Is Redistribution Marxism? No, Just "Good Catholic Doctrine!"
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 04:32:10 PM EST
After sustaining a series of self-inflicted political wounds - particularly, the GOP nominee's dismissal of 47% of the population -- the Romney Campaign is scrambling for something analogous from Obama. The best that they could dig up, courtesy of Matt Drudge, is a statement from 1998 in which then State Senator Obama said he  believes in a limited form of redistribution. Romney supporters now are running around the country equating Obama's belief in liberal, New Deal-derived economics as either "Socialism" or "Marxism."

An absurd assertion indeed! Marxism, particularly the Soviet model, is a form of anti-liberalism. But perhaps what would be more surprising to GOP's would be Dynamic Duo is that the more accurate description would be "Good Catholic doctrine."

New Deal-inspired liberal economics is not about Marxism or destroying capitalism. Instead, it is about saving capitalism from those bad apples that would abuse it, seeing it only as a means to create non-meritorious wealth by dint of deceit and unscrupulousness.

Part and parcel of New Deal economics is Distributive Justice. Its roots are found in the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Maimonides and adopted into Catholicism by Thomas Aquinas. And it is Aquinas who defines distributive justice as follows: distributive justice something is given to a private individual, in so far as what belongs to the whole is due to the part, and in a quantity that is proportionate to the importance of the position of that part in respect of the whole. Consequently in distributive justice a person receives all the more of the common goods, according as he holds a more prominent position in the community. This prominence in an aristocratic community is gauged according to virtue, in an oligarchy according to wealth, in a democracy according to liberty, and in various ways according to various forms of community. Hence in distributive justice the mean is observed, not according to equality between thing and thing, but according to proportion between things and persons: in such a way that even as one person surpasses another, so that which is given to one person surpasses that which is allotted to another.(1)

Aquinas addresses something either Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan or Ayn Rand conspicuously do not: a duty to distribute with provision to the poorest of society

That is why with the issuance of Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical, Rerum novarum (Of New Things; subtitled, "The Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor") Distributive Justice was adopted as the heart and soul of Catholic Economics.

What Is Distributive Justice?

The liberal economist Monsignor John A. Ryan (1869-1945) outlined six canons for the distributive justice of wages. The first three, needs; arithmetic equality; and efforts and sacrifices are ethical in nature; while the next two, scarcity and comparative productivity, are economic in nature. Any one by itself, consummate to the product produced, would not pay a worker a just wage. And while laborers of superior talents deserve greater reward for their efforts and creativity, the first canon of needs is prominent and must always be the first to be satisfied. All five when properly balanced against each other results in the equitable distribution of wages as described by the sixth cannon, human welfare.

It is the all-too-common mischaracterization of the canon of arithmetic equality that gives rise to the accusation that liberals are "levelers," "egalitarians" and of course, "Marxists" or "socialists." Conservatives and neoconservatives often score points by taking this one canon of distributive justice argument out of context by interchangeably using the term "redistribution of wealth." Our opponents erroneously claim that liberalism is about taking hard-earned income out of wealthier taxpayers' pockets and redistributing it to the poor solely for the sake of soaking the rich. Nothing could be further from the truth.

First, the canons of distributive economic justice only apply when the employer enterprise can first provide his family with their basic needs. Secondly, it kicks in solely to justly distribute profits proportionately based upon meritorious contribution. Cleary, that is not Marxism but a fairer form of capitalism.

Modern distributive justice was first enunciated by Catholic progressives during the early 1890s and more clearly articulated in The Bishops' Program of 1919. Led by economist-priest Monsignor John A. Ryan many in the Church were beginning to embrace the reformist ideas of the protestant Social Gospel movement then being pursued by progressive ministers such as Walter Rauschenbusch.

The Role of Progressive Taxation.

Progressive taxation has nothing to do with "the confiscation of wealth." Such an interpretation is - once again - based upon a serious misunderstanding, focusing on only one of the six interdependent cannons of distributive justice: arithmetic equality. Instead progressive taxation seeks to maintain the wealth of those who succeed by playing by the rules. This means helping the middle class maintain a standard of living for which many of its members struggle every day to maintain.

It is not merely the percentage of taxes paid that defines justice, but the payment in proportion to wealth created by each individual after which the basic necessities of life have been first satisfied. The working poor and the lower echelons of the middle classes should not be forced to pay a flat tax rate equivalent to wealthier members of our society; the overwhelming majority of the former's income goes to basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. They have little or no superfluous income. Thus, their tax burden should be the lightest.

Middle-class workers have a bit more superfluous income, but in light of their decreasing power in this area, care should be given to their tax burden. Yes, they should pay proportionately more than the poor, but always with the caveat that they fund many of our government programs.

If the middle-class or even lower echelon wealthy have some superfluous wealth by the dint of operating a small business that, too must be taken into account. The owner of a small trucking company or a produce distributor is more prone to suffer financial hardship than the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Furthermore, small business owners generally reinvest a greater proportion of their personally created wealth into their endeavors than does the hired executive. Because they are in the middle of the economic spectrum and reap the fewest benefits from the government, they naturally have a greater resentment of the abuse of tax revenue. They are the ones who, more and more, are struggling to maintain their measure of hard-earned wealth that they have created for themselves.

The stock conservative argument that our present tax system is one based upon "the envy of wealth" or "is a redistributer of wealth" is a fraud. Instead it is a value for value transaction-especially for the very wealthy. If the rich want to argue that a 90% or 70% top tax bracket is onerous, they may have a point. But having Bill Gates pay a federal tax rate of about 41% will not put a crimp in his lifestyle; he will not be denied self-development. In fact, in the early 1960s when the highest tax bracket was 90%, the conservative writer Willmoore Kendall proclaimed that if the top bracket were to be lowered to 40%, it would allow anyone to become "smacking rich."

It is the wealthy who have the most to gain but who lately have been contributing the least. Yes, the rich are entitled to their rewards, but their wealth is their reward, not massive tax rebates. And if they want to protect their wealth, it does not come without a cost: A just and progressive taxation system.

Protecting wealth means paying for military and homeland defense, as well as for "first providers" such as police, fire fighters and EMS workers. Protecting wealth means having enough funds to ensure that the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission can go after those who would engage in fraud and stock manipulation in an effort to unjustly separate the wealthy from their money. Protecting wealth means sufficiently funding the F.D.I.C. to protect citizens against bank failure.

The greater proportion of their tax burden does not come from income going primarily for basic necessities, but from overabundant, superfluous income. How can we bemoan their inability to buy a third or fourth vacation home when many hard-working Americans do not even have basic health care, let alone have the ability to purchase private property?

There is nothing wrong with being a millionaire. We should not discourage wealth creation, but encourage it. However, where we differ from the right is that wealth must gathered and maintained more fairly. Does this mean an egalitarian redistribution of wealth? No -- but, it does mean adhering to the principle that our tax contributions fairly correlate with the benefits we receive the government.

On the False Charge of Marxism.

Distributive Justice capitalism is not Marxism - although that is what many of its critics on the Right falsely allege. Instead it is a third way that strives to ignore the arbitrary power that often results from the unchecked power that accompanies both Marxism and yes, laissez-faire capitalism.

Unlike Marxism, the model presented here still centers on the twin goals of private property ownership and profit motive. And unlike under Marxist regimes our government does not become the ultimate owner of property nor of the means of production. Instead, it acts as the umpire to assure that laws and mechanisms exist to allow workers to better bargain for a fairer share of private profits, safer working conditions and the ability to acquire private property.

Marxism desires to do away with both profit and private property. Distributive Justice concentrates on the democratization of capitalism through the fairer distribution of profits to all those who produced a given product or provided a specific service.

Capitalism at its best unleashes creative forces that have provided a vast improvement in standards of livings in many, many societies. But while capitalism is the most efficient vehicle across the board, it has also been uneven and sometimes unfair in its results. The trick is to make capitalism more democratic and thus more just.

For far too long this viable economic philosophy has been in the hands of buccaneer types who see market-based economics as an excuse to satisfy greed and do so under the guise of "economic freedom." Clearly, there is no freedom for the collateral victims of economic practices that have no consideration for the common good. As we have seen in the 1920s and in the post-Reagan years, unfettered capitalists left to their own devices will only care about one thing and one thing only: maximizing profit. Government's proper role is to not to eliminate their capitalistic instinct, but to prevent that instinct from causing unnecessary collateral harm.

The distributive justice model differs from the laissez-faire model is in its understanding that a just form of capitalism requires a sturdy government guarding against exhibitions of arbitrary economic power. Its mechanisms include the governmental oversight oversight of financial institutions, progressive taxation and policies that favor the distribution of profit primarily based upon an individual's contribution in creating such profit.

"Good Catholic Doctrine."

This is far from the first time Liberals have been called Marxists or Socialists for wanting to use the power of government to ensure that capitalism be fairer and less predatory. It is a battle that was being fought a hundred years ago often in the form of providing workers with safe working conditions.

Shortly after the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, two prominent Catholic politicians took up the cause of Distributive Justice. They were then-New York State Senator Robert Wagner and then-Assembly Speaker Al Smith - two giants whose imprimatur would be on FDR's New Deal.  As Dave Von Drehle recounts in pages 215-216 of his book, Triangle: The Fire that Changed America:

The work of 1912 produced a series of new laws in the 1913 legislature that was unmatched to that time in American history. The Tammany Twins [Wagner and Smith] pushed through twenty-five bills, entirely recasting the labor laws of the nation's largest state. There were more fire safety laws - by that point, two years after the Triangle fire, nearly every deficiency in the Asch Building [the site of the Triangle fire] had been addressed. Automatic sprinklers were required in high-rise buildings. Fire drills were mandatory in large shops. Doors had to be unlocked and had to swing outward. Other new laws enhanced protections for women and children and restricted manufacturing by poor families in their tenement apartments. To enforce the laws, the Factory Commission pushed through a complete reorganization of the State Department of Labor.

Business leaders didn't quite know what had hit them. But gradually they started making their complaints known.. Real estate interests, in particular, were upset by the number of safety modifications they were required to make. One member of the Factory Commission, Robert Dowling was a New York real estate man, and he often found himself dissenting from the sweeping recommendations pushed by the volunteer staff. (Eventually he resigned from the commission, blaming Francis Perkins, in particular, for going too far.)  He saw it as his job to remind Wagner and Smith of the costs involved in their unprecedented reforms. During one executive session, he referred to the statistics on the number of people killed in factory fires. Notwithstanding the catastrophe at the Triangle, he ventured, "It is an infinitesimal proportion of the population."

Mary Dreier was shocked. "Bur Mr. Dowling," she cried, "they were men and women! They were human souls. It was a hundred percent for them."

Smith jumped in on Dreier's side. "That's good Catholic doctrine, Robert! He declared.

Not Marxism or even socialism; as Al Smith said, just "good Catholic doctrine."

(1)   Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, "Question 61: The Parts of Justice, Article 2."

I don't think so.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 04:34:52 PM EST

will quickly point out Roman Catholic voters' obligation in this matter, I am sure. I'm listening...

by nogodsnomasters on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 08:03:31 PM EST

I suppose you slightly hit it a glancing blow! But if you compare the rate of CEO pay in America to other countries, it is mind boggling. Depending on the source, it is said the average US CEO pay is between 260 and 400% of the average worker pay. And worse, it isn't tied to productivity.

Even some extremely rich men say the disparity is not healthy - Warren Buffet, notably. This from his Heritage Institute:

Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, has said that the ability of corporations to rein in skyrocketing CEO pay is the "acid test" of corporate governance reform. In a shareholder report dated February 28, 2006, he states, "Too often, executive compensation in the U.S. is ridiculously out of line with performance." "Getting fired can produce a particularly bountiful payday for a CEO. Indeed, he can "earn" more in that single day, while cleaning out his desk, than an American worker earns in a lifetime of cleaning toilets. Forget the old maxim about nothing succeeding like success: Today, in the executive suite, the all-too-prevalent rule is that nothing succeeds like failure."

People who work hard at ordinary jobs making and transporting widgets, doing data entry, answering phones, ringing up sales, etc., deserve a fair wage based on the profits of their company - that they contribute heavily to. They shouldn't be paid a sub-living wage that results in their needing government assistance in the first place.

While it may be true that without the CEO, the workers wouldn't have jobs, the converse is also true, a fact that the wealthy elite seem conveniently to forget.

by phatkhat on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 08:36:52 PM EST

Paul Ryan undercuts a very Catholic tradition with his focus on greed is good (last time I heard it was one of the Seven Deadly Sins) and pelvic issues to serve as "rube bait," in the words of Mike Lofgren. As the presidential campaign goes into the last weeks, I hope I will be spared political homilies as we start up a new choir season. We've managed to avoid that, but I don't know if our luck will hold out.

One thing that amazes me is the amount of people who believe political falsehoods and then regurgitate them in letters to the editor columns everywhere. It reminds me of the old saying that "a lie travels halfway round the world while truth is still putting on its boots." We saw the real Romney in the video from the May fundraising dinner, and it is not a pretty sight.

by khughes1963 on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 09:34:17 PM EST

Mary, mother of Jesus, was pretty specific about what was supposed to happen: "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty."

During the Civil War in El Salvador, the military quite properly considered The Magnificat to be a subversive text. Priests who took the side of the poor understood that preaching on it was a very brave and dangerous undertaking. Too many church-goers in the U.S. sing or recite it without any regard for what it really means. Talk about radical redistribution!

by MLouise on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 09:51:01 AM EST

Conversations between people from different social science disciplines and within disciplines came to the conclusion that the economic system that guaranteed the greatest freedom for the most people was a very carefully and strictly regulated capitalism.  We've discussed various forms of communism (dated) and socialism, as well as other economic systems we've encountered around the world.  Some wouldn't work in today's world, others, well, they really only serve to empower the 1% even if the rhetoric is anti-rich or anti-capitalism.  (I might mention that there are new "forms" of neosocialist thought that are very similar to regulated capitalism, except that critical and necessary-for-survival industries and only those industries should be nationalized, like energy and food production.  I rather like their arguments, but realize that there are potential problems inherent in such a move.)

Part of the argument we hear from the right is that rules hurt businesses, but then they haven't experienced being harmed by a greedy and crooked business either.

The dislike of laws and regulations, which is the core of the Tea Party and has taken over the Republican party for the most part, stems from people not wanting the Federal government telling them that they couldn't abuse minorities and the poor.  That's what started the Religious Right back in the early years (read Frank Shaeffer about that), and grew to where any regulation or control is considered bad.  I would argue that most of the people who support that mindset are bigots or have never experienced the "dark side" of American business/society.  If they had, they might start to understand that in ALL cultures, regulations and rules are necessary - not to maintain positions of wealth or privilege (which is a false assumption I've heard and read), but to help prevent selfish and greedy people from harming others.

Every, and I mean EVERY bit of suffering today can be tied to greed in some way.  It may be very indirect, but the connection is there.  It could be DIRECT, as we saw in 2008/2009 and later years.

Social sciences and Progressive Catholics (IMO, there really can't be anything BUT progressive Christians) have common causes and common understanding on this topic, and I was struck by the similarities between this posting and the conversations I've been part of.

BTW... you have a broken link (or it's been blocked somehow) in your posting - where you mention that Soviet-style communism is a form of anti-liberalism.

by ArchaeoBob on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 11:44:05 AM EST


by Frank Cocozzelli on Wed Sep 26, 2012 at 08:41:06 AM EST

Well, I can tell you one thing, you can pretty well just forget Mother Mary as the source of any worthwhile economic theory. Maybe she was an economic whizz-kid, but she didn't publish anything, and most folks would not be willing to accept second-, third-, or fourth hand hearsay evidence as to what she was thinking. Far more relevant would be a discussion of what a young, idealistic priest named Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta was thinking in 1956.

I am mystified that such an articulate article on Catholic capitalism would ignore Don Jose Maria's MONDRAGON cooperative system, which is the most successful application of Catholic economic theory that has ever existed. Arguably, the most successful economic system, period.

MONDRAGON teaches us that the only viable approach to economic equality is not by teaching some high-flautin' theory to the power-heads, politicians, and professors in the hopes that they will see the light of what's right and buy into it.

The secret is to provide workers with an alternative system that is fairer and promises them more than greed-based, investor/profit-driven capitalism can ever offer them. History and reason suggest that it is not possible to use reason to budge the powerful who have nothing to gain and much to lose by being budged. You either promote revolution or you build a better system around them and let them starve for lack of labor and markets.

MONDRAGON and United Steelworkers have teamed up to to explore how to implement MONDRAGON in the US. The original Basque version of MONDRAGON, started by Don Jose in 1956, now has revenues of 15 billion Euros, 90,000 workers on the payroll, its own banking system, its own health system, and an amazing retirement system. It was built from the bottom up, and will have to be re-built in the US in the same way, not by convincing filthy rich liberal leaders of banking and industry (most of whom are Jewish) that Mary was an economic guru or that greed is OK in small doses only.

The trick is to convince the workers that they can do this on their own, with their own capital, for the benefit of their own futures. The Internet will be a powerful tool in this initiative. Can't imagine where MONDRAGON would be today if Don Jose had had it in 1956.

by Denis on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 10:12:11 PM EST
"not by convincing filthy rich liberal leaders of banking and industry (most of whom are Jewish)"

If anything, that bigoted sentence kills every bit of curiosity that I had regarding that system, and I will fight it tooth and nail.  I am a Liberal and by definition Liberals care about people rather than power/profits/prestige (with only a couple of exceptions, the rich are not liberal - they're conservative).  I resent the Jewish comment greatly for my friends' sake as well as for the sake of honest truth.  The fact is, both aspects of that comment are very much out of line and based on ancient, hoary old LIES, and they promote bigoted stereotypes that should have died centuries if not millenia ago.

You sound like a communist... which are conservative by nature and no different to up-to-date social scientists than the capitalists (as well as being based on a very DATED theoretical framework).  Just like the communists, you try to sell hate along with your product (they're virulently anti-liberal and anti-Jewish).  

Sorry, but I'm not buying.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 10:25:56 AM EST

Jesus. Your credibility is ruined by your anti-Semitism, Denis.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Wed Sep 26, 2012 at 08:39:35 AM EST
We believe that knowing and understanding that, and trying to understand where Jesus was coming from (culture, etc.) is necessary for understanding what He taught, and critical to beginning to understand the Bible itself (along with a knowledge of the REAL history of the Bible - not the "God Dictated it" nonsense you get from Fundies).

by ArchaeoBob on Wed Sep 26, 2012 at 10:13:27 AM EST

I believe you have misunderstood the intent of my comment, which was not to assert that Mary expressed any formal economic theory or plan, but rather to demonstrate that the ideas of redistribution of wealth and distributive justice have their roots in the very earliest texts of Christendom. I am affirming Frank Cocozzelli's thesis that redistribution is not Marxism, but rather "Good Catholic Doctrine."

As for the age of the text, current best scholarship dates the Gospel of Luke from somewhere between 64 C.E. and the first decade of the second century, with the most likely date of composition being in the late '80's or '90's of the first century. And it is generally accepted that The Magnificat represents a hymn existing in the oral tradition of the early church for decades before it was written down. Referring to oral tradition material as "hearsay evidence" is not really appropriate, I believe, when dealing with a semi-literate culture.

In biographical material on the website advocating canonization of Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta I find this statement: " March 1936 he dedicated himself to God and the Virgin Mary, a personal precept of life as a priest." It seems quite likely that the priest whose work you applaud was himself inspired by the vision of distributive justice articulated by Mary.

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