By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
I have a soft spot for the Catholic Worker movement, even though most members of the group would be poles apart from me politically. I have felt this way for decades now. While on our frequent walking tours of Manhattan, my late wife and I would stop to drop a few dollars into the collection bottle sitting in the window at the Worker’s St. Joseph House in the Bowery section of the city. The volunteers would always give me a big smile and a thank you as they handed me a copy of their newspaper. I often wondered how they would react if they knew I voted for both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Why my soft spot? I find it hard to be antagonistic toward people who do this work, who live in some of the most downtrodden sections of the country to provide for the poor. They walk the walk, practice what they preach, in an effort to follow Jesus’ instruction to care for the least of our brethren.
I wouldn’t quarrel in the least with Jeff Dietrich, a member of Catholic Worker retiring after 40 years of service, when he described life in the movement in the September 14 issue of the National Catholic Reporter as one that involves “struggle and disappointment that strips away your illusions but never achieves your expectations, much less your hopes…a never-ending process fraught with pitfalls and foibles…a journey that begs for a providential combination of grace, guts, and luck.” They are doing the Lord’s work.
But my soft spot does not prevent me from pondering a scenario wherein thoughtful and informed members of the Catholic Worker were obliged to read and comment upon the column by Michael Tanner in the September 18 online edition of National Review. It is no secret that the Catholic Worker sees free-market capitalism as the source of great injustice in the world; that its adherents favor, if not outright socialism, at least the full range of the social-welfare programs associated with the Democratic Party. Many modern Catholics on the left agree.
Enter Michael Tanner: I would go so far as to argue that he makes a convincing case that free-market capitalism achieves the goals of the Catholic Worker movement better than any other economic system devised by man. What intrigues me is how Catholics on the left would deal with Tanner’s thesis. As they say, we are all entitled to our opinion, but not to our facts. Tanner has the facts on his side.
He begins with a quotation from Bono, whom he describes as “singer, celebrity, and global anti-poverty activist. When speaking at Georgetown’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative recently, Bono observed, ‘Commerce is real….Aid is just a stop-gap. Commerce and entrepreneurial capitalism takes more people out of poverty than aid. . . . In dealing with poverty here and around the world, welfare and foreign aid are a Band-Aid. Free enterprise is a cure.”
Tanner takes it from there. He writes, capitalism “has done more to empower people and raise living standards than any other force in history. Throughout most of human history, nearly everyone was poor. Even our wealthiest ancestors enjoyed lower standards of living than ordinary people in America today. It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that the masses started to enjoy real and growing prosperity.”
Why the beginning of the 19th century? Tanner states flatly, “Capitalism and its offspring, the Industrial Revolution.” He underscores this point with a quotation from Charles Murray: “Everywhere that capitalism subsequently took hold, national wealth began to increase and poverty began to fall. Everywhere that capitalism didn’t take hold, people remained impoverished. Everywhere that capitalism has been rejected since then, poverty has increased.”
The track record backs up Murray. Capitalism was rejected in Russia, Cuba, China, East Germany, and Vietnam. Poverty and economic decline followed. Economic growth began in China, East Germany, and Russia when they rejected centralized, planned economies. Poverty remains in Cuba, which clings to its Marxist command economy. That’s not theory; it is fact.
Tanner: “In China alone, 680 million people have been rescued from poverty, and the extreme-poverty rate has gone from 84 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. In Africa, inflation-adjusted per capita incomes rose by an astonishing 97 percent between 1999 and 2010. Hunger in India shrank by 90 percent after the country replaced 40 years’ worth of socialist stagnation with capitalist reforms in 1991.” He calls our attention to the “classic comparisons between East and West Germany before the Wall fell, or now, between North and South Korea.”
The Cato Institute’s annual Economic Freedom of the World Index compared incomes in the most economically free countries with those in socialist, planned economies. It found that “the poorest 10 percent of the population in the most economically free countries had an income more than twice the average income in the least economically free nations.”
It would be a mistake to gloss over that finding of the Cato Institute. It deserves emphasis. The poorest 10 percent in free-market countries such as the United States and Canada have incomes twice the average incomes in countries such as Cuba and North Korea. It is a finding that speaks volumes.
Capitalism is not a system of exploitation, argues Tanner, but one that “unleashes and incentivizes innovation, creativity, and discovery. People become rich by providing goods and services that are desired by others.” The rich are not, in the main, those who have inherited their wealth or “lucked out in the lottery of life,” as many on the left would have us believe. Such people exist, but Tanner points out that a “third of the wealthiest 10 percent in America are entrepreneurs or managers of non-financial businesses. Nearly 16 percent are doctors or other medical professionals. Lawyers made up slightly more than 8 percent, and engineers, scientists, and computer professionals another 6.6 percent.”
In capitalism, an individual’s success is not determined by “caste or hereditary social status. Consider that 80 percent of American millionaires are from the first generation of their family to obtain such wealth. . . . To cite just one example, despite America’s deplorable history of slavery and racism, there are at least 35,000 African-American millionaires today.”
One would think that Catholics on the left would feel an obligation to deal with what Tanner has to say. Platitudes about “sharing” and “non-exploitative” economic systems, such as those favored by American leftists, are as relevant as the old Maoist Red Guard posters depicting smiling peasants distributing abundant crops and newly built housing units to the masses. China’s standard of living did not start to rise until the Red Guard central planners who commissioned those posters were sent packing. Economic systems have to work. It is not enough that they sound high-minded and well-intentioned.
One need not agree with everything Milton Friedman said to concede that he was correct when he pointed out that “the only cases in which the masses have escaped from . . . grinding poverty . . . in recorded history are where they had capitalism and largely free trade. If you want to know where the masses are the worst off, it’s exactly in the kind of societies that depart from that.”