Yesterday, I began looking at last week’s conference “Liberty and Solidarity: Living the Vocation to Business,” co-sponsored by the Catholic University of America’s Business School and the Napa Institute, the brainchild of Catholic businessman Tim Busch who is also on the CUA Board of Trustees.
The second day began with a talk by Catherine Pakaluk of Ave Maria University. Pakaluk set out to define solidarity and how it applies to the marketplace. She rightly noted that the concept of solidarity enters into Catholic Social Teaching without ever achieving a clear definition, and then provided her own, which she acknowledged was still a draft definition: “unity arising from fraternal charity.” I am sympathetic enough with Thomism to recognize the need for clear definitions, but it was when Pakaluk turned to how the market can incorporate fraternity and solidarity that she lost me. In part, this was because she began by poking fun at the Starbucks Fair Trade coffee campaign, with its pictures on posters of those who are involved harvesting the beans, mostly in poor regions of the globe. She acknowledged “the human impulse to know the person with whom we exchange goods” but the “cutout of Jose” doesn’t cut it. She counseled paying more attention to the barrista in front of you and getting to know her. Of course, I can fix Professor Pakaluk up with some friends who once brought me into the coffee growing regions of Chiapas so she can see what a real difference fair trade programs make in the lives of very poor people, the people behind the cutouts in our suburban stores. And, I certainly endorse getting to know the local barrista and establishing solidarity with her too. Are these mutually exclusive? And, why the cheap shot at Starbucks for doing good? Shouldn't Catholics want to ensure that free trade is also fair trade? Still, the real problem with Pakaluk’s talk is that she stopped short of the interesting questions.
I agree in part that solidarity presupposes personal virtue, as she stated, but she did not ask whether the market frustrates such a presupposition when present, or punishes its absence, or deforms it in practice. Is the relationship of virtue, any virtue, to participation in the market solely an extrinsic relationship – that the virtue must be present in advance, and understood solely as a personal virtue – or are there ways to build solidarity into the marketplace intrinsically? I am reminded of Madison’s observation in Federalist #51 – “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” It seems to me that one of the chief difficulties of these free market advocates in Catholic garb is that their argument boils down to the truly pedestrian observation that if people were more virtuous, the market would be more virtuous. I am all in favor of more virtue and less vice among all classes of people, but there are more interesting questions to be posed here. The real problem with modern capitalism, it seems to me, is that it forces people to behave as if they are greedy even when they are not, an inculcation of vice that historian Brad Gregory notes began with the rise of late medieval mercantilism and has only grown exponentially since. That is something worth discussing, but, of course, we were not allowed to ask questions after Pakaluk's presentation because that is not how it is done at the Napa Institute.
The next speaker was Mary Hirschfeld of Villanova, who has a first rate economic mind and a first rate theological mind, a rare and happy combination. She made many fine points, her first being that there is a tension between the Church’s recognition of the right to private property and the social mortgage on all property resulting from the universal destination of goods. “This leaves people of good will with the question of how to balance their pursuit of their own interests with the call to care for others,” she said, adding that in our current cultural climate, there is an overly individualistic understanding of the human person. Hirschfeld also noted, importantly, that the “second reason for the difficulty we have in balancing the pursuit of our own interests with the demands of others lies in our misunderstanding of the nature of the good life.” The good life is not, for Catholics, as it is for modernity, merely a “matter of satisfying one’s preferences.”
Hirschfeld reiterated a point she made when she spoke at a conference I helped organize in June, namely, that Aquinas is clear that material goods are :instrumental goods….goods that are desirable in light of the ends they are meant to serve. In many ways, Aquinas shares modern sensibilities about this…But Aquinas differs [from us moderns] in one crucial way: unlike us, Aquinas thinks that our desire for material goods should be measured or bounded by the ends they serve.” She employed the example of aspirin – you need two to cure your headache, and taking twenty has no helpful effect. But, in our consumer culture, more is always better because we forget that the material goods are instrumental. “The tragedy of our disordered relationship with material goods is that it keeps us working harder and harder without really bring us nearer to the higher human goods that constitute real flourishing.” Her conclusion was something for everyone to ponder: “We spend a lot of time worrying about how to efficiently convert resources into income. We should spend as much time worrying about how to convert income into a life well lived. Until we do, we will fail to do right by others, but also we will fail to do right by ourselves.”
Hirschfeld makes important points. Her critique of the ambient culture, and bracing honesty about the limits of overcoming the difficulties of that culture, all ring true. But, I also fear that she, like Pakaluk, is fixed on issues of extrinsic virtue and, as well, that her analysis is susceptible of a highly privatized understanding of virtue. N.B. I am not saying that she holds such a privatized understanding of virtue and solidarity and all the rest, but that her talk did not challenge such an understanding. I fear that many conservative Catholic commentators these days want to do with the pope’s critique of modern capitalism what their political allies want to do with government programs: privatize! But, the difficulties are not all personal and private, they are structural too. I would love to know what Hirschfeld thinks on these issues but, again, there were no questions allowed.
Tomorrow, I will wrap up my thoughts on this puzzling conference.