There’s No Place for Catholics

Like many other Californians (and, increasingly, many other Americans), I am not officially affiliated with any political party. Some people choose to remain independent voters because they’re fed up with the entrenched two-party system; others do it to avoid receiving political junk mail (although there’s still plenty of that floating around for independents).

I, however, declined to state a party affiliation because I’m a devout Catholic, and at least to my mind, no American political party currently in existence holds views that are compatible with an informed view of Catholic morality. My problems with the official Democratic platform are obvious: abortion comes immediately to mind. But my issues with the GOP are subtler, and thus more interesting. I’d like to address just one in particular: economic justice.

The modern Republican Party has, in some ways, been dominated by an uneasy alliance between social conservatives and libertarian-leaning fiscal conservatives. It’s the libertarian-leaning crowd that disturbs me. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m a fiscal conservative in most senses of the term, and I certainly think that the government is doing far too much in a lot of cases (ask me about agricultural subsidies sometime). What turns me off is the rhetoric of absolute individualism, the near-Objectivist insistence that the autonomy of the individual ought to be our highest principle.

Catholic social teaching, a direct outgrowth of our most basic theological principles, holds that every person has equal human dignity and thus equal natural rights to the things which are required to live a decent life: food, shelter, rest, basic medical care, employment at a just wage, etc. We also believe in the “universal donation of goods:” the concept that the world and all it contains were granted to humankind as a collective body, not to any specific person. These two principles, understood in the proper light, make it abundantly clear that no Catholic can support a moral or political system that elevates the good of the individual above the common good. Since all are equal in human dignity, no one person is entitled to elevate his or her interests above the interests of all others. Absolute individualism is thus distasteful to me.

Now, before anyone accuses me of being a socialist, let me make one thing clear: Catholic social teaching consciously avoids prescribing specific policies, and focuses on outlining broad principles and frameworks for discussion. It is up to us as rational beings to apply these teachings to the real world and come up with a political-economic system that supports them. So it is perfectly consistent with Catholicism to argue that a free-market economy with limited government intervention is the best political system by which to protect human dignity. And this is the position I take. Market economics seems to me an apt description of how human beings will act in society. The historical catastrophes of communism and fascism seem to validate my intuition that any political system that ignores the power of basic economic incentives over human behavior is doomed to fail.

But I’m not a pure laissez-faire capitalist; the Church, in fact, explicitly condemned that position. The market, left to its own devices, does not select for justice: it selects for efficiency. A market left absolutely to itself will cause suffering, for it is not designed to protect human dignity. The role of the state, then, is to step in with limited, minimal interventions to safeguard the dignity of all of its citizens when the market fails to do so. It can do this in various ways: purchase of public goods, correction of externalities, disruption of monopolies, or provision for a basic level of welfare for the poorest citizens. These interventions—particularly that last one—will inevitably cause some loss of efficiency and productivity in the market. But protection of human dignity is more important than efficiency, and the market is not an end, but a means to the end of providing resources to society. When free-market capitalism and human dignity collide, human dignity must win. But we must remember that the power of market forces should oblige us to intervene rarely, intelligently, and cautiously.

This line of thought, of course, will not sound foreign to most readers; it’s similar to many other philosophical systems. But there are important distinctions between the Catholic viewpoint and other ways of thinking. One might argue that my position sounds suspiciously utilitarian. But there’s a key difference: Catholic social teaching views certain things (the intentional killing of an innocent person, for example) as absolutely and objectively wrong. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, denies the existence of such objective wrongs and supports any action which tends to increase aggregate happiness. So while utilitarian thinkers might come to support of a regulated market as a I do, they do so based on a different system of underlying values. Some libertarian thinkers might also come close to agreeing with me on many economic issues. But unlike them, I do not concede that individual autonomy is an absolute constraint on state actions intended to further the ultimate goal of protecting human dignity.

So do my views make me a Democrat, because I’ve accepted that the free market can’t always win and bashed the economic libertarians? Or does it make me a Republican, because I’ve emphasized the free market as the best guarantor of human dignity and expressed reservations about government intervention? I think it makes me neither, which is why I’ll remain a “decline to state” voter. At least until someone starts the American Catholic Party.

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