There are two passages from Sacred Scripture which, taken together, illustrate well the place which economic activity should occupy in human life. The first is the well-known warning about riches by St. Paul in his first letter to Timothy, chapter 6. It begins,
There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.
If we continue the quotation we will come upon the famous “love of money is the root of all evils” passage, but let us instead turn to a different text, St. Luke’s Gospel, chapter 12. Here our Lord says, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” These two quotations, the first supplying a rule for our conduct with regard to external goods, the second supplying the foundation and reason for the rule, succinctly capture the outlook on material goods, and hence on economic activity, which ought to characterize not only Christians, but any sensible person who lives a life beyond the merely sensual level.
Just as it is proper for other animals to live according to their peculiar natures, so it is with us. We are social, even political animals, that is, we are meant to live in ordered political communities, under some kind of directing authority, however that may be constituted. We are meant to live with suitable shelter and adornment, not simply exist, eat and reproduce, in fact, to live proper human lives, exercising various arts to enhance and enliven our condition, acquiring knowledge not only of the natural world, but of human history, and preeminently of God himself. And we are meant to pass down these arts and this knowledge to our descendants.
Now clearly in doing all these things we need many kinds of external goods. But note that we need these goods for the sake of something else, something greater and more important than the goods themselves. We build houses, for example, to keep ourselves warm and dry and to protect our possessions, not as an end in itself. And so with this in mind, let us look at the second of our passages from the Bible first, namely that “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Our Lord is repeating the truth that the possessions we have and need for living our life are not ends in themselves. They are subordinate to both the natural and supernatural ends of human life. We are meant to live well in this world and by living well to attain eternal life. Living well means, of course, living as creatures who recognize God and his law, but this does not require us to reject the external goods which nature, or better God, provides us, and which are essential, or at least useful, for living the truly human life I sketched above. But these are still means to an end, for our life does not consist in their possession, rather their possession and right use assist us to live as our nature indicates. And still less does our life consist in the abundance of those things. A reasonable amount is normally required, yes, but beyond that there is simply an irrational desire for things for the sake of things. Thus our first quotation, that of St. Paul, “if we have food and clothing,” that is, if we have what is necessary and helpful for a truly human life, “with these we shall be content.” Why? Because “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” and therefore “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.” They desire goods beyond what is reasonable for a proper human life, and this constitutes a temptation to sin, a snare which can even lead to eternal damnation. In the precise language of moral theology, riches are an occasion of sin for most people, and a society that celebrates money and parades the possession of material goods for its own sake is guilty of working against the chief end of man, the attainment of eternal life.
Now what does this have to do with economics or economic systems?
If our primary and most important goal is living well here and thereby attaining eternal life, it is hard to see why we should construct a social system which routinely hinders the attainment of that goal. Yet many Catholics celebrate an economic system, capitalism, whose chief claim to fame is that it creates stuff, mounds of stuff, and which has absolutely no internal principle by which it can distinguish between true goods which are necessary or helpful for mankind, and mere stuff, which distracts and even tends to prevent our reaching our final end.
How does capitalism do that? If we take our understanding of what capitalism is from Pope Pius XI’s encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (1931), I think we will be able to see how and why capitalism has a strong tendency to distort economic activity toward a disordered end, the mere accumulation of riches. Pope Pius characterizes it as “that economic system in which were provided by different people the capital and labor jointly needed for production” (no. 100). In other words, under capitalism for the most part some people, capitalists, hire others, workers, to work for them, the first supplying the capital, the second the labor. In the extreme form of the corporation, those who are the legal owners of the corporation, the stock holders, supply the capital, but have absolutely nothing to do with the work of the enterprise, often not fully aware of what the company even does. And with mutual funds this principle is extended even farther, and ownership is lodged in combinations of anonymous investors, who are hardly even aware of the companies whose shares their fund owns.
I hasten to add that the mere separation of ownership from work is not in itself an injustice. Otherwise it would be always and everywhere wrong for one person to hire another to do work. Rather the capitalist system constitutes a social danger whenever it becomes the predominant form of economic organization, because no longer do those who control the economy have a direct interest in supplying useful and well-made goods in exchange for a just and reasonable remuneration. Because of their separation from work, capitalists are now one or two steps removed from the actual economic process, and so naturally they tend not to think about real economic goods, but about their dividend checks or the value of their portfolios. They are generally prepared to sell or buy shares according to the rise and fall of the market, and have no intrinsic connection with the business or its products, nor is a desire to help supply the external goods the human race requires in order to pursue its path to heaven generally a major factor in their investment decisions.
Although legally stockholders are in the same situation as the owner of a small workshop, in actual fact their “ownership” is a legal fiction; their connection to the company exists merely on paper. A stockholder is interested in monetary gain, not in production of a good product, and would usually be equally satisfied if he made his money by the company being bought out or merged, even if that meant that its particular product was no longer produced. It is no good to argue that a corporation must take a real interest in its product since otherwise it would have few or no sales. No, for the company is satisfied if it can persuade the public to buy its product, whether that product is useless or harmful, well-made or ill-made. Any interest in product quality extends only as far as that is necessary for sales. A capitalist company does not see its role as serving human life on the material side so that mankind can live well and attain its eternal end. The separation of ownership from work creates a class of owners of capital who see the entire economic process in terms of their own gain, and have no notion of how it was intended by God to fit into a hierarchy of human acts and ends, so that our
economic aims, whether of society as a body or of individuals, will be intimately linked with the universal teleological order, and as a consequence we shall be led by progressive stages to the final end of all, God Himself, our highest and lasting good.1
If I own a workshop or small business, on the other hand, I generally take some interest or pride in my product, even if I am primarily interested in the money I earn. Even in a capitalist economy, if an owner participates in his enterprise, say as a manager, but without doing any of the manufacturing work, he may still feel a kind of interest or pride in his product, and look upon it as more than merely a means for making money. The contrasting attitudes toward the product produced and toward money are well illustrated in this quotation from Hilaire Belloc.
But wealth obtained indirectly as profit out of other men’s work, or by process of exchange, becomes a thing abstracted from the process of production. As the interest of a man in things diminishes, his interest in abstract wealth – money – increases. The man who makes a table or grows a crop makes the success of the crop or the table a test of excellence. The intermediary who buys and sells the crop or the table is not concerned with the goodness of table or crop, but with the profit he makes between their purchase and sale. In a productive society the superiority of the things produced is the measure of success: in a Commercial society the amount of wealth accumulated by the dealer is the measure of success.2
From the quotation from St. Paul that we looked at above we can see that the attitude toward economic activity fostered by capitalism is detrimental to the spiritual and moral health of the very people who are seen as having won in the capitalist game of wealth accumulation. For it is they who “fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.” So far from winning at life’s game, they are among the chief victims of the capitalist mentality. But in other important ways this mentality poisons the entire social order. For it subtly teaches us to regard economic activity as divorced from that “universal teleological order, [by which] we shall be led by progressive stages to the final end of all, God Himself, our highest and lasting good.” We are all taught that riches are their own end, and many who are by no means winners in the capitalist race also “fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.” They ardently wish not for a sufficiency so that they can turn their attention to things of lasting value, but they wish to become rich, and our society honors that wish. Instead of looking upon those aspiring to become wealthy as foolish, it regards that goal as so obviously natural as to require neither comment nor justification.
Because “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” therefore “if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” There is no other way for a Christian to understand economic activity and our relationship to material goods. But we must likewise recognize that our society is very far from such a Christian attitude. Thus we must consciously dissent from the irrational seeking after riches that is proposed to us, implicitly and often explicitly, as the natural goal of human life. It is not our goal: “for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.” All of us must die, and after that is another life for which the desire for unreasonable riches ill prepares us. That is the true goal of human life, a goal which, if we miss, we will regret for all eternity.