Free will is a personal human power, which provides the light of personal freedom necessary to evaluate economic freedom and a standard of living. The subject of economics concerns the social relationships that arise in a society in which there is a division of labor. These relationships may be just or unjust. Our Lord tells us that, irrespective of societal relationships, personal freedom is inalienable.
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
We ought not to fear what others can do to us, but what we can do to ourselves by our own choice to hate rather than to love. One saint who epitomizes the inalienable exercise of her free will to love, rather than to hate, while enduring extreme cruelty from others within an unjust economic system, is St. Josephine Bakhita.
While suffering extreme cruelty under economic slavery, St. Josephine reasoned that there must be a good source of the beauty of the stars, though she did not know that source. Later, under a kind master, she learned of Jesus crucified for her and of the Catholic Faith. She had the heroic virtue to be thankful both to her kidnappers who sold her into slavery and to her cruel slave masters because they mapped the journey which led her to the God of Love, who suffered for her.
I stand in awe of St. Josephine. I suspect I would succumb to bitterness and hatred, assuming that I could have survived her extreme suffering under economic servitude.
Economic Servitude/Freedom and the Catholic Faith
Although the Catholic Faith condemns economic servitude, it does not propose any system of economic freedom. Economics is a secular, not a theological topic. No economic system has a corner on moral rectitude. St. Paul does not propose an economic system alternative to that of Roman slavery. In his letter to Philemon, St. Paul urges him to act freely out of brotherly love, which is completely incompatible with economic servitude. It is brotherly love, not an economic system, which destroys slavery.
Is the Capitalism of Today a System of Economic Freedom?
In a discussion of capitalism and distributism, Jay Richards identifies capitalism as a system of economic freedom because it is based on free markets and free contracts. However, to apply the word free to a market-determined price is an analogy, because freedom is only applicable to a person. Only the person has free will. Imagine each shopper haggling with a grocer over the price of milk and each other commodity. Of course, no one today would want such economic freedom.
Similarly, “free contract” is a misnomer when applied to an individual’s being hired to work. A truly free contract can only be made by two equal individuals. The very terminology of capitalism’s “free contracts” with persons hired indicates the inequality of the contractors and, thereby, the absence of true freedom of the individual hire. Consider the pairs owner/wage earner, employer/employee, and manager/human resource: Employee at least implies a person being used as a tool. Today’s term, human resource, reduces the person to an inert commodity.
What is the basis of inequality in the contract of hiring? The one contractor has control over the means of production, while the other, the hire, has no control over any means by which to make a living.
Is Distributism a Practical Alternative to Capitalism?
Distributism is the name used by Hilaire Belloc and others for an economic system in which the number of farmers and craftsman, individually owning the property (land, tools, buildings, etc.) by which they make their living, is such as to make their presence commonplace, thereby giving a tone of economic freedom to a society.
Jay Richards and others have emphatically said, “No”.
Scoffing, they claim that distributism would result in a stagnate society in which everyone was a farmer owning “three acres and a mule.” They argue that such a system of alleged economic freedom would condemn everyone to poverty. It would preclude the explosion of technology and its resultant dramatic increase in the standard of living that we have enjoyed under capitalism since the second half of the twentieth century.
In the 1930s, due to low wages, which suppressed purchasing power and thereby consumption, capitalism nearly came to a halt. Belloc addressed the situation in a series of newspaper columns in 1938, The Way Out, now in book format. A superficial reading would identify the value of distributism as the alleviation of material insufficiency and material insecurity, which were typical of wage earners at the time of his writing. Superficially, distributism appears to be simply a proposed way of raising the low standard of living of the 1930s. Yet, a tremendous increase in the standard of living was achieved by capitalism itself in the latter twentieth century. This was the very experience of my father, who worked in the first half of the twentieth century, and his offspring, who worked in the second half.
At that time the rule was: the lower the wages, the higher the profit per unit of product. However, it was later realized that the suppression of wages suppressed sales and thereby profit. In the second half of the century, capitalism apparently cured itself by increasing wages and thereby purchasing power and total profit. The result was a high standard of living for the general population of workers.
A Family Tale
In the first half of the twentieth century, my father worked at an insufficient wage in the insecurity of a switchman on the extra-board of a railroad. We had a payphone in our apartment so he could be summoned to work at an hourly wage if a regular employee couldn’t come to work on a particular day. In 1937, he died of cancer at the age of 48 in the railroad hospital. His underaged offspring, though malnourished, survived on welfare, until coming of age, when they were employed in the economic boom of the second half of the twentieth century. They enjoyed an incredibly high standard of living compared to their father. Capitalism had apparently cured itself.
The Contentment of a High Standard of Living
The Bible attests to the fact that a high standard of living yields contentment irrespective, indeed in spite of, the absence of economic freedom. The Israelites, having left the economic slavery of Egypt were experiencing a lower standard of living as economically free nomads.
And the whole congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:2-3)
The prodigal son had given up hope of being a master rather than a slave, but at least his father’s slaves enjoyed a high standard of living, while the pigs he tended ate better food than he.
“And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger!’” (Luke 15:16-17)
Non-Capitalist Systems and the Standard of Living
In the typical capitalist democracy, the non-owners of the means of their livelihood, are politically free. They are not economically free, although they enjoy a high standard of living. In contrast, the citizens of the Peoples Republic of China are neither politically nor economically free. Does this preclude their enjoying a high standard of living? Apparently not, as voiced by Bernie Sanders:
… [W]hat we have to say about China in fairness to China and its leadership is, if I’m not mistaken, they have made more progress in addressing extreme poverty than any country in the history of civilization, so they’ve done a lot of things for their people.
Taking per capita smartphone users as an indicator of the standard of living in 2018, the US was 5th at 77% and the PRC was tied with Japan for 18th at 55%. Due to the size of China’s population, there were three times as many smartphone users in the PRC than in the US.
Is a High Standard of Living Sufficient for Human Dignity?
Only persons can be free. What is required for human dignity is freedom, including freedom in the economic sphere. That is the underlying theme of Belloc’s The Way Out. Humans are made in the image and likeness of God because they have free will. The basis of economic freedom, as identified by Belloc under the term distributism, is ownership of the means of one’s livelihood by the individual, or ownership by a group of partners. Such partners would not be holders of stock certificates, but members of a guild of craftsmen.
Economic freedom is a truly human good. Humans, like animals, can experience a high or low material standard of living, but only humans can experience freedom and servitude. The wild coyote is unrestrained, but he is not free, because animals lack self-cognizance and lack free will. Restrained by instinct and training, the domestic dog obeys his master for whatever his master will give him, but the dog lacks the cognition and free will to be in servitude.
I would be the first to choose fleshpots over economic freedom, but I know such is a moral weakness. It is also true that every human effort to achieve social justice will fall short because of our darkened intellects and weakened wills, thanks to Adam’s sin. Nevertheless, economic freedom is a worthy goal. It depends on the personal ownership of the means of his livelihood by the individual craftsman or his membership as a partner in a guild owning and operating a larger enterprise.
Under the current economic system of our society, the most obvious experience of economic freedom, other than that of medical doctors, is that of the individual, self-employed craftsman in the field of home maintenance and home improvement. Such economically free artisans are too few to impart the tone of economic freedom to our society as a whole.
Saints Paul and Josephine Bakhita, pray for us.