by Mario Rizzo
Throughout Pope Benedict XVI’s enclyclical (“Caritas in Veritate”) he stresses that scientific knowledge is not enough when trying to determine appropriate government policies or even individual actions. This is quite true.
He fails, however, to appreciate in many specific instances and arguments the importance of the fact that that moral or ethical knowledge is also insufficient to determine appropriate government policy or individual actions. He pays lip service to this idea (Sec. 9, 30) but it rarely constrains him in practice, as we shall see.
Now consider a specific issue.
The pope is worried about the effect of globalization on the traditional welfare state. (Sec. 25) As countries compete for internationally-mobile capital resources (and to a much lesser extent, labor resources) they will feel the need to reduce taxes to encourage capital inflows (or prevent outflows). This may result in reductions in government spending on social welfare in both developed and developing countries. The pope doesn’t welcome this. He specifically recommends several constraints on the behavior of businesses to deal with this problem. But first let’s analyze the pope’s framing of the putative problem.
Benedict XVI has made a number of judgments: (1) It is morally obligatory for those who have abundance to help others who are poor; (2) The state – welfare state – is an appropriate institution to do this; (3) Such aid should not be left (largely/mainly/exclusively) to the voluntary decisions of other individuals or private agencies created for that purpose; (4) The free movement of capital and the greater prosperity it brings does not more than offset the value of welfare state handouts (an implicit assumption, given the pope’s positive recommendations – to be discussed in a future post).
1. Clearly he asserts competence with regard to point #1. However, the extent of this beneficence and the sacrifice required by the benefactors are not determinate implications of his moral framework. (Or so it seems, given the practice of most Christians, including the pope.)
There is actually a scholarly discussion of this issue by, among others, Adam Smith. (See Lectures on Jurisprudence, Sec.1.14-1.16, and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Sec. III: “Justice and Beneficence.”)
Smith appeals to the distinction between duties of perfect obligation and duties of imperfect obligation. Duties of perfect obligation are those for which the timing and extent of the obligation are determinate. For example, if I promise to deliver a thousand bushels of wheat in six months for a payment today of $X, this is what I must do. Smith says “justice” in this narrow commutative sense is a duty of perfect obligation.
On the other hand, Smith grants that we have duties of beneficence. These are also called justice (“distributive justice”) by the pope (Sec. 35). But these obligations are different. They are imperfect duties. This means that their precise extent, their timing, and the person on whom the obligation falls in the particular case are not determinate implications of moral principles. Their precise implementation is left to the individual given all of the particular facts of the situation. Thus this particular form of “justice” is different from Smithian justice.
This is one reason Smith argues that duties of perfect obligation are suitable for legal enforcement while duties of imperfect obligation are not. To enforce the latter by law amounts to an arbitrary imposition. I have argued elsewhere that it neglects the important role of individual, decentralized knowledge in contexts of charity.
Thus what appears at first to be a purely ethical issue has become a legal or jurisprudential issue as well. We must go beyond the teachings of Jesus which were directed to individuals or voluntary communities. We must apply them to state action which uses coercion as its method of implementation. This extra step is taken for granted, as is now fashionable in social-democratic circles. Yet it is an extra step.
Is the pope claiming special competence in determining the appropriateness of legal coercion as well as in the area of personal moral obligation? Clearly, he is. He believes that we must conceive of “political action” “as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution” (Sec. 36). He stresses that the Church must not be limited to teaching and good works. Specifically he says:
“The Christian religion and other religions can offer thir contribution to development only if God has a place in the public realm, specifically in regard to its cultural, social, economic, and particularly its political dimensions. The Christian social doctrine came into being in order to claim ‘citizen status’ for the Christian religion” (Sec. 56).
The reader should be aware of this expansive assertion of competence, and judge accordingly.
2. This brings us to the second point that the modern welfare state is an appropriate instrumentality of “charity.” Such a conclusion requires knowledge of how institutions work and the indirect costs them impose on members of society. Are such institutions likely to be captured by special interest groups? This is obviously a very relevant consideration.
There is a very large scientific “public choice” literature on the matter. Many economists, including this one, believe that social welfare spending, looked at as a whole, is rarely for the benefit of the truly needy and powerless. It is for the politically well-situated. I am sure the pope would agree with this to a certain extent. But he is also content simply to demand that it not be so. He should hear the voice of St. Thomas Aquinas: Men are not angels. It is not useful to wish they were so.
3. The third point is a variation of the second but focuses on the relative role of the state. The pope understands that society encompasses more than government. The relative roles of the various branches of society are not predetermined by Catholic theological ethics. It is an issue of prudential judgment. What business is it of the pope to prescribe more, less or the same in any particular field? Clearly, the efficacy of certain instrumentalities is a technical, not ethical, issue.
4. Finally, the last point is clearly the domain of economic science. What are the net effects of globalization on the incomes and wellbeing of the poor?
The history of economic progress has not been one of human betterment by redistribution, but of capital accumulation and technological advance. Perhaps it is better to allow “unlimited” globalization and let the size of the aggregate pie grow even if some gain less than others. I am reminded of Bernard Mandeville’s line in The Fable of the Bees about the progress that had already occurred by the mid-eighteenth century: “The very poor lived better than the rich before.”
Even in the realm of inequality, it is important to distinguish (1) inequalities that arise in the context of all boats rising; and (2) world-wide inequalities resulting from the fact that some countries are not participating in globalization while others are.
So where is the papal encyclical? At least three out the four constituent points above are not matters of specific Church competence. Yet the pope relies on all four.
Even more interesting is what Benedict XVI has to say about how the perceived threat to the welfare state posed by globalization should be handled. In a globalized world, redistribution is not enough! He proposes more direct inference in the behavior of economic agents.
Part 1 is here.