“The federal government’s most useful role is not to rush into a program of excessive increases in public expenditures, but to expand the incentives and opportunities of private expenditures.” – John F. Kennedy, 1962
A significant paradigm shift has occurred in our nation over the last fifty years. General attitudes toward war and national defense, the role of the family in society, respect for authority, the acceptable use of language, our creative uses of natural resources, and the ideal of economic success and growth that were once unquestioned have radically changed. The revision of the last factor, in particular, has been a goal of recent economic decisions by the highest governing powers of our nation. The above observation by President Kennedy stands in stark contrast to the current budgetary measures aiming at the redistribution of wealth, supported by both sides of the political aisle. It is important to consider the moral cost of these changes.
The sciences of economics are much like the other sciences in attempting to describe laws of behavior not created by humanity but which govern us. Just as quantum theory and Einstein’s theory of relativity relate to physical behavior, supply-side economics and Keynesian economics are two theories that attempt to describe the general behavior of wealth under a multitude of variables. While both are certainly imperfect, the mere existence of these theories implies the existence of real economic laws that beg a useful description. Furthermore, as a concrete reality, these laws are not politically biased.
In his article “The Ryan Lecture”, Fr. James Schall, SJ, does a masterful job at accurately describing the contemporary attitude toward the accumulation of wealth, relating it to the Catholic principle of solidarity. The insight of his synthesis makes it worth quoting at length:
Like Plato’s specialization principle, solidarity recognizes that not everyone is the same, or wants to be, or can be. The fact that not everyone can (or wants to) do everything constitutes the foundation of the very richness of society and the meaning of the common good. This approach is the opposite of a society charged through with envy, in which any distinction of wealth or honor is taken to be unwarranted. Envy is a much more pervasive and spiritually dangerous social vice than we realize. It is almost never recognized for what it is: a refusal to admit and acknowledge what is good and worthy in others. Envy as a spiritual disorder of the soul is much more dangerous and undermining to a society than greed ever was, even though both are vices. We often call “greed” what is really envy.
In light of the “unwarranted distinction of wealth and honor”, the current political administration is seeking to redefine economic laws not according to the aforementioned economic reality, but according to ideological principles of how economics ought to work. The real history of economic cause and effect is disregarded for political decision-making, and traditional economic theories are to be declared null and void by way of popular opinion.
Josef Pieper, in his book “A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart”, describes the virtue of prudence as that which conforms the mind to reality. “Who ever wants to know and do the good must direct his gaze toward the objective world of being, not toward his own ‘sentiment’ or toward arbitrarily established ‘ideals’ and ‘models’ He must look away from his own deed and look upon reality.” He astutely relates prudence to the proper interaction between perception and will: “… the Christian is prudent; namely, he does not allow his view on reality to be controlled by the Yes or No of his will, but rather he makes this Yes or No of the will dependent on the truth of real things.” Because the vice of envy is antithetical to the virtue of prudence, it paves the way for this turning away from reality. The new economic “laws” become a product of an unbridled political will driven by envy.
To be sure, the true temporal worth of individuals and nations is not merely the monetary income or available natural resources. Analogizing the ability to produce wealth to “energy”, Fr. Schall writes: “the ultimate energy [in other words] is the human mind and its capacity to apply what it knows” (book “The Order of Things”, chapter “The Order of the Cosmos”). Simply put, our greatest wealth is human ingenuity and the freedom to apply it. However, this freedom is difficult to separate from the capacity to evaluate one’s political environment in the light of truth. (Joseph Stalin’s repressive measures in Soviet Russia largely targeted those he perceived to be smarter than himself.)
One Dr. Jose Yulo, EdD, wrote a long article (the best I’ve ever read) about the dubious actions of the Athenian democracy lacking the authority naturally associated with virtue. He cites Jacques Maritain’s observation that lack of political discernment on the part of a democratic populace will require an underhanded rule by a delegation, which in turn will require the use of myths to “enlighten” the masses. Echoing Fr. Schall’s observation on the greater dangers of envy in relation to greed, Dr. Yulo notes: “Power and greed were potent muses in Thucydides’ age, as they are in this one. The two are limited however in their capacity to self-sustain human fervor past the point of political gratification. A zeal for material equality, and the vision of a world where this was humanly possible, was and is such a myth that fills the void of democracies bereft of authority.” Unlike those of greed, the bounds of envy are ill-defined. As he also observes from Thucydides’ narrative, this zeal for equality that stems from envy pitted citizen against citizen on the island of Corcyra, ending in a bloodbath.
Given the similarities in circumstances, a similar scenario cannot be reasonably ruled out in the decline of our own nation from prominence. As Catholics, it is our duty to possess the virtue of prudence, submitting our intellects and wills to reality and bearing witness to the truth in its entirety, regardless of the temporal consequences. For by faith we already know how it all will end; we need only to choose and hold fast to a side.