In “Capitalist Casuistry: A Review of Can a Catholic Be a Socialist?” Daniel Walden takes aim at our recent book Can a Catholic be a Socialist? It would be an understatement to say he is not a fan of the book, though that’s to be expected from someone whose bio says he “spends his non-work hours thinking about Thomistic Marxism.”
Still, one could have hoped for even a nod to some positive elements in our book (as Walden did in his review of Ben Shapiro’s book The Right Side of History). But no, our book is merely an “an intellectual teddy bear, full to bursting with fluff and capable of providing comfort to children or the childish who have yet to develop the courage to face the world as it is.”
So what are Walden’s complaints?
First, Walden claims we don’t understand socialist critiques of capitalism because we think the only source of conflict between classes is their income inequality. He says the wealthy have an illicit relationship to economic production through the ownership of private property that enriches them at the expense of laborers. But in our book we address the baseless arguments that labor is nothing more than “wage slavery” and point out that entrepreneurs take on more risks than laborers (139-140). As a result, there is nothing wrong with owners receiving income through the property they justly own which, at some point in the past, became their own when labor (e.g. saved wages) was traded for it.
On a related note, Walden egregiously misrepresents our book when he says “on page 137 they admit that paying a just wage in all occupations is impossible under modern capitalism.”
We have a whole chapter showing why every worker deserves a just wage or “the legitimate fruit of work” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2434). We also affirm the Catechism’s citation of Gaudium et Spes, which says “Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family.” The point we were making is that society’s duty to make it so a “man can support himself and his family” does not mean any job must be capable of providing every man (or woman) with enough income to support a family. We write:
Pope Leo said that “the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family.” But in a modern economy, it’s not possible for every single occupation to pay a “family wage” that can support a spouse and children. The federal minimum wage, for example, is about half or a third of a family wage that can support dependents in most places. For popes like Leo XIII and Pius XI, the answer to this dilemma is not found in a simple government policy like a law mandating a family wage for all jobs, which would raise unemployment to obscene levels (137).
If every occupation paid a wage that could support a large family, then there would be far fewer jobs. This is a simple application of the law of supply and demand. When the cost of a thing goes up (other factors being equal), the demand for that thing goes down. Hence, when the cost of labor increases dramatically, the demand for labor goes down (or unemployment increases). In fact, Pope Pius XI recognized it is not possible to pay everyone a “family wage” (QA 71) and condemned unreasonable minimum wages that cause businesses to fail and prevents more people from entering the workforce (QA 74).
Walden then takes aim at our contention that socialism is incompatible with Catholicism because the former seeks to abolish private property whereas the latter views private property as something people have a natural right to acquire. He says “The base of their criticism is that socialism abridges a natural right to private property, and they understand this as roughly encompassing the contemporary liberal legal regime of absolute use.”
However, we never say the right to property is “absolute.” We affirm the Church’s teaching that God gave the earth and its goods to all people (e.g. the doctrine of the universal destination of goods). We also affirm, as Leo does in Rerum Novarum 8, that private property exists to serve the common good and it does so through private ownership. We write:
Christian tradition had always taught that property has both a fully private and fully public character. Property is meant to serve its public character by means of private ownership. This places enormous moral obligations on individuals and property owners to put their wealth at the service of the common good (131-132).
Leo makes it clear in Rerum Novarum that these moral obligations fall under the realm of Christian charity, not civil statutes. He says, “It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity – a duty not enforced by human law” (22).
We agree with Walden that the universal destination of goods allows, as Aquinas noted, someone to take property that is not their own in extreme cases of necessity, like seeking shelter from a life-threatening blizzard in an unoccupied cabin. But just because ownership of private property is not an absolute right, it does not follow that such ownership can only be conducted according to the whims of the State.
To make an analogy, free speech is not an absolute right—e.g. you can’t yell fire in a crowded building—and this right should serve the common good. But it doesn’t follow that “the right to free speech” means you’re only free to follow government-approved topics of discussion and other “speech guidelines.”
Walden then appeals to the classic Marxist distinction between personal property you’re allowed to retain and private property that should become communal. According to him and socialists like Bashkar Sunkara, personal property refers to things a person directly uses for their own benefit like a home, food, or their favorite albums. Private property, on the other hand, are things a person doesn’t directly use but instead reaps the benefits of owning, such as a farm that grows food or a factory that makes albums.
Walden’s argument seems to be that the Church’s teaching on property only applies to personal property and not private property, because the owner neither uses it himself “nor turns it toward the benefit of others, but rather keeps others from it except on the condition that those others use that property primarily for the owner’s benefit.”
But Leo’s argument is that man has a natural right to own not just things he consumes, but things that produce wealth for him and give him the stability he needs in order to rationally obtain goods in the future (RN 6). In Leo’s time this meant living frugally and saving in order to buy a tract of land to call one’s own (RN 5). Today, it might mean using that same frugality to buy a “tract house” from which one derives rental income that allows a family to support themselves.
But under Walden’s position, this would seem involve a merely civil right to own private property. Indeed, he even makes this astounding claim:
Leo does not refer to a natural right to property, but rather to “the right. . . sanctioned by natural law,” [Quod Apostolici Muneris 1] that is, the sort of private right of use that natural law neither forbids nor mandates. This cannot be underscored enough: the natural right that socialists supposedly disregard does not exist in the Catholic tradition.
This is a gross misreading of Leo’s position on private property. In Quod Apostolici Muneris 9 the pope says “the right of property and of ownership, which springs from nature itself, must not be touched and stands inviolate.” In Rerum Novarum Leo says the right to property “has been proved to belong naturally to individual persons” (12) and he speaks of “the inviolability of private property” (RN 15).
Walden never addresses these citations and even resorts to saying Pope Leo XIII was just really bad at communicating the teaching of the Church: “we must read Leo as perhaps poorly articulating but maintaining traditional doctrines of property: the right to property belongs to human law and must always be circumscribed by human needs and the common good, both of which belong to more fundamental tiers of law.”
By “we” Walden probably means “Marxists,” since it should be clear to anyone who is not already committed to abolishing private property that the Church does not endorse a right to property ownership that only exists because of the graces of the State. Leo (who was an excellent communicator, by the way) makes this abundantly clear: “The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether” (RN 47).
The other complaints in Walden’s review cover minor issues but ones that are still worth discussing. First, he complains that we don’t do enough to articulate a Catholic understanding of capitalism and answer critics of capitalism. However, our book is a critique of socialism, which can be done without defending capitalism (distributists in the vein of Chesterton and Belloc have been doing this for nearly a century). We even say in the introduction: “In part four we turn our attention to capitalism and, while not providing an exhaustive summary and defense, refute arguments that try to justify socialism by saying capitalism is worse or unacceptable as an economic system.”
Second, Walden accuses us of peddling a “right-wing fairy tale” from the Cold-war era when we highlight how the Pilgrim’s policy of equally distributing rations took away the incentive to grow extra food and led to a drop in food production. Walden doesn’t tell his readers that we quote the words of the Colony’s governor on the matter and that this fact was recorded in American histories written decades before the Cold War (see Evarts Boutell Greene, A Short History of the American People, vol. 1, (1922) pg. 94). Walden even admits that the colony “imposed a counterproductive and inefficient farming system” but then tries to blame this on the fact a private company’s ownership of the colony. But this distracts from the main point that everyone not committed to defending Marxism at any cost already agrees on: the Pilgrims grew more food when they abandoned communal farming.
Finally, when a reviewer refers to your book’s audience as “children” who have an “enthusiasm and illiteracy that bodes well for future careers in car sales or the ministry,” claims you and your co-author have “a strong tolerance for distorting the historical and scholarly record,” and insists the book was written to reassure racists that it’s okay to “call police when they see a Black person” then you know you’re dealing with a polemicist who peddles tales “full of sound and fury” and not a scholar who is emotionally mature enough to give a book he disagrees with a fair review.
Indeed, the fact that a doctoral candidate like Walden can so badly misunderstand the Church’s teaching on private property shows why it was necessary, even after 150 years of constant magisterial teaching, for us to write a book-length defense of a simple claim once made by Pope Pius XI, “No one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (QA 120).