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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The great workbench: John Paul II's economics.

Doug Muder writes another deeply perceptive and illuminating essay, this time about Pope John Paul II's critique of market capitalism and Marxism in the 1981 papal encyclical Laborem Exercens. Muder explains first that political ideologues see the pope in their own image, but that John Paul II's legacy is broader than ideological stereotypes:

If you believe religion is mainly about sex and gender, Pope John Paul II was a conservative. He opposed not only abortion, but contraception as well. He wouldn't allow women to be ordained as priests. But Laborem Exercens is about the moral foundations of economics, and it reveals a very different pope — a radically liberal one.

After carefully explaining the encyclical's argument — an explication you really should give yourself time to digest — Muder steps back to look at the big picture:

What stands out in Laborem Exercens, for me at least, is not any particular system or doctrine or policy, but an image and a challenge. . . .

The image is the Great Workbench, where all the work of humanity is done. The Great Workbench always has space for one more, and there's always something that needs doing. Tools are waiting there to be used, and they belong to whomever can wield them. You  are not chained to the Great Workbench, but you can take pride in the work you do there and claim some part of it for your own.

John Paul's message, as I receive it, isn't that any particular human Ism will give us the Great Workbench — not capitalism, not socialism, and certainly not communism. It is, instead, a standard by which all the Isms should be judged and found wanting. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

And that, in this age of triumphant capitalism, is a message worth repeating. The Market, no less that the Politburo, is a fallible human institution. Its makings and its judgments should never be taken for granted, and never exempted from criticism. . . .

The challenge is to justify the property system — not just the who-owns-what of it, but also the why-anybody-owns-anything. As property owners — and even the poorest of us owns something - we stand between our fellow humans and their divine inheritance. We stand, in essence, between the Creator and his other creatures. How do we justify that position? Do we stand as mediators that transmit divine grace, or as idols that block it?

To challenge the property system, as John Paul did, is not to deny that it can be justified. Capitalism and private property have won out over rival systems for good reasons, as the experience of the Pope's native Poland undoubtedly made him well aware. But we can't justify the economic system in one way, and then use it in another.

If, for example, we believe (as at some level I do) that the capitalist system in the long run can provide everyone with the opportunity for a better life than they could have under any rival system, then we must carry that promise with us and judge ourselves by it. We cannot justify our appropriation of humanity's inheritance in this manner, and then treat the world's crushing poverty and hopelessness as mere collateral damage. It indicts us. It strikes to the heart of our self-justification.

("Laborem Exercens: The Liberal Legacy of John Paul II," Doug Muder [Pericles], Daily Kos 4.10.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 13 April 2005 at 5:54 PM

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Kevin McCulloch:

April 15, 2005 04:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

In his book "The Blank Slate," Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at MIT, uses recent developments in evolutionary psychology to argue that an inclination toward ownership is simply built into our psyches. This argument may or may not carry the day, but it does open up the possibility that the ultimate justification of the property system (and, in particular, some form of capitalism over and against some form of communism) is that it really is the system most compatible with human nature.

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