Acton Commentary

Free Economies and the Common Good


No one can seriously doubt that free enterprise is not only the greatest generator of human well being but that it also serves all classes in society. The old socialists dreamed of a world in which all classes the world over would share in the fruits of production. We look at the Wal-Marts — to cite only the most conspicuous case — opening up by the day in town after town all over the world. We see in a single store a veritable cornucopia of goods designed to serve human well being, at prices that make them affordable for all, a company that has created many millions of jobs and brought prosperity where there was only despair.

Now, you may not like Wal-Mart. You might find it tacky. You might not like to shop there. But there is no sense in denying that this enterprise, and hundreds more like it, has brought humanity an unparalleled opportunity for enhancing well being for all classes in society.

And who owns Wal-Mart? Call them capitalists if you want to, but its owners are shareholders all over the world, people of moderate incomes who have their savings invested in the well being of the company. It is owned by a class of people we can call worker-capitalists. Such an institution as this is more than any socialist of old could have imagined. Had Marx been shown this, he would not have believed his eyes.

Does free enterprise accord with the idea of the common good as the socialists imagined it? Certainly it does. It does not, however, accord with the “commonality of goods” as the socialists supposed that it would. What then can we say of those who today remain attached to socialism as a political goal or general trajectory of political activism? We can say that they do not know or have not understood the essential plot behind the economic history of the last 300 years. Or perhaps we can say that they are more attached to socialism as dogma than they are to the professed ideals of the founders of the dogma. I’m particularly struck by the neo-socialist concern for the well being of plants, animals, lakes and rivers, rain forests and deserts—particularly when the concern for the environment appears far more intense than their concern for the well being of the human family.

When we speak of the idea of the common good, we need to also be open minded about the political and juridical institutions that are most likely to bring it about. The answer is not to be found in the “commonality of goods” but in the very institutions that the socialists worked so hard to discredit. Let me list them: private property in the means of production, stable money to serve as a means of exchange, the freedom of enterprise that allows people to start businesses to pursue their dream, the free association of workers that permits people to choose where they would like to work and under what conditions, the enforcement of contract that provides institutional support to the idea that people should keep their promises, and a vibrant trade within and among nations to permit the fullest possible flowering of the division of labor. These institutions must be supported by a cultural infrastructure that respects private property, regards the human person as possessing an inherent dignity, and confers first loyalties to transcendent authority over civil authority. This is the basis of what we call freedom and results in what we call the common good.

The common good is incompatible with the violation of the right to economic initiative. As Pope John Paul the Great wrote of economic initiative: “It is a right which is important not only for the individual but also for the common good. Experience shows us that the denial of this right, or its limitation in the name of an alleged ‘equality’ of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative, that is to say the creative subjectivity of the citizen.”

In writing these words, the Pope was echoing the vision of the Second Vatican Council’s document entitled Gaudium et Spes: “Since property and other forms of private ownership of external goods contribute to the expression of the personality, and since, moreover, they furnish one an occasion to exercise his function in society and in the economy, it is very important that the access of both individuals and communities to some ownership of external goods be fostered. Private property or some ownership of external goods confers on everyone a sphere wholly necessary for the autonomy of the person and the family, and it should be regarded as an extension of human freedom.”

Let me close with a declaration that by the standards set forth in the first writings of the early socialists, we are all entitled to call ourselves socialist, if by the term we mean that we a devoted to the well being of all members of society. The means to achieve this ideal is the matter of dispute. It strikes me that the means to achieve this is not through the central planning by the state but through freedom itself. St. Thomas Aquinas had an axiom: bonum est diffusivum sui. The good pours itself out. The good of freedom has indeed poured itself out to the benefit of the whole of humanity.