BISHOP ROBERT BARRON: Why we need a distribution of power
January 21, 2021
A crucially important feature of Catholic social teaching, but one frequently underemphasized or misunderstood, is a clear animus against the concentration of power within a society. This perilous agglomeration can happen economically, politically or culturally.
By a basic and healthy instinct, Catholic social teaching wants power, as much as possible, distributed widely throughout the community, so that one small segment does not tyrannize the majority or prevent large numbers of people from enjoying the benefits that are theirs by right.
We can see this phenomenon perhaps most clearly in the economic order. If one organization manages to monopolize its segment of the economy, it can set prices arbitrarily, hire and fire according to its whim, preclude any competition that might provide better products and/or higher wages for employees, etc. One thinks here of the “trust-busting” work of Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century and the similar concern today for breaking up Google, Facebook, Amazon and other high-tech conglomerates that exercise an almost unchallenged dominance in their field.
A cornerstone of Catholic social teaching is what is traditionally called “distributive justice” – which is to say, the equitable allocation of goods within a society. Now this can take place through direct government intervention, for example through anti-trust legislation, minimum wage requirements, programs to aid the poor, taxation, etc., but it can also happen, more indirectly, through the natural rhythms of the market. In “Centesimus Annus,” St. Pope John Paul II observes that profit-making itself can and should signal to prospective entrepreneurs that there is money to be made in that segment of the economy and that they should, accordingly, get involved. The bottom line is this: Spreading out wealth within a society tends to make an economy both more just and more efficient.
We can furthermore see this dynamic in the political realm. If one party comes to dominate a nation, a state, a city or a community, corruption almost inevitably follows. Unchallenged, the ruling conglomerate can impose its will, compel the acceptance of its vision, and eliminate prospective opponents and critics. It is quite obvious that this sort of arrangement obtains in banana republics, communist dictatorships and oppressive theocracies, but it is also apparent, to a lesser degree, in local and state governments in our own country. If you doubt me, ask yourself why pro-life candidates in Illinois, Massachusetts or California could never hope to be elected to office.
When a political monopoly couples itself with economic power, the corruption becomes only deeper and more intractable. Once again, according to Catholic social teaching, the desideratum is the breaking up and spreading out of power throughout the society. This could happen in a number of ways: equipping a variety of parties, providing for a greater turnover within legislatures, lifting up various expressions of local government, allowing for mediating institutions, strengthening the system of checks and balances, etc.
Though perhaps less obvious than the first two instances, a third example of this dangerous hyper-concentration of power is in the cultural arena. Under both the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships of the last century, only very definite types of art, music and literature were acceptable, and any deviation from the norm was quickly squelched by the state. Today, strict censorship of the arts holds sway in many Islamist states, as well as in communist China.
Lest we think we in the West are free of this sort of cultural monopoly, take a good look at the kind of strict leftist ideology that exists in practically every film or television program produced in Hollywood. This is not brutal state censorship to be sure, but it is indeed a sort of monopolization of cultural power that effectively excludes rival expressions of the good, the true and the beautiful.
Once again, it is very useful to notice the ways in which this cultural dictatorship allies itself with both political and economic power in order to consolidate its hegemony. Catholic social teaching would like this sort of power to be spread out as widely as possible too, permitting a range of artistic expressions at a variety of levels within the society. How dull it is when only one style of art or only one type of thinking is acceptable.
Someone who was acutely sensitive to the danger of hyper-concentrated power in the society was the great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton. Accordingly, along with Hilaire Belloc and others, he developed an economic and political program that became known as “distributism,” deriving the name from the Catholic preoccupation with the just distribution of wealth. As the great Chesterton commentator Dale Ahlquist has recently pointed out, an alternative name for distributism might be “localism,” since the Chestertonian doctrine emphasizes the importance of the many local expressions of political and economic power over any grand project of centralization. If you want to see a vividly narrative presentation of distributism, read Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” paying particular attention to the manner of life in the hobbits’ shire in contrast to the political and economic arrangements in Mordor.
What I hope is at least relatively clear is that this uniquely Catholic approach cuts against both the extreme left and the extreme right. Catholic social doctrine advocates neither statist control nor individual freedom run amok. It holds out a wide and just distribution of economic and political power as an at least asymptotically approached ideal.
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.