Posted by Traditius
The recent nomination of Paul Ryan as the Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate has raised interesting questions about his proposals for the federal budget, which represent the first real attempts in many years to move toward addressing the national debt. Ryan has stated that he relied upon Catholic teachings of solidarity and subsidiarity in drafting his proposals, which in the past some members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have questioned. See the USCCB’s April 2012 press release here. Alternatively, others, such as Paul Ryan’s own bishop, Robert Morlino, have pointed out that Ryan is in fact schooled in and applying these Catholic teachings. See here.
So what are solidarity and subsidiarity? They are principles arising from Catholic social teaching which were born from a papal encyclical called On The New Things: Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor, from Pope Leo XIII in 1891. See Rerum Novarum here. In that encyclical, Pope Leo took timeless teachings of the Church and applied them to the social circumstances of his time. This not to dictate decisions to the princes of the world, but rather to speak to the principles on which they should rely in governing and making decisions. Since then, other popes have taken those same principles and applied them to their own times.
While solidarity and subsidiarity can be generalized, philosophized, summarized and contextualized to mean a great many things, and they can be legitimately applied to all sorts of situations, at their core they have always been about the treatment of workers. That is, the rights and dignity of those who do the work of a society. As a political topic, labor has faded into the background with the flight of manufacturing jobs out of the United States and the resulting diminishing importance of labor unions. The question then, is whether the people in the United States who do the work have the voice they deserve, and whether these great traditions can inform the modern political debate.
To begin with, a basic understanding of solidarity and subsidiarity are necessary. However, it hardly seems necessary to spell these principles out here given all of the recent commentary on them. You can see Wikipedia, Catholic Social Teaching here, or most easily, simply watch Father Barron’s video from the Word On Fire site.
The starting point, then, is Rerum Novarum. In 1891 the industrial revolution had already come and transformed Western society. Before it, life had revolved around agricultural interests and people were spread out to work the land. After it, the cities, and the jobs that were located there, rose to prominence. Wealth began to concentrate, instead of in rulers who could tax and control the use of land, into the hands of new barons of industry. The laborers, though, who came to the cities and worked in the factories were truly unprotected and exploited. Something must be done, Leo XIII argued, “for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place,” See Rerum Novarum, here, at paragraph 3.
The solution, though, must be a measured one since more radical responses were already in the works, and those cures were at least as bad as the disease. “To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. . . . But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are, moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.” See Rerum Novarum, here, at paragraph 4.
The encyclical lays out the Christian duties of both rich and poor and is well worth reading on this score alone. It also supported the emerging creation of trade unions and collective bargaining as acceptable responses to the situation, and the seizing of private property as unacceptable. While measured and supportive of the right to own private property under natural law, the encyclical put Catholic teaching firmly in favor of labor unions. In the United States most of the Catholic population was in the working class, and as such the party that supported the unions would generally get the support of the Catholic vote for many decades to come.
Also, Rerum Novarum presented what would become two of the pillars of Catholic social teaching: solidarity and subsidiarity: That the Church and its members must stand for everyone, particularly the poor (a Christian tradition much older than the encyclical, to be sure), and that the best way to address these problems was not by an authoritative and overarching government that can seize or abolish property rights, but rather that they should be dealt with by a solution from as local a level as possible.
Later encyclicals applied these principles to newer times. Quadragesimo Anno, issued in 1931, here, means Forty Years and it marked the fortieth year after Rerum Novarum. In it Pope Pius XI looked at the emergence of totalitarian communism and unrestrained capitalism in the world, and noted the flaws of both as regards the worker. He examined the same “social question” of the disparity between the wealthy and the poor of the world and noted the need to achieve a living wage in these societies. He also renewed support for the idea of unions, but warned that where the unions were secular, “[s]ide by side with these unions there should always be associations zealously engaged in imbuing and forming their members in the teaching of religion and morality so that they in turn may be able to permeate the unions with that good spirit which should direct them in all their activity.” Quadragesimo Anno, at paragraph 35.
In the 1930s in the United States, trade unions were very much a part of the American culture. Father Charles Coughlin, for example, was a Catholic priest in the Detroit area who had a weekly hour radio show. He rose to national prominence in part as a supporter of labor unions, including calling for the protection of unions at the federal level. Indeed he had a magazine entitled Social Justice and in 1936 he had a hand in creating the Union Party which ran an unsuccessful candidate for president. See the Charles Coughlin entry in Wikipedia here.
Other encyclicals on the topic followed, and the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum came in 1991. It was marked by Pope John Paul II with Centesimus Annus, literally A Hundred Years. See it here. John Paul II in his encyclicals expanded the view of rich and poor to look at rich and poor countries of the world and their responsibilities, but also commented on the state of labor in the world. He refered to the events surrounding the fall of communism, a significant part of which was the Solidarity labor movement in Poland, and his own speech there. See generally the Wikipedia article here.
Through and including the 1980s, the leaders of organized labor in the United States were traditionally affiliated with, and encouraged support of, the Democratic party. While the Teamsters broke from the back to support Republican nominees for president, the other large unions endorsed a series of Democratic politicians, who in turn supported union-backed litigation, including state laws in northern states requiring workers to join or pay for the union at their place of employment, regardless of whether they supported it or not. This kind of activity all but encouraged companies to relocate manufacturing facilities to southern states, where unions were weaker, and, eventually, to foreign nations where labor was cheaper and unions did not exist at all.
While labor leadership in the United States typically supported Democrats, very often union members did not. The famous “Reagan Democrats” or “Blue Dog” Democrats were often union members who preferred the Republican party on issues important to them, such as social and economic issues, foreign policy and second amendment protections.
Current Pope Benedict XVI, in Caritas in Veritate, Charity in Truth, here, again applied the social teachings more broadly and speaks in the encyclical of nations as much as individuals. He notes that labor unions “which have always been encouraged and supported by the Church” should look to going beyond types of work or indeed national boundaries to speak also for workers in less developed countries. See Caritas in Veritate at paragraph 64.
This brings us to the present day, landing on perhaps the central topic. Labor unions, and arguably the entire middle class in the United States, have suffered as manufacturing jobs have fled the country. Both parties seem content to believe that “free trade” must be protected, and that tariffs on foreign goods are counter-productive. However, by allowing other country’s goods to enter the U.S. with no or limited tariffs, while U.S. goods must face high tariffs in these same countries, together with the transformation of American companies to “multinational”companies, we have allowed the great industries that built America’s middle class to move to other, poorer countries in the name of cheaper labor and less regulation. This is done in the name of benefiting the American consumer with cheaper goods. But where the trade-off for cheaper goods is good jobs, issues of basic dignity and fairness must arise. Moreover, social teaching on solidarity hardly calls for developed countries to eviscerate their middle classes to help poorer countries, and without a middle class America would hardly be able to do so.
Still, the glories of free trade seem to be presumed these days, and the costs are discussed less and less. The very idea that “re-training” or somehow waking up to the new world of technology and service-related jobs is going to replace the solid jobs buildings cars, appliances, machinery and textiles–jobs that could support a family–is plainly ludicrous. Manufacturing and labor go together, without one there cannot be the other, and without both the bulk of the jobs that can pay the bills of a family slowly disappear.
More recently, President Obama has supported union policies, particularly in his treatment of the automotive crisis. Moreover, the phenomenon of public-sector unions has arisen and been supported by Democrats. That is, government employees seeking the right to organize, collectively bargain, strike and the like despite their contracts, and the often vital responsibilities they have to the public (such as air traffic controllers, police and fire departments and the like). These actions, though, smack of cronyism more than a true stand in favor of retaining manufacturing. Further, the Obama administration’s economic policies have failed labor, management and anyone trying to achieve a better economic condition in life.
Other than Rick Santorum’s tax plan which encouraged manufacturing in the United States with tax incentives, the erosion of the manufacturing base has hardly been spoken about in this election cycle. In the midst of a struggling economy, one would think these topics would be at the top of the list in a search for cures. But if both parties agree, in the name of free trade, that America should not protect its manufacturing base, then there is little for them to debate.
The simple truth is that technology and service-related jobs may be “jobs of the future,” but they are not plentiful enough to build or sustain a middle class. Moreover, manufacturing has not dried up or faded into history—it is very much still part of the economic present—it is just being done elsewhere. Certainly government ought not do for individuals what they can more ably do for themselves. But the American people cannot prevent, for example, China from placing tariffs on American imports. Here government does have a role, and that is to place reciprocal tariffs on foreign-made goods, even if made by once American companies, such that international corporations once again see the wisdom of doing their manufacturing here.
Without a doubt, the world has gotten smaller, and certainly “[s]olidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone.” See Caritas in Veritate at paragraph 38. This very much includes the developing world and its workers. In this respect charity is vital, and the governments and other organizations of those countries should be encouraged to implement policies to develop their economies and raise these workers up, and allowing them to support themselves and their families with dignity. It is also a fact that much of the world has developed consumer markets, that many do have middle classes that can purchase the items they produce. Further, it violates simple principles of justice to allow American goods to be taxed at higher rates in other countries than theirs are taxed here. That is not charity, it is not just, and it is not what the social teachings call for.
Instead, they call for concern about workers, about labor and about jobs that pay enough to live in dignity. Americans need to show concern and charity for those around the world, but they also must consider, right now, whether a vital part of fixing the American economy is to do something to protect and rebuild our manufacturing base, before it is completely gone and we come to the realization that computer technicians and service industry jobs are not enough to sustain a middle class, here or anywhere else.
Copyright 2012 Traditium.