society also displays a highly unequal distribution of power, prestige, challenging and satisfying work opportunities, as well as risks and uncertainties. At some level of income these other goods surely become more important than money income. Are we preoccupied with money incomes because we think we know how to redistribute them, whereas we don’t know how to redistribute power, prestige, and “meaningful” work? Is this perhaps a form of “commodity fetishism,” in which we transform the indexes of economic calculation into measures of welfare and even worth? If so, this would be an ironic ideological triumph of capitalism over its critics.
How Much Less Inequality?
Those who infer economic injustice from income inequality are rarely willing to tell us how much inequality would be consistent with justice. “Less” is not an adequate answer.4 Where is the limit? Many advocates of greater income equality have argued that the maximum inequality compatible with justice is the minimum inequality that will preserve incentives to work, risk, innovate, and perform competently and conscientiously. It is not obvious why this should be so. But in many areas of economic life, this limit has long since been passed. Incentives don’t simply “disappear” at some point. They diminish, at different rates for different people under different circumstances. More importantly, they change. People alter their activities in response to high marginal tax rates; they don’t simply retire.
The best evidence that the incentive criterion is not in fact being used by advocates of income redistribution is their widespread indifference to the readily demonstrable effects of high marginal tax rates, explicit on high incomes and implicit in current welfare programs. Imagine a situation in which acceptance of an $8,000-per-year job entails a loss of $6,000 in cash and in-kind transfers such as Medicaid benefits and food stamps, plus payment of $2,000 in income and Social Security taxes and the acceptance of job-associated costs. That amounts to a 100 percent marginal tax on earnings. The fact that our income redistribution system has created marginal tax rates of this magnitude and allowed them to persist is fairly good evidence that the preservation of work incentives is not an important criterion for those advocating further redistribution.5
The Criterion of Need
Equality (or less inequality) in the distribution of income does not seem, then, to be a workable criterion of economic justice. What about the criterion of need?
If we define need in terms of what is required to sustain life on an adequate level, we run into two problems. Most simply, the criterion of need is unrealistic in poor economies and irrelevant, at least for most of those who talk about economic justice, in affluent ones.
For the vast majority of the people who have ever lived or are living now, poverty is the consequence of low productivity, not of unequal distribution. No redistribution of income within the country would satisfy the “needs” of all the people currently living in Kampuchea, Bangladesh, or Ethiopia. There is simply not enough to distribute.6
At the other end of the income scale, people who speak of “needs” in Canada, Sweden, or the United States clearly do not have in mind anything even remotely close to subsistence incomes. “Need” in these countries is culturally defined. An American family today “needs,” if it is to maintain a decent, socially acceptable level of living, enough income to secure housing, clothing, food, furniture, recreation, and medical services in a quantity and of a quality that could not have been provided to more than a small minority as recently as fifty years ago. By today’s standards, then, a majority of Americans did not have enough income to meet their “needs” at a time when our incomes were the highest in the world and the object of widespread admiration and envy.7
The fact is that, in wealthy countries, “need” is continuously redefined to embrace whatever becomes widely available as a result of increased production. “Need” defined in absolute or physiological terms is accepted as a standard for economic justice only with reference to very poor countries, where low productivity makes the standard impossible to meet. In wealthy countries, “need” is relative. But as soon as we allow “need” to be determined by prevailing incomes, we have actually abandoned the criterion of need for the criterion of equality. And we are back to the question, When does inequality become injustice?
The notion that “need” or subsistence is more a sociological than a biological fact has a long and respectable lineage. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx all defined subsistence at least partly in sociological terms;8 the propensity to view poverty as a relative matter is therefore not simply the product of some modern rage to reduce income inequalities. However, neither Smith, Ricardo, nor Marx had any pressing reason to wonder about the ultimate implications of defining poverty in terms of relative deprivation. If it is the social significance of differences that matters, and if, as a great deal of evidence strongly suggests, the elimination of some differences increases the social significance of those that remain, then the pursuit of a just pattern of income distribution based on need could be the costly pursuit of a mirage. It might even be no more nor less than the sanctification of envy.
The Criterion of Merit
What about the criterion of merit or desert? This criterion has always figured prominently in formal discussions of justice.9 It is therefore somewhat surprising to discover how rarely it is invoked in contemporary ecclesiastical statements on economic justice. Is that because theology, or at least the kind of theology dominant in contemporary economic discussions, has no place for the criterion of merit? If all that we possess, including our intelligence, aptitudes, and attitudes, is the gift of God, then claims or merit or special desert would indeed seem to be ruled out.
I believe that this is in fact the explanation for the puzzling absence of the merit criterion from so many theological discussions of justice. But that absence makes the discussions thoroughly unrealistic. All of us, including the most egalitarian theological ethicist, do in fact regard merit as relevant to the distribution of economic goods. We do not regard the parable of the employer who gave the same wage to all his employees,10 regardless of how long they had worked, as normative for the employment relationship. Those who have borne the burden and heat of the day deserve more than those who started work just before quitting time. The employer may, if he wishes, pay the late arrivals as much as he is obligated to pay those who worked all day. But that would be a matter of benevolence, not justice. And it would surely be unjust for him to strike an average and pay five hours of wages to those who worked eight hours and to those who worked but two. Those who worked eight hours have a claim in justice to receive a reward proportioned to their merit, a merit acquired by their efforts. In some contexts it may be relevant to point out that they did nothing to earn their ability and willingness to work long hours at hard labor, or that they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work at all if they hadn’t just happened to be standing in the hiring hall when the employer walked in. But no one will claim that these facts diminish their deserts in the case at hand or that it would therefore be perfectly just for the employer to pay them for fewer hours than they actually worked.
A theology of economic justice that neglects merit or desert is simply not addressed to the world of social decisions. What we deserve at the hands of God is not the same as what we deserve from one another.11 To suppose that we can settle the one question by answering the other is to abandon the question of economic justice altogether.
Perhaps this is not always recognized in theological statements on economic justice because those statements are so frequently formulated as antitheses to a system which seems to exaggerate the role of merit or desert. Defenders of capitalism often claim that capitalism distributes economic goods justly because it distributes them on the basis of merit. Those who don’t accept this claim and who believe that the distribution which occurs under capitalism is unjust may have responded by rejecting the merit criterion when they should have been criticizing its application.
Differing Grounds for Entitlement
There is an important difference between earning something and having a right to it. Neglect of this distinction generates confusion on the subject of merit as a criterion of economic justice. A teenager given the keys to the family car for the evening has a right to use it. The teenager would be unjustly deprived of a right if someone else—an older brother, perhaps—saw the car on a theater parking lot and appropriated it for his own use. This does not imply, however, that the teenager deserved the right to use the car that evening, or that he would have been treated unjustly if the keys had been denied. If he had been promised the use of the car in return for washing and waxing it, then he would indeed have earned its use, and failure to grant the use would have been unjust.
Defenders of capitalism sometimes seem to be assuming that all entitlements are earned entitlements and can therefore be credited to merit. This position cannot be defended without stretching the concept of earning past the point when it loses its ordinary meaning. People are sometimes lucky. They may well be entitled to what came to them as a result of luck, but they cannot properly say they earned it or that it has accrued to them as a result of their merit. Defenders of capitalism do their cause a disservice, I believe, when in their eagerness to establish the moral legitimacy of capitalism they undertake to argue that people deserve, as a consequence of their merit, whatever they receive in a competitive capitalist economy.
It is both interesting and of some theological significance to note the great difficulty that many of us have in accepting as ours what we aren’t certain we have earned. Are we consequently tempted to fabricate merit for ourselves so that we may claim to deserve that to which we are merely entitled? It is not enough to possess; we want to possess in good conscience, which too often means that we want to deserve whatever we rightfully possess. Adam and Eve, it seems to me, did something very similar to this when the serpent raised its guileful questions.
The Function of Rules
The mishandling of the merit criterion, both by defenders and by religious critics of capitalism, points to what I believe is the gravest flaw in contemporary theological discussions of economic justice. That flaw is the general failure to perceive the role and importance of rules.
Since the position for which I am now going to contend strikes many religious people as fundamentally immoral, let me begin indirectly, with a question based on an everyday dilemma.
After the bus has pulled away from the designated transit zone, should the driver stop the bus and open the door for someone running to catch it?
Some passengers will pull the stop signal and call out to the driver when they see a tardy passenger running to catch the bus. If the driver ignores their signals and drives on, they may comment disapprovingly: “A mean driver this morning.” If he does stop, open the door, and wait for the running passenger, he will, of course, earn the gratitude of the beneficiary; but he may also be the recipient of approving comments from other passengers: “Someone who likes people more than schedules.”
My purpose in recounting this familiar scene is a simple one. Here is a politically uncharged illustration of the function that rules play in a society and of the common ethical confusion that results from ignoring that function.
We begin by noticing that the driver who stops in such a situation is not necessarily helping people more than the one who does not. He certainly helps this one passenger—assuming that the driver’s action doesn’t cause an accident! But in addition to increasing the probability of an accident, the decision to stop delays all the other passengers on the bus. If the next bus will be along in 15 minutes, there are 25 other passengers, and the driver’s action delays them all by 30 seconds, some might argue that the driver’s action produces a net social benefit of 2½ minutes.
But this is an unconvincing claim. We can’t compare different people’s minutes in this manner. The 30-second delay, multiplied by the number of times the driver acts in this way, could cause a dozen passengers to miss their transfer connections. Those dozen people might consequently be late for important meetings, so that eventually many hours of other people’s time is lost in the process of saving 30 seconds for each of a handful of late-running bus passengers.
The Rights of Unknown Persons
The argument still involves illegitimate comparisons, however. A minute of one person’s time is not the moral equivalent of another person’s minute.12 The principal reason for rejecting such an equation is not that people in fact value time differently, although that is certainly true, but rather that punctual people have a right not to be delayed by tardy people, and the bus driver has an obligation to respect that right. The man who gets up late does not have a right to delay the people who arrived at their bus stop on time. He ought to pay the cost of his tardiness, and it is unfair of him to avoid that cost by shifting all or a part of it to others.
Suppose, however, that he overslept because he had been up most of the night tending a sick child, and now must catch this bus in order to keep a counselling appointment with a distraught alcoholic who’s contemplating suicide. Would we want to say in such a case that he, rather than the punctual passengers, ought to bear the cost of his oversleeping? Doesn’t he deserve commendation rather than blame? Moreover, it isn’t he but rather the suicidal alcoholic who will bear the cost of his being late.
All of this is quite irrelevant, however. The bus driver has no way of knowing why his passengers are punctual or late, whether they’re embarked on important errands or simply taking a trip for the fun of it. The driver’s moral obligation is to provide safe transportation and stay on schedule; the passengers must assess their own individual circumstances and decide whether or not to be at the bus stop by the scheduled time. Adherence to these rules will sometimes produce results inferior to what an omniscient driver could achieve; but bus drivers are not omniscient.
Moreover, a driver who elects to disobey the rules is behaving unjustly. He is violating the rules of the game and benefiting some at the expense of others in an essentially capricious way. The passengers who applaud his behavior when he stops in the middle of the street fail to consider the harm he may be inflicting on others. They may also be quite wrong in assuming that he was motivated by kindness; he could well be trying to curry favor, secure praise for himself at the expense of others.13
Rule-Coordinated Social Interaction
Thinking through this trivial example helps us see why it will often be more ethical, more socially responsible, and even more humane to “go by the rules” than to violate the rules in order to serve the known interests of particular people. We have been conditioned to believe that it is morally wrong to adhere to rules in circumstances where we believe our doing so will harm particular people. We are not used to thinking about the broader consequences for others, or the long-term consequences for the system in which we’re participating. Not only do bus drivers make punctual passengers late when they choose to violate the rules; they also begin to change the relative costs and benefits of adhering to the rules, which means that the rules start to break down. We would probably be less sanguine about this consequence if we more fully appreciated the extent of our dependence upon rule-coordinated social cooperation.
What we loosely call “the economy” is essentially a system of social cooperation overwhelmingly dependent for its functioning upon rule-coordinated behavior. If all the farmers in the United States, for example, decided to devote their time and other resources to producing what was specifically wanted by the most needy or otherwise most worthy people they knew, millions of people who are now well fed would soon starve to death. The production decisions of American farmers are in fact made for the most part according to a simple rule: choose the available option from which you expect the largest net revenue. Those who believe that production for profit is morally inferior to production for use have apparently never thought through the consequences of what they’re recommending. They are ignoring the incredible complexity of the system of social cooperation by means of which we are fed, clothed, housed, warmed, healed, transported, comforted, entertained, challenged, inspired, educated, and generally served.14
We must accept and honor rule-coordinated behavior not only in order to maintain our level of wealth. Justice also demands it. A large society cannot be a just society unless most of its duties and benefits are allocated in accordance with established and accepted rules. This truth is in no way confined to the so-called economic system. A college professor teaching a class of 500 students must, if she wants to be just, clarify the rules in advance and then apply them impartially. If a student confronts her with circumstances that the rules had not contemplated and so do not cover, she must search for a response that can be generalized. She must not allow some students to take advantage of other students by securing unique advantages. Each of the 500 students, if pressed, could probably find an explanation, unrelated to what the student actually knew, for missing one or more items on the last test. It is fundamentally unfair to give extra credit exclusively to those students whose obsession with grades or personal belligerence prompts them to ask for it. If the same privilege is extended to every student in the class through a general announcement, it might seem at first that justice would be salvaged. But now the question arises as to whether the teacher can in fact adequately hear and evaluate the explanations of 500 students. Justice in large societies requires not only that general rules binding on all be promulgated, but also that they be applied in a non-arbitrary manner. The more likely outcomes of such an attempt to apply personal criteria in a large-society situation are capricious decisions and poorly-used time.
Knowledge and Justice
What would we say about a judge who discovered that the defendant coming before him on a drunk-driving charge was his next-door neighbor and nonetheless decided to hear and dispose of the case? Justice requires that the judge disqualify himself and turn the case over to someone else. The reason is that he knows the defendant too well. The judge is consequently in a position to know far more about the special circumstances of this defendant than he can know in other cases brought before him. To know all is, in a very important sense, to forgive all. It is therefore the responsibility of a judge not to know too much about a particular defendant, so that he can save the lives of many unknown persons by applying impartially the rule against drunk driving.
A judge in a small village might be able to act simultaneously as a just judge and a just neighbor. Justice will sometimes demand that we go beyond impersonal criteria in allocating burdens and benefits. We are properly horrified by David’s famous painting of Lucius Junius Brutus and his two sons whom he had ordered executed for treason; a father owes more than that to the members of his own family. And it is possible to supply something more than impersonal justice in a small society where people know one another well. The size of the society is the crucial issue, however.
It is hard to see, for example, how a law against loitering could be a just law in a city of any size. Its application would inevitably leave too much discretion to police officers who could not know enough to enforce the law fairly, and who would therefore necessarily enforce it unfairly. It is conceivable, for the same reason, that the personal discretion which has to be exercised in the enforcement of any anti-loitering ordinance could be exercised fairly in a small village. The essential point remains. Justice itself demands that we use impersonal criteria to allocate burdens and benefits in a large society, where inescapable limitations on our knowledge make it impossible to take personal considerations into account in any consistent way.
Justice, Expectations, and Promises
It seems to me that our reflections on economic justice would be far more satisfactory if we recognized the connection between justice and the keeping of promises. I have increasingly come to think of justice as basically the fulfillment of legitimate expectations.15 This definition is faithful to our most fundamental moral perceptions, I believe, while illuminating a wide range of issues. Injustice is done, I suggest, when someone’s legitimate expectations are not fulfilled because others broke their promises.
Sometimes promises are made explicitly by one person to another. The breaking of such promises, other than for reasons beyond the control of the promisor, is an injustice whenever the promisee’s well-being is thereby lessened.
More often, however, our promises are implicit, part of the unarticulated compacts that we have with our families, our neighbors, members of our church, associates at work, plus millions of people whom we will never even meet. I commit an injustice when I fail to provide family members, friends, or associates with the assistance, support, or other cooperation that my previous actions have legitimately led them to expect. We won’t always agree completely on which expectations are legitimate, because we will inevitably disagree to some extent about what has been implicitly promised. But we always promise more than what we spell out formally, because explicit promises entail prior commitment or tacit assent to a vast network of “background” agreements.16
In this approach to the question of justice, laws can be thought of as promises. They bind everyone within their jurisdiction to behave or refrain from behaving in specific ways, and thereby they create legitimate expectations. An unjust law would be a law that repudiated prior promises; because of the resulting inconsistency of promises, the expectations that such a law might create would be less legitimate than the expectations created by a law whose justice was undisputed.
Customs and traditions are also promises. Moreover, every society is grounded in some kind of moral consensus, and the basic principles of that consensus are the most fundamental promises that the members of the society make to one another. Because these principles are not fully articulated, they can become mutually inconsistent in the course of social evolution. This most commonly happens, I think, when new possibilities for behavior lead to situations in which basic principles start to yield conflicting promises. The development of such situations threatens the stability of a society, because it removes, at least temporarily, the common ground which must exist if disagreements about justice are to be resolved. At such moments in a society’s history, it is especially difficult but also especially important for the members of the society to refrain from caricaturing the positions they are rejecting. The ultimate bond of any society is its members’ commitment to their common humanity; so long as that can be preserved, we are not compelled to say “thy blood or mine” and to settle our disagreements about justice by the naked criterion of force. When we impute immoral motives to our opponents, we are in effect declaring war on them by expelling them from the community of moral discourse.17
Now it seems clear that if we make promises or otherwise create expectations that we cannot subsequently fulfill, we inflict harm on others. It is not true that they are neither better nor worse off as a result of our promising but not delivering; they are worse off. People build upon their expectations, and when those expectations turn out to be illusory, the structures erected on them collapse. This is a psychological and an economic truth. In both the realm of feeling and the realm of action, we make investments on the basis of our expectations. And we sustain a loss when those expectations turn out to have been overly optimistic. Not every unfulfilled expectation constitutes an injustice, of course. Some expectations are bound to prove mistaken in a world characterized by uncertainty. Injustice is done only to people whose expectations are disappointed by the failure of others to fulfill promises they were capable of keeping.
Promises and the Size of the Society
A satisfactory theory of economic justice must recognize not only the importance of honoring commitments, but also the crucial relationship between the size of the society and the kinds of promises that can be made and fulfilled within it. The members of a nuclear family can conscientiously promise to assign tasks among themselves on the basis of ability and to distribute benefits on the basis of need. In larger societies, such a promise is impossible. If it is made, it is made in ignorance. There is simply no way for even one hundred people, much less 225 million, to acquire the knowledge that would be required in order to assign tasks on the basis of ability and benefits on the basis of need. We don’t have to raise the question of whether people would be willing to make and keep such promises to one another. Incentive is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Information is also necessary. This point is important because religious discussions of economic justice tend to focus on the incentive issue and to overlook the problem of information. They thereby hold out the false hope that a “change of heart” would enable us to get rid of capitalism, or at least of certain features of capitalism that they find morally objectionable.
The Nature of “Capitalism”
Let me say at this point what I mean by capitalism. I think of it as a social system in which individuals are free to choose what they will supply and demand, offer and bid, subject only to general rules known in advance. These rules will be both legal rules, externally enforced, and moral rules that are internally enforced. I call capitalism a social system because it is the social rules that determine whether the society will be capitalist, socialist, or something in between. Capitalism, in short, is a system of individual freedom under law, where law does not mean “legislation” but rather the whole body of established rules, agreements, and conventions by which the members of a society acknowledge themselves to be bound.18
The engine of the system is the individual’s perception and pursuit of net advantage. Collective behavior is not excluded, but it must be the product of the voluntary choices of individuals. The pursuit of one’s net advantage is not a synonym for greed, selfishness, or materialism. All purposeful human action is self-interested, in the crucial sense that it aims at goals accepted by the individual, using means evaluated by the individual. Greed or selfishness, by contrast, is a matter of claiming for the self more than is due. I would want to describe greed or selfishness in terms of a failure to fulfill obligations, and hence as injustice. But the point here is that greed is about as common under capitalism as it is under any other kind of political system, but no more common.
Capitalism is thus by definition an impersonal system. It is not altogether an impersonal system, because the individuals within it do participate in families and small, face-to-face associations, where they can know other persons well enough to be concerned with and to care for their unique qualities. But the distinguishing characteristic of capitalism is the impersonal nature of the social interactions that make it up. It can be described paradoxically as a social system in which people do not care about most of those for whom they care. The farmer who feeds me does not even know I exist, and while he wishes me no ill, he does not and cannot care about me in any subjective sense. Nonetheless, he cares for me, and very effectively, in an objective sense.
We are all dependent, throughout our lives, for our actual survival as well as our many comforts, upon the assistance and cooperation of millions of people whom we will never know and who do not know us. They help us to fulfill our aims in life not because they know or care what happens to us, but because this enables them to fulfill their own aims most effectively. They are motivated by their own interests, whatever these may be. They are guided by the rules of the society and their perception of the expected net advantages from alternative decisions. These net advantages, or structures of expected costs and benefits, are created by the similarly motivated and guided efforts of everyone else in the society.
The Necessity of “Commodity” Production
Marx was thus correct. He saw more clearly than most of his procapitalist contemporaries that capitalism was a system based on commodity production. It had replaced (by supplementing, I would argue, more than by displacing) a system based on relations of personal dependence. Thereby, as Marx and Engels observed in the first part of The Communist Manifesto, capitalism had achieved productive wonders. Their mistake, and the mistake of so many who followed them, was in supposing that capitalism could be replaced in turn by a system of production based on “socialist relations,” a system retaining the productive powers of capitalism while assigning tasks on the basis of ability and distributing the product according to need.
The Roots of Resistance
I suspect that the deepest root of this belief, a belief remarkably immune to either theory or evidence, is the conviction that an impersonal social system is morally unacceptable. I maintain that this is a tragically mistaken prejudice. Impersonal does not mean inhumane, as we sometimes carelessly assume. Nonetheless, our model for the good society seems to be the family, where production is from each according to ability and distribution is to each according to need and merit (though we tend to underestimate the actual importance of the merit criterion in thinking about family distribution decisions).
The religious heritage of Western thought pushes in the same direction. The Old Testament’s criticism of economic behavior often presupposes a society small enough and sufficiently close-knit for its members to care about as well as for one another. A more prominent feature of this literature, in my judgement, is its emphasis on impartial administration of the rules; but this feature has rarely been noticed by those who turn to the Old Testament for passages with which to support their concern for economic justice. The New Testament emphasis upon love as the fulfillment of all law has further reinforced our inclination to suppose that impersonal relations are somehow morally deficient relations.
A False Option
Our basic mistake may be the belief that we must choose between personal, face-to-face societies and impersonal societies. If we accept as fully legitimate the impersonal, rule-coordinated societies in which we participate, we are not repudiating or depreciating in any way marriage, the family, intimacy, I-thou relationships, the unique value of the individual, or the power and significance of personal caring and sacrifice. If we were in fact compelled to repudiate all of this in order to enjoy the benefits that only large and hence impersonal societies can provide, we would be foolish to opt for those benefits. In the long run that choice would deprive us of the advantages of both worlds, because the moral values essential to the successful operation of a rule-coordinated society can only be nurtured in personal societies.
But we are not forced to choose. We are tempted to choose, it is true, and from both directions. The expanding wealth of opportunities that the impersonal society lays before us makes us progressively less dependent (or so we believe) on particular other persons. As we enlarge our individual freedom and power, we simultaneously declare our continual independence. We view commitments as entanglements and we work toward fuller emancipation. That kind of freedom is really perpetual mobility, and I doubt that it is ultimately compatible with the institutions and virtues of personal community.
My primary concern in this paper, however, is the temptation coming from the other direction, a temptation whose appeal might be in large part a function of the anxiety that many of us feel about the decline of personal community in our own lives. Many of the “best people” in our society, including theologians, denominational leaders, and deeply religious people, sincerely believe that economic justice requires the destruction of rule-coordinated societies. Moreover, they are committed to the belief that they may legitimately use the coercive power of state legislation to accomplish this goal. They seem determined to do so, with little thought about what justice might actually entail and often the most superficial attention to what occurs in the democratic legislative process.
False Promises and Injustice
Legislation that aims at the achievement of economic justice cannot succeed in this purpose unless the promises that it offers are genuine, realistic, and not in themselves unjust. Legislators often hold out promises of benefits, for vote-gathering purposes, when they have no intention of enacting the enabling legislation which would impose the requisite costs on the public.19 For very similar reasons legislators will sometimes refuse to consider the consequences of what they are doing; it is not in their interest to recognize, much less to admit, that a bill which offers electoral gains to those who support it cannot in fact achieve its stated purposes. Legislation of this kind is unjust legislation because it deliberately creates expectations that will not be fulfilled.
Particularly common and troubling is the tendency of democratically-controlled legislatures to defend special-interest legislation on the grounds that it secures economic justice for its beneficiaries, while ignoring the injustices that this legislation will impose on others. The most familiar and to my mind most disturbing contemporary example is the arbitrary expropriation, through legislated rent controls, of people who have invested in residential rental property.
Those who draft the “social concern” statements of church bodies too often endorse this kind of legislated injustice, apparently because they can think of no way to measure economic justice except by looking at the pattern of outcomes. They are not deterred by their inability to provide a coherent, applicable, and defensible definition of a just pattern of outcomes. Meanwhile they ignore or repudiate in their official pronouncements some of the most basic principles of justice that they themselves use in their everyday, “real world” activity. The fundamental dependence of justice in a large society upon adherence to general rules is almost totally overlooked.
What do religious pronouncements about economic justice really accomplish? What interests do they serve? Those are the pressing questions with which I find myself left. But they would be questions for some other study.
The U.S. Catholic Bishops and the Pursuit of Justice*
If values could always be clearly distinguished from facts and ends from means, debates over economic policy would be more productive and less rancorous.
The recently published First Draft of the U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy claims to be concerned primarily with values and ends. The fundamental issue in economic policy, according to the Letter, is the goals we ought to be pursuing and the moral objectives that ought to guide our choices. Throughout the Letter, the language and tone are those of the prophet or preacher, calling people to a reexamination of values, a new and compassionate vision, a lively sense of moral responsibility, a commitment to economic justice, a conversion of heart. Specific policies to implement the moral objectives advocated in the Letter are treated as a secondary issue that can be worked out later through reflection and dialogue. The first and hardest task is to determine the direction in which we ought to move.
Thirty years ago, in an influential essay entitled “The Methodology of Positive Economics,” Milton Friedman ventured the judgment
that currently in the Western world, and especially in the United States, differences about economic policy among disinterested citizens derive predominantly from different predictions about the economic consequences of taking actions—differences that in principle can be eliminated by the progress of positive [i.e., scientific] economics—rather than from fundamental differences in basic values, differences about which men can ultimately only fight.1
In Friedman’s view, our hardest task is to agree on the specific policies most likely to promote our common objectives. Agreement on goals is much less of a problem, since we don’t really disagree in any fundamental way on our basic values.
If past experience in similar situations is any indication at all, the debate that the bishops have invited in response to their proposals (No. 22)* is going to founder on this issue. Defenders of the Letter will insist that the fundamental question is a moral one; critics will insist that it is the bishops’ understanding of economics. The debate will turn rancorous as implications of indifference to suffering and injustice are exchanged for charges of culpable ignorance, each side maintaining that the other is the victim of an obsolete ideology.
This inability to agree on what it is we are disagreeing about reflects the fact that our notions of how economic systems function are bound up with our conceptions of the goals they ought to serve. The bishops urge their objectives in passionate language because they believe that the American economic system is capable of performing in accord with their prescriptions—once the citizens of the United States commit themselves to a biblical (and humane) vision of economic life. This critique will argue that the bishops’ moral analysis is misguided because economic systems cannot operate in the way that the bishops suppose they do.
Do Social Systems Have Goals?
A crucial question at the outset is whether social systems—and an economic system is certainly a social system—can appropriately be said to have goals or objectives. Individuals can entertain goals and pursue them; individuals can also form organizations, such as trade unions, corporations, or governments, in order to pursue specific goals; we can then say that these organizations “have” goals or objectives. But care must be taken at this point to avoid drawing erroneous inferences from the assertion that an organization “has” a goal.
Consider an organization with a clearly and narrowly defined goal, such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Insofar as the SPCA is effectively advancing its goal, it will be through providing appropriate inducements to individual persons to behave in particular ways. Should members complain that the SPCA is failing to achieve its objectives, they will be claiming in effect that individual persons are not being induced to behave appropriately. Moreover, it will often be difficult for the critics to determine exactly where and how the inducements are failing. The reason is that an organization is a social system, and social systems pursue “their” goals in a highly indirect way. Many of the activities that contribute to the eventual achievement of the SPCA’s objectives will seem trivial or even unrelated to the organization’s objectives. (The purchase of a postage meter might be an example.) In such a situation, moral appeals (“We must give priority in our thinking to the suffering of animals”) are likely to be irrelevant. They can even be counterproductive if, by stirring up resentment and anxiety within the organization, they interfere with objective inquiry into its functioning.
The social systems that produce wealth and poverty are vastly more complex than any special-purpose organization. To see what this implies, assume for a moment that every American citizen read the bishops’ Letter, experienced the conversion of heart for which it calls, and gave enthusiastic consent to its proposal to reduce the unemployment rate from above 7 to below 4 percent. How would we proceed? Because the actual unemployment rate is the outcome of a social system rather than anyone’s direct goal, it cannot be reduced in the way that we reduce a thermostat setting or the height of a kitchen shelf. To bring down the unemployment rate, we would have to induce millions of people to begin behaving differently. But we don’t even know who these people are or exactly how we want them to behave. Each particular instance of unemployment counted in the sample data of the Bureau of Labor Statistics is the result of someone’s decision to take employment-seeking action during the survey week, but without finding and accepting a job. It is therefore the product of a vast constellation of employment offers and perceived opportunities, which are themselves the ever-shifting product of complex and constantly changing circumstances. To reduce the unemployment rate, we must somehow alter these circumstances so that they yield the different pattern of choices that we ultimately desire.
Choice and Moral Concerns
The unemployment that so distresses the bishops is the product of human choices, but it is at the same time no one person’s choice. No one intends unemployment, though unemployment is indeed the product of human intentions. If the unemployment of specific persons were in fact intended, in the sense of being consciously aimed at by someone else, then “the effects of joblessness on human dignity,” which the Letter describes, would seem to confer “moral unacceptability” upon all unemployment—not merely upon the amount in excess of 4 percent (No. 163).
The bishops appear to be unclear in their own minds about the role of choices and intentions in an economic system. The Letter is unwilling to grant that the choices of unemployed or poor people contribute in any significant way to their status. At the same time, however, the bishops want to insist that current poverty and unemployment are the result of “individual and group selfishness,” “the sins of indifference and greed,” embedded in institutions as well as human hearts (No. 85). This comes close to the exact reverse of the argument being made here.
The truth is that people do choose whether or not to enter the labor force and whether or not to accept particular employment offers. As a consequence, better employment prospects may actually raise the unemployment rate by increasing the percentage of the population looking for employment. In 1953, when the unemployment rate averaged 2.9 percent, 57.1 percent of the civilian population over 16 years of age was employed. The September 1984 unemployment rate of 7.4 percent, which the bishops find morally unacceptable, was accompanied by a significantly higher employment rate than the economy had experienced in 1953: 59.5 percent of the over-16 civilian noninstitutional population was employed in September 1984. There are several explanations for this, but they all turn upon the improvement between 1953 and 1984 in the variety and quality of the choices confronting most prospective labor force participants.
The Letter ignores all this, and the explanation isn’t hard to find. The bishops want poverty and unemployment to be moral problems for those who are wealthy and powerful and they want to avoid “blaming the victim” through any suggestion that poor or unemployed people are responsible for their own condition. Throughout the Letter, the poor, the unemployed, and the “marginalized” are presented as persons compelled by forces beyond their control. The suggestion that motivation contributes to poverty is rejected as “insulting to the poor” (No. 193); links between suffering and unemployment “discredit” claims that any significant number are unemployed voluntarily (No. 164); the “marginalized” are described as those who have “no voice and no choice,” a phrase quoted, interestingly, from a paper dealing with justice for the child, who is, of course, the paradigm case of the helpless victim (No. 93).
It ought to be possible to talk about the choices that “marginalized” people make without implying that they have good choices, that they are solely or even primarily responsible for their plight, or that nothing should be done by the government to help them. If this is indeed only a first draft, then we can still hope that the Letter will eventually incorporate something from the best book on these problems to appear in the United States in many years: How We Live: An Economic Perspective on Americans from Birth to Death by Victor R. Fuchs.2 We cannot hope for this with a great deal of confidence, however. Fuchs employs “the economic perspective,” which sees social reality as the product of constrained choices, and the bishops reject this approach to the issues. We have here a prime example of how moral concerns can distort social analysis.
Distortion, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Couldn’t it be claimed with equal justification that the economist’s perspective on social systems also distorts reality? It certainly can be claimed, and the claim must be admitted (as Fuchs does) to contain some truth. But a partial perspective can still be a valuable perspective. Economic theory presupposes that people choose in response to changing costs and benefits and that their choices affect in turn the costs and benefits that people confront. While this is not the only legitimate perspective from which to view social phenomena, it has shown itself to be a powerfully illuminating one that cannot simply be ignored by anyone who wants to understand economic systems. Yet this is precisely what the bishops have done. The clinching evidence is the fact that, in an essay of more than fifty thousand words directed toward a transformation of the U.S. economy, no attention whatsoever is paid to relative prices. This is a startling omission.
The Neglect of Information Problems
The principal virtue that most economists find in the so-called market system is its effective management of information problems. A modern economy is an extraordinarily complex system in which innumerable decisions have to be continuously coordinated if food, clothing, shelter, heat, light, transportation, medical care, and a multitude of other goods are to be regularly and dependably made available to those who want them on terms that they are willing and able to meet. It is neither an accident nor a fact of nature that the quantity of milk New Yorkers want to consume each day, for example, consistently makes its way from distant dairy farms to waiting tumblers, cereal bowls, and coffee cups. On the contrary, it is the product of an enormous system of social cooperation that is continuously coordinated and adjusted through the information that relative prices supply.
These information problems would still exist in essentially unchanged form in a nation of saints. The human deficiency that relative prices overcome is not so much selfishness as ignorance. A higher relative price attached to a particular good is first of all evidence—evidence that the good has become more scarce. In the absence of such concrete and readily available evidence regarding the relative scarcities of countless inputs and outputs, modern economic life simply could not go on.3
In a section of their Letter entitled “The Responsibilities and Rights of Diverse Economic Agents and Institutions,” the bishops make the following true and important assertion:
But simply proclaiming that poverty should be eliminated, unemployment abolished, discrimination ended, and education and leisure made available to all is not enough. We must also reflect more concretely on who is actually responsible for bringing about the necessary changes. Our society is highly complex and so is the apportionment of rights and responsibilities for shaping economic life. (No. 107)
Unfortunately the bishops have not reflected concretely enough to see that the responsibilities for shaping economic life, whether to preserve the status quo or to effect substantial changes, are apportioned with the indispensable assistance of relative prices.
And so the Letter talks about the responsible management of economic resources by business and financial institutions without once recognizing the role that relative prices play in promoting good (or poor) stewardship. The use of land and other natural resources “must be governed by the need to preserve the fertility of farmland and the integrity of the environment,” the bishops say. Owners, managers, and financiers are urged to be accountable to their employees and their local communities in making investment decisions, and the Second Vatican Council is quoted in support of the position that good stewardship requires people to use their lawful possessions as resources for the benefit of others (No. 119). But the bishops do not see that relative prices reflecting relative scarcities, both current and prospective, are essential information for those who want to manage resources responsibly rather than arbitrarily. The “lively sense of moral responsibility” that the Letter commends (No. 122) is simply not enough. The pursuit of profit—an activity always viewed with suspicion when mentioned in the Letter—is also required, because pursuing profit means paying attention to relative prices. And relative prices are ordinarily the best available social indicators of what good stewardship requires concretely.
The bishops’ defense of private property probably provides the most revealing evidence of their failure to understand the role of relative prices. Private ownership of property, they say, has value for many reasons. Four are then given. It provides incentives for diligence, allows parents to contribute to the welfare of their children, protects political liberty, and opens space for the exercise of creativity and initiatives (No. 120). Economists will point to a glaring omission from this list: clearly defined and readily exchangeable property rights generate relative prices that offer information on the prospective net advantage of alternative decisions, thereby providing an essential part of the society’s system of coordination.
The Letter subscribes implicitly to two positions with respect to economic justice that are difficult to reconcile. One is that justice is a matter of intentions. The other is that justice is measured by results. The difficulty here is the one already encountered: in an economic system, results are not intended. Or, to put it another way, the results that emerge are not the results that were intended by the people who produced them.
This point was first made famous—some would say infamous—by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. In the realm of economic activity, people promote the public interest not by aiming at it directly but by aiming at their own private interest. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, brewer, or baker, Smith says, but from their self-love, their regard to their own advantage, that we expect our dinner.4 Smith’s point is missed, however, if we suppose he was contrasting benevolence with selfishness and regard for the public interest with attention to selfish interests. He was not.
Smith had a high regard for benevolence, as his Theory of Moral Sentiments abundantly demonstrates. But he knew that benevolence was a virtue too vague and uncertain to guide and coordinate the cooperative activities of a society that depended extensively upon the division of labor. Benevolence doesn’t tell people what they ought to do if they want to promote the common good; but people must know exactly what to do if the economic system is to function. Moreover, benevolence cannot be depended upon in the way that a complex social system requires. Benevolence doesn’t make people punctual and punctilious. Even a beggar, Smith shrewdly observes, does not rely upon benevolence to satisfy his daily wants, but only in order to obtain the means with which to satisfy those wants.5 A complex social system such as a modern economy requires conscientious attention to tedious details, discipline rather than spontaneity, and people who play their parts when, where, and how the system requires.
Under appropriate but common circumstances, people’s pursuit of their own advantage produces this kind of responsible behavior. Does it, however, necessarily produce just results?
The Definition of Justice
That all depends on what we mean by just results. “The fundamental demand of justice,” the Letter asserts, “is that all persons be enabled to participate in the common good of society” (No. 97). Participation is a prominent theme in the Letter, but the statements about participation raise as many questions as they answer. On what terms must people be able to participate? Must they be enabled to do what they want to do, what they enjoy doing, what they are good at, what benefits others, or what contributes to the common good? Who is to decide, and by what criteria? Must people be enabled to do what they think contributes to the common good? The possibilities for rationalization are frightening. Should people who do what they want to do be guaranteed an income from their chosen activity? How large an income?
The fundamental demand of justice allegedly “also has implications for how economic benefits are distributed.” What are those implications? The Letter mentions six factors that “demand attention” in determining whether “the share received by a person or group is a just one”:
In what is surely the outstanding understatement of the entire Letter, the bishops admit that these “criteria of distributive justice cannot be reduced to a simple arithmetic formula.” It is doubtful that they can even be reconciled. Since the bishops give no hint as to who should make these extraordinarily complex determinations and thereby assign each person and group [sic] their rightful share, they are offering a recipe for either chaos or tyranny. And all this without even mentioning an operative criterion of major importance in the system they are criticizing: whether what the person or group is producing is something that the potential consumers value.
Despite the central emphasis of the Letter upon justice, its authors have not reflected concretely enough to supply any coherent sketch of what they are aiming at. It is clear enough that they consider current inequalities of income and wealth, within the United States but especially in the world, morally unacceptable. But that isn’t the issue.6 The important questions are why these inequalities exist and what can and should be done to change them. If the bishops provide any guidance at all on these questions, it is toward solutions that have already been tried and found wanting.
They urge increased foreign aid, for example, which they say “gets an increasingly bad press in the United States” (No. 307). They nowhere point out that foreign aid has also been severely criticized, from the left as well as the right, for the harm that it often does to the cause of economic development, especially development in directions that might raise the living standards of the poorest people in so-called Third World countries. Aid from governments goes largely to governments. The Letter generally assumes, contrary to an abundance of readily available evidence, that government officials in poor countries will use foreign aid in just and constructive ways. The premise that runs throughout the section on the United States and the world economy (Nos. 270-319) is that “transnational corporations” pursue profits and are therefore likely to do harm when they enter Third World countries unless they are restrained by international agencies and national governments, which pursue the common good. (See especially Nos. 281, 299, 311). This is sheer prejudice. Greed, corruption, poor stewardship, and economic irresponsibility are generally under much more effective control in multinational corporations, as a result of ordinary competitive pressures, than they are in many national governments and even some United Nations agencies.
Within the United States, the Letter recommends more generous welfare benefits offered to more people and with fewer conditions such as work requirements. The impression given repeatedly by the sections on welfare reform (Nos. 218-240) is that the bishops are standing resolutely in the year 1964, urging that we begin the War on Poverty. Has no one called their attention to the abundance of data now available on the actual effects over the last twenty years of the various policies that the bishops recommend as if for the first time? Fuchs would be of great help here, as would the excellent collection of studies edited by Robert H. Haveman for the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty, A Decade of Federal Antipoverty Programs: Achievements, Failures, and Lessons.7 One wonders what would remain of the bishops’ proposals if each member of the committee sat down and read Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980.8
The Justice of Social Systems
The problem runs deeper, however, than the bishops’ inability to provide defensible suggestions for alleviating poverty. It goes back to their failure to provide a coherent statement of what they mean by economic justice. The reason for this failure is that they are looking in the wrong direction. The justice or injustice of a social system will not be found in the pattern of outcomes it yields—its end-states—but in the procedures through which those outcomes emerge. This is simply the only kind of justice of which social systems are capable.
The argument is easier to illustrate than to demonstrate. Suppose we accepted the bishops’ end-state approach and made the pattern of income distribution among specific persons and groups the target of a national policy for economic justice. The entire economy would now have to be planned and controlled in minute detail, because only in this way could we prevent anyone from rising above or falling below our income targets. Since the bishops have no intention of endorsing “a highly centralized form of economic planning, much less a totalitarian one” (No. 261), this cannot be what they want.
A less ambitious policy to make incomes more equal in the name of justice would allow people to choose for themselves how they want to allocate the resources under their control, and then use taxes and transfers to redistribute the (highly unequal) incomes that would result. This is much less ambitious because the attainable outcomes would be severely constrained by people’s responses to the expected taxes and transfers. A society of saints might be willing to take their cues for the coordination of economic activity from pre-tax-and-transfer signals—though even this is doubtful if the saints have differing visions of saintliness that they want to pursue.9 In any event, we are not dealing with a society of saints, and we would have to expect participants in the economic system to be guided in their decisions by the information provided by relative prices after taxes and transfers. The bishops apparently do not see how severely that would limit the ability of any national policy to redistribute income, because there is no evidence that they have recognized the extent to which it already constrains redistributive programs in the United States and elsewhere.
The best way to avoid recognizing constraints on redistributive programs is to assume a world divided exclusively into the rich and the poor, with “luxuries” consumed exclusively by the rich, and the poor consuming nothing but “necessities.” Given this picture of the world, it is relatively easy to accept as meaningful the assertion that “the needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich” (No. 106, quoting Pope John Paul II). The next step is the deduction that “government economic policies must ensure that the poor have their basic needs met before less basic desires of others are satisfied.”10 This is perilously close to pure demagoguery. Is the government supposed to call a halt to all skiing (surely a luxury) until everyone in the society is receiving a sound education (deemed a necessity by the bishops)? If it doesn’t mean something like this, what does it mean to assert that “the needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich”? And if it doesn’t really mean anything, why is such a statement made?
Numerous passages in the Letter that call for taxing the wealthy to provide benefits for the poor would require in practice that each person in the economy be subjected to a unique set of tax-and-transfer rules. How else could national policy possibly promote the bishops’ notion of distributive justice, with its fine adjustment of individual (and group!) incomes to unique individual (and group!) circumstances? But such a tax-and-transfer policy, tailored to the peculiar circumstances of each individual, would be tantamount to the minutely detailed system of central planning and control that the bishops explicitly repudiate. If the bishops don’t see this contradiction in what they are proposing, it must be because they are assuming that poor people consume nothing but necessities and that the luxuries of the rich can be unambiguously identified. The moment we begin to think concretely about all this, however, we discover how extensively the rich and the poor overlap in many of their choices and activities.
We cannot have it both ways. Either we replace the existing economic system with a minutely detailed central plan or we resign ourselves to the limited possibilities for redistributing income that general rules provide.11 Since the former option is presumably out of the question, the bishops will have to accept, as consistent with justice, a multiplicity of “holes in the social safety net” and tax “loopholes.” Some people will consequently receive from the economic system less than the bishops (and many others) think they deserve, and others will receive much more. (This will be the end of the matter only if government is the exclusive redistributor of income in the society, which it surely is not; the family is still the principal redistributor of income.) The bishops’ criteria for income distribution, even if they could be made consistent, would be useful only to someone who was omniscient, and they could be enforced only by someone who combined omniscience with omnipotence. Economic systems have come into existence, however, precisely because of limitations on individual knowledge and that most fortunate corollary, limitations on individual power.
The servants of God must not suppose that they can be God. While the bishops have no such intention, they do seem to be demanding, in the name of justice from a divine perspective, the abolition of institutions capable of achieving justice from a human perspective. Because the bishops evince almost no understanding of how social systems overcome human limitations, they are willing to use the limitations of functioning social systems as a reason for destroying them. What will they put in the place of the system whose functioning would be suspended if their proposals were actually implemented? The bishops do not answer this question because they do not realize that they have raised it.
“Everyone knows the significance of economic policy, economic organizations and economic relationships,” the Letter states in its introduction (No. 4). This is unfortunately not the case. But the Letter goes on to indicate what it means by “significance”: something “that goes beyond purely secular or technical questions to profoundly human, and therefore moral, matters.” What the bishops need to discover is the significance of secular or technical questions for the opinions they hold on a wide range of moral matters.
Human Limitations and Limited Government
The theme of this critique has been limitation. Our judgments about matters of fact are limited by our theoretical perspectives, and our conceptions of appropriate moral objectives are limited by our understandings of how social systems function. More importantly and perhaps more controversially, it has been argued here that government policies directed toward economic justice must be limited to what can be accomplished through general rules. The justice or injustice of the system inheres in the justice or injustice of these rules. National economic policies dealing with employment, poverty, pollution, education, discrimination, trade unions, control of corporations, international trade, foreign aid, or any of the other justice-related issues that the Letter mentions must be expressed in general rules. This is the only way that government policies can avoid arbitrariness, arbitrariness that will inevitably be unjust through its disruption of legitimate expectations as well as inefficient through its disruption of producer planning.
“Limited government” does not mean government that limits itself; all governments limit themselves at some point. Limited government means government limited by rules that citizens know and can count on. It means a government that revises the rules only in accordance with the rules. Many students of government have in recent years begun to see the limitation of government in this sense as the critical problem facing democracies. The processes of democratic government are falling increasingly under the control of special-interest groups, groups that can use their intense interest in single issues to coerce legislatures into an endless series of enactments that sacrifice the public interest.
The bishops are not familiar with this literature or the arguments it makes.12 They state that “the process of forming national economic policies should encourage and support the contributions of all the different groups that will be affected by them” (No. 266, emphasis in original). There is no acknowledgment here and almost none elsewhere in the Letter that the groups most strongly affected by government economic policies are, in one sense, the groups least qualified to form those policies because their legislative proposals are skewed by their special interests. Contributions from such groups need to be discounted, not encouraged and supported. How to do this is one of the vexing issues currently confronting students of the democratic political process.
The problem has been much exacerbated by the growing respectability of the idea that government has an obligation to solve all social problems that arise, an idea that easily turns into the notion that government must alleviate all discontents. In such a climate, every interest becomes a right and every harm from any source an outrage. Rights must be secured and outrages redressed, of course, by government. Thus Leviathan grows.
As inheritors of Roman Catholic social teaching, the bishops speak approvingly of the subsidiarity principle (No. 127). This principle requires government to support institutions that stand between the individual and the nation-state, especially families and voluntary institutions. But a government that takes over the responsibilities of such intermediate institutions or that narrowly constrains their functioning through taxation, subsidy, or regulation is going to undermine them whatever the intentions or the rhetoric of that government. For example, a government that convenes a national conference on family policy has by that act weakened the institution of the family.
Now, if all this sounds “anti-government,” it just may be. National government needs no one today to defend its powers, least of all in the age of Ronald Reagan when the rhetoric of smaller government covers the reality of ever-larger government. The underlying purpose of these comments, however, is to open the important question of justice on another level. There is much that the bishops say about justice that has not yet been touched upon in this critique. The biblical conception of justice is important to the theologians on whom the bishops rely extensively, and it is important to the present writer, who has sometimes tried to be a theologian as well as an economist.
Biblical research and theological reflection in recent years have done a great deal to recover the social character of the New Testament message,13 and the bishops’ Letter has one of its roots in this work. The central concept in the evangelists’ accounts of Jesus’ message and ministry was the kingdom of God; and a kingdom is surely a society. Moreover, Jesus expected a realization of that kingdom, or at least a preliminary, partial realization of it, within the actual and historical society that he was addressing. Those who “believed” in him, who accepted his proclamation, would begin to relate to one another in a radically new way.
They would go two miles with anyone who compelled them to go one, give their overcoats to people who demanded their jackets, offer those who struck them on one side of the face a chance to strike them on the other side, discharge the debts of those who owed them money, forgive people who wronged them as many as five hundred times if necessary, and refuse to resist the infliction of evil except by the disconcerting procedure of doing good in return.
This is an extraordinary social vision, and it is no wonder that historically more effort has been devoted to explaining why Jesus did not really mean what he said than to discovering how his vision might be realized. One strategy has been to push this kingdom and the social relationships it entails “beyond history.” In this view, the kingdom of God as announced by Jesus is something that cannot be realized until “the end of time.” Meanwhile, Christians are expected only to behave considerately while they wait faithfully. In this fashion the New Testament message has been both moderated and deprived of its social implications.
The concern with justice that is so prominent in the bishops’ Letter entails a rejection of all such “desocialized” versions of Christianity. That is what was meant above in saying that the Letter has one of its roots in recent writings on the social character of the New Testament message. But the Letter has other roots, too, which the bishops are much less eager to acknowledge.
The opening paragraph of part 1, “Biblical and Theological Foundations,” announces:
The basis for all that the church believes about the moral dimensions of economic life is its vision of the transcendent worth—the sacredness—of human beings. The dignity of the human person, realized in community with others, is the criterion against which all aspects of economic life must be measured. (No. 23)
The Letter then goes on to develop this vision “more fully in biblical and theological terms,” drawing on such concepts as creation, covenant, and community, and eventually establishing “the primacy of justice.”14 From the concept of justice and its primacy the Letter deduces “Ethical Norms for Economic Life,” including most prominently a set of basic personal economic rights (No. 79) about which the Letter states that “there can be no legitimate disagreement” (No. 87).15
All along the way, the meaning of the enunciated norms and principles is clarified by indicating their implications. Wilderness areas are to be preserved (No. 96), comparable worth schemes enacted (No. 101), and affirmative action programs supported—though they must be “judiciously administered” (No. 101). Collective bargaining by trade unions must not be resisted (Nos. 111, 112)—though unions should not use their collective power to press demands that would diminish the rights of other workers (No. 113). The principle of the moral unity of the entire human family even implies somehow the legitimacy of the nation-state, which is recognized “as an instrument of justice in a world made up of different cultures, with different traditions and various ways of structuring their economies” (No. 133).
These details from the Letter’s “Biblical and Theological Foundations” have been selected for two purposes. One is to indicate how extensively the bishops’ concrete arguments depend on nontheological considerations. At what point, one might well wonder, does the bishops’ dependence on debatable social theories and empirical generalizations render the purely moral authority of their argument negligible? That is a troublesome question for those who want to respect the teaching authority of the bishops but who also believe that their social analysis is gravely deficient.
The other purpose is more fundamental. It is to suggest that the bishops’ concrete recommendations for government economic policy, far from being an application of the concept of justice found in the New Testament, run directly counter to it. The first step in the wrong direction is the very idea that the gospel presents any kind of agenda at all for government.
Love and Coercion
What does the institution of government have to do with the radically new relationships that are to characterize the kingdom of God? Governments do not offer matching grants to taxpayers who hold back amounts due; they order immediate payment, and penalties in addition. Governments do not forgive wrongdoers, not even once; they punish them, and if the punishment is suspended, it is only on condition that the wrong never be repeated. Government is fundamentally a coercive institution. The New Testament provides no agenda for government. On the contrary, it suggests to the faithful that they ought to depend very little on government. The deep suspicion of government found in so many of the radical Christian sects and the determination to have as little as possible to do with it are far closer in spirit to the gospel than are the persistent efforts of church officials since Constantine to gain control of government for their own ends.
There are difficult ethical issues here that the present essay is not attempting to settle or dismiss. Theologians from St. Augustine to Reinhold Niebuhr have struggled with the relationship between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, trying to determine the relevance of force to love in a “fallen world.” But if radical sects have tended to abandon this world in their devotion to principle, established churches have too often abandoned principle in their desire for power and influence.
The New Testament advocates a degree of recklessness with regard to consequences that is sometimes hard to reconcile with the calculating perspective of Homo economicus and economic theory. But however courageous or faithful such indifference to consequences may be when the risks are borne personally by the decision maker, it is impossible to defend when the reckless actor compels other people to bear the costs of “moral” decisions. Good intentions are certainly not enough when the coercive powers of government are being used to “do good.” Those who claim to be speaking on behalf of the poor and the oppressed have an obligation to be competent social analysts when they are proposing policies for government.16
The attention paid in the Letter to voluntary actions and personal sacrifice is perfunctory in comparison with the attention paid to government policies (Nos. 123-24, for example). This is an appropriate emphasis for those who are determined to redirect the course of social events. Voluntary actions move the world slowly and, from the global perspective, imperceptibly. Those who want to be sure of changing the course of history must gain command of governments and armies. That has been abundantly proved throughout history, but especially in the history of the twentieth century. What are the concrete achievements of even Mother Teresa when laid alongside the differences made to the world by Stalin, Hitler, Mao, or almost any ruler of the most minor state in the United Nations? The contemporary turn to government for the solution of all problems is not some kind of neurosis; it reflects an accurate judgment about where social power is concentrated today. The bishops want to transform institutions and structures; they are therefore wise to focus on gaining control of government policies.
When they do so, however, honesty requires that they give up the authority of the New Testament as support for what they are doing. It is the Enlightenment, not the Gospels, that provides the “theological” framework for the debate that the bishops have initiated.17 It might be considerably easier to conduct the debate, with the civility for which the bishops call, if all parties stopped claiming that the battle is between God and the devil and admitted frankly that we are contrasting the social visions of such mere mortals as Adam Smith and Karl Marx.18
[* ] Unpublished typescript, provenance unknown, reprinted by permission of Mrs. Juliana Heyne.
[1. ]Nicomachean Ethics, V, 7. Representative of the literature are the following: Gustaf Aulen, Church, Law and Society (1948); A. R. Vidler and W. A. Whitehouse, eds., Natural Law: A Christian Reconsideration (1946); Arthur L. Harding, ed., Religion, Morality and Law (1956); Heinz-Horst Schrey et al., The Biblical Doctrine of Justice and Law (1955); Nathaniel Michlem, Law and the Laws (1952); articles in the Journal of Religion, April 1945, April 1946, and July 1946, on various aspects of natural law; an issue of The Christian Scholar, September 1957, devoted to theology and jurisprudence and including articles by Wilber Katz, William Stringfellow, and Samuel Enoch Stumpf; an article by Jacques Ellul continuing the discussion in the June 1959 Christian Scholar; Richard V. Carpenter, “The problem of value judgments as norms of law,” 7, Journal of Legal Education, 163ff.; much of Karl Barth’s shorter post-war writings, included in Against the Stream (1954); and, of course, a voluminous literature from the pen of Emil Brunner, including Justice and the Social Order (1945), Christianity and Civilization (2 vols., 1948-49), etc.
[2. ] Wilber G. Katz, “Law, Christianity, and the University,” Christian Scholar (September 1957), pp. 164-65.
[3. ]Konkordienformel, Solida Declaratio, V, Die Bekenntnisschriften der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche.
[4. ] See, for example, Werner Elert, The Christian Ethos (1949, translated 1957), with its major divisions, “Ethos under Law” and “Ethos under Grace.”
[5. ] The work by Elert is perhaps the clearest example.
[6. ] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (c. 1951), p. 174 (Harper Torchbook).
[7. ] John T. McNeill, “Natural Law in the Teaching of the Reformers,” Journal of Religion (July 1946), pp. 168-72.
[8. ] The quotations from Die Bekenntnisschriften are respectively from Apologie, IV; Konkordienformel, Solida Declaratio, VI; and Apologie, XXIII. In the first quotation cited the Latin version differs from the German.
[9. ]The Divine Imperative (1932), p. 210.
[10. ] Elert, op. cit., p. 18.
[11. ] Heinz-Horst Schrey, Hans Hermann Walz, and W. A. Whitehouse, The Biblical Doctrine of Justice and Law (1955), pp. 41-42.
[12. ]Ibid., p. 51.
[13. ]Ibid., p. 185.
[14. ] Amos Wilder, “Equivalents of Natural Law in the Teaching of Jesus,” Journal of Religion (April 1946), pp. 130-35.
[15. ] McNeil, op. cit., passim.
[16. ] The writer wishes to acknowledge at this point the crucial jog to his thinking provided by S. I. Hayakawa, “The Great Books Idolatry and Kindred Delusions,” ETC XVII, 2, pp. 133-48. For the benefit of the suspicious, indebtedness to contemporary “Oxford philosophy” is also freely admitted. Cf. especially Stephen Toulmin, Reason in Ethics (1950) and R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals (1952). Obfuscations are original. While the use in these pages of the word metaphysics does not correspond to that of R. G. Collingwood, being more akin to the customary somewhat loose usage of the term, Collingwood’s Essay on Metaphysics (1940) has supplied much of the framework of these pages.
[17. ] Quoted by William Stringfellow, “The Christian Lawyer as a Churchman,” The Christian Scholar (September 1957), p. 232, footnote.
[18. ] James Luther Adams, “The Law of Nature: Some General Considerations,” Journal of Religion (April 1945), p. 92.
[19. ] Mueller, “The Problem of Value Judgments as Norms of Law: The Answer of a Positivist,” 7 Journal of Legal Education 571.
[20. ] Barth, Against the Stream (1954), pp. 114-16.
[* ] Reprinted from Morality of the Market: Religious and Economic Perspectives, ed. W. Block, G. Brennan, and K. Elzinga (Vancouver: The Fraser Institute, 1985), by permission of The Fraser Institute. First draft presented at a Liberty Fund/Fraser Institute conference, directed by Walter Block, Paul Heyne, and A. M. C. Waterman on “The Morality of the Market” in Vancouver, British Columbia, 9-11 August 1982.
[1. ] If the Hebrew words yeshuah and tsedeq and the Greek words soteria and dikaiosune are translated as “deliverance” and “justice,” the individualistic connotations of “salvation” and “righteousness” are diminished.
[2. ] J. R. Lucas, On Justice (1980), p. 4. I am indebted to James Buchanan for urging me to read this book. The “negative” character of justice is a central point in F. A. Hayek’s Law, Legislation and Liberty, where he also traces the long intellectual history of the insight that we can best approach an understanding of justice through our ability to recognize its absence. See especially op. cit., vol. II (1976), pp. 35-48, 162-64. My indebtedness to Hayek in this essay will be obvious to anyone familiar with his more recent work.
[3. ] Here are the mean incomes of families in the U.S. in 1978, by age of what the Census Bureau now calls the “householder”: 14-24 years, $12,570; 25-34 years, $18,205; 35-44 years, $22,575; 45-54 years, $25,363; 55-64 years, $22,408; over 65 years, $13,754. Per capita income differences will be much less because of age-related differences in family size.
[4. ] For a recent instance of this answer and a representative example of the reasoning that accompanies it, see Robert Lekachman, “Capitalism or Democracy,” in Robert A. Goldwin and William A. Schambra, eds., How Capitalistic Is the Constitution? (1982), pp. 127-47, and especially p. 146.
[5. ] An illuminating discussion of this issue, along with a presentation of the basic data, may be found in Edgar K. Browning, “How Much More Equality Can We Afford?” The Public Interest (Spring 1976), pp. 90-110.
[6. ] Per capita gross national product in 1978 has been estimated by the World Bank at $120 in Ethiopia, $90 in Bangladesh, and less in Kampuchea. These data must be interpreted with great caution, since a much smaller fraction of production enters GNP calculations in poor than in wealthy countries. Data were taken from Poverty and Human Development (1980), p. 68.
[7. ] The disposable personal income (roughly income after taxes) of Americans per capita in 1929, in dollars of current (1982) purchasing power, was about $3,765. That’s considerably less than half of current disposable income per capita, despite the fact that far more services now than then are financed through taxation and hence no longer have to be purchased out of disposable income.
[8. ] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, book V, chapter II, article IV, discussing taxes upon consumable commodities; David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, chapter V (see pp. 96-97, 100-101 in the Sraffa edition ); Karl Marx, Wage-Labour and Capital, chapter VI.
[9. ] J. R. Lucas offers a useful overview in op. cit., chapter 8; see especially the long footnote on pp. 164-65.
[10. ] Matthew 20:1-16.
[11. ] This criticism applies also to some of the core arguments advanced by John Rawls in his influential A Theory of Justice (1971). J. R. Lucas puts the problem concisely: “Rawls yearns for a theodicy. To be morally acceptable, a distribution must be justified completely.” Op. cit., p. 191. Robert Nozick has pointed out that Rawls’ argument finally does not take individual persons seriously. Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), p. 228.
[12. ] Economists generally insist that they have no basis for making “interpersonal utility comparisons”; they rarely recognize that judgements about the relative efficiency of alternative resource allocations require either the making of such judgements or prior decisions on who possesses what property rights. What it all comes to is that judgements about efficiency in multi-person transactions presuppose judgements about the justice of people’s exercising certain powers. For a concise presentation of the central issue, see John Egger, “Comment: Efficiency Is Not a Substitute for Ethics,” in Mario J. Rizzo, ed., Time, Uncertainty, and Disequilibrium (1979), pp. 117-25.
[13. ] Most of the contemporary literature advocating “corporate social responsibility” totally overlooks this point. Examples could be multiplied endlessly. Christopher Stone offers an excellent critical survey of the discussion about business social responsibility in Where the Law Ends: The Social Control of Corporate Behavior (1975).
[14. ] The most serious single error committed by non-economists in their proposals for reform of the economic system is their neglect of information problems. I have often wished that I could persuade everyone interested in social justice to begin with a careful reading of the classic essay by F. A. Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” originally published in the American Economic Review (September 1945), pp. 519-30, and frequently reprinted since. It is included in Hayek’s 1948 collection of essays, Individualism and Economic Order.
[15. ] This is the tradition first spelled out by David Hume in A Treatise of Human Nature, book III, part II, sections I-VI. I do not think my argument here is vulnerable to the criticisms put forward by J. R. Lucas, op. cit., in pp. 208-15, a chapter he entitles “Pacta Sunt Servanda.”
[16. ] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (1964; Harper Torchbook edition), especially part II.
[17. ] The controversy over abortion laws in the United States provides the most distressing example.
[18. ] The conception of “freedom under law” that I am assuming here was thoughtfully spelled out by Bruno Leoni in Freedom and the Law (1961).
[19. ] Neither the theoretical analyses nor the abundant empirical evidence put forward by public choice theorists in recent years seems to have influenced church pronouncements on political issues.
[* ] Reprinted from Cato Institute Policy Analysis 50 (5 March 1985): 1-21, by permission of the publisher.
[1. ] Milton Friedman, “The Methodology of Positive Economics,” in Essays in Positive Economics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 5.
[* ] All citations of the Letter will be by section number. The Letter contains 333 sections, usually of one paragraph.
[2. ] Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. This book was widely and favorably reviewed during the time the bishops were gathering evidence, and its omission from the list of authorities cited is surprising. My own review may be found in This World (Winter 1984): 151-53.
[3. ] The classic discussion is F. A. Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” American Economic Review (September 1945): 519-30. Reprinted in idem, Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948) and in many anthologies.
[4. ]The Wealth of Nations, book 1, chapter 2.
[5. ] Ibid.
[6. ] The extent of these inequalities is very much an issue, however. “The top 5 percent of American families own almost 43 percent of the net wealth in the nation,” the Letter asserts (No. 204), thereby providing data that will no doubt be widely quoted to support the bishops’ overall stance. An attached footnote reveals that the survey used in this calculation of net wealth excludes “the value of durable goods, automobiles, and the value of small businesses and private practices. The value of homes and the liability of home mortgages are also excluded.” Not mentioned is the exclusion also of human capital. In short, the survey upon which the Letter relies to show how unequally wealth is distributed in the United States does not count those assets in which the bulk of most Americans’ wealth resides, and which collectively far outweigh the value of the assets counted. One’s wealth is realistically the net (capitalized) value of all those matters in which a lending institution is interested when it asks for a financial statement. By that test, the present writer is wealthy; by the bishops’ test, he is poor. But the bishops’ measure is almost devoid of significance.
[7. ] Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1977.
[8. ] New York: Basic Books, 1984.
[9. ] Since tax-and-transfer policies are sometimes designed specifically to influence allocation decisions, as in the case of pollution charges, one cannot lay down a general moral principle that decision makers should look only at pre-tax-and-transfer prices.
[10. ] This statement was made recently by a prominent Catholic bishop while testifying in support of legislation to require owners of certain low-rent apartments to continue making them available for rent. The arbitrary nature of such a law is less likely to be seen by someone who divides the world into the neat categories of luxury-consuming rich and necessity-consuming poor. Taken seriously, the bishops’ assertion endorses detailed government control over each citizen’s spending decisions. Reported in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 12, 1984, p. E-9.
[11. ] A useful task in conjunction with the preparation of any revised draft of the Letter would be a study of the specific practices that gave rise to complaints of injustice in the Old Testament, especially in the writings of the prophets. The prophets usually seem to be objecting to violations of the rules aimed at taking advantage of relatively defenseless people. It is this, not the mere fact of poverty, that constitutes oppression. See also Leviticus 19:15: “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Revised Standard Version).
[12. ] The standard reference is Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965). See especially pp. 5-16, 98-102, 141-48.
[13. ] An excellent introduction is John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972).
[14. ] The “primacy of justice” is supported by quoting Matthew 6: 33: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice.” But “justice,” at least as the term will be understood by most contemporary readers, is a misleading translation of dikaiosune. The traditional “righteousness” isn’t altogether satisfactory, either, because of the misleading connotations of a purely interior “right-ness” that it has come to have. An early footnote in the Letter says that all biblical translations are those of the Revised Standard Version “unless otherwise noted.” The reader is not told, however, that in the passage cited the RSV translates dikaiosune as “righteousness.” The footnote on biblical translations also says, “The other translation used is that of the New American Bible.” But the New American Bible translates the passage as follows: “Seek first his kingship over you, his way of holiness.” Is this a quibble? Or evidence of a less-than-candid use of authority?
[15. ] One would have to search long outside societies that have been influenced by the European Enlightenment to find the concepts of individual dignity and human rights that the Letter invokes. This observation is not intended to disparage those concepts, but only to suggest that a study of their history, evolution, and meaning would find little guidance in the sources or authorities that the bishops invoke.
[16. ] Charles Murray calls attention to a tendency among “those who legislate and administer and write about social policy” that seems to be particularly characteristic of church officials discussing economic issues: they “can tolerate any increase in actual suffering as long as the system in place does not explicitly permit it” (Losing Ground, p. 235). From this perspective, verbal goals are more important than actual results.
[17. ] The conflict between Roman Catholic social thought and some of the critical presuppositions of Enlightenment thinking is concealed in the bishops’ Letter by a highly selective citation of earlier social statements. An important issue that deserved careful examination is the extent to which Catholic social teaching has narrowed its options by refusing to give serious consideration to liberalism (in its historical sense) as a framework for thinking about economic policy. The French Catholic economist Daniel Villey discussed this issue 30 years ago in an essay that has not received the attention it deserves: “The Market Economy and Roman Catholic Thought,” originally published in 1954 and republished in an English translation in International Economic Papers 9 (1959).
[18. ] One reader of this critique worried that the concluding sentence might be read by some as an emotional appeal to anti-Marx prejudices. This is certainly not intended. Smith and Marx present similar and yet contrasting social visions that can richly reward comparative study, and those visions do seem to be at the base of important and conflicting theological-social statements. It would be rather odd if the rules of discourse prohibited any mention of Marx in criticisms of liberation theologians who explicitly endorse Marxism or assert “a sense of admiration and gratitude for a movement that, in less than a century, through its direct action in some areas and through indirect influence in labour movements and other social forces in others, has raised to a human condition the life of at least half of the human race.” Jose Miguez Bonino, Christians and Marxists, as quoted in Morality and the Market Place, by Brian Griffiths (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982).