Government: Too Much, Too Little? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 26, 2010 | Ignatius Insigh
Government: Too Much, Too Little? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 26, 2010 | Ignatius Insight
"Regrettably, all too many
economists, jurists, sociologists, and political scientists have accepted
faulty assumptions about human nature and promoted relativistic attitudes
toward morality and truth."
-- Mary Ann Glendon, "Address, Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences."
"These realities point to
the urgency of strengthening the governance procedures of the global economy,
albeit with due respect for the principle of subsidiarity."
-- Pope Benedict XVI, 16th Plenary Session of the Pontifical
Academy of Social Sciences. 
In its Plenary Session for
April 30, 2010, Professor Russell Hittinger of the University of Tulsa and
Professor Janne Haaland Matlary were inducted into the Pontifical Academy of
the Social Sciences. Hittinger is one of the best minds in the country: clear,
enormously well-read, and sane in his judgments. He has been a long-time
friend, as has Janne Matlary. She is Norwegian, of enormous energy and insight.
She was the first Catholic in the Norwegian government since the Reformation.
She has one book whose preface is written by Otto of Hapsburg and another whose
preface is written by Joseph Ratzinger. As I have told her, she is the only
person in the world who has one book introduced by the Holy Roman Emperor and
the other by the Pope of Rome.
Both Hittinger and Matlary
were inducted into the Pontifical Academy in the April Plenary Session.
Traditionally, the President of the Academy gives a brief address to the Holy
Father. The current president is Professor Mary Ann Glendon, a Professor at
Harvard and the former United States Ambassador to the Holy See, again, a lady
of great erudition, charm, and knowledge. Her book, Rights Talk, remains one of the best warnings about the dire
effects of the unrestricted use of "rights" in political and social discourse.
This excess of "rights"
discourse is not infrequently seen in documents of the Holy See itself.
Benedict at least tried to put some restraint on this "rights talk" in Caritas
in veritate, when he insisted that
"rights" always need a "duty" correlative. Once they are presupposed to nothing
but positive law, "rights" become an unending list of utopian proposals and
anti-natural law propositions, with little grounding in feasibility or reason.
In her address to the Holy
Father, Glendon rightly pointed out the relativism that stands behind so much
social science. Sometimes it seems the first job of Catholic social scientist
is to examine the very premises of social sciences themselves, something that
Leo Strauss was likewise concerned about. The philosophical presuppositions of
most social sciences often do not free us from such dominance of relativism but
lock us into it.
In his short address,
Benedict analyzes the world economic situation. He seems to argue that the
problem is too little government, rather than too much. He finds the
"assumption" that the market can regulate itself to be an "error." There needs
to be "public intervention and the support of internalized moral standards."
The pope does not here address the corresponding issue of too much government
intervention, the socialist problem, with all its implications. Most of the
arguments for free markets are in fact based on the experience of too much
The governmental cause of
growth stagnation, hence of little jobs creation, needs to be addressed. In
general, on a world scale, too much government is a far more serious human
problem than too little government. What is the right amount can vary in time
and place. Tyranny is by no means unknown in modern democracies, as the recent
popes themselves have indicated. One cannot plea for a world in which the young
have jobs and then assume an all too willing government will be able to provide
them with a margin of liberty or jobs.
Benedict points to an
"impoverished notion of economic life as a sort of self-calibrating mechanism
driven by self-interest and profit seeking." This approach is said to
"overlook" the ethical nature of economic activity. This activity is rather to
be "of and for human beings." For this priority to be so, the activity flows
from a certain kind of being, the rational one, seeking that good towards which
his being is directed.
Human beings are to be both
the producers and the "that for which" things are produced. In other words,
economics is not an abstract mechanism but a human one. Its exchanges involve
justice, order, and enterprise. The pope does not mention here that
self-interest has a relation to free human beings acting for their own good and
that of others. Profit is an incentive in this activity, without which no
economy other than a controlled one would exist in the first place.
The main lesson to be drawn
from the late world economic crisis, I think, is not the need of more
governmental control, but of less. Benedict's concerns arise from the initial
shock of a relatively severe economic crisis. But he does not seem to have
noticed the significance of the proposals and laws that have been subsequently
enacted to deal with it.
The Obama administration
could read the earlier remarks as complete justifications for its taking over
large sectors of the economy as it has, in fact, done. These latter laws and
takeovers are much more dangerous for both the Church and the economy itself
than the initial crisis. The response of "more government" as the main solution
has had the not unexpected results of concentrating more and more power in
governments itself based on fulfilling whatever "rights" it chooses. This
growth hinders rather than helps the situation.
Benedict in fact follows
what is in effect a Thomist basis. "The principles of the ethical order,
inscribed in creation itself, are accessible to human reason and, as such, must
be adopted as the basis of practical choices." On this basis, we can talk to
every society about its own foundations. Free market and profit need not be
understood as a "mechanism" but as practical means of enabling the talents and
energies of individuals to reach out to serve their own families and their
neighbors. The fact of a growing world economy does not, as such, contradict
this principle. It enables other societies long considered "undeveloped" to
exchange goods and services.
Europe is finding out that
larger political and economic units may all go down together. Different
conceptions of economic and fiscal responsibility remain. They are caused
largely by too much government and by a demanding people unwilling to
acknowledge their own problems.
The present pope has little
difficulty in seeing the relation of reason and revelation in the social order:
principles of the ethical order, inscribed in creation itself, are accessible
to human reason and, as such, must be adopted as a basic for practical choices.
As part of the great heritage of human wisdom, the natural moral law, which the
Church has appropriated, purified, and developed in the light of Christian
revelation, serves as a beacon guiding the efforts of individuals and
communities to pursue good and avoid evil, while directing their commitment to
building an authentically just and human society.
It is precisely this
discourse of revelation to reason that we cannot really talk about in the
public order of relativist societies.
Two things might be said
about the above passage. First, as such, it sounds very utopian. Presumably,
few actual societies are "authentically just and human." The responsibility to
be more just and human belongs first to each society itself. But is it implicit
here that outside powers have the "responsibility" to interfere in the internal
structures of unjust or failed societies? Who is to exercise this
responsibility? Would a world authority really be less dangerous?
Secondly, the pope
reiterates what has become a truism since Augustine, that natural law by itself
seems incapable of bringing about virtue even when it is known by reason. This
view brings up the classic Thomist argument about the need of revelation to
"appropriate, purify, and develop" the natural law. But today almost all
polities are going the other direction, excluding any argument that might come
from a revelational source. Notice that Benedict says here that natural law is
needed for "practical choices." These choices, of course, are always concrete
The pope further remarks on
the common good, noting its world dimensions. This point of view is the logic
of the world government thesis that was popularized by Robert Hutchins and
Jacques Maritain, who followed, as they thought, the logic of Aquinas and
Aristotle about the relation of rule to ruled. The pope says that there are
"ethical criteria for judging any social system." We find an "urgency" to
"strengthen" government procedures at the world level. As a sort of
after-thought, the pope does recall the "principle of subsidiarity," though seemingly in a top-to-bottom manner.
The pope also brings up the
troublesome notion of a common good that includes "future generations." One
wonders just what this could mean. How many future generations will there be?
What future generation: the one in fifty years, a hundred, five hundred, a
thousand, all at once? On what possible basis could we make such an estimate?
Were the people in the year 1000 worried about the natural resources of the year
2000? What would that mean? What do I "do" if I am worried about the year 3000?
We have no idea what
technology or resources will be available in the future. The only real resource
is the human mind. If we simply project what we know now onto the future and
use the present technology as a criterion for shutting off the future, we may
end up with a tyrannical ecological control of the future through governmental
control of ourselves today.
In fact, it seems that
ecology has become a tool of future statism designed to control actual
populations. This notion of taking into account "future generations" needs much
more thought than is normally given to it. It is not neutral or even
necessarily for the good of present or future generations.
At this point Benedict
recalls his own reflections on the relation of charity to truth. Most modern
economic and political movements reveal a subtle influence of a broader concept
of "charity." They are "doing good." In Spe Salvi, Benedict was concerned with this eschatological
aspect of modern thought.
"The common good, grounded
in respect for the dignity of the human person and acknowledged as the primary
goal of production and trade systems, of political institutions and social
welfare" is to be promoted.
At this point, Benedict XVI
returns to his recent insistence of the primacy of truth "Truth preserves and
channels the liberating power of charity among ever-contingent human events and
structures." Benedict understands that the without truth, even charity ends in
justifying relativism. We "do good" by justifying arrangements that are
actually perversions of soul. If we cannot say this disorder exists, we end up
justifying, in the name of equality and charity, what is really counter to
Social science can easily be
organized to explain and justify the "normalcy" of moral and political
disorders. All social science thus must be based in the prior notion that a
human nature exists. It abides over time. It reveals what man is. Without this
supposition, any political order, even the best, can be organized against the
truth of man, in the name of an empty common good down the ages.
Mary Ann Glendon, "The Role of Moral Values," L'Osservatore Romani, English, May 5, 2010.
 Benedict XVI, "Without
Public Intervention and Moral Standards the Market Cannot Regulate Itself," L'Osservatore
Romano, English, May 5, 2010.
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007),
and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age,
is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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