Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Some responses to Anthony Annett on Social Democracy and Catholic Social Thought

A little while ago, Anthony Annett had an essay in Commonweal called "The Theology of Social Democracy," the thesis of which was that "Catholic social teaching guides us beyond neoliberalism."  Put aside doubts one might have about whether "neoliberalism" has agreed upon content or is, instead, a protean epithet used to dismiss all views that have some consonance with human nature and experience; it is certainly the case that Catholic social teaching (correctly understood) guides us beyond "-isms" generally.

By "social democracy" Annett means "an economic system predicated on the belief that an economy must be underpinned not only by property rights but also by economic rights. More concretely, in a social democracy, the government supplies public goods, uses the welfare state to protect people from adverse economic circumstances, and promotes unions to make sure that workers can bargain for their fair share of economic progress."  Fair enough.  It is not controversial, even in the most "neoliberal" crannies of the Catholic intellectual and scholarly space, to note that the Church's proposals regarding the policy implications of the truth about the human person resonate with at least some aspects of "social democracy" and challenge some aspects of its alternatives.  It is true, as Annett writes, that the "Catholic social teaching forged a middle path between free-market libertarianism and socialist collectivism" (and, to be clear, statism).  There is much in Annett's essay about the "common good", "subsidiarity" (which is often misunderstood), and "integral human development" that is both timely and sound.

But, Annett's piece is undermined by a lot of straw-manning and factual mistakes.  He writes, for example, "[Social democracy] can be contrasted with the approach of free-market economics or economic libertarianism. Under those two systems, the only rights recognized are property rights. A free-market system might allow for a minimal social safety net to prevent outright destitution, but nothing more than that." But, there are no "systems" in the world where "the only rights recognized are property rights."  And, there are no market economies that provide "nothing more than" the minimal social safety net he describes.  There are no economic systems -- certainly, despite Annett's suggestions to the contrary, the United States is not such a system -- where the "free market" is not pervasively regulated.  Indeed, the economic system in the United States is acknowledged by those who examine the matter to be, in many ways, more regulated than the systems in some countries that Annett would characterize, I suspect, as "social democracies."

Annett claims that, in the Catholic tradition, "economic rights [are] the central rights, even before civil and political rights", but this is not supportable (and the sources he cites do not support the claim). His statement that, since the rise of "neoliberalism", "productivity and economic growth have been slower" is false (so long as one does not blame "neoliberalism" for the fact that the second war, and the rebuilding that followed, eventually ended).  He contends that one of the "pillars" of operationalizing Catholic social teaching and social teaching is "complete decarbonization" but has nothing (realistic or fact-tethered) to say about how this might happen, globally, so long as the PRC is uninterested in the project and so long as billions of people living in developing nations are not likely to welcome outsiders' edicts that they accept non-growth.  He calls for more labor-union power (again, this is a call that resonates with much in 20th century Catholic social thought) but says nothing about the fact that, in the United States anyway, the unions largely represent high-earning public-sector workers whose demands and expectations are costly to lower-income people not employed by governments.  (He also neglects the fact that, in the United States today, public-employee unions stymie reforms that Catholic social teaching calls for clearly, such as school choice.)  And, he overlooks the fact that the economic "system" he praises, in mid-century America, depended crucially on a labor force that was limited by the relative absence of competition from women, from immigrants, and from workers in developing countries.  There can be no welfare state of the kind Annett calls for without meaningful enforcement of boundaries, both geographical and communal.  The challenge of such enforcement is not mentioned in Annett's essay.

Annett concludes by saying that, to accomplish the changes he envisions, "[t]he political Left would need to return to its working-class roots, moving away from the politics of culture and identity—the politics favored by educated elites. The political Right, meanwhile, would need to rediscover the successes of Christian democracy, and turn away from neoliberalism and climate-change denialism."  There's something to this, I think (again, "neoliberalism" isn't really a thing and doubts about the feasibility anytime soon of global decarbonization does not make one a climate-change denier).  The key thing, it seems to me, is to appreciate that Catholic social teaching (correctly understood) is not "separate" from "social issues", "life issues", etc.  The Church's proposals are, at bottom, about the nature and destiny of the person - they are not just about economic arrangements and systems, and the proposals that do bear on such arrangements and systems are inseparable from those that bear on (e.g.) religious freedom, educational pluralism, and constitutional arrangements that constrain governments. 

Anyway . . . check it out.


Garnett, Rick | Permalink


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