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Speaking of the Poor, Especially When You’re Not: The Preferential Rhetorical Option for the Poor

Writing in The City Journal recently, the former editor Myron Magnet complained that the 2012 Romney campaign never answered the charge that Romney’s private equity firm had done nothing but exploit people to make vast amounts of money, a charge made by Newt Gingrich, of all people. “I knew that of course most private-equity investors make the U.S. economy stronger,” Magnet wrote:

Of course they add to the wealth of the nation by restructuring companies for efficiency while helping to create a new class of customers in previously underdeveloped countries. Of course they are part of the “creative destruction” that is the essence of capitalism. But how to explain in a sound bite how exactly they do that—how the destruction of some American jobs really is in the grand scheme of things creative? Now there’s a challenge for speechwriters!

Troublingly Indifferent

The economic questions I leave aside. Magnet may be right. Even if he is right, there’s something troublingly indifferent about the way he speaks of “restructuring companies for efficiency,” “creative destruction,” “the destruction of some American jobs,” and “the grand scheme.” It’s inhuman, inhuman because the words suggest these great things don’t affect real people and real communities—real fathers, for example, who have to come home to tell their wives and children that they no longer have an income.

Being able to say that their company has been restructured for efficiency, and that it destroyed jobs creatively in service of the grand scheme does not feed them, house them, clothe them, educate them, pay the doctor and the pharmacist, the gas and electric bills, the rare family dinner out at the cheap diner. Restructuring, creative, grand scheme—those are someone else’s abstractions. Someone else’s profits.

Magnet is not a libertarian idealist but a mainstream conservative. Judging from other writings of his, he’s not unaware of the problems of the poor, but the way he speaks here represents the  typical conservative way of speaking. A search of “national review creative destruction” produced only quotes like Magnet’s in the top page of links.

Those who refer so happily to creative destruction are never themselves among the creatively destroyed. It’s the ideological free-marketer’s version of “Let’s you and him fight.” It speaks of the end in a way that makes invisible those who suffer from the means.

The Rhetorical Option

They are not collateral, forgettable damage in the process of creating wealth, as the language of “creative destruction” makes them. Even if over time the kinds of economic activities Romney pursued—or any other market activity—produce the greatest good for the greatest number, we should not forget the losses and the “losers” in the way we speak about economics. Their ends and interests should form the way we speak.

We need what Catholics might call a preferential rhetorical option for the poor as part of the normal and normative way we speak about economics. The Church offers a great deal of thought on this subject (see the links below) and what I’m proposing gives a way of obeying the Church in our speech.

The “preferential option for the poor” refers to the Church’s insistence that the poor go first in the distribution of goods, defined broadly to include not only the physical necessities of life but rights like religious freedom and economic opportunity. In Sollicitudo rei socialis, St. John Paul II defined it as a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity,” directed towards those he called in Centesimus Annus “people who are especially beloved to the Lord Jesus.” Who is the poor is a difficult question, but I’d suggest that these days and in these discussions it includes much of the middle class, whose jobs can be taken away by people who restructure companies for efficiency.

The poor should go first in the distribution of the good of attention. Any sustained statement about economic theory should relate that theory to the poor. If an idea is praised for creating wealth, it should be interrogated for its effect on the vulnerable. One should not speak as if real people were not involved and if general improvement were not bought at a great cost to some.

Even the most ardent free-marketer, driven by the most generous vision of human flourishing, should, when he speaks of the great future ends of economic freedom, speak also of those affected for the worse now. If he must talk about creative destruction, he should speak of those for whom that produces only suffering. it’s the charitable way of speaking. It’s also analytically useful: Having to think about the effect on the poor will force the free-marketer and his readers to think more carefully and understand more deeply about the process they’re praising.

Not everyone feels bound by Christian morality, of course, but that doesn’t let them off the hook. Even someone who feels no obligation to follow the heroic demands of Christian charity should know that basic human kindness and solidarity, and what Orwell called “decency,” require him to remember the “losers” when he speaks about success.

Further Reading

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Option for the Poor and Vulnerable (selected quotations).

Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concern’s CST [Catholic Social Teaching] Major Documents (links).

St. John Paul II’s Sollicitudo rei socialis and Centesimus annus.

Edward Skidelsky’s The Emancipation of Avarice.

David Mills’ Blaming the Poor, The Honorable Culture-Warrior, and Do Not Speak Well of Randianism.

 

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  • James B.

    Thanks for the article referals. Skidelsky’s piece on Avarice is excellent (I’m surprised that First Things hasn’t suppressed it!).

  • Thomas Storck

    Yes, well said.