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Thursday, January 22, 2004

Apropos of nothing.

For those laboring under the misapprehension that papal encyclicals on economic matters begin with Atlas Shrugged and end with The Fountainhead, I offer the following:

Rerum Novarum.

Quadragesimo Anno.

Laborem Exercens.

Centesimus Annus.

For grins and giggles, here are quotes from the last two documents.

1. LE, Nos. 7, 12.

[T]he danger of treating work as a special kind of "merchandise", or as an impersonal "force" needed for production (the expression "workforce" is in fact in common use) always exists, especially when the whole way of looking at the question of economics is marked by the premises of materialistic economism.

A systematic opportunity for thinking and evaluating in this way, and in a certain sense a stimulus for doing so, is provided by the quickening process of the development of a one-sidedly materialistic civilization, which gives prime importance to the objective dimension of work, while the subjective dimension-everything in direct or indirect relationship with the subject of work-remains on a secondary level. In all cases of this sort, in every social situation of this type, there is a confusion or even a reversal of the order laid down from the beginning by the words of the Book of Genesis: man is treated as an instrument of production, whereas he-he alone, independently of the work he does-ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator.

* * *

Obviously, it remains clear that every human being sharing in the production process, even if he or she is only doing the kind of work for which no special training or qualifications are required, is the real efficient subject in this production process, while the whole collection of instruments, no matter how perfect they may be in themselves, are only a mere instrument subordinate to human labour.

This truth, which is part of the abiding heritage of the Church's teaching, must always be emphasized with reference to the question of the labour system and with regard to the whole socioeconomic system. We must emphasize and give prominence to the primacy of man in the production process, the primacy of man over things. Everything contained in the concept of capital in the strict sense is only a collection of things. Man, as the subject of work, and independently of the work that he does-man alone is a person. This truth has important and decisive consequences.

2. CA, No. 35.

The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well. When a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied. But profitability is not the only indicator of a firm's condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people ? who make up the firm's most valuable asset ? to be humiliated and their dignity offended. Besides being morally inadmissible, this will eventually have negative repercussions on the firm's economic efficiency. In fact, the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society. Profit is a regulator of the life of a business, but it is not the only one; other human and moral factors must also be considered which, in the long term, are at least equally important for the life of a business.

So much for proof-texting. This is intended to be my last post on Electrolux and its sledgehammering of Greenville, Michigan. First, continued kudos to the superb work by David Morrison, who pretty well sums it up for me in his most recent post.

What has been most disturbing about this whole bruhaha is the reluctance of Electrolux's defenders to acknowledge that Catholic teaching has word one to say about this event. From the outset, Electrolux's critics have not said that the manufacturer has to operate as a nonprofit or run itself into the ground. If such were the case, then the issue would not be close--Electrolux's critics would not have a leg to stand on.

For the last time, that's not the case--Electrolux's Greenville facility is profitable. Electrolux itself is in the black, and is actually doing better over the last couple of years than it did previously. More significantly, Michigan, Greenville, and Electrolux's own soon-to-be-former employees stepped up to the plate to help the company save money. The corporate response?

Buenos dias, Greenville.

From Electrolux's defenders, we hear the following arguments:

1. What problem do you have with Mexicans working? (1)

2. What problem do you have with the 21st Century? and

3. What problem do you have with economic liberty?

As David amply notes in his second post to Fr. Jim, the responses simply avoid the question and evidence an unwillingness to engage Catholic social and economic thought. Apart from the fact it is more than a little irritating hearing Catholics sound more like John Galt than John Paul, I wonder why the defenders can't see the greater danger: this is the grotesque focus of modern global culture, namely, the preference for things over people. Rightly decried when the subjects of euthanasia, abortion, porn, drugs, etc. come up, why pull up short, hemming and hawing, when the same thing happens in the economic sphere?

This reductionism is the one of the most appalling things about communism--the elevation of a theory over the people who have to live with it. You can't make a revolution without scrambling a few kulaks, etc. The proponents of unbridled capitalism sound much the same to these ears. Likewise, the pursuit of maximum profit as the lodestar of economic activity is mandatory. Because the invisible hand will linger behind to bind up all the wounds of those 2700 and their families the heedless pursuit leaves in its wake.

Except, of course, that it won't:

I grew up in a town loaded with textile factories. My Dad was a foreman at a few of these over a period of several years. Most of these jobs were eventually moved to South American countries as the corporations hiring these independent factories wanted cheaper labor and my Dad was left with nothing, and with relatively little skills. He couldn't find any other job within the textile industry, and due to necessity, took a job at a chemical plant. He died some years later of cirrhosis of the liver, and several of his coworkers were diagnosed with and died of the same as well. But he took the job to survive, 'cause he lacked other skills. I get angry every time I think of it. But then again, I also wish my Dad had had other skills, as I believe that that would have ultimately saved him.


(1) I can't imagine voting for Pitchfork Pat at gunpoint, but thanks for the "Buchananite" label.

[Update, 1/26/04: The second and fourth paragraphs below encyclical quotes have been modified, in response to a decent argument inserted in a comment. The modifications soften the original dogmatism of the paragraphs arguing the issue was not remotely close, instead substituting a related observation questioning the silence of Elux's defenders concerning whether church teaching has anything at all to say about this matter.]

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