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Socio-Economics from the Outside

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 15, 2011

There is a certain paralysis that can afflict socio-economic discussions even among committed Catholics. For example, the other day I thought of adding my two cents to the discussion list for the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, where every member must sign a statement of fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church. But at the last minute, I deleted rather than sent my message, because I guessed my two cents would be just more noise in the wind tunnel. Then yesterday I found myself staring at Paul Collier’s 2010 book The Plundered Planet, which I’ve had on my shelf for a long time but have yet to read. Once again, I failed to begin reading it, because I doubt I really know how to assess the book.

There were two kinds of paralysis at work here. The SCSS is an outstanding academic fraternity. I’m a member though I am no longer an active scholar. Of late the discussion forum has been preoccupied with a debate over how it should be used. This is essentially a three-sided conflict but with a hundred variations. On one side are those who yearn to restrict the list to reasoned academic exchanges personally written by each scholar; on the second side are those who cannot resist constantly returning to their pet (and sometimes peculiar) ideas in each post, no matter what the topic; and on the third side are those who apparently live in the fear that if they fail to pass along to the entire list all the spam-like alerts they receive from other sources, then their poor colleagues will remain forever in the darkest ignorance.

As I indicated, I almost jumped into this, drafting a message which was pure sweetness and light (and with which, by the way, only a moron could have failed to agree). But in the end I decided against it. In some discussions, there are simply too many competing voices (and varying personalities) for progress to be made. Under these circumstances, the cream does not always rise to the top. In fact, given the range and power of the media through which people everywhere can express their ideas to the world at large, there are now a great many important discussions which suffer from too many conflicting voices, making progress extremely difficult. We have not quite learned how to deal with this yet in the modern world, and the result is not infrequently a kind of paralysis. A thousand conflicting ideas, and never a consensus in sight. Call this the paralysis of cacophony.

The second type is closely related. It is the paralysis of ignorance. Socio-economic discussions encompass a vast territory. There are so many variables that go into a smoothly functioning socio-economic order that not even the alleged experts can master all the relevant data or predict outcomes accurately. Every economic system (however defined) operates (however defined) within some socio-cultural setting (however defined) under the guidance (however defined) of real persons (however defined!) who must balance diverse priorities in a changing world. While the application of sound theoretical principles is important and even salutary, there are always too many variables, each of them skewed by the unpredictable responses of the persons they impact. Very commonly, expert opinions are contradictory. We simply do not, and in most cases cannot, know enough to be certain of the best course. The one constant is that we shall be required to revisit each solution later to make adjustments.

The Provisional and the Prudent

The Church herself does not specify the precise nature of the perfect socio-economic solution to each problem. She has no charism to do so because specific solutions are not derived from either Revelation or the natural law. But this reticence (which ought to, but does not, encompass all Churchmen) is actually somewhat instructive. For the plain fact is that all socio-economic solutions must by their nature be provisional. While they certainly ought to be selected or devised based on sound principles, every one of them will fall short of the ideal in actual practice, which means tinkering must continue ever after. As the sage said, that’s life. Socio-economic solutions are always provisional, and therefore always prudential.

Paradoxically, it is precisely this inescapable fact that can serve to overcome paralysis, at least among those who share the same Faith and the same perception of the natural law (as happily elucidated by the Catholic Church). I am referring here again to the highly ironic dual paralysis of too many highly opinionated voices on the one hand and too much ignorance on the other, a typical human situation about which, if we are sufficiently detached in our own views, we ought to be able to laugh. We can genuinely listen to others and explore various possibilities only if we acknowledge the essential “provisionality” of our own socio-economic commitments. In a sense, as soon as we have a definite horse in the race, we are prone to get ourselves into ideological trouble. A healthy sense of the provisional and prudential character of each solution is a critical first step.

But this provisionality does not operate in a vacuum. Specific socio-economic solutions are provisional. The nature and ends of man are not. This or that policy is a matter of prudence, but the basic principles within which such policies and solutions must operate are not. This is why I said that the paralysis of socio-economic thought ought to be able to be overcome by recognizing its provisionality among those who share the same Faith and the same perception of the natural law. For what the natural law and, indeed, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church can provide is a set of minimal parameters, a set of principles not to guarantee success but to define inevitable failure. A society cannot succeed if it ignores or denies these principles, but within the framework of the principles, everything else is provisional, prudential, inevitably flawed, and constantly changing.

Note, please, that I do not say it makes no difference what specific systems and solutions we devise to handle various human problems, including the generation and distribution of wealth. Human study and experience can and often do lead to a clearer understanding of how economics works, how various systems function, what sort of impact certain kinds of policies can have under various circumstances, and so on. I deeply respect such studies, but I have never had a great interest in them myself (I lean toward non-provisional studies, so to speak). For this reason, I typically rely heavily on the work of others in deciding which specific solutions and policies to support. This fact defines the title of the essay.

Fortunately, I do not need to know very much about them to make the argument this essay requires. Here I must simply assert that no matter how good these specific systems and solutions are, they will be neither perfectly predictable in their outcomes nor perfectly comprehensive in their results. No one idea will be suited to all peoples, all conditions, all situations. The whole process must inevitably be an ongoing and never-ending experiment, and we are wise to cling only provisionally (that is, loosely) to our own ideas. We must not consider our very identities to be at stake if we should be forced to admit that something we favor is flawed, unsuitable to the present situation, or incapable for the moment of gaining sufficient support.

Another way of looking at the provisional character of socio-economic solutions is to acknowledge our perennial instinct in debate that everybody else is an idiot. I believe we may take this as a given. It certainly explains why we constantly face the ironically twofold paralysis of cacophony and ignorance. Unfortunately, this broad assertion of the idiocy of everybody else says nothing about ourselves except that our own odds are not favorable.


I believe this principle of provisionality is self-evident, and I intend to waste no time in proving it. Our policy discussions will shed far more light and far less heat wherever this principle is recognized. On the other hand, as I indicated, there are boundaries to provisionality when it comes to the nature, ends and duties of man. When these boundaries are ignored or violated, failure is inevitable. Therefore, what I am prepared to do is to articulate the broad principles apart from which all specific efforts to improve the socio-economic order are doomed. These I draw from Catholic social teaching, though without references, for the need to research everything is sometimes another form of paralysis. In any case, Catholic social teaching is, in the end, largely a matter of human common sense, if only most of us could be relied upon to possess common sense in a systematic and clearly articulated form.

There are a variety of ways to express and enumerate these boundary principles. Late last year, I suggested seven similar points from a more purely political point of view in Politics 101: Principles First. But today I’ll resort to the rule of tens. Here are my ten principles, except that they are not really mine. As the great Augustine said, “He who speaks what is solely his own, speaks a lie.”

1. The Reality of Creation

The earth and all that is in it is created, including ourselves. This simple fact places all socio-economic questions into the correct context, which is the only context in which they can be effectively answered. For now, it is sufficient that this principle means the fundamental purposes of everything in our experience have been and are determined by Another, that we are not free to submit ourselves or the rest of creation to our own arbitrary wills, and that the humility to seek the fundamental meaning and purpose of things is a prerequisite for the success of every response to every human need.

2. The Law of the Gift

This is a direct corollary of the first principle. Everything we know has, in the last analysis, come to us as a gift. Our life, our health, our intelligence, our abilities, other persons, the resources of the entire known universe—all is gift. Gifts imply a Giver and they demand the response of gratitude. This principle is absolutely vital as a separate point primarily because it conditions our attitudes toward everything else. The law of the gift, when properly cherished in the heart, makes it impossible to be churlish in our handling of created things. It leads us to be generous with others just as we have been showered with constant generosity ourselves.

3. The Universal Destination of Goods

It is or ought to be obvious from a moment’s reflection that the resources of the entire known universe were not given just for ourselves. The Giver, quite clearly, intended them for the benefit of all. This is perhaps the first of these principles which is always articulated in Catholic social teaching even when some of the others are taken for granted. It is not hard to see why, for every human persons feels a temptation at times to have more than his fair share, and we all need to be prodded to watch out for those who, for whatever combination of reasons, may not be able to enjoy the gifts the Giver so obviously intended them to have. The Universal Destination of Goods is the principle that both accentuates and limits every person’s socio-economic rights.

4. The Centrality of Man

Among created beings not of a purely spiritual order, man is the only one which possesses intellect and will, like God. Put another way, in the visible world, only men and women are persons. And only persons are capable of analysis, judgment, and planned interaction to address needs and solve problems. It follows that every system and solution that must be devised takes its character from human decisions and human guidance. There is no such thing as a solution to a need or problem which runs on perfectly or inevitably without human actors to develop, shape and guide it. It is not possible to conceive of an economic or socio-economic system which, if only it is once begun, will operate inevitably to some desired end, according to its own internal and self-contained laws. All ideology is a dead end. But human wisdom is not. Ongoing human input is the mainspring of every system.

5. The Foundation of the Family

Arising from the very nature of man, we find that the family is the fundamental unit of the social order. There is no other consistent way to ensure either the propagation of the race or the formation of contented, stable and high-functioning adults—a truth our culture is currently being forced to learn the hard way. The family is also a defense against what we might call generational selfishness, as it is by nature oriented toward future generations, with their rights and needs balancing our own. As such it also serves as an effective school of stewardship. Finally, the family fosters the kind of commitment, sacrifice and interdependence which leads to both personal security and prosperity. Any culture which denigrates the family, tends to break it down or subvert its natural authority, or weakens the fruitful fidelity between a man and woman which brings the family into being and holds it together, will in fact deeply undermine its other efforts at social progress.

6. The Morality of Socio-Economic Life

Socio-economic life is moral at its root, that is, it is driven by a constant stream of decisions which are moral in character. Each socio-economic proposal, policy or solution must address and balance a variety of human goods. The technical competence and feasibility of the solution is matched by the range of values which must be considered and incorporated. Therefore, all socio-economic life is inescapably moral. Once again, to assume that some theoretical technical system, or some inevitable (and therefore non-moral) laws of operation, will necessarily shape the socio-economic order toward optimal outcomes is a grave fallacy. Individual moral decisions on the part of all participants, especially moral decisions within the parameters established by the other principles enunciated here, are both essential and constant.

7. The Right to Private Property

Within the context of prior principles, it is also true that in general human persons have a right to the fruit of their labor, including ownership of goods they have legitimately acquired through their imitation of God’s work in perfecting the created order. Ownership is a fundamental expression of the individual personality. As such, it is also a fundamental incentive for diligence and productivity. In addition, human dignity is enhanced through ownership—through property that may be considered private—because ownership in effect makes the person a stakeholder in the socio-economic order, to which he must contribute and from which he receives benefits, and concerning which he must consider policies and implement prudent decisions. All persons, then, possess the right to own, which also means that wealthy and powerful persons may not unfairly restrict this right in others.

8. The Obligation of Solidarity

All rights exist in relationship to corresponding duties which reflect the fundamentally moral character of the social order. This truth is strongly exemplified in the obligation of solidarity, or the active and voluntary concern of all for all. Apart from the fallacy that this or that system will automatically produce positive results, it is self-evident that a successful socio-economic order cannot be achieved without the active concern of each person for the well-being of others, as well as a keen sense of the common good. The socially corrosive Western tendency to fall into a dichotomy of market versus state, as if it were enough for an uncaring market to generate wealth and a “forced-caring” state to redistribute it, is condemned by sound social theory. To the contrary, all socio-economic activities must be carried on from the first in solidarity, with the interests of all stakeholders actively taken into account.

9. The Necessity of Subsidiarity

The Achilles heel of the modern West has been the rise of increasingly powerful and monolithic nation states which wield heretofore unimagined power over their citizens. This distortion is addressed by subsidiarity, the principle that whatever needs to be done ought to be done at the lowest possible organizational level, and that the first purpose of higher levels of organization is to assist lower levels rather than supplant them. Subsidiarity is essential to human dignity because it enables the persons most affected to be agents of their own social improvement rather than mere dependents or, worse, helpless subjects in the experiments of others. Subsidiarity also results in the development of intermediary institutions, which are essential to a rich and vibrant society, and which prevent the atomized individual from being isolated against the consolidated power of the State.

10. Public and Private Recognition

In the recent past we have become acquainted with the fallacy of socialism (and its resultant failure), the fallacy by which it denies the private order, and in particular private property, and so makes everything public. But now a younger generation is rising with such a negative impression of the problems created by the overweening power of the modern State that some are ready to suggest the complete elimination of public authority in favor of an extreme libertarianism or various flavors of anarchism. Suffice it to say that man is a social animal and always seeks a public space in which the common good can be pursued while private interests are minimized, however imperfectly. Hence both the public and the private orders are natural to man, both must be recognized as valid, and we must resort to what I have called provisionality and prudence to balance their respective demands.


It is important to recognize that these principles do not constitute specific absolute moral values which can unquestionably invalidate a particular solution or policy. Every exercise of private property potentially removes available goods from someone else’s use; every implementation of the universal destination of goods potentially limits private property; every enforced activity of the State potentially violates the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity; every protection of individual rights potentially limits the authority of the family or of intermediary institutions; every system or solution is implemented in the hope that it will reduce the amount of continuous tinkering necessary—and so reduce the number of ongoing moral decisions; and so on. The application of these principles is always subject to prudential judgments about the precise situation in question and the possible methods available for addressing it effectively.

The absolute morality of any given proposal must generally be determined on other grounds. For example, funding of abortion by the Federal government in the United States is intrinsically immoral because it facilitates the taking of innocent life, not because it violates the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, which are always judgment calls. But these ten principles—however they may be combined, re-ordered or expanded in other presentations—provide a sort of framework within which socio-economic planning and activity has the chance to be effective, and outside of which it is doomed to failure. The consistent betrayal of any of these principles will so undermine the social order that other potential gains will be nullified and the net effect will be to slide backwards.

Moreover, to return to my starting point, within this framework, all programs, policies and solutions ought to be proposed provisionally, based on careful study and thorough examination and discussion, for the simple reason that the ultimate fitness of any solution can only be determined by experience over time. Indeed, no solution can be offered that will not require later adjustments due to both changing conditions and its own innate shortcomings. A combination of the ten principles enumerated here and a healthy provisionality in studying and recommending what are essentially prudential solutions to complex problems will make it far easier, at least for those of us who share the same basic Faith and understanding of human nature, to make peaceful progress in the continuing arrangement of our socio-economic affairs.


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: impossible - Apr. 18, 2011 11:40 AM ET USA

    Well done Dr. Mirus. How about doing one about "spiritual justice" and one that makes it clear (even to twelve-year-olds - i.e uncatechized Catholics) that AMChurch needs to get back to teaching, governing and sanctifying - an article that emphasizes that all justice efforts must start with each person's human dignity, so that the common good requires a proper balance of "spiritual justice" and "social justice." An article that makes it clear that the common good is not and cannot be served by politicians who legislate intrinsic evils on the one hand while botching the war on poverty on the other hand.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 15, 2011 4:12 PM ET USA

    I wish I'd written this.