In an article in the Jesuit American Magazine, Brianne Jacobs argues that the current wave of democratic socialism crashing over the Democratic party is in line with Catholic social teaching. She writes that in three ways, democratic socialism is Catholic because it upholds the dignity of every human person by ensuring society favors people over markets, labor, and profits.
Her argument is a bastardization of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which explicitly condemns socialism (democratic or otherwise) and Jacobs’s fourth justification for her argument—subsidiarity—actually points to this condemnation.
People over markets.
Jacobs’s first defense of democratic socialism is in the dichotomy of people versus the market. She argues that the market is at odds with human dignity, writing, “What good is the market if it rots one’s ability to flourish?” One can simply look at the history of the world economy to see that this is a false dichotomy. Throughout history, every society that has introduced free-market principles necessarily increased human flourishing as well. Poverty was the norm for 99% of humanity for the entire history of the planet until the market flipped those numbers. Now 99% of Americans are wealthy compared to the entire globe. The last couple decades have seen unprecedented drops in extreme poverty in China and India—over 1 billion people—thanks to market liberalization. And how do humans flourish when the market is taken away? Not very well if you ask Venezuelans, who are headed in the other direction since their government has taken the market away. People—real people with real human dignity—are starving to death there thanks to the democratic socialism of their leaders.
People over labor.
In her second point, Jacobs appears to glorify labor (a la Marx), saying, “We do not respect the person who does low-wage labor, while so-called wealth generators, from small-business owners to titans like Steve Jobs, are venerated.” In other words, the work the janitor does is as valuable as the work the CEO does. While she doesn’t explicitly say it, this is often used as an argument for minimum wage. But, while we should absolutely respect everyone regardless of how much their labor is worth, that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be differences in their pay. As we’ve seen time and time again, minimum wage laws create more unemployment by pricing out the low-skilled wage-earners. Ask the low-skilled workers if $10 an hour is better than $0 an hour. The solution to low pay is increased skills, not arbitrarily increasing pay for the same skills.
People over profit.
In her third point, Jacobs writes that people should have, “…the ability to buy a good breakfast, clothes and school supplies for one’s children; the possibility of retirement; the care of one’s body; healing in a time of sickness,” and that, “should not depend on whether or how one was able to turn a profit.” This argument for positive rights over negative rights pits wage-earners versus the business-owners. It should really be labelled people over people because the wealth to provide breakfast, school supplies, retirement, and health care has to come from some place and if it’s not done voluntarily, then it is done by the coercive hand of the government—taking from some to give to others. This of course contradicts the encyclical she cites as Pope Leo XIII unequivocally states, “The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.” Inviolability is a pretty strong word and applies to business owners just as much as laborers.
Jacobs ends with a suitable warning against socialists who violate the Catholic principle of subsidiarity: “The rights and dignity of the individual must not be violated or diminished, even in service of the greater good.” This is indeed the fatal flaw of democratic socialism with regard to Catholic social teaching. Democratic socialists want to help individuals but their solutions necessarily harm individuals by violating the principle of subsidiarity, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies.”
The aims of socialism to honor the dignity of all humans may in fact be just and right and Catholic, but the means of socialism—government coercion—are diametrically opposed to the Church’s teaching. And the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The more socialist a country is, the worse off its people are. On the other hand, the freer a given economy is, the better off its people are. This applies to the wealthy in an economy but also to the poorest in the group.
History has shown that socialism doesn’t work. Even if it did, the means it employs makes it incompatible with Catholicism. And making socialism “democratic” doesn’t change all that, it just makes it mob rule.