Saturday, July 26, 2008

Christian Faith and the Free Market (part two)

On Thursday we discussed Christian faith and the free market with regard to the problem of churches themselves being an object of free choice. Today I'd like to talk about how Christian faith affects the market itself.

The first thing to note is the distinction between what faith should determine and what it can. The latter applies to the problem of free churches. In the four-hundred-year period between Trent and Vatican II the dominant position among Catholics was that "error has no rights." That is, wrong religions have no right to appear in the public sphere. The ideal is a Catholic state. Non-Catholic religions (whether other variants of Christianity or non-Christian religions) would simply not appear.

The kernel of this argument is right. Error has no rights, because error is wrong. But Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty brought forward a position, clearly articulated by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, among others, that may be summarized (in modern "rights" language) as "error has no rights, but people do." The core of this argument is not that religion shouldn't be coerced -- if we could coerce people to accept the truth, we certainly would -- but that religion can't be coerced. Religious coercion is not so much a violation of personal dignity as a metaphysical impossibility, because religious faith stands, by its very definition, beyond the reach of external powers. I can make someone go to church, but I simply cannot make him believe. The first problem with a confessional state is that it cannot accomplish what it sets out to do.

The more controversial question, of course, is whether it can eliminate impediments to belief. Granted that we can't make people believe, we can at least keep erroneous positions from being circulated. If no one ever hears about Protestantism, or Islam, or atheism, or whatever, then it's safe to say that a lot fewer people will defect to those religions.

Vatican II's response to this question seems to switch back from the question of what can be done to what ought to be done, that is, the question of human dignity. Begin with the family. Thomas Aquinas argues against forcible Baptism of children born to non-Christian families on the grounds that this would violate the family itself; it would be contrary to the natural law, because children are naturally subject to their parents. Considered in abstraction, it would of course be better for every child to receive Baptism and a Christian education -- but in the real world, children are born to parents, and that subjection is also part of God's law. To take children from their parents, even for the eminent good of Baptism, is a violation of God's law: possible, but wrong.

Vatican II seems to be applying this same argument, analogically, to the public expression of non-Catholic (and thus, erroneous) religions. Man is by his nature social, and religion is by its nature social. Considered in abstraction, it would be better if false religions were kept quiet. But to prevent a person from talking about his religious opinions, or from gathering with those who share them, or even from acting publicly on them, says the Council, would be a violation of human nature. It would be wrong, not because error itself has rights, but because Christian civil authorities, as all Christians, are bound to respect the natural law; they are bound to respect the nature of things (and of persons) as something created by God, and social expression of religious opinions is part of human nature. We do our best to change their minds. We would prefer a society in which all are true believing (and loving!) Catholics. But we cannot violate the natural law to get there.

The natural law is the fitting segue to our next consideration: the effect of Christian faith on the non-religious parts of the market. The key distinction here is between what is of faith and what isn't. The natural law is a matter of faith: discernible by reason, but morally requisite as an expression of God's goodness, and therefore often confirmed by definitive statement of the Church.

We know, for example, that the sexual union of man and woman is ordered to children, who need stable, committed parents, and thus that there exists an institution, which we call marriage, to create that stable environment. We know this by reason, and it is confirmed by the teaching of the Church. It is well within Christian faith to use law to do our best to prevent sex outside of marriage and to do what we can to strengthen the kind of marriage that procreates and provides for children.

But note that Church teachings, and thus all matters of faith, are necessarily universal. It is a matter of faith that fornication, abortion, murder, and theft are all universally wrong. The Christian should do his best in the political arena to make these activities illegal. (Though he should recognize that this is not always possible -- Thomas himself acknowledges that some good things are beyond the capacity of law. A law that banned lustful thoughts, for example, would be simply impossible to enforce, and therefore not a valid law. I don't have a text available, but I believe Augustine extends this argument even to prostitution, saying that in his time, it just wasn't practicable to outlaw prostitution. Interesting.)

Given the universality of teachings of faith, what about matters of economic justice? The Church teaches, for example, that the economy ought to provide a "living wage," sufficient for each man to care for his family. (It taught this with more vehemence in the early twentieth century than later, perhaps for the reasons I will give here.) In itself, that is a universal teaching of faith. But what does it mean? Does every family have exactly the same needs? Can these needs even be identified in dollar values?

The simplistic idea of a minimum wage brings out the impossibility of determining human needs based on dollar amounts. We can say, for example, that everyone should get at least $8/hr., or $320/wk., or whatever. But what is $320? It depends, of course, on what you can buy with it. Inflation would make that $320 worth far less. And $320 is worth nothing in an economy that doesn't make available the things that a family would need to have. In an economy where everything is connected -- for example, where the price of groceries is largely dependent on the wages of those who produce them, and where the number of jobs is dependent on whether businesses can afford to employ people -- raising the minimum wage does not necessarily produce the desired result.

To determine a living wage, we need to know (a) the particular "needs" of each family (which presumably include a lot of particularities, like how much the kids eat, what sort of vocations the family is pursuing, including things like sports, music, and education, as well as family apostolates) and (b) how much that wage can purchase in the market.

In short, it seems to me impossible to make a universal judgment that, say, $320/wk. constitutes a living wage. To apply the universal teaching of faith that the economy ought to supply for the needs of family requires a heck of a lot of prudence.

And that, it seems to me, is the purpose of the free market. Christians need to hold firm to the teachings of faith. They should work, for example, to make sure that slave labor and all things that are inherently immoral (such as prostitution, pornography, etc.) are illegal -- so far as possible. But they must also realize the limits of faith, and not equate a thing like $320/wk. with the true teaching of faith. We should work for economic justice, but realize that the means of securing it may be more complicated than a simple formula.