Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Social Teaching and Reality

I always find it annoying when "Catholic social teaching" is used to justify demanding mutually exclusive things. For instance, a near open border immigration policy and 2-4x the current minimum wage in order to assure that everyone makes a "living wage".

In truth, I suppose these are not necessarily mutually exclusive -- they are only so if one doesn't want to have truly massive unemployment.

To paraphrase the old I.T. maxim: open borders; high wages; low unemployment -- pick any two. (Personally, I'd go for open borders and low unemployment, while letting wages find their natural balance -- but hard core "social teaching" fans don't seem comfortable with that approach.)

I certainly do believe that that Catholicism has important moral teachings which must be applied to our economic activities. However, I think there are also basic economic realities that must be dealt with. It has been famously stated that you can't fool mother nature. You generally can't fool the economy either.

In the case of high wages vs. immigration: it stands to reason that if we opened the floodgates and started getting at least 5-10 million more immigrants from impoverished nations every year, the job market would be flooded with people for whom making $5/hr is already 5x what they would make at home. Those jobs that they are currently well equipped to do would thus have a much increased supply of people willing to work for low wages.

We've seen this before in our country's history. When immigration of the poor from southern and eastern Europe was at its height, there were vast, impoverished ghettos of recent immigrants who worked for very low wages, were generally scorned by society, and were given the most undesirable jobs available to do. The Church did good work among many of these neighborhoods, as did the Jewish and Orthodox communities which were the spiritual guides among other groups of immigrants. And as hard work and education paid off, these people did not invariably remain poor. Their children moved up into the working, middle and professional classes, and make up much of our population today.

It was a difficult and often tragic experience for many people, but it also created new wealth and opportunities and helped to make our country the great place that it is today. I'd like to see that kind of opportunity made available again, but we can't kid ourselves that you can both open the doors wide to immigration and guarantee everyone an immediate American middle-class existence.


Kate said...

"you can't fool the economy"


I think my real problem with a free-market approach to economics is that, in reality, the market isn't free, never has been, and isn't likely ever to be. There's that messy human element that is influenced by all sorts of things other than 'the invisible hand' of a self-regulating economics.

Or in other words - I'm skeptical. I'm much more sympathetic to movements that want to enshrine human values (like, being able to make enough money to afford a home, or education for those kids so they don't end up on the streets, or just enough to take off the observed stress that poverty places on marriages) than I am to market arguments that too often can be excuses for indifference.

M.Z. Forrest said...

You can let the baby live, starve the other kids, or steal. Pick two of three. We can have a lot of fun with this. One would of course interject that there are moral obligations present. How are you addressing the moral obligations present with employing someone, provision is made for those present, and welcoming the stranger?

Rick Lugari said...

The problems of pride, and a lack of charity and civility that tend to afflict all of us to one degree or another, it seems to me that it creates a particular obstacle when it comes to Catholics dealing with social issues. Catholics are often accused by Protestants of "not being interested in the Bible", or not having any faith" because generally we don't feel compelled to insert a Bible verse into every discussion or because we don't feel the need to push our faith on everyone we meet. We [generally] try to let our example speak for us (even though we may fail miserably at times), and will only speak of such matters when we think it is relevant. Now admittedly, I am painting with a broad brush in that example and the following, but it seems to me that what some may refer to as [Catholic] "social justice drumbeaters" make similar assumptions about other Catholics. But the reality is most Catholics who take their faith seriously, don't feel compelled to couch everything in "social justice" terms.

We perform our works of corporal charity and do not boast about it, we are quite concerned with the spiritual works of mercy as well, and in dialog probably more likely to focus on those issues. I think some people either don't consider the spiritual works as very important or they assume that one can't be concerned with both. A bigger problem is they can't fathom how someone cannot come to the same conclusions as they do on such matters, therefore in their mind the person is unconcerned, not Catholic-minded, or some other intellectual or spiritual defect. When in reality, it might be...just might... be that those who disagree with their viewpoint has solid reason for doing so...maybe...just maybe they see the issues a little more clearly.

We all would do well to read Chesterton. I know he has helped me tighten up my thinking. The reason I bring him up is because I think of him so often when I read much of what you're referring to. For example, (and know that Chesterton makes wonderful criticisms of Capitalism, wage slavery, and modern society [and we can still use him because he was as spot on now as he was then)] we hear much about a living wage, a good and necessary thing - and it's important to remember that this is always spoken of in terms for looking out for the poor or the little guy. We are told that the answer is a minimum wage law. But the problems I see with that are manifold. Practically speaking it is something that results in more government interference, they view it also as sticking it to the big corporations, but it actually empowers them over the little guy who is trying to make a go of things himself and hires help, and if the minimum wage is raised high enough to make a substantial difference in the livelihood of the working poor (of which I would probably be classified as) it would up-end the economy in a major way and cause far more economic pain (in my region minimum wage would need to be $15 an hour for a family to scrape by - imagine what would happen when the current $15 - $25 an hour auto-workers, etc. find themselves making little more than the fast-food worker and paying $8 for a hamburger.) Now I'm not so sure of the answer to that issue, it seems to me that the best place to start is in re-ordering our society; it's terribly politically incorrect to consider that the biggest problem is women having entered the workforce in numbers, increasing worker supply and riving down wage demands, resulting in a breakdown in the family, etc. - but feminism is what I'd consider another misplaced "justice issue".

Anyway, the practical stuff seems quite debatable to me...I could be wrong...but maybe not. The real problems I have with these issues and the drumbeaters is that as Chesterton would say, they focus on the little things and miss the big things - and that they contradict themselves. It seems the same people who clamor for a higher minimum wage for the sake of the little guy, complain that gasoline doesn't cost $8.00 a gallon, or that US citizens aren't taxed enough, or that they don't pay for health care via excessive taxation and government bureaucracy, or that the guy drives an SUV or some other "unacceptable vehicle" - (which personally gets my goat...I don't like only getting 13 MPG in my van, but I can't fit my whole brood in a Honda Civic - and if I could afford to get a 4x4 Suburban to more safely drive in our winter weather, I would in a heartbeat and not feel "irresponsible" for doing so. That would absolutely be a "good" for my family). Then when discussing voting, pro-aborts are often given a pass because they are deemed "right" on the "little things", never mind that even aside for a candidates ability or inability to directly effect abortion law, their position alone gives validity and normalcy to the culture of death and the breakdown of the family...which as our dear Chesterton rightly observes should be the emphasis and building block of society. Gone on way too long...sorry.

Darwin said...

I think my real problem with a free-market approach to economics is that, in reality, the market isn't free, never has been, and isn't likely ever to be.

This is an interesting point which would probably require a follow-up post to go into in any depth. However, just to clarify, I'm not necessarily talking about "the economy" in the sense of a "free market economy" versus a "controlled market economy" or the US economy versus the Canadian economy. I meant "economy" in the sense of the laws of economic behavior, which (despite the messy human element) tend to be pretty good at predicting people's behavior when faced with monetary situations whether in a "free market" such as the US or a controlled market such as Cuba or the USSR (back in the day).

You can let the baby live, starve the other kids, or steal. Pick two of three. We can have a lot of fun with this.

I'm not quite clear what you're getting at here... (Though I think for the example you might mean: let the baby live, feed the other kids or not steal -- in which case, if those were truly the only options, the moral answer might be to dispense with not stealing.)

Maybe there's something I'm missing in the whole equation, but the dillema I presented is pretty much a issue of economics that there's no way to change. You can't set wages at a "living wage" level (which in most parts of the country would mean at least $15/hr), let in a totally unlimited supply of people seeking jobs (who are used to making less than $2/hr back home) and expect unemployment to be low. It just can't happen.

j. christian said...


Darwin is absolutely right. This isn't an issue of free vs. controlled economies -- all economies of any type obey certain economic realities, such as unemployment occurring when labor supply outstrips labor demand. This is just a fact of life. Yes, an economy is a human-influenced system, so a direct comparison to natural phenomena like the ocean tide is not accurate. However, it might as well be as immutable as the ocean tide -- there is no practical way of changing the price/value approach to economic activity that every society on this planet has adopted.

Donald R. McClarey said...

Economic facts are very stubborn things indeed, and churches of all stripes are not noted for their acumen in dealing with them. Cursing Mammon has its place, and I certainly agree with most jeremiads against greed, but when it comes to understanding how economies actually work I'd much rather heed Adam Smith.

Rick Lugari said...

Mr. McClarey,

I'd like to send you an email if it's okay with you. My email is if you want to send me your address.

Kate said...

It's just that leaving it up to 'the economy' to provide for the poor doesn't seem to work very well. But too often, that's the only alternative offered to concerned people of good will who want to see change for the better.

I'm not attached to any particular set of solutions, but I hate being told that wanting to seriously discuss the options makes me a bleeding heart liberal who would trample a baby to hand out more of the taxpayers money.

Personally, I think the thing that most needs changing is health care and the current insurance dominated system. Fix that, and the living wage will no longer have to be so high. We wouldn't need $20+ an hour if we weren't paying our own medical bills at exaggerated rates (ie, not what the insurance companies pay) every time one of us gets sick.

As for immigration - I favor a cleaner path to legal residence, combined with better enforcement of the borders. As an immigrant to the US myself (I'm Canadian, I married an American) I sympathise with those who just want to regularise the lives they are already living. (We're Catholic, we should know something about mercy and redemption).

I feel very strongly that an affordable and acheivable path to legal residence will keep many decent folks from attempting illegal entrance. The current ineptness, expense, and confusion is so intimidating that even I (who ought to have had a smooth path before me, being married to an American) almost came in illegally. Actually, come to think of it, because of a misunderstanding of the various visas, I did come in illegally. Fortunately, we were able to meet with a USCIS agent who, for a refreshing change, wasn't mad with power or infatuated with his incontrovertible veto, and I was able to get on the path to residency.

What I'm trying to say is (and I'm sure there's some way to translate this into economic terms, if that would be easier that appealing to observations of human nature) there has to an escape valve, a way to release the pressure on the border by letting in a stream of workers legally, or there will be no wall, no border law, no enforcement harsh enough or thorough enough to keep that wave of people from breaking through.

m.z. forrest said...

Correct Kate.

One doesn't need to deny economic 'laws' - the nature and extent of those laws I'll leave for another time; they aren't as ironclad as many seem to think. In regards to a living wage, I don't see how one cannot escape from the fact that the papal encyclicals demand it as a present reality. This is much like proper sex; you can't excuse contracepted sex claiming that you'll make it up with all the children you'll have. This whole idea of doing evil now so we don't have to do evil later is against the Catholic tradition.

I offer Thomas Storck addressing Thomas Woods regarding this:
Pope Pius XI[, in] his first encyclical, Ubi Arcano of December 1922, Pius introduced the notion of "social Modernism." He spoke of those Catholics who give lip service to doctrine concerning the social order, including "Catholic teaching concerning...the rights and duties of industry" but who "by their spoken and written word, and the whole tenor of their lives" disregard and belittle this teaching. Pope Pius says of this, "In all this we recognize a kind of moral, judicial, and social Modernism, and We condemn it as strongly as We do dogmatic Modernism."

As Fr. Kenneth Novak puts it so succinctly, "Laissez faire economics is practically laissez faire morality."

Darwin said...


I strongly agree with you that the immigration process needs to be vastly simplified and opened up. And I also would not for a moment suggest that we do not all have, as Christians and indeed as humans a duty to help the poor rather than simply leaving "the economy" to provide for them.

My point is that, when people start proposing vast attempts to restructure how the economy works based on government fiat in order to try to provide said help (rather than, you know, directly helping people the way Christians have been doing for 2000 years), it's important not to make suggestions that simply aren't ecnomically feasible.

Which dovetails into...


Both the articles you link to seem to be tilting at the straw man (or at least, straw man in regards to what I'm trying to say here) that recognizing the existence of economic laws necessarily means throwing up one's hands and declaring that whatever will be will be and there's nothing one can do about it.

I think that it is definately our moral duty (as outlined in Catholic social teaching) to pay our employees wages that are just -- according to the amount of work that they do -- to help those with family responsibilities to find employment where the just wage for their labors will sustain a family, and to make available housing and other essentials at a price which people can realistically afford.

However, it's important to do this in ways that don't violate the basic functioning of economic laws, or else these efforts will backfire. A basic example of this (which I can expand on if necessary when writing a follow-up post) is rent control in trendy housing areas such as New York or Santa Monica. The goal is a laudable one: making sure people are not priced out of their homes. But because the remedy was put in place which ignored the laws of supply and demand, what it effectively did was reduce supply (thus driving prices even higher) which confiscating the value of the dwelling from the landlord and giving it to the renter -- thus creating a huge market for illegal sub-leases.

This doesn't mean that providing people with affordable housing is not a moral imperitive, but it does mean that that way of doing it backfired.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter if CST backfires so far that the whole planet dies horribly or a new Hitler rises up. Right is still right and wrong is still wrong. Economic laws are no more relevant here than medical science is relevant to the immorality of the use of condoms. We must guarantee a living wage even if it makes people poorer. Even if it makes EVERYONE poorer and helps NO ONE. That is a moral absolute.

Darwin said...

I'm trying to figure out if Anon is being ironic or is pretty much off his rocker...

Donald R. McClarey said...

I vote for ironic.

M.Z. Forrest said...

Economic laws are no more relevant here than medical science is relevant to the immorality of the use of condoms.

I assume the anonymous author is arguing ad absurdium. It is basically the same argument that Tom Woods makes. I think this is a blogable moment.

...recognizing the existence of economic laws necessarily means throwing up one's hands and declaring that whatever will be will be and there's nothing one can do about it.

No offense, but that is my interpretation of your post. What interpretation were you shooting? You certainly didn't provide a means out of your dilemna. If your only point was that policy choices had consequences, then you presume far greater contempt for Catholics who attempt to find ways to live within the social teaching of the Church than I had thought.

Darwin said...

No offense, but that is my interpretation of your post. What interpretation were you shooting? You certainly didn't provide a means out of your dilemna.

Well, I don't necessarily feel like there's an easy policy solution to the dilemma. I do think that as a matter of justice we owe it to people in Mexico (and elsewhere) to allow them to come here to work. It seems unfair to me that one should deserve to make ten times as much simply by virtue of being born in the US rather than Mexico.

But it seems to me pretty clear that if we flood the US labor market with people used to make $1-2/hr, it's going to tend to keep wages low in the US. And while I don't think that people should take advantage of that by paying less than work is objectively worth, I don't think that it's necessarily a moral wrong to have low productivity/low wage jobs in existence.

In attempting not to run too long, I guess I'd say that I think that Catholic social teaching is important, but that it is best enacted through individual actions (including the actions of individual business owners) rather than through government regulation. (Beyond a certain point -- some regulation is clearly necessary.)

And it does seem to me that a just wage is not always a full living wage -- because it's not necessarily immoral to have some jobs which are of sufficiently low productivity that their just wage is not enough to support a family. In this case, I think it's the responsibility of a head of household to make sure he or she is able to hold down a sufficiently worthwhile job to earn a just wage large enough to support a family.

Kate said...

If we don't try to regulate just social teaching through the government, then what is government for?

Though I myself am inclined to wish things done on the lowest level of government practical. I don't necessarily want to see more regulation coming down from our bloated (and rarely accountable in any meaningful way) federal government. But some regulation is needful - some things need to be written in to the social contract.

In an ideal world, we'd all do the just thing regardless of the law. In that world, we also wouldn't need the ten commandments or and religious guidelines because our perfect love would lead us, as Augustine notes. But in this imperfect world, our obligations to others, in particular, need to be encouraged by government and societal expectation, either by way of incentives of penalties.

Darwin said...

If we don't try to regulate just social teaching through the government, then what is government for?

Personally, I think the government is good enough at screwing things up I like to see it stick to the basics: Pave the roads. Keep us from being invaded. Hang serial killers.

However, there are things which (by act or omission) I think the government can do to help promote justice (and specifically Catholic Social Teaching). I just don't think that mandating higher wages (or socializing health care) is among the things that would work well.

So for instance, one thing that I think local governments could be a lot better about would be allow the creation of low cost housing. There's currently a tendency towards ever larger plots and more square footage -- which is one of several things pricing low income buyers out of the home market (property ownership being one of the things that the popes have emphasized as important in their social encyclicals).

If local governments approved more projects with small plots and small houses (once upon a time a 1000 sq/ft three bedroom house was not uncommon) and perhaps if there was more of an effort to help low income first time home buyers buy those houses, we'd be helping a large group of people currently stuck flushing their money down the toilet of monthly rent.