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Dignity, Democracy, and the Free Market


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The Acton Institute is hosting a series of lectures celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of Centesimus Annus , Pope John Paul II's landmark encyclical. The following is taken from President Aznar's address delivered on May 4, 2006, at the Italian Parliment in Rome.

The myth of the perfect society is certainly nothing new. The idea of an earthly paradise organized by superior men, whether they be aristocrats, wise philosophers, or members of a self-appointed proletarian avant-garde, has been an incessant theme in human affairs since the time of Plato.

However, the twentieth century laid bare exactly what these utopias conceal: the fact that all of these idyllic and harmonious invented societies subordinate everything to a central plan, accompanied by the implacable repression of any kind of behavior that strays from the course that is marked out. The experience of communism has undoubtedly changed our view of utopia today. We now know that the search for absolute perfection within the realm of social affairs sooner or later leads to absolute horror.

In Europe, when totalitarian societies such as these took on a nightmarish quality, it was easy to see and to say these things. It was obviously much harder to warn of the disastrous consequences of socialism twenty-six years before the Bolshevik Revolution even took place. But that is ex-actly what His Holiness Leo XIII did, with considerable courage and farsightedness, in 1891 in his encyclical Rerum Novarum.

The conceptual farsightedness of Leo XIII resided in his defense of private property as an individual right, and not so much in terms of its social and economic benefits. On this point, Leo XIII fully agreed with the classical property theory enshrined in liberal thought, which could be summarized by the following thesis proposed by John Locke: “every man has a property in his own person.”

John Paul II's Centesimus Annus glows with the spirit of Rerum Novarum. It states that the market economy is the most efficient system when it comes to the allocation of resources and that it is capable of satisfying the needs of the largest number of people. However, it also adds that the main virtue of the market economy compared to the socialist economy is that the mechanisms of the market “give central place to the person's desires and preferences” and, therefore, apart from its technical advantages, is compatible with the dignity and freedom of the individual. What is more, it not only makes these values possible, but it develops and promotes them.

The social function of private property and the market economy is no minor matter. However, I would like to highlight the personal and moral dimension and stress the justification of private property as being essential to the individual, rather than focusing on its social benefits, which undoubtedly exist.

If I am not mistaken, the social doctrine upheld by the church regards private property as the ideal manifestation of the universal destination of goods. However, it qualifies this position by stating that private property is not only at the service of the common good, but that the common good, in turn, is also at the service of the individual, in which respect for the right to private property is an essential condition for ensuring the individual's freedom and development.

Leo XIII warned us that abolishing private property would have disastrous consequences because it would paralyze any sense of responsibility and remove any desire to work and, as a result, would diminish levels of prosperity. However, his most important point, in my view, was that denying the right to private property as an individual right represented a threat to civilization, which is to say, to man himself and to his sense of dignity.

The drifting course of socialism over the decades following the publication of Rerum Novarum confirmed the predictions that were made by Leo XIII. Bolshevism based its planned economy on a rejection of private property, regarding it as the root of all evil, while also adopting a radically hostile approach to personal initiative, which it branded as a form of egotism.

Even today, individualism continues to receive very bad press and is frequently associated with egotism and social chaos. That is why I must explain exactly what I mean by the term “individualism.” I am referring to a synthesis of Christianity and ancient philosophy, especially stoicism, a fusion that took place during the Renaissance and subsequently developed and expanded throughout all the societies that we consider to be part of Western civilization. Its essential features include respect for the individual, for his own opinions and tastes, and the belief that it is desirable for all men to be able to develop their own talents and personal inclinations. In this respect, individualism is intimately linked to the ideas of autonomy and personal freedom as moral values and political principles.

Only those decisions that we take freely endow our actions with moral value, for better or for worse. Outside the realm of personal responsibility, there is no good or evil. Personal freedom is a prerequisite for morality.

Only in a democratic, free-market society can human beings preserve their dignity. To defend individual freedom is to protect human dignity. And protecting individual freedom requires respect for private property and the free market. Without these two social institutions, any attempt to build a more humane society is doomed to fail.