Rakowski misinterprets argument
By TODD DAVID WHITMORE
In a Sept. 30 letter to The Observer, economics professor James Rakowski cited my references to the focus in Catholic social teaching on the problem of the gap between rich and poor and concluded that such a focus "seems to disparage the focus on improving the lot of the least well off" and thus is "extreme." This is a severe charge; it is also a misplaced one.
Rakowski then takes the philosopher John Rawls as his guide to prioritizing among different options for rich and poor incomes and asks, "I wonder what Whitmore's rankings would be and whether he would consider me out of step with the Church's social teaching." I will address the charge of disparagement in this column and engage the conversation with the Rawlsian priorities in the next one.
The leap from observing that I cite the social teaching's references to the rich-poor gap to the conclusion that I and the teaching "disparage" efforts to aid the poor is a big one indeed, and the question arises as to how Rakowski makes this jump. This is particularly the case given that in several places in my columns I have emphasized the degree to which Catholic social teaching affirms the role of profit in increasing overall wealth in a way that aids the less well-off.
Rakowski indicates that he is a regular reader of my columns. After the initial piece introducing my column last year, the very first column I wrote was on John Paul II's distinction between the legitimate market economy — one that is limited though cultural and juridical means — and the unlimited market of what the pope calls "capitalism," where profit is the only measure of well-being. I wrote that this distinction clarifies how John Paul can say "both that the `Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit' and that it is `unacceptable to say that the defeat of so called real socialism leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization.'" The entire series of columns last year was based on this distinction and Michael Novak's failure to make it.
The first column this year critiques the practices of some corporations, but so that readers do not misinterpret, I wrote, "Now, it is important to point out that Catholic social teaching does in fact support the creation of wealth that occurs in the market as a genuine good" as long as it serves the common good and individual interest "insofar as it is consonant with the common good."
The second column, the one that Rakowski most emphasizes in his letter, in fact makes the case that companies that absorb some of the cost for creating good working conditions will actually have a larger market because, due to the fact that they pass on less cost to the consumer, they will sell more goods. The argument is that in this case paying attention to the rich-poor gap is more productive — and more beneficial to the less well-off — than a view that pays attention to profit alone.
In light of such textual evidence, how Rakowski moves from the observation that I, "on a couple of occasions," discuss the rich-poor gap in Catholic social teaching to the charge that I and the teaching "disparage" efforts to improve the lot of the less well-off may be perplexing. However, further examination may get at the heart of the matter. It may be that he is committing what can be called "the binary fallacy." The binary fallacy occurs whenever a person assumes that there are only two options for addressing a problem and that those options are mutually exclusive.
Therefore, if I or Catholic teaching refer to the rich-poor gap at all, we must necessarily be disparaging the production of wealth as an option for aiding the less well-off.
As we have seen, however, Catholic teaching combines both concern for the rich-poor gap (sometimes called distributive justice) and the production of wealth (through commutative justice), and makes the claim that to exclude one or the other is to truncate the options. Again, the case that I was making was that attention to the gap can have the effect of increasing overall wealth.
Traditionally, classical liberal economics has emphasized market commutative justice at the expense of distributive justice and classical socialism has made the reverse mistake. This is why Catholic teaching finds both to be wanting: They both tend to commit the binary fallacy at the expense of the least well-off. From this viewpoint, it is Catholic teaching that is inclusive of perspectives and therefore moderate, whereas classical liberal and socialist economic theories are narrow and "extreme." Rakowski's misinterpretation of Catholic teaching is one commonly made by classical liberal economists, made possible by an exclusive and extreme perspective.
Rakowski's appeal to Rawls is interesting, because Rawls attempts to combine production of wealth and rich-poor gap concerns in his "difference principle," which basically states that any change in policy must be to the most advantage of the least well-off. There are intriguing points of contact between this principle and the Church's "option for the poor," and a literature has developed on the issue of the overall compatibility of Rawls' political philosophy and Christian ethics.
The ongoing richness of that conversation, however, depends in large part on the primary interlocutors taking care in interpreting and understanding each other's arguments. To the extent that he makes the charge that Catholic teaching and I "disparage" the production of wealth to aid the poor, professor Rakowski appears to commit the binary fallacy and grossly misinterprets what we are saying; to the extent that he appeals to Rawls, he avoids the binary fallacy and provides an interesting partner for a conversation to be taken up next time.
Todd David Whitmore is the director of the Program in Catholic Social Tradition and is an associate professor in the department of theology. His column appears every other Friday.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Friday, October 15, 1999