Catholicism and the free-market economy can be compatible
Letter to the editor
I read Professor Todd Whitmore's occasional pieces in The Observer with interest and find they raise many points worth addressing further. On a couple of occasions he has discussed the gap between the rich and the poor the attitude of the Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II toward the gap. He has seemed to suggest a rather extreme position, which I wonder if he really wishes to attribute to the Church or to hold to himself. His Sept. 17 piece, in particular, seems to disparage the focus on improving the lot of the least well off, a focus I believe adopted in the work of philosopher John Rawls.
A little thought experiment might help clarify the issues. Let us imagine an original income distribution between a typical rich person and a typical poor person and call it Situation A. Then, let us one by one look at other hypothetical distributions, situations B through F and make pair-wise comparisons, saying which we consider more just.
Situation A: Rich person $10, poor person $2.
Situation B: Rich person $11, poor person $1.
Situation C: Rich person $15, poor person $1.
Situation D: Rich person $11, poor person $4.
Situation E: Rich person $13, poor person $4.
Situation F: Rich person $6, poor person $1.
It seems to me that a widely accepted moral judgement is that A is better than B. In moving to B, the rich person has in effect taken away $1 from the poor person. It is probably justifiable to say that A is better than C, although this case is slightly problematic since C represents a total higher income for society. I think Whitmore and I would agree that D is better than A since the poor person is better-off and the gap has narrowed from $8 to $7.
The acid test consists of cases E and F. I would say E is better than A, but I wonder if Whitmore would. After all, the gap between the rich and poor persons has increased from $8 to $9. Is this so bad that it justifies depriving the poor person of a doubling of income? To say that it does seems to lend dignity to a spiteful and self destructive envy. And I would say that A is better than F, even though F reduces the gap. If one really wishes to "highlight the gap between rich and poor as a specific moral problem," as Whitmore claims the Church does, does that force one into the dreary (especially for the poor) prospect of choosing F over A?
In short my rankings are: A over B, A over C, D over A, E over A, and A over F. These are my rankings as a supposedly impartial observer; but I also honestly think they would be my ranking were I the poor person. I also think they are the rankings which would follow from philosopher Rawls' difference principle.
I wonder what Whitmore's rankings would be and whether he would consider me out of step with the Church's social teaching.
Associate Professor of Economics
September 23, 1999
All Viewpoint Stories for Thursday, September 30, 1999