I’ve been slowly reading through John Medaille’s TOWARD A TRULY FREE MARKET: A DISTRIBUTIST PERSPECTIVE ON THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT, TAXES, HEALTH CARE, DEFICITS, AND MORE. As I’ve acknowledged in previous blogs I have no formal education in economics, so it often is incomprehensible to me, and I will not here defend or critique the book.
Medaille offers a rather somber evaluation of modern economics and thinks the ongoing economic crisis worldwide is not an aberration but really the end result of modern economic, capitalistic policies. One thesis of the book is that in an effort to make economics a hard science (rather than a mere social science) economists jettisoned ideas of morality. Economics void of morality becomes a strange animal indeed creating many of the problems we see all around the world. Some people defend as the greatest good whatever is “good for the economy.” But of course exactly what constitutes the economy is not completely accounted for (is it people or businesses? citizens or corporations?), nor is “good” defined especially in a system of thinking which wants to avoid moral judgments. Medaille for example points out that while current economic thinking assumes the existence of labor, it cannot account for the existence of labor because it totally ignores the existence of families.
Modern economics does not account at all for what it costs to produce a labor force, thus families are left to scramble on their own to earn enough to survive meanwhile “the economy” (economic leaders and forces) feel no responsibility for the survival let alone thriving of families. So economic policies often ignore what is good for the family. Additionally the labor force is also the consumer force – the rich get richer off the labor and consumption of these people. But those leaders of economic ideas see no connection between the cost of producing a labor force and their own profitability. Medaille offers many ideas about how to correct some of the problems that beset the world economy today, ideas based in distributist economics. Some of his ideas would resonate with conservatives (especially he advocates a significantly smaller federal government) but his arguments on the moral issues of economics might not make conservatives feel so comfortable. The keystone to his ideas is the notion of the just wage (you can read more on distributist ideas at http://distributistreview.com/mag/)
I suppose because I’ve been thinking about Medaille’s ideas connecting ethics to economics, I paid attention to a 20 December 2011 NY Times Op-Ed piece by Charles Blow, Deep Pockets, Deeply Political. Blow is sounding a recently familiar alarm:
A tiny number of wealthy Americans are playing an ever-increasing role in financing our politics. This is not a good thing for a democracy.
Last week, the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to making government “transparent and accountable,” issued a report, which said:
In the 2010 election cycle, 26,783 individuals (or slightly less than one in ten thousand Americans) each contributed more than $10,000 to federal political campaigns. Combined, these donors spent $774 million. That’s 24.3% of the total from individuals to politicians, parties, PACs, and independent expenditure groups. …
The report also pointed out that “overwhelmingly, they are corporate executives, investors, lobbyists and lawyers” and that “a good number appear to be highly ideological.” In the 2010 election cycle, the report revealed, “the average one percent of one percenter spent $28,913, more than the median invdividual income of $26,364.”
But perhaps even more disturbing was this:
The community of donors giving more than $10,000 (in 2010 dollars) has more than quadrupled, from 6,456 in 1990 to 26,783 in 2010. In 1990, they accounted for 28.1% of all itemized (over $200) donations. By 2010, that number had risen to 44.1%. These donors are also accounting for an increasing number of all donations. And they’re giving more, too. In 1990, the average donation was $13,443. By 2010, it was more than double: $28,913.
That the top 1% of the well-to-do are financially more influential in politics than the rest of the country is not new. Certainly Jefferson’s call that “all men are created equal” was not really a declaration of the equality of every human being but rather a demand that the limited number of landed gentry should be considered equals with the king. The founding fathers envisioned some sense of the upper class ruling the country (as I recall James Madison even made mention at one point that the wealthy actually constitute a minority in the country and they had to be protected under minority rights against majority rule!). There seems to have been in fact some notion among America’s creators that the well-to-do get to retire from work early and then can nobly serve the country in political office (This was an idea entertained by Ben Franklin). So the wealthy being more influential in government than the majority of people is part of our democracy by and for the people from the beginnings of these United States!
I find myself connecting the statistics which Blow mentions to the ideas of morality in economics raised by Medaille. People who are willing to drop nearly $30,000 down to influence politics are the ones who are fighting against paying taxes. They would rather give $30,000 to political parties to promote their own interests (though this political donation is a form of a tax – the price to prosper in America) than to give that same amount of money to the government for the common good. And they will give that same amount of money year after to year to political causes to avoid paying even less than that amount in taxes.
In the ancient Roman republic the imperial family and their slaves staffed the government at no public expense. Senators and the equestrian class did the same out of a sense of duty – it was they who paid out of their own wealth for public buildings and services. The landed elites of the provincial cities in turn paid for public services out of a sense of their own responsibility for the public good.
Is this civic sense, the sense of the common good, what is so lacking in the current process of the wealthy paying for the politics of America? Now, sadly people are willing to pay only for their own self interest – which often means exactly avoiding contributing to the common good. A civic pride seems to be lacking. The Romans thought patriotism meant working for the common good of all citizens which entailed spending their own money to build up (=edify) society. Belonging to the wealthy class and owning property was considered a privilege which carried great responsibility for the common good of every citizen. They believed all citizens should benefit from prosperity of the empire and of the wealthy.
Americans love to criticize entitlements – generally of any subgroup of Americans to which they don’t belong. But entitlement thinking exists in the upper echelons of wealth too – it is entitlement which says the wealth is mine alone and no part of it is to be used for the common good. It is entitlement thinking which fails to see the land on which we stand as a natural resource which is a shared good which profits all Americans.
The common good does not mean socialism. Medaille certainly opposes socialism which he actually thinks is really a necessary offshoot of capitalism because current capitalism fails to consider that all economic issues are ethical issues as well. Patriotism as valuing all citizens and working for the common good is in short supply in America these days. Patriotism which values civic duty is not a nationalistic exclusivism or exceptionalism. It is a virtue which the founding fathers did embrace as they imagined citizen statesmen and citizen soldiers. These same founding fathers thought the wealthiest Americans would come forward and support the common good for all citizens – such were their ethical beliefs.
None of this means we cannot question the size of the federal government, or work to reduce its size. Certainly the size of the government is a question worth debating – and for Medaille this is part of the ethical discussion which needs to take place. The issue I raise is whether our extreme individualism doesn’t in the end hurt the very basis of civil society as we cease to have any sense of responsibility for others.