Social Justice Reconsidered: Austrian Economics and Catholic Social Teaching
[Hayek Memorial Lecture delivered at the 2005 Austrian Scholars Conference in Auburn, AL]
It is an honor to be able to present the Hayek Memorial Lecture, and I thank the Mises Institute for the invitation.One of the merits of the Institute, and of its Austrian Scholars Conference series in particular, is the attention scholars associated with it have paid to how religious issues bear on matters of politics and economics, and vice versa.This is a refreshing change from the unreflective and sometimes condescending secularism that tends to prevail as often within other free market oriented organizations as it does within the contemporary intellectual culture generally.It also gives me an excuse to explore here the relationship between two intellectual traditions of great interest to me: the Austrian tradition in economics – especially as represented by F.A. Hayek and Murray Rothbard, the two Austrian thinkers who have most influenced my own work – and the natural law tradition in moral theory, and in particular its manifestation in Catholic social teaching as developed in papal documents from Leo XIII to John Paul II.
The point of these opening remarks is not merely to show appropriate courtesy to my hosts.It is also to set the proper context for what I want to speak about today.Other Austrian-influenced scholars have argued for the compatibility of Austrian economics and Catholic social thought.Thomas Woods has made the case eloquently in his important new book The Church and the Market, and I recommend that work to anyone with a serious interest in these matters.But my aim today is not to explore further the many positive contributions the Austrian tradition might make to Catholic social thought.You might say that I want instead to accentuate the negative.For while the Austrian tradition certainly has many strengths from a Catholic point of view, it seems to me that it also has certain weaknesses.In particular, I would argue that the work of Austrian thinkers, including Hayek and Rothbard, has been deficient where it has strayed from economics per se and forayed into the realm of moral theory.My critique is an internal one, though, a friendly challenge to Austrian sympathizers from someone who shares their sympathy.The suggestion I want to develop today is that while Catholic social theorists do indeed have much to learn from Austrian economists, Austrian economists – or at least those Austrian economists already sympathetic to Catholicism and/or to the natural law approach to moral theory associated with Catholic thought – ought to consider the possibility that they might have much to learn from Catholic social thought.My broader aim is to clear away some obstacles standing in the way of the construction of an adequate synthesis of free market economics and natural law ethics.
The organizing theme of my talk will be the idea of social justice, and the Austrian thinkers I will focus on will be Hayek and Rothbard.Both these thinkers rejected the very idea of social justice as incoherent – Hayek explicitly, Rothbard implicitly.I want to argue that they were wrong to do so, and wrong even though they were right to criticize the specifically socialist conceptions of social justice that were their main targets.For there is in fact a perfectly coherent notion of social justice – the natural law conception operative in Catholic social thought – that remains untouched when one sees through the mirage, as Hayek called it, of socialist conceptions of justice.
Hayek on social justice
Let us begin with Hayek’s critique of social justice.His arguments boil down to three, and they all presuppose that if there were any such thing as social justice, it would have to concern the distribution of wealth, income, and economic benefits in general.First, Hayek says that justice and injustice can only be attributes of the deliberate actions of individual human beings, and not of states of affairs; in particular, that a distribution of wealth fits a certain pattern is not the sort of thing that can of itself be either just or unjust.Second, he argues that since there can be no rules of individual action the following of which would guarantee that the distribution of wealth comes out a certain way, the notion of social justice would be unrealizable even if it were coherent.Third, he holds that given the absence of such rules of action, and given also the wide disagreement that is bound to exist in a pluralistic modern society over what criteria ought to determine how economic rewards get distributed, there is no principled way in which any ideal of social justice, even if it were coherent, could be implemented consistently with the rule of law, so that the push for social justice threatens us with totalitarianism.
This is, of course, just an outline of Hayek’s overall case.When spelled out in detail, it constitutes a powerful challenge to a very common conception of social justice.Indeed, I have defended Hayek’s critique myself in print on several occasions, and as I have indicated, I am still convinced that Hayek is basically right where his targets are socialist and socialist-inspired approaches to social justice – such as the approaches associated with social democracy, egalitarian liberalism and the like – which manifest a fetish for equality per se and a tendency to favor what Robert Nozick called “patterned” conceptions of just distribution.
One serious problem with Hayek’s position, however, considered as an attempt at a general critique of the idea of social justice, is that it simply isn’t true that all conceptions of social justice are concerned with equality, or with economic distribution fitting some pattern or other.In particular, the Catholic natural law conception does not have these concerns, as we will see.First, though, let us note some other difficulties Hayek’s account seems to exhibit from a natural law perspective.
One of Hayek’s defenses of his first claim – that the concept of justice does not apply to a distributional pattern – is to argue that “society” does not exist over and above the individuals who make it up, so that society cannot meaningfully be said to be responsible for who gets what, economically speaking.To the extent that Hayek’s point is just that there is no particular person or group of persons who can plausibly be held responsible for large-scale patterns that emerge out of millions of individual economic transactions, it is well taken.But if he also means to suggest that social entities are in general either fictions or completely reducible to their individual members, he would seem to be committed to a nominalism at odds with the Catholic natural law tradition.According to that tradition, the Church – referred to as the Mother of all believers, the mystical Body of Christ, and so forth – is one example of a social entity that is definitely not reducible to the sum of its members; and in general, the idea of a corporate person – of social institutions like governments, corporations, private associations and the like as quasi-personal entities who can meaningfully be ascribed rights and obligations – has long been central to the social theory of the natural law tradition.Roger Scruton has argued in his recent book The West and the Rest that this idea is in fact one of the distinguishing features of the Western tradition in general, and foundational to its ideal of the rule of law, insofar as that ideal requires that authority be separated as far as possible from the whims of individual rulers and placed instead in institutions.It would be ironic if Hayek, one of the great champions of the rule of law, was committed to a metaphysical position arguably incompatible with it; and indeed, it isn’t clear how far he would have wanted to push his apparent nominalism.It does often seem to be an element of the rhetoric of libertarian critics of social justice, however, and to the extent that their criticism assumes it, it is incompatible with the Catholic natural law tradition.
Also problematic is another claim Hayek makes in defense of his first line of argument.He says that there is no sense to be made of the idea that some occupations have a greater value to society, because all value is only value for individuals, and there is no criterion of what value different services have to different individuals apart from what they are willing to exchange for them in a free market.Now Hayek was no utilitarian, in the philosophical sense of the word; indeed, he was very critical of utilitarian moral theory.Nevertheless, he does seem dangerously close here to the utilitarian tendency to reduce all value to individual subjective preferences, and this is flatly incompatible with the Catholic natural law conception of value.For example, it is, from a natural law point of view, just a straightforward objective moral fact that the availability of sound moral and religious instruction is of greater value to every single individual than is the availability of Coca Cola and Britney Spears albums.It is also, from that point of view, just a straightforward objective moral fact that pornography and drugs, say, have no value whatsoever, whether or not anyone wants to pay for them.The reason is that there are at least a great many things whose value or lack thereof follows not from what people just happen to prefer, but rather from their being either conducive to or detrimental to human flourishing, where what counts as human flourishing is an objective matter, determined by human nature.
The point here is not to suggest that government ought to determine the uses to which people put their incomes.It is rather that whatever good reasons there might be for doubting the wisdom of government doing so, the suggestion that value is entirely subjective cannot, from the point of view of natural law, be one of them.Of course, many Austrian theorists would insist that it is only economic value that they would hold to be subjective, not moral value.That is fine as far as it goes, but it leads us to ask how the difference between economic value and moral value is to be marked in a way consistent with natural law theory.However that distinction is drawn, it will have to allow for the legitimacy of holding, for example, that pornography, drugs, Coca Cola and Britney Spears albums are just objectively less valuable than moral and religious instruction.And this would seem to undermine at least to some extent the force of this particular argument of Hayek’s.What implications might this have for public policy is something I will return to presently.
Related to this problem with Hayek’s theory is the skeptical or at least minimalist attitude he sometimes seems to take toward questions of morality in general.At least part of his case seems to rest on the suggestion that there just is no objective fact of the matter where questions of desert or merit are concerned, and that this is one reason why government is incapable of effectively tinkering with the market so as to produce a just distribution.But from the point of view of Catholic social theory, the very natural rights that support a free society and market economy themselves rest on an objective moral order, on natural law.
Natural law and natural rights
To be sure, Hayek was not a natural rights theorist in any case.But Rothbard was; indeed, Rothbard styled himself a natural law theorist of sorts too.On the surface, then, it might appear that Rothbard’s interpretation of the Austrian tradition is bound to be more compatible with Catholic social theory than is Hayek’s.In fact, though, this is not the case, at least where ethics (as opposed to economics) is concerned.As I have argued at length elsewhere, the later Hayek’s quasi-Burkean theory of cultural evolution entails (whether Hayek himself fully realized this or not) moral conclusions that in many ways track the conclusions of traditional natural law theory.Rothbard’s views, by contrast, are often radically at odds with a Catholic conception of natural law.
It must be remembered that a great many thinkers are classified as natural law theorists who differ profoundly in the content and metaphysical grounding associated with their positions.The natural law theory associated with Aquinas and the Scholastic tradition in general is committed to the idea that human beings have a natural end or purpose and that their particular natural capacities (whether intellectual, procreative, or whatever) have natural ends or functions as well.These various natural ends determine the content of the moral law, including (for those Scholastic natural law thinkers who are also natural rights theorists) the rights we possess.By contrast, Locke, who is also usually classified as a natural law theorist, denies that we can know the real essences or natures of things, and thus rejects any appeal to natural ends or purposes as a basis for determining the content of the natural law.Locke instead grounds his natural law theory directly on God’s ownership of each human being, and derives our rights from the idea that to harm anyone in his life, liberty, or property is to damage God’s property.
Locke’s approach, rejecting as it does the traditional Scholastic grounding of natural law in natural ends and functions, is notoriously problematic.Without any appeal to such natural ends or purposes, it is hard to see how to give natural law any detailed content.Merely referring to God’s ownership of us may suffice to show that we cannot do just anything we want to each other, but deriving specific moral principles is much harder.Yet Rothbard’s position seems if anything in worse shape.For if Lockean natural law is a watering down of the traditional Scholastic conception of natural law, Rothbardian natural law theory seems itself little more than a watering down of Locke.
To be sure, Rothbard does pay lip service to the Scholastic tradition, and even endorses the general idea that human beings have natural purposes.But there the similarity to the Scholastic tradition ends, for Rothbard appears to accept none of the distinctive ends or purposes that that particular tradition would attribute to us.Instead, he formulates the content of the natural law in terms of the thesis of self-ownership, which he borrows from Locke.Now for Locke, talk of self-ownership is really just a shorthand way of talking about the lease God has given each of us on our own lives.Locke’s view is that it is, strictly speaking, really God who owns us and that we are merely stewards of His property.If we “own” ourselves at all, it is only in a loose sense and only relative to other human beings.But Rothbard rejects any such theological foundation for self-ownership.His aim is to give it a purely secular basis.
That basis seems to me to be severely inadequate, however.Rothbard’s defense of self-ownership is stated in the form of a dilemma: if a person A does not own himself, then either some other person B owns him or A and B have joint ownership of A; and either alternative to self-ownership, Rothbard goes on to argue, will have absurd consequences.I will not bother discussing those consequences here, though, because I think Rothbard’s argument has gone wrong already insofar as the dichotomy he describes is a false one.There is a third alternative he fails to consider, namely that no one at all owns either himself or anyone else.To own oneself, after all, is just to have certain rights over oneself, and there are certainly philosophers who would deny that we have any rights, or at least any natural rights, at all.So before Rothbard can establish that a person A owns himself rather than being owned by B or sharing ownership of himself with B, he first has to establish that anyone owns anything at all, and thus that anyone has any rights at all.
The only hint Rothbard gives of how this might be done is to suggest that a person has by nature and in general a need to use his body and its parts in order to interact with the world in a way that will allow him to survive, and in particular a need to use his cognitive faculties, vocal chords, and the like in order even to argue about whether or not there are any natural rights.He seems to think that this shows that a person does in fact have rights over his body, cognitive faculties, vocal chords, etc., otherwise he wouldn’t be able to survive or do so much as consider the question of whether he has rights.But in fact it shows no such thing.To have a mere need is not to have a right: a maggot might need rotting tissue to consume if it is to survive, but it does not follow that maggots are self-owners or have rights.Nor does the pragmatic self-contradiction Rothbard seems to think is entailed by using your vocal chords, etc. to deny the existence of rights establish what he seems to think it does.The most this argument would prove, if it really proves anything, is that we have to act as if we have rights over our body parts; it does not show that we really do have them.Moreover, even if Rothbard’s argument succeeded in proving that we have any rights at all, it would at most show that we have rights to the use of our body parts to the extent required to stay alive.It would not establish that we have full ownership of ourselves in the sense Rothbard thinks we do.After all, a person might have a right to use something for certain purposes without having full ownership of that thing, or any ownership at all for that matter.
Now the Catholic natural law tradition would argue that the fountainhead of all rights is the natural end human beings have.And by “end” it means purpose or aim, not mere need.The Catholic natural law tradition, that is to say, is teleological through and through, committed to the objective existence of final causes or purposes in nature.This is one reason why even though Catholic natural law thinking, unlike Locke’s natural law theory, does not appeal directly to God’s will in order to determine the content of natural law, it nevertheless does insist on the existence of God as a precondition of the intelligibility of natural law, because without God there can be no objective ends or purposes in nature.There can at most be, perhaps, certain naturalistic/evolutionary analogues to ends or purposes, but without God these can only be ersatz, “as if” purposes, not real ones, and thus they cannot be the source of genuine moral obligation.
Given that we do have an objective end or purpose, however, and that we have moral obligations that follow from this end or purpose, it follows according to the Catholic natural law tradition that we have certain natural rights.But the ground of these natural rights is nothing other than the fact that the recognition of certain rights is necessary if we are to be able to follow our moral obligations and fulfill our natural end.The natural rights we have just are, and can only be, the rights that we require in order to fulfill those obligations and realize that end.
Morality and the law
Is this conception of natural rights consistent with a recognition of self-ownership?I think it probably is, for the Catholic natural law tradition is so insistent on the dignity and inviolability of the human person that it is plausible to hold that the bundle of rights that that tradition ascribes to individuals constitutes a kind of ownership.But as with Locke, this ownership necessarily cannot be absolute.For one thing, there is not and cannot be according to the Catholic natural law tradition a right to suicide.This is not only for the Lockean reason that suicide violates God’s rights over us, but also for the reason that suicide is inconsistent with the realization of our natural end and thus cannot be something we have a right to.
Now the implications of this conception of natural rights should be clear, and it should be equally clear that it is flatly incompatible with a specifically Rothbardian conception of self-ownership.Rothbard holds, for example, that a woman has a “perfect right” to an abortion, and even that while parents do not have a right to kill their children once they are born, they do have a right not to feed, clothe, or educate their children, and thus a right to allow them to die.He also holds that children of every age have an “absolute right” to run away from home.Of course, Rothbard does not necessarily deny that it would be immoral to abort or neglect one’s children or to disobey one’s parents; his view is only that to do so would not be an injustice, only a failure of charity, kindness, or gratitude, say.Nevertheless, such views are, quite obviously, utterly incompatible with the Catholic understanding of natural law.The reason is not just that the Catholic Church happens to teach that abortion, child neglect, and adolescent disobedience are intrinsically immoral.The reason is the far deeper one that part of the rationale for the Church’s teaching these things has to do with its conception of the ground and nature of natural rights.It is, from the Catholic point of view, simply impossible for there to be such a thing as a right to an abortion, both because such a right would conflict with an unborn child’s right to life, and because it would conflict with the realization of the natural end of the procreative process and with the moral obligations a mother (and father, for that matter) have toward their children.It is impossible for parents to have a right not to feed, clothe, and educate their children because the very point of natural rights is to ensure the realization of one’s natural end and children cannot realize this end without a right to be taken care of by their parents.It is impossible for children to have a right to run away from home since such a right would conflict with their evident need for parental love, care, instruction, and discipline, and also with their parents’ right to their children’s obedience, a right which it is necessary for parents to have if they are to fulfill their natural obligations towards their children.
Here we see that it is not just that some of Rothbard’s specific policy proposals conflict with specific Catholic teachings.The problem is that Rothbard’s conception of natural law is radically at odds with the traditional Catholic conception.No one who holds, as Rothbard does, that an unwanted fetus is a “coercive parasite” or “parasitic invader,” that parents have no natural obligation to feed their children, and that for parents to force their children to live at home amounts to “enslavement” would seem to have anything remotely like a Catholic understanding of natural ends, natural law, and natural rights.Even Locke appears to have held that parents have a natural obligation not only to provide for their children while they are alive but also to bequeath to them their property upon their deaths.Rothbard is not only far from having a Catholic conception of natural law; he is far outside the mainstream natural law tradition in general.
Quite obviously, this difference between conceptions of natural law is bound to imply differences in public policy.Rothbard advocated the decriminalization of illicit drugs, prostitution, and other so-called victimless crimes, not because he necessarily denied that these things are immoral, but because he thought to criminalize them would violate persons’ self-ownership rights to use, or even misuse, their bodies as they saw fit.But on a Catholic conception of natural law, since the very ground of our having any rights at all is their conduciveness to our realizing our natural end and fulfilling our moral obligations, there can be no such thing as a right to do something contrary to our natural end.There can be, that is to say, no such thing as a natural right to do what is intrinsically immoral.
This way of putting the point is important.Someone might object that fulfilling one’s moral obligations requires a certain amount of freedom from outside interference, since virtue must be freely chosen if it is truly to count as virtue.It might also be objected that certain inherently good or at least morally neutral things – sexual intercourse, say, or alcohol and tobacco – can be abused but that this does not entail that we have no right to use these things.Both these points are well taken and the Catholic natural law tradition has always agreed with them.The point I am making is that the Catholic view is that it is whatever is intrinsically immoral that we can have no natural right to.We can have a right to use alcohol, for example, and even a right not to have some busybody always looking over our shoulder to make sure we don’t drink more than we should.But a natural right to drink oneself into a stupor as such is something we cannot have.Three things would seem to follow from this.The first is that the only freedom of action we can have an absolute natural right to is whatever level of freedom is required for us to be able to make truly voluntary moral choices and thus develop genuinely virtuous character.The second is that this would seem to entail that to some significant degree, determining the specific amount of freedom we ought to have from outside interference with our moral choices must be a matter of prudential judgment and contingent circumstances rather than a clear-cut appeal to self-ownership rights.The third is that this is bound to entail that it is at least in principle legitimate for government to outlaw actions that are, from the point of view of natural law, intrinsically immoral, such as prostitution, the sale of illicit drugs and pornography, and so forth.
I want to emphasize that none of this is meant by itself to prove that there ought at the end of the day to be laws against every behavior considered vicious from a natural law point of view.It is rather to say that the Catholic natural law tradition holds that to a significant degree the question of whether there ought to be such laws is a matter of prudence, not a matter of respecting rights.Rothbardian arguments to the effect that certain specific drug laws, for example, are draconian and entail a dangerous increase in government power, or that the cost in some circumstances of outlawing vicious behavior might outweigh any benefits to be gained, lose none of their force.But the Rothbardian view that such laws against intrinsically immoral behavior are always inherently unjust, always violations of natural rights of self-ownership, is incompatible with the Catholic conception of natural law.
Moreover, it is hard to see how anyone whose political philosophy is based on a Catholic conception of natural law could consistently fail to endorse some such laws.For example, on a Catholic understanding of the legal implications of natural law theory, laws against abortion do not merely restrict a certain kind of vice; they are prohibitions against a species of murder, and thus are every bit as necessary as laws prohibiting any other kind of murder.Furthermore, since on the Catholic conception of natural rights, the function of rights is to enable us to fulfill our moral obligations and realize our natural end, human beings plausibly have a natural right to live in a society that does not make the fulfillment of those obligations and the realization of that end an unduly arduous affair.This is consistent with adults having a very high degree of freedom from outside interference where what they do, even when immoral, takes place in private, behind closed doors, and affects only themselves.Having full use of their reason, adults must look after their own moral health.But children, being driven by impulse and unformed emotion more than by reason, cannot plausibly be expected to know what is good for them.And moral education is in any case more a matter of the proper formation of sentiments, inclinations, sensibilities and habits of thought and action than it is a matter of book-learning or the memorization of parental lectures.The kind of person a child becomes is going to be in large measure determined by the kind of example set for him by his fellow human beings.A society whose overall tenor reflects an ethos radically at odds with the natural law is therefore bound to be a society in which it is difficult for children to realize their moral potential, and only parents of unusually high moral character, wisdom, and diligence will be capable of raising their children well within it.Now Rothbardians would, it seems, take the view that such a society – for example, a society saturated with sexual license of every kind, with pornography, drunkenness, drug abuse, and every other kind of vice, and which celebrates self-assertion rather than deference, fame and power rather than self-sacrifice, and pleasure-seeking rather than restraint – may well be immoral but not necessarily unjust.From the perspective of Catholic natural law theory, however, such a society is deeply unjust, because it makes it extremely difficult for children, and thus the adult human beings they will become, to develop the sort of moral character it is part of their natural end to develop, and the very point of their natural rights to facilitate.The Rothbardian suggestion that a morally depraved society might nevertheless be perfectly just and respectful of rights would, from the Catholic natural law perspective, simply be incoherent.
To be sure, Rothbard held that it wasn’t just this or that law against vice that was unjust.He held that the state as such was unjust.Genuinely to respect an individual’s rights, and in particular his right to his property, requires in Rothbard’s view that all taxation be regarded as a kind of robbery.It also requires acknowledging a right of every individual personally to punish anyone who aggresses against him.Since the state derives its revenue from taxation and since it claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force to punish aggressors, Rothbard concludes that the state is itself a violator of rights, no better than a Mafia extortion racket.The only legitimate way for individuals collectively to enforce their rights would be via voluntarily retained private protection agencies, arbitration firms and the like.
It is very difficult to see how such claims can be reconciled with the Catholic natural law tradition.When Christ was famously asked whether it was legitimate to pay taxes, his answer, of course, was that we ought to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.He did not say what one would have expected him to say if all taxation amounts to a kind of robbery: that the tax money was not really Caesar’s in the first place, that Caesar was the head of an evil empire anyway and would only use the money for bad purposes, etc.Indeed, he implied that the tax money belongs to Caesar, not to the taxpayer.St. Paul tells Christians to submit to state authorities precisely because they are the ones ordained by God to punish evildoers.He does not advise them to start up private protection agencies so that they can protect themselves in a manner more consonant with their property rights.Of course, it is sometimes claimed that Christ and St. Paul didn’t really mean what everyone has always understood them to mean in these passages.Such claims seem to me about as plausible and intellectually honest as certain other creative reinterpretations of unpopular Biblical texts – for example, the suggestion that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is really about a lack of hospitality, or the claim that in threatening impenitent sinners with eternal damnation what Christ really meant was universal salvation.In any event, such views of taxation and state authority are not merely expressed in the New Testament; they are more or less universal in the Catholic natural law tradition, which regards the state both as institution as natural as the family itself and as an essential part of the social order.
In Rothbard’s anarchism, we see again how a kind of nominalism appears to have influenced the libertarian critique of social justice.Rothbard seems to regard the entire apparatus of state power as nothing more than a set of personal holdings, however ill-gotten, of whatever officials happen to control it at any moment.That is to say, he reduces the state per se to what is in fact merely a corruption of the state, namely despotism.But the Catholic natural law tradition would regard this as just the typical sort of error that results from denying the existence of objective essences and natural functions.On the traditional natural law view, the state, being a natural institution, is not identifiable with any of the particular individuals who happen to occupy its offices at any given moment, and it has a natural function or end that of its nature excludes its use by those individuals for the furthering of their purely personal or selfish interests.The state exists for the common good.To insist that this conception of the state simply must be a smokescreen for the selfish personal interests of government officials would, from the Catholic natural law perspective, be no more plausible than insisting that the idea of the Church as a corporate person must also be a smokescreen to camouflage the selfish interests of bishops, or than holding that the idea of the family as a natural institution is nothing more than a smokescreen for the selfish interests of “the patriarchy.”This sort of cynical reductionism has its natural home in Marxism, feminism, and other instances of the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”It is hardly compatible with natural law theory.
Far from being morally illegitimate, the state is, from the point of view of traditional Catholic natural law theory, morally required.One reason for this is that that tradition has always forbidden the private enforcement of justice, in part for reasons that parallel those motivating the Catholic rejection of private judgment in matters of doctrine.Individuals – and, we might add, profit-seeking private protection and arbitration firms too – are too prone to bias in their own favor, and too limited in their understanding of what the natural law requires in the way of binding precepts and punishments for infringement.Even if some individuals should arrive at a defensible and unbiased conception of the details of the natural law, it might nevertheless conflict with other defensible conceptions also arrived at in good faith.An authoritative ongoing institutional structure, not identifiable with any private interest and governed by abstract and impersonal rules, is therefore necessary if the law is to be applied uniformly and impartially.There is also the crucial fact that there are inevitably going to be many in any society who are incapable of defending themselves against aggression or hiring others to defend them.Of course, in a free market there might be incentives for others to help them anyway, out of charitable motives; but then again, there might be no such incentives.Either way, the defense of the rights of the weak cannot justifiably be left to chance.That the weak ought to have their rights defended no less than the strong is not a matter of charity but a matter of justice.Hence the natural law requires an institution that will provide protection to all, and not just to paying customers.
If the state is a natural institution required by the natural law, though, then it has a right to the revenue necessary to perform its legitimate functions.Taxation for the purposes of raising such revenue therefore cannot, on the Catholic natural law view, be equated with theft.Nor does an appeal to individual property rights give any reason to believe otherwise.To be sure, there is a very powerful case to be made for the view that since a person owns his labor by virtue of being a self-owner, he owns whatever part of his wealth derives from that labor.This is an argument that goes back at least to Locke and has been forcefully restated in recent years by Nozick, and I have defended it myself in several publications.But labor is almost never the only resource that goes into the production of wealth.There are also the raw materials that comprise the earth and its bounty, materials which are initially unowned by any human being.The mainstream natural law tradition – both Catholic and Lockean – has always held that both the basic requirements of maintaining human life and God’s ultimate ownership of these resources put significant limits on the strength of the rights we can acquire over such materials.In particular, it holds that every individual has a natural right to access to those resources, and that God provided them precisely so that each individual would be able to maintain himself by bringing his labor to bear on them.That does not entail that justice requires everyone to have an equal share of resources, or even that everyone owns any significant property at all.It does entail, however, that those who do own property commit an injustice if they collectively use their property in a way that makes it impossible or extremely difficult for those without property even to maintain themselves in existence – such as by refusing to pay, out of that portion of their wealth that derives from their use of the earth’s natural resources, the taxes necessary to provide the state with what it needs to defend the rights of those who cannot defend themselves.Individuals do indeed have very strong property rights according to the natural law tradition, but those rights are not and cannot be absolute.If a starving man stranded in the woods has no way to survive other than to break into my cabin and take some of my food, he has a natural right to do so.He is not stealing from me in such a case, because my right to my property, however strong, is not so strong that it would forbid someone in such an emergency situation from using the fruits of the earth for their intended purpose of sustaining human life.For my right to my cabin and food to be that strong would be for it to undermine the very point of there being any natural rights to property in the first place.
It is important to emphasize that to object to this, as Rothbard would appear to, on the grounds that it amounts to an attempt to justify “aggression” or the violation of rights in the name of some higher moral principle, would simply be to beg the very question at issue.The Catholic natural law tradition denies that anyone has such absolute property rights in external resources in the first place; and if we don’t have such rights, they can’t be violated.The starving man in the woods is not aggressing against me by taking a sandwich from my cabin, because my right to that sandwich, however strong, is not so strong that I can justly deny it to anyone under any circumstances whatsoever.
Of course, all of this raises many important questions.Some would object that to acknowledge that the destitute have under certain circumstances a right to a part of the surplus of the rest of us is to take the first step on the road to socialism, or at least egalitarian welfarism.But even though I once was sympathetic to this sort of objection myself, it now seems to me to reflect far too crude an understanding of the nature of property, at least if we take natural law seriously.If there are any objective functions to human faculties and capacities at all, it is obvious that that those faculties and capacities require for the fulfillment of those functions the possibility of interaction with the external world.Since persons are required by the natural law to act in accordance with such natural functions, it follows that they are required to bring their faculties and capacities to bear on the world in various ways.And if they are required to do so, they must, on the natural law, have a right to do so.This is, again, emphatically not to say that anyone has a natural right to own any particular share of the earth’s resources, much less an equal share.It only entails that society be set up in such a way that everyone be able to support himself, even if that means that those without significant property can support themselves only by working for someone who does own property.Rothbard seems to have taken the position that if a person without property ever found himself so hated by his fellow human beings that none of them would use their justly acquired resources to give that person work, provide him with food, or even so much as allow him a square foot of ground to stand on, then such a man was simply out of luck.Though we might regard the others’ treatment of him as callous or unkind, it would not amount to an injustice.But on the Catholic understanding of natural law, this could not fail to be a very grave injustice indeed, tantamount to murder.And not only on the Catholic natural law tradition: in the mainstream classical liberal tradition too, almost every major thinker from Locke to Hayek acknowledged a right of the desperately needy to some measure of sustenance if they could not provide for themselves.Rothbard appears to have thought that such classical liberals were simply not consistent in their views about property rights.In fact, however, their conception of property rights simply follows the traditional natural law understanding, with which it is perfectly consistent.It is Rothbard who is the odd man out here, endorsing a view of property which has no precedent in natural law tradition, and on the basis of an idiosyncratic interpretation of natural law that for reasons we’ve seen is dubiously coherent, rejecting as it does both the Thomistic appeal to natural ends and the Lockean appeal to divine ownership rights over us.
The just wage
This naturally brings us to the contentious issue of the just wage, which may be the central element of the economic component of Catholic social teaching.According to Pope Leo XIII’s classic formulation of the doctrine in Rerum Novarum, although a wage freely consented to is in the normal case just, such consent is not by itself sufficient for justice; it ought also to be possible in the ordinary case for a person to support himself and his family with his wages.Thomas Woods has recently argued, in a Rothbardian spirit, that the trouble with calls for a legally enforceable minimum wage is that it is hard to see how the appropriate wage level could be determined by government officials in a non-arbitrary manner, and that mandating wages in a way that ignores the market value of labor is bound to have a variety of negative unintended consequences, including higher levels of unemployment.Woods’ Catholic critics have responded that the just wage doctrine is a matter of binding moral teaching, not prudential judgment, so that a Catholic like Woods cannot justify a rejection of it by appealing to economic theory.
Who is right?My own view is that both Woods and his critics are correct.The critics are, I think, right to hold that the just wage doctrine is a matter of binding moral teaching.Woods is right to hold that there are serious and perhaps insuperable practical difficulties involved in trying to implement that teaching via minimum wage laws.Part of the problem here seems to be that Woods and his critics are to a great extent talking past each other.Both of them appear to ignore the fact that Leo does not claim to be saying anything that settles any matter of economic controversy.Nor does he even claim to be saying anything that strictly requires any particular piece of legislative action; indeed, Leo explicitly advises us to “avoid unwarranted governmental intervention, especially since circumstances of business, season, and place are so varied.”His constant emphasis was not on legislation, but rather on the promotion of voluntary organizations – workingmen’s associations, mutual aid societies and the like – and the revival of Christianity as the most crucial aspects to solving the moral problems raised by the rise of modern industrial capitalism.Leo’s teaching, and the emphasis in Catholic social teaching generally on subsidiarity, should make us think twice about whether all matters of justice are best dealt with via the blunt instruments of state power.Austrian economic theory, and especially Hayek’s emphasis on the epistemological difficulties inherent in all large-scale attempts by government to plan economic outcomes, powerfully reinforces such skepticism.Woods’ critics have been remiss both in too quickly brushing aside his economic arguments and in pushing too crude an understanding of the just wage doctrine.
At the same time, it seems to me that it would be an error to hold, as I think Rothbard would, that implementing the just wage teaching via legislation can simply be ruled out a priori as an unjust infringement of freedom of contract.To be sure, Woods himself does not make this claim – he focuses on Rothbard’s economics, not on his theory of natural rights – but the Rothbardian position clearly entails it.The trouble with this view from the Catholic natural law perspective is that, just as the natural law puts at least some limits on ownership, so too does it put limits on freedom of contract, and for the same reasons.Given that we have a natural right to bring our capacities and faculties to bear on the earth’s resources so as to provide for ourselves, no employer’s right to offer whatever wage he wants to offer can be absolute in just every circumstance.Suppose, to take the most extreme case, that some company justly owns all the resources in some territory and has become the sole employer in that territory, and suppose further that some individual cannot, for whatever reason, realistically migrate out of that territory to find work elsewhere.Would the company in question do that individual an injustice if it refused to hire him at a wage sufficient for him to support himself, if it could easily afford to do so?Rothbard, it seems, would say no – the company would not in his view have committed an injustice, even if it would indeed have failed to treat the individual in question charitably – but the Catholic natural law tradition would hold that an injustice has clearly been committed, since the company has not allowed that individual to use the earth’s resources for the reason for which they primarily exist, even though the company could easily have done so.
Now I hasten to repeat, and emphasize, that this case is indeed an extreme one.My own view is that the farther we get away from this simple paradigm, the more difficult it is to say with confidence that an employer has acted unjustly, and the more difficult in the extreme it becomes to defend minimum wage laws on grounds of justice (as opposed to prudence).Both here and in the case of government provision of aid to those who cannot support themselves in the market, my view is that the Catholic natural law understanding of property rights strictly requires very little in the way of state intervention, and certainly does not entail anything remotely close to either socialism or egalitarian welfarism.The point is just that the Catholic natural law understanding also allows at least in principle for more intervention than the Rothbardian can tolerate.Catholics influenced by Rothbard have often criticized their non-Rothbardian fellow Catholics for too glibly rejecting economic arguments and assuming that matters of policy can be settled a priori by appeal to abstract moral principle.They have been right to lodge this criticism, but wrong to suppose that it does not apply to them too.For the traditional Catholic natural law understanding of property rights entails that questions about the appropriateness of government intervention must to a significant extent be matters of prudential judgment.There is no justification for holding that absolutely every governmental action where wage rates are concerned amounts to a rights violation.
Social justice reconsidered
Let me now draw this discussion to a close by indicating how the various considerations I have been adducing generate, when drawn together, a distinctive conception of social justice.If the Catholic natural law tradition is correct, then human beings have various natural capacities and faculties with objective purposes or ends, the realization of which constitutes the good for man.The content of our moral obligations is defined in terms of these ends, and comprises the natural law.Natural rights, in turn, are grounded in the natural law as safeguards of our ability to fulfill our moral obligations and realize our natural end.It follows that anything which tends to frustrate our ability to fulfill those obligations and realize those ends violates our rights and amounts to an injustice.And if that which frustrates this ability is not merely the actions of a particular individual or group of individuals, but something inherent in the very structure of a society – in its legal code, its cultural institutions, or the tenor of its public life – then what we have can meaningfully be described as a social injustice.In particular, any society whose legal framework fails to protect the lives of its weakest members, whose popular culture is shot through and through with a spirit of contempt for and ridicule of the demands of the natural law, or whose economic structure makes it effectively impossible for a worker to support himself and his family with his wages, is to that extent an unjust society, a socially unjust society.The duty of remedying such injustices rests, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, primarily with individuals, families, and private associations.But the natural law also calls forth the state as an authority whose duty it is to deal with those injustices which cannot effectively be remedied in this way.
This conception of social justice is neither egalitarian nor statist.It is not at all concerned with economic equality as such, nor even with the realization of any particular pattern of distribution of wealth.So long as every worker has a reasonable chance of being able to support himself and his family, and so long as some means of emergency assistance is available to those who are unable to support themselves, inequalities of wealth of any size are in principle consistent with it.Nor does this conception of social justice insist on state intervention as a means of realizing the economic goals it does seek to advance; indeed, it tends to regard state intervention as something to be avoided if possible.Moreover, the Catholic natural law conception of social justice is not entirely, and perhaps not even primarily, concerned with matters of economics.Issues of broader moral concern – abortion, euthanasia, cloning, same-sex marriage, pornography, and divorce being some of the most obvious examples – are, in modern capitalist societies, arguably of far greater import.Indeed, my own view is that modern capitalist societies have done pretty well where the economic demands of social justice are concerned – it is communist, socialist, and even social democratic countries that I would argue are the most socially unjust in this respect.But modern capitalist societies have done very badly indeed when we consider some of the other demands of social justice.
Here is an area where I think students of Catholic social teaching might find much of value in the Austrian tradition, particularly as represented by Hayek.Whatever criticisms one might make of the details of Hayek’s position, its broad outlines are in my view highly conducive to a synthesis with Catholic thought.Hayek teaches us that modern capitalist societies have lost their way morally precisely because their governing classes have embraced a “false individualism” that has no essential connection to capitalism, but derives rather from the excessively rationalistic, anti-traditionalist and, we might add, anti-clerical and even anti-capitalist tendencies associated with French liberalism and the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill.It is the Burkean tradition – conservative, religious, celebrating deference and restraint and contemptuous of the “dust and powder of individuality” – to which Hayek points as providing both the true philosophical foundations of market society and the only hope of its renewal.Burke, along with Locke and the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, represented in Hayek’s mind a “true individualism” which emphasizes ordered liberty and what the Catholic tradition would call subsidiarity, and has no truck with the radically autonomous self of contemporary egalitarian liberalism and popular libertarianism.
That is not to say that even Hayekian liberalism as it stands is fully compatible with Catholic natural law thinking.Indeed, I do not believe that any extant version of liberalism is fully compatible with it.Michael Novak has famously distinguished between liberal institutions on the one hand – the free market, the rule of law, limited government and so forth – and the varieties of liberal political philosophy on the other.He has argued that Catholics can and ought to accept the former without accepting the latter, and even that the tradition of Catholic social thought provides a better foundation for liberal institutions than any version of liberal political philosophy has provided or can provide.I believe Novak is right on both counts.Even at its best, liberal political philosophy has produced nothing better than the wistfully skeptical conservatism of Hayek and the severely under-argued and perhaps even incoherent natural rights theories of Locke, Nozick, and Rothbard.Hayek, who endorses Burke’s traditionalism but rejects his theism, reaches conclusions consonant with Catholic natural law, but on the basis of a naturalistic metaphysics which is utterly incompatible with it and which cannot plausibly stem the tide of moral skepticism that has engulfed the modern world.The various natural rights versions of classical liberalism are sometimes a little better on the metaphysics, but rejecting as they do the Thomistic conception of natural ends, they are also often extreme and even bizarre in some of their conclusions.
Whatever deficiencies there may have been in Pope Paul VI’s prudential judgments regarding matters of economics, he was surely correct to write in Octogesima Adveniens that “the liberal ideology calls for careful discernment.”These words ought to serve as a motto for all Catholic social theorists.Catholic critics of capitalism and other liberal institutions have certainly failed to discern their many virtues.But Catholic defenders of these institutions should keep in mind that is also possible to be too uncritical of them.They must remember that from the point of view of Catholic social teaching, natural law must lie at the foundation of any viable theory of natural rights – and that it is natural ends or purposes that determine the content of natural law and natural rights.They must remember too that the basic unit of a just, free, and healthy society is not the individual – and, to be sure, not the “community” either – but the family, and that there are and can be no natural rights that could possibly justify social movements or government policies destructive of the stability of the family.If it is true (as I think it is) that liberal political institutions and capitalist economics can be given a solid foundation in Catholic natural law, it is also true that the liberal capitalist tail must never be allowed to wag the natural law dog.