Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A piece of cake

Elise at Kissing the Leper has a post on The Acton Institute's Power Blog on the "Zero-Sum Game Economic Fallacy":

Imagine this:  a teacher tells her high school students that they are going to enjoy a chocolate cake, while learning about food distribution and economics.  (As a former high school teacher, I assure you, most of the students heard nothing past the word, “cake”.)

The teacher then divides the students into three groups.  In her class of 30 students, one group is made up of 4 students, a second group is 10 students and the third group is 16.  The teacher then sets the cake before them, and announces that she will divide the cake according to food distribution norms among “first, second and third world countries”.


The goal of the teacher will be, of course, to see if the students with the most cake will share their cake with the other two groups.  If they don’t, that choice will be discussed as well.  The students will come away with the idea that everyone will have an equal piece of cake if only those with more share what they have.
Elise then goes to point out that it assumes resources are constant, that the third group of sixteen can't go bake their own cake, that they need to sit around begging for resources from the first and second groups.

One the one hand, the point that we should strive to help them develop their own resources and wealth is very much taken. On the other hand, it grants the Austrian-school assumption that property owners have an absolute right of use that allows for no interference save the most basic law-and-order government support. To simplify: if four of the students end up with half of the only cake available, it's because they were more efficient and more skilled at getting that half, so they have no social obligation to share their excess with the other twenty-six. Go bake your own or go without, but stop grumbling because it really is fair.

This absolute right to use, however, is utterly alien to the Catholic tradition. Traditionally, Catholic philosophy has made a distinction between the ownership of goods and their use. The right to private property is the right to ownership of goods; it does not include an absolute right to use these goods however one sees fit. This distinction is rooted in the papal encyclicals. “We reassert in the first place the fundamental principle, laid down by Leo XIII, that the right of property must be distinguished from its use.” Leo XIII, to whom Pius is referring, stated that “the just ownership of money is distinct from the just use of money.” John Paul II completes the lineage of papal teaching, refuting the claim that somehow Centesimus Annus represents a reversal in Church social policy, as though a reversal of immutable truth were possible:
While the Pope proclaimed the right to private ownership, he affirmed with equal clarity that the “use” of goods, while marked by freedom, is subordinated to their original common destination as created goods, as well as to the will of Jesus Christ as expressed in the Gospel.
It's worthwhile reading the three great social-justice encyclicals, Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno, and Bl. John Paul II's Centesimus Annus. The Distributist Review website has plenty of other encyclicals and bulls on the subject, as well as a walk-through by Thomas Storck. Also, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine is online at the Vatican website. 

The point I'm making, though, is that while it's good and charitable to help Third World nations develop their resources, that action doesn't substitute for or negate the obligations of distributive justice. For further thoughts, see my post in The Other Blog on the wealth gap and our current recession.