What fundamental goals and ethics should an economic system serve in a democratic society? This is not a question posed and considered by a group of leading economists. Nor is it being raised by a group of leading political figures. Instead, it is the theme of the “Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy” prepared by a committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Letter begins with a major assumption: “Everyone knows the significance of economic policy, economic organizations and economic relationships, a significance that goes beyond purely secular or technical questions to profoundly human, and therefore moral, matters.” Everyone? Flow about our corporate and political leaders? They are so mired in tax loopholes, trade secrecy, mergers, acquisitions, political action committees, crass versions of bottom lines and incessant forecasting that they have nearly abolished their worthier horizons. Most politicians think it conservative chic not to talk of the growing poverty in the United States. The business bosses, apart from a few such as William Norris of Control Data, do not even consider the economic needs of millions of unemployed, ill-housed and poorly fed Americans as a challenge to corporate production and marketing innovations. The underclass is just an expendable sub-economy.
The Bishops make their concerns very clear. First and foremost among them are the poor “because they are vulnerable and needy.” “We believe,” wrote the Bishops in their draft, “that the level of inequality in income and wealth in our society and even more the inequality in income and wealth in our society and even more the inequality on the world scale today must be judged morally unacceptable.” While here in Washington, Reaganites want to abolish what is left of the inheritance tax and are admiring the concept of the flat tax under which a garage mechanic and a multimillionaire can be given equal tax treatment.
It is obvious that the Bishops held back some of their illuminating lasers. When writing of the “preservation of privileged concentrations of power, wealth and income” and the necessity for “economic rights and responsibilities” to “find expression in the institutional order of society,” the Bishops did not fill in the blanks with the corporations from the Fortune 500 or the wealthy in the Forbes 400. Pastoral letters stay general. But if any of the superrich and powerful read the Bishops’ words, there was no difficulty in getting their message.
But what are the carriers for implementing this message? Take, for example, the passage on the role of consumption: “In our economy consumption is a stimulus to production, and increased production generates employment. As consumers, therefore, all of us play an important role in the pursuit of economic justice.” The Bishops then urge that “the norms of human justice impose distinct limits” on a gluttony of consumption and accumulation of wealth. “A consumerist mentality,” they observe, “which encourages immediate gratification mortgages our future and ultimately risks undermining the foundations of a just order.”
Here an opportunity was missed to recommend group consumer action which reduces waste, corruption, fraud and crime in the marketplace and diminishes the misuse of governmental powers by the. affluent to further the gap between the haves and the have riots. For instance, the compulsory consumption of massive pollution, the merchandising of products too wasteful of energy, and the corporate—Washington bias against renewable energy all lend themselves to coordinated consumer response and rejection.
It is not just the avarice of overconsumption but the imbalance of power between a few powerful sellers and many unorganized buyers that erodes the health, safety and economic well—being of human beings. This imbalance leaps in its consequences to global levels as in the buildup of carbon dioxide and the spread of acid rain.
The Bishops will receive and consider comments on their draft pastoral letter for another year. May they see the wisdom of including modes of empowering consumers to expand the political economy’s respect for broader and deeper needs and values. Statements of principles and declarations of missions, no matter how eloquent and noble, need dynamic mechanisms and institutions to maintain public receptiveness. Civic empowerment, for which a democracy can provide a timely accomodation under law, is justice’s engine.