11 May 2011

Theology and Progressivity

Reason: Hit & Run | Mike Riggs | Catholic University of America Profs Accuse John Boehner of Hating Life

House Speaker John Boehner is set to jaw at Catholic University of America's commencement ceremony this weekend. But first he must be flagellated by a group of entitlement-loving CUA profs:
More than 75 professors at Catholic University and other prominent Catholic colleges have written a pointed letter to Mr. Boehner saying that the Republican-supported budget he shepherded through the House of Representatives will hurt the poor, elderly and vulnerable, and therefore he has failed to uphold basic Catholic moral teaching.

“Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings,” the letter says. “From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress"
I'm going to go ahead and stop right there.

(1) The GOP is, unfortunately from my point of view, advocating rolling back spending to levels not even to 2007 levels.

The US did plenty to support the poor four years ago. In fact 2007 was arguably a better time to be poor than any other time in US history. Going back to that situation is not an abandonment of some responsibility to the poor on behalf of the state.

(2) Let's assume, arguendo, that "those in power" are coincident with The State, and that The State has a responsibility to forcibly shift resources to the poor. (I assume that's what "preference the needs of the poor means.")

(a) We already do that.  This is an argument framed, as many often are, over whether policies should be progressive or not progressive.  Since policy is, on net, already progressive, the true distinction that needs to be made is whether they should be more progressive than they already are, not just whether they should be progressive at all.  I don't see how you get from what the CUA faculty wrote to there.

(b) The existence of a responsibility does not make that responsibility open ended. There are limits placed on that by how many resources the State, and eventually society, actually has. No matter how much we want to increase spending on some poor-benefitting program we must do that within the framework of what is possible, not what we desire. We can not have all the things we want. Merely arguing that we, and John Boehner specifically, ought to want more is irrelevant.

I saw this particular non sequitur a lot during the HCR debate.  Merely asserting a responsibility to make open-ended promises to provide health care does not make it possible.  We can not spend all available resources on health.  As much as we may philosophically want to be able to give people as many health resources as they desire without their having to pay does not make that a feasible plan.

(3) Catholic theology has been honed over thousands of years by some of the brightest minds in the West.  It is worth paying attention to.  But those bright minds spent those thousands of years in societies largely without economic growth or development.  Their ideas are born of a zero-sum world.  As such I think the Church has far less to teach about these sorts of issues than they do others.

For instance, the Church has not to the best of my knowledge developed an intellectual tradition which recognizes that a high growth policy which is less preferenced towards the poor today may lead to much better worlds for the poor in all future generations.  Nor has it ever had to.  But that's the world we live in now.  Just like the Church is feeling its way through how to deal with new concerns like STDs, it's going to need time to figure out what to do with economic development.  Rome didn't deal well with Galileo.  I would say it has done just as poorly assimilating Smith.

(4) I would assume that if "the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor" then these faculty members donate all of their compensation over and above the poverty line, or at least above the median wage level.  If not then I can't take serious their claims that there is a moral imperative to do this.  For it there was it would be a strange imperative indeed: one that they are not conscientiously obligated to obey even though they believe it exists, but all others should be compelled to obey by force even though they disagree.

(5) I know some of my good friends who read this both know more theology than I do and have come to different conclusions.  So you guys tell me: where am I wrong?

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