My Take — Not Pope Francis’ — On a Christian Approach to Economics and Government

I’ve been the voice of a large number of people in government for 18 years.

During those years, I have voted many times on economic issues. I have a couple of beliefs about government that inform those votes — as well as the others I cast.

1. I am the voice of the people I represent. I must put their interests ahead of all others. At the same time, I feel that their interests are always best served by a just and stable government, because

2. A just and stable government is always the greater good. Look around the world and you will see the human suffering and death the comes from unjust and unstable governments. My constituents deserve a representative who works toward a just and stable government, because that one thing will predicate for better lives for them, all by itself.

3. Government should serve the people, not itself and not special interests. Most elected officials today are beamed into office on a beam of special interest money. These elected officials, represent the special interests who paid for their elections and put them in office. Even though this is legal, it is corrupt. It is also diametrically opposed to the premise I stated: Government is meant to serve the people, not special interests.

These are the parameters I use to decide how I vote. I have a master’s degree in business management, which means that while I am not deeply educated in economics, I do have a passing acquaintance with how economics works in real life. Despite that, I do not place any economic theory at the head of my list in how I vote on issues, including economic issues.

The reason for this is that I consider all economic theories to be tools that are useful so long as they work for the good of the people. They are not a holy grail and they should never be put ahead of the greater good of a just and stable government.

I also believe that Capitalism, as well as all other economic systems, is amoral. Not, notice, immoral. It is an economic system, not a moral system. As such, it stands behind the Gospels and the teachings of the Church in my considerations. I don’t judge the Gospels or the teachings of the Catholic Church by economic theories. I judge economic theories by the Gospels and the teachings of the Catholic Church.

That leaves a lot of room for individual ideas and understanding about economic issues. The teachings of the Church are not a 1, 2, 3 blueprint that we must follow as we craft our solutions to the economic problems that beset us. They are rules about what we should place first in our considerations. The teachings of the Church tell us how to get to heaven.  Their first rule about economics is that if we want to go to heaven we should put the good of people, of human beings who are made in the image and likeness of God, in first place.

That will not lead us to the same conclusions. On the contrary, it opens the way for fruitful discussion and creative thinking. Two good people who are both committed to Christ and who both are trying their best to do the right thing can look at the same situation and come up with diametrically opposed ways of dealing with it. That does not make either one of them wrong. It also does not make either one of them evil. It makes both of them human.

I believe that the best solutions in government and in life come about when we remember this and listen to one another respectfully and try to find a middle way between our competing ideas. I can change my mind, and if you can change your mind, we can learn from one another and come up with solutions that are far better than either one of us would find on our own.

The thing that is lacking in our current debate on almost every issue, including economics, is a mutual commitment to the common good rather than the good of whatever viewpoint or special interest we are espousing. The thing that is lacking in the economic theorizing of some Christians is a proper reverence for Jesus Christ as Our Lord.

There are Christians, both on the left and the right, who have left the Gospels and made a false god of this or that economic theory. Instead of judging their economic ideas by the Gospel, they are judging the Gospel by their economic theory. Many of them (again, on both the left and the right) have cherry-picked the Scriptures to find verses and admonitions which they then use to deify their ideas. This is idolatry. It is also heresy.

Put Jesus back on the throne and look at your politics as one way you live out your call to follow Him. Do the same with your ideas about economics. If people would do that, we’d find solutions to all our problems and get this nation back on track. If they don’t, we are going to continue our spiral down.

To get back to me, if you look at my votes, I think you will see that I am basically an Oklahoma populist in matters of economics.

I believe that capitalism is the best economic system people have come up with so far. However, I don’t think that capitalism, as some people who get worked up about it see it, exists outside of a few on-line chat rooms and the definitions of economic systems in intellectually shallow textbooks. It’s a bit like absolute vacuum; a good working construct that does not exist outside of theory.

Capitalism as it is practiced in America — and in any working government that I know of — is a hodgepodge of competing interests, each of which is trying to use the government to gain an advantage over their competitors. I think that most people believe that legislative bodies spend their days debating great questions of human life such as abortion or gay marriage or some such.

What we do in real life is spend most of our time passing laws for business interests that allow them to gain an advantage over their competitors. Almost all the “pro business” legislation that I have seen in the past 18 years was of this type. Likewise, the tax cuts that I have voted against in the past few years were all weighted to give tax cuts to the people at the top of the column and not those at the bottom.

I would have voted for most of these bills if the people I represent had actually gotten a tax cut from them. However, they did not. That has been true of tax cuts at the federal level, as well.

How does that jibe with my idea that a just and stable government is always the greater good? First of all, tax cuts that only favor those at the top are unjust by definition. I also do not believe that they are good economics.

There are a couple of economic theories, both of which are capitalist in origin, about how to generate growth in an economy with tax cuts. One, which I do not subscribe to, is that if you enrich the small segment at the top of the economic ladder, their wealth will “trickle down” to those below. (I am aware that the trickle down theory applies to far more than tax cuts.) The other is that if you put money in the pockets of those in the working and middle classes, they will buy more goods and generate growth through their purchasing power.

I am personally persuaded that, in terms of economic growth and taxes, many people at the bottom end of the working class have become so close to subsistence level that they place any extra monies on survival items such as getting their utilities current or fixing the broken window in their car.

What I am saying, (and this is a frightening prospect in economic terms) is that a large section of the working class of our economy, who are gainfully employed, many times working several jobs, is verging on being unable to generate growth of the larger economy because they are too poor. That, in itself, is an indictment of our economic policies of the past few decades.

So far as generating economic growth with tax cuts is concerned, my personal feeling is that the most economic stimulus will come if the tax cut benefits the people in the middle class and the upper working class. Sad to say, the lower working class is verging toward the unemployed in that they need assistance to survive and as such don’t generate much growth with their purchasing power.

Given all that, I guess you could say that I am a bit of a trickle up person in my economic beliefs.

This goes back to my ideas about a Christian approach to economics. It also broadens the discussion beyond the question of tax cuts. I think that a Christian approach to economics has to be based on the same premise as the one I use to make decisions about the sanctity of human life. Those decisions are based on the idea that people are more important than any other consideration.

Government exists for people. Economics exists for people.

Government and economics (you cannot have modern economics without government) exist to serve the people. As such, a respect for the rights of private property is a basic delimiter of good government. People need and want their own things about them. They need homes that are theirs and a place in the world that belongs to them.

The means of making a living, be that a computer, a car, a sewing machine or an 18-wheeler, are a form of private property that people should also have. When those means become factories and patents and vast corporate enterprises, the same rules of private property that apply to individuals also apply to them.

But when this basic right to private property becomes a means of depriving vast numbers of people of their own homes and their own ability to make a living, then it has to be moderated by regulation and tax structures that provide a hope and a future to everyone. I am not talking about attacking capitalism. I am talking about a more level playing field that allows everyone to be a capitalist.

Capitalism, when it becomes a vast corporate hegemony that is linked to the power of government that works at its behest, is no longer capitalism. It is fascism. Look it up in your economics 101 text book.

Capitalism that has morphed into corporate fascism, which is the wedding of government and corporate power so that government no longer serves the people, must be dealt with as the unhealthy thing that it is. There is no place in a just and stable government for corporate fascism.

This has nothing to do with free markets or the right to private property. It is the antithesis of them, since it concentrates the entire mechanism for earning a living and all the wealth of a society, as well as the power of government, in a few hands.

I think government should serve the people. I think that a just and stable government is always the greater good.

Corporate fascism, or as Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II called it, “corporatism,” does not do these things. It serves the corporations and it tends toward instability in government. It is unjust by definition.

These are the parameters I use for trying to apply economics in a Christian way. I am writing this so that those of you who feel so strongly about these issues can tear into me, instead of the Pope. I can’t abide people attacking Pope Francis on this blog. But you can go at me and it doesn’t upset me so much.

Have at it friends.

  • http://nebraskaenergyobserver.wordpress.com/ D. A. Christianson

    Nothing to have at. Outstanding and perfectly stated.

  • Chesire11

    Though we might not always reach the same conclusion, I agree wholeheartedly with your starting point. Maybe it’s an idealized image of a past that never was, but it seems to me that this is what politics used to be like, people with different opinions cooperating to find the means to resolve common problems without insisting that those with whom they disagree are wicked, or degenerate.

    It would be nice if we could get back to a place where we didn’t imagine that the eternal fate of a person’s soul was determined by whether they think capital gains are taxed too heavily, or too lightly.

  • FW Ken

    I disagree with nothing you say. In fact, it’s particularly helpful to differentiate small business capitalism and corporatism. They are different animals.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I agree with almost everything in here. Yes, a stable government is the greater good, and government should serve the people, not itself or special interests.
    Where i might quibble with you is that there really aren’t many economic theories out there. There is economics and there are the buttons that leaders push to “manage” the economy. Economists already know what makes a good, running economy. Look around the world. Everyone’s economy is essentially simmilar. First off, there are very few true socialists and no laissez faire economies. All have a private sector and a government sector, upper class, middle class, and lower class, big banks and little banks, big corporations and small businesses, white collar and blue collar workers, loans and investments, personal debt, credit, and government debt, and all countries have a safety net welfare system. It’s all basically the same because we know what makes for good economics. There may be an emphasis in a particular direction given the resources of a country, say oil for Kuwait, which might drive certain elements of the economy in a particular direction, but it’s all basic economics.
    Did you ever see a president or a congress of our country or a governor of a state ever radically alter the nature of the economy? Not recently, and that’s because we understand economics. They all play at the margin.
    The differences between economies mostly arise in terms of values. Economies with high levels of education might emphasize white collar workers over blue collar. Or countries with low levels of education might emphasize labor and farming. In complex economies, which are most of them, the most significant values which tend to be in tension, are the values of equality and liberty. You can’t have pure economic equality without sacrificing liberty, and you can’t have liberty without allowing for economic inequality. Cultures will try to balance the two but there is certainly an inherent bias in each culture for one over the other.
    The question then is not which economics is right, but which values you want to emphasize. That’s why the Pope’s statements were unfortunate. He talked in terms of economics as if we can just chose something different rather than speaking in terms of values.
    And let me just conclude with this somewhat provacative statement. Just as some claim that libertarians (and I’m not a pure libertarian) worship at the idol of liberty, I claim that egalitarians worship at the idol of equality. There is nothing wrong with economic inequality as long as a safety net exists and opportunity to rise and prosper is available for all.

    • hamiltonr

      Manny, if you and I start agreeing on economics, does this mean that there are now snowballs in the infernal region? :-)

      • FW Ken

        There are snowballs – sleetballs, actually – in Texas, which is about the same thing.

        • hamiltonr

          We’re all snowed in here. You know the drill: Put something in the oven and put your feet up. We’ve been having fun with it around my house. I wonder if I have Manny to thank for it. :-)

          • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

            It was in the 50′s here the last few days, but I hear the cold is coming this way. *sigh* I dislike the cold.

            • hamiltonr

              It’s extremely cold for this time of year in this part of the country. Down to nearly zero tonight. We’re all piled in, eating pork roast and watching movies. It’s lovely.

              • FW Ken

                It’s mid-20s here with wind chill closer to zero. The sleet melted slightly during the day and is refreezing, which they say should be more dangerous. Get ready, Manny. It’s not like you see in the Great Lakes region, but even up there ice shuts things down for a couple of days.

              • Dale

                Rebecca, I must say that I find this (somewhat OT) discussion to be surprising.

                I was having my car worked on today, and while at the service facility I noticed that a college football game was on. It seemed to be a live broadcast from Oklahoma, The open-air stadium was packed with people, and some of them were shirtless.

                Did you have some kind of sudden heat wave today? Maybe a heat burst?

                • hamiltonr

                  No. Football fans is crazy. :-)

      • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

        :)

  • SisterCynthia

    Not much for me to disagree with. :)
    Personally, I don’t have an intrinsic opposition to the trickle-down concept, because theoretically it “should” work, but pragmatically it doesn’t seem to, or at least not very well, thanks to greed. American businesses are always lowering their overhead by investing in foreign factories (either thru direct ownership, or by sourcing the absolutely cheapest components they can find and importing, rather than buying American), which negates any real positives for the American working class. Yes, I know supply/demand and bottom line is what drives such behavior. But as more and more parts of the economy are handed to foreign workers, it decreases the options for our own working class. Anyone who points this out seems to get the “isolationist” label slapped on them, or maybe communist (since when is wanting private sector jobs to be available for the working ‘communist’?), but those insults never address how a decreased number of career options is anything but destructive for our nation’s true “buying power.” Since Americans long ago gave up being willing to pay more for American made products (yay, consumer greed!), the only things I can think of that might help increase domestic production would be offering incentives for factories here, and penalties, er, tariffs, on imports, so steep that the businessmen feel less temptation to screw American workers and take advantage of cheap Asian/third world possibilities. Of course, that gets into massive policy issues, and other countries have a vested interest (as do the corporations) with crying boohoo foul over anything that would decrease the money flowing overseas. As near as I can tell, most Dems don’t fight for stuff like this any more than most Reps do, and usually they are busy pushing expensive unions and environmental controls that just feed into the exodus while lamenting the lack of real jobs. It’s like what gets pushed simply exacerbates the problems, in stead of fixing anything. :-(

    • hamiltonr

      Good comment Sister!

  • Ray Glennon

    Rep. Hamilton, I am a newcomer to your blog, but based on your post “Standing with Pope Francis” and this outstanding post on economics and government, I am sure to become a regular.

    As I see it, these two statements of yours accurately capture the source of our current problems:

    –”The thing that is lacking in our current debate on almost every issue, including economics, is a mutual commitment to the common good.”

    –”There are Christians, both on the left and the right, who have left the Gospels and made a false god of this or that economic theory. Instead of judging their economic ideas by the Gospel, they are judging the Gospel by their economic theory.”

    And you also define the pathway for Christians to work within our government and private institutions to solve our problems:

    –”Put Jesus back on the throne and look at your politics as one way you live out your call to follow Him. Do the same with your ideas about economics. If people would do that, we’d find solutions to all our problems and get this nation back on track. If they don’t, we are going to continue our spiral down.”

    Unfortunately, your obvious and heartfelt commitment to common decency, common sense, and the common good are not shared by many (most?) politicians, especially at the national level, where the lure of power and the torrent of special interest money distorts reality, and politics. And that is not likely to change unless we, the electorate, demand that it change. (Although I must admit I’m at a loss to see exactly how to effect that change.)

    Thanks for your service in Oklahoma and for sharing your ideas as Public Catholic.

    Peace and all good.

    Ray Glennon, U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 1972
    Twitter: @RayGlennon

    • hamiltonr

      Thank you Ray. Welcome to Public Catholic.

  • Mike Blackadder

    I think you have a very reasonable approach to economics, and this is coming from what you might call a ‘right winger’.
    I do think though that’s it’s problematic that you characterize criticism of Francis’ economic theories (as a practical matter and whether or not they are actually a departure or contradiction of historic catholic doctrine, etc) as an ‘attack’ on him. We can all argue about economic theories, and point out where we have a difference of opinion (which is often legitimate from both sides), but that doesn’t address Francis’ instructions and remarks which have an entirely different significance to the catholic faithful.


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