We need a politics of the common good that orders the economy to the image of God, not Mammon
When Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum he faced the absolutism of state socialism to his left, and the absolutism of laissez-faire capitalism to his right. He saw both strands of industrial age absolutism as existential threats to human dignity, to families, to the common good of nations, and as a threat to the Church.
In several important articles and speeches, including one this week at Catholic University, Senator Marco Rubio has been developing a new “Leonine” diagnosis facing America today – seeking a new conversation about how we can chart a path for the nation through the charybdis and scylla of socialism and global market absolutism that once again threaten to tear us apart.
Senator Rubio has said that the threat of socialism is very real. “We have millions of refugees who came here fleeing socialism who can testify to that.” He writes that a government which guarantees you a basic income, controls which doctors you see, what level of care you receive, that controls all the institutions of social formation, is also a government which will tell pastors what they can and cannot preach.
Yet market absolutism poses a very real threat too. As Rubio states in another recent article, the absolutist demand for economic growth crushes middle-class families even as it enriches “large, transnational corporations…using our country’s resources to speculate on financial assets…rather than engaging in real production and innovation with workers here at home.”
In Rubio’s view, America is less threatened by social media, or the temporary endeavors of a single politician, than it is by these larger structural threats to the common good of a nation. A centralized command economy and the dangers of a welfare state are very real.
His way through the scylla and charybdis is like Pope Leo’s vision: an economy which serves the dignity of the human person, and the common good of the family, the political community, and the liberty to worship God.
A nation in which dignified work is available to every American, in which business can produce actual goods out of the country’s own resources, and be profitable in a way that actually benefits American families is also a nation resistant to the twin threats of socialism and market absolutism. Rubio calls it “common good capitalism.”
It is a good phrase, especially for the way it confounds critics who would call his emphasis upon the common good “communist” or “socialist”, but also for the way it directs how we should think about the purpose of markets. It is, after all, not states or markets which we speak about as made in the image of God, but the human person.
We are rational, discursive, relational creatures capable of understanding the world, made to participate in particular and common goods created by God. Yet Rubio rightly says that we have great difficulty today in identifying the common goods that fit our dignity.
It’s in the family that most people first learn about a good which is greater than themselves, which also elevates them. A common good is not depleted by being shared, and those who participate in a common good do not have less but more by virtue of sharing. The family was, from time immemorial, always a school for learning this perennial truth.
Yet just as market absolutism forms a culture that deforms the family, people have unsurprisingly found it difficult to identify the common good of political life. As Rubio stresses, the economic conditions have been stacked against the very notion of a common good by which the worker is raised up, the family is raised up, and the nation is raised up. Everything has been reduced to a war between private and particular goods, and in the process we have been “sawing off the branch upon which we sit.”
One of the most basic political insights of St Augustine was that the things we love in common can form or deform us as a people. If the only thing we love in common is license and choice, money and possessions, fear and outrage, then our republic will just slip down the metaphysical scale into political nothingness.
Rubio is right that if Americans want a better future for their children, we will need a politics of virtue that orders the economy to the image of God, rather than Mammon. It’s refreshing to see a politician as prominent as the senior senator from Florida drawing wisdom from Aristotle, Leo XIII, the Bible, and common sense. Seeing these ideas about the common good translate into legislation like the child tax credit which Rubio notably incorporated into the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 and his paid family leave plan makes all of this more than mere rhetoric.
His speech at Catholic University will certainly be described as socially conservative, but he cuts against the grain of the economic status quo within the GOP. Rubio’s common good capitalism cuts through the market absolutism that he thinks has been so self-destructive for the American worker.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a Catholic politician with policy proposals rooted in true principles that take seriously the natural human desire for family, work, political community, and God. While we should not put our trust in princes, it’s good to finally see a statesman who tells us we still have time to put our trust in God, country, and the common good.