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Letter from Rome: Economic Freedom and the Common Good

Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

This month’s letter is slightly delayed due to our December 4 conference at the Angelicum in Rome. It was a very successful event and the delay has been po  because it has given me a bit more time to reflect on our changing perceptions of how economic freedom affects the common good. 

The death of former President George H.W. Bush reminds us of what once was. The last president to have served in World War II was also the last Cold War president, overseeing the victory of Western liberal democratic capitalism over its totalitarian rivals. Bush’s generation of leaders also helped forge the post-Cold War order that, until very recently, was supported by free peoples all over the world.

Bush lost his 1992 re-election campaign to Bill Clinton, who ran as a “New Democrat” in favor of free trade and welfare reform. Bush’s son replaced Clinton campaigning as a “compassionate conservative” and attempted to bring democracy to Iraq and reform Social Security. Both Bush presidents wanted to be unifying political figures but it won them few friends on the right and none on the left. Bushism and Clintonism are precisely what American voters rejected in electing Donald Trump in 2016.    

Increasing polarization means the center is losing ground to the left and the right. This political fact infects other parts of society these days, including religion and especially the Catholic Church. There are social-justice Catholics and pro-life Catholics; traditionalist Catholics and Vatican II Catholics; proponents of solidarity and those of subsidiarity are distinct camps within Catholic social teaching. We even have pro- and anti-Pope Francis Catholics.

At first glance, this is old news: There have always been divisions in the Church (“I belong to Paul; I belong to Apollos.”). Our contemporary rifts, however, reflect political ones that have their origins in the French Revolution, which renders vain all hopes of a quick and easy resolution. Secularists and believers alike have tried to take the politics out of religion, but it is much easier said than done. No matter how “apolitical” we try to be, the question of who should rule and how remains fundamental.

The basic premise of economic freedom is that ordinary people would rather occupy themselves with the production and consumption of goods and services. Ordinary people are thought to be the best judges of their own interests and preferences. The voluntary activities of the private sector are meant to take up more time and energy than politics and lead to a common good of sorts. 

Politics and culture shape what happens in the marketplace, however, and concerns for the overall state of society eventually arise. We start to define our interests more broadly. “Right-track/wrong track” opinion polls are another way of asking them about a common good greater than economic growth.

Our problems are theoretical as well as practical. How does a society dedicated to freedom and self-interest promote the common good? Civic education and voluntary associations used to ways of expressing public spirit; the collapse of trust in institutions have rendered these ineffective. Identity politics based on race or class is the result.

Even though they run the risk of dividing societies even further, religious motivations may be our only hope. At its best, Catholic social teaching takes particular identities seriously but also directs them towards the good of all. It assumes that such a good exists because it believes in a providential God who created and cares for us. In the Catholic vision of society, economic freedom is a beginning rather than an end. While there is a political common good, the goal of eternal life is supernatural and not fully achievable during our time on earth.

Unfortunately, with the revelations of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal cover-up, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has lost the moral standing need to proclaim such a message, so it will be up to the laity to develop and implement the Church’s social teaching. A rather surprising conclusion to a conference on the Dominican contribution to the free and virtuous society!

KJ Sig

Kishore Jayabalan