Last month, America lost a great defender of freedom, Michael Novak.
Novak was committed to rightly ordered liberty and cared deeply about the principles and practices that produce it. His enormous body of work emphasized the cultural prerequisites for political and economic freedom, as he stressed that economic conservativism and social conservatism are indivisible.
In the words of Heritage Foundation founder Ed Feulner, “Michael forced those of us trained in the dismal science of economics to explain that we should be more than ‘free to choose’—rather we should be free to make good free choices.”
Last year, I was the recipient of the Acton Institute’s Michael Novak Award for “outstanding scholarly research concerning the relationship between religion, economic freedom, and the free and virtuous society.” Upon receiving it, I delivered the annual Calihan Lecture in London, England, at a conference on “The Crisis of Liberty in the West.”
The first half of the lecture discussed challenges to freedom in terms of bad intellectual defenses of economic freedom, collapsing communities, and cronyism. The second half discussed a natural law account of economic freedom, a natural law account of social justice, and some concluding thoughts about anthropology and virtue.
Part of the argument that I advance in the lecture is that economic freedom is meant to give us the space to fulfill our economic duties, the duty to work to support our families, the duty to work hard and be a good employee so as not to waste our talents or our employer’s time and money, the duty to serve our customers, and the duty to serve our communities.
Economic freedom was to allow people the space to fulfill these duties. So rightly understood, social justice is about fulfilling our duties to the various societies of which we are a part, and it is about the state respecting the authority of the many societies that make up civil society.
Take, for example, the society known as the family.
The family is a natural society with its own nature and integrity. Because of the natural reality of the family, we have certain obligations.
If you are a husband or a wife, you have certain duties to your spouse. If you are a parent, you have certain duties to your children, regardless of whether or not you ever chose them. And children, not Social Security administrators, have duties to their parents, especially as they age.
It is the natural reality of father and child, mother and child, that creates the relationship of authority and responsibility.
This places limits on what the government can do. The government is not free to recreate the family. The government is not free to usurp the authority of parents over the education of their children or adult children over the care of their elderly parents.
The same is true for religious organizations, especially if you believe that your church has a divine origin and a divine creation. This means government is not at liberty to recreate your church, to recreate its authority structure, or to recreate its teaching authority—that your church is something that is entrusted with a stewardship.
As a result, the nature of religious authority places limits on political authority and places duties upon members of the church.
The State and Social Justice
None of this, however, says that the state has no role to play in economic justice, just that it must respect the proper authority of society—a society of societies—as it does so. And this means that it must also respect the proper authority of economic societies—employees and employers, consumers and producers.
But while respecting their authority and the markets that allow them to interact and fulfill their duties, government can perform certain welfare activities, as Friedrich Hayek taught us, without distorting market signals and processes.
Insofar as government programs are intended to ameliorate the forces of globalization and new technologies distort markets, they are likely to simply make matters worse by prolonging the dying process of outdated industries and preventing the necessary transitions.
What a natural law account of social justice would suggest are policies that would empower more people to engage for themselves in the market and flourish.
I can illustrate this with some examples.
Consider education. Some “taxation is theft” libertarians say children should receive whatever education their parents, extended families, and charities can provide and that there is no role for government to play. Liberals say the education of children is a matter of public concern, and thus government should run schools and most children must attend them.
Conservatives have traditionally said, yes, education is a matter of public concern, but justice requires us to respect the authority of parents, and whatever assistance we provide must empower, not replace, them.
Hence conservative support for school choice: vouchers, education savings accounts, and charter schools—programs that help all students get the best education they can without giving the government an unhealthy monopoly on schools.
The same is true for health care.
Consider the standard false dichotomy: If taxation is theft, then we should just leave health care to the market and charities; if health care is a matter of public concern, then government should run it and finance it—the typical libertarian and liberal pitfalls.
The conservative alternative has been to create markets in health care while empowering patients to choose, whether through premium support, health care vouchers, tax credits, or what have you.
The details of the policy need not bog us down. The concept is what matters. We need to make markets work better and work for more people by empowering more people to be market actors—empower more people to take control of their own lives and flourish.
So now the question is what can be done for working-class families, especially for workers who find their skills less and less marketable in ever-changing markets because of the forces of globalization and new technology.
We need to think about the justice in the distribution of costs and benefits of the creative destruction of free trade and globalization and how best to smooth out the rough patches. We need to think through the appropriate roles of various institutions:
- What does justice require of families and churches, of workers and business owners, of civil society and charitable organizations, of local and national governments?
- What rights and duties do these various individuals and societies have?
In a certain sense, the economic challenges I discuss in my Calihan Lecture can be classified as partly the result of a deindustrialization making way for the knowledge economy.
If Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum,” which inaugurated modern Catholic social thought, was a response to the industrial revolution, what we now need is a response to the deindustrial revolution.
What to do is a question for policymakers. That we need to think about what to do is a demand of justice, and the principles of natural law should inform how we think about it.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal.