Want a Good Economy? Try Virtue

By Jonathan Liedl
September 4, 2013

It certainly wasn’t planned, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it was more than a coincidence that I happened to read Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum this past Monday.

Labor Day seemed as fitting a time as any to delve into the oft-cited papal encyclical on capital and labor, the first to address the social realities of the modern age. And although Rerum Novarum was delivered over a hundred years ago, it was startling to note the similarities between economic realities then, 9 years before the turn of the 20th century, and now, 13 years into the 21st.

The gap between the rich and the poor is still outlandishly vast, like a great chasm that widens every day. Associations of workers are still considered by many to be blights upon society, and the ones that do exist all too often incite divisiveness and animosity instead of Christian solidarity. The uprooting of local communities at the hands of global economic forces has increased exponentially since the 1890s. And the greed and hardheartedness that the pontiff recognized in the business practices of his own age can still be observed as the animating force behind much of the economic activity of today. Clearly, the modern world has failed to heed the wisdom of Pope Leo XIII.

To be sure, Rerum Novarum is cited with great frequency by Catholics who wish to defend their economic policy prescriptions as in-line with the Church’s social teaching. Many point to the encyclical’s blunt criticism of collectivism and its equally resolute defense of private ownership as evidence that capitalism is the clear papal preference. Others quote Pope Leo’s words in support of labor unions or policies that set standardized wages to make the case for a more statist economy. And, of course, Chesterton and Belloc derived the basis of distributism and its emphasis on widespread ownership and economic localism from the very pages of Rerum Novarum.

In other words, Catholics have utilized the encyclical to develop high-minded theories of economic systems and schemas. Which is all well and good. But perhaps Catholics have failed to consider Rerum Novarum from a more practical level. Because for all this talk of business and labor, capitalism and collectivism, there’s very little mention of another concept mentioned throughout the encyclical: virtue.

By my count, Pope Leo XIII uses the word virtue 15 times in Rerum Novarum. He speaks of virtue as the greatest gift the Church can offer to the poor, who She desires to see “rise above poverty and wretchedness, and better their condition in life.” According to the pope, when adequately and completely practiced, virtue:

leads of itself to temporal prosperity, for it merits the blessing of that God who is the source of all blessings; it powerfully restrains the greed of possession and the thirst for pleasure—twin plagues, which too often make a man who is void of self-restraint and miserable in the midst of abundance; it makes men supply for the lack of means through economy, teaching them to be content with frugal living, and further, keeping them out of the reach of those vices which devour not small incomes merely, but large fortunes, and dissipate many a goodly inheritance.

Similarly, Pope Leo XIII recognizes the essential role the virtues must play in the practices of businesses and employers. That the laborer should be treated in a manner that respects his inherent human dignity, and that he be provided a wage that allows him to provide for himself and his family, are conditions demanded by justice. Furthermore, while the pope affirms that all men should own private property, he qualifies this absolute by plainly stating that men may not use their property in whatever way they see fit. The virtue of charity requires that whatever is in excess should be given to those who need it.

Of course, Rerum Novarum does talk about more than solely virtue. It mentions the role of the State in the work of “remedy and relief” for the poor. It talks about the necessity of trade unions and work associations. It discredits collectivism while endorsing the inviolability of private property. So there’s no denying that the encyclical does, in fact, provide general parameters and guidelines for economic policies. But it’s crucial to note that these parameters and guidelines are not sustainable in and of themselves. Instead, they must be informed in their inception and implementation by a character of virtue; they are not substitutes for those virtues. In other words, policy is a tool that must be guided by virtue.

But that’s not the way our society devises and delivers economic. Consider the plight of the poor. Our solution to poverty is to provide services like food stamps, minimum wage, and welfare programs. These things are neutral tools and, used properly, can be quite beneficial. But devoid of an effort to instill the virtues of temperance and fortitude into the lives of the poor, these policies are enabling and beget a cycle of dependency. They are worthless, if not of negative value, if treated as a substitute for virtue.

The same can be said for our approach to regulating the rich and wealthy. It is enough, we tell ourselves, to devise laws and regulations that constructively channel the selfish impulses of man. The idea that selfishness itself is a vice that should be addressed and replaced with the virtue of charity is hardly considered. We are aghast when monsters like Bernie Madoff or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are brought to light. But why should we be surprised? We created them. CS Lewis spelled out what we’re doing, and what happens when you fail to give virtue its proper due:

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

It should be acknowledged that I am not an economist. Neither was CS Lewis. And neither was Pope Leo XIII. Rerum Novarum, admittedly, would be scoffed at by the majority of modern economists as the naïve pipedream of a philosophical prelate who doesn’t understand the way in which the market (aka “the real world") works.

To which I say, “good.” The dehumanizing theorems and charts of the economist have done us enough harm already. Their consistent failures and the general increase in global misery under their watchful guidance should be enough to convince us that modern economics has been tried and found wanting. Man does not live by bread alone, a truth that must be acknowledged, perhaps especially acknowledged, when considering how man produces and obtains bread. There is something metaphysical in play here, and it must be observed even when dealing with the nitty-gritty, physical practicalities of capital and labor. Virtue, more than anything else, more than economic theories or fiscal policy, is what a society needs to have a good and just economy.