Publisher’s note: Coming to a correct understanding of sound economic principles through the lens of Catholic social teaching is a complex task that requires discernment and study. It is not possible for the Church to issue specific, universal policy prescriptions that are morally binding due to the highly subjective intricacies of particular economic, political, and social situations. Since faithful Catholics are allowed some latitude in seeking to implement socio-economic systems that respect human dignity and embrace the principles of justice and charity, we hope to provide commentary from multiple perspectives to help Catholics better form their consciences on these issues.
Christians must be pro-life, not simply a part of the pro-life movement. That is, we must be actively in favor of policies and attitudes that nurture and sustain life, and not simply allied for a political agenda regarding abortion (though that agenda is intensely important).
Many Christians have recognized this fact and broken ranks at various times to support what they considered pro-life policies even when they were championed by anti-life or pro-abortion groups and individuals.
While seeking common ground with one’s enemies is praiseworthy thing, we should be careful about which things truly promote life, and which things only appear to do so but may have sinister side effects (or, more often than we realize, sinister origins).
This is especially true of government functions that appear to do the charitable work Christians are called to. Many would say that using tax dollars to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless is a good and virtuous thing. A pro-life thing. A Christian thing.
To be sure, these things are a better use of tax dollars than bullets and bombs and bridges to nowhere. But “better than terrible” is not necessarily “good.”
Rather, I suggest that our modern welfare state is deeply anti-life.
This opinion relies on an understanding of the economic concepts of “asset” and “liability,” and the difference between government and human views on the nature of value. This analysis will result in another seemingly contradictory conclusion: profit-motivated businesses tend toward pro-life behavior.
Assets and Liabilities
Broadly speaking, an asset is anything that increases your wealth over time through your interaction with it. A liability is the opposite — anything that decreases your wealth over time through your interaction with it.
In the strictest financial terms, this generally refers to property (real or otherwise) that either generates revenue and/or increases in value over time (on the one hand) or costs money to maintain and/or decreases in value over time (on the other).
This means that a car is almost always a liability, not an asset. Cars cost money to maintain, they cost money to use, and they almost always decrease in value the longer you own them (exceptions such as vintage collectible automobiles being precisely that – exceptions).
Owning a rental house is probably an asset. Assuming you have a tenant, it will generate some amount of income (rent). Additionally, its value may go up over time.
In a more generalized sense of the words, assets and liabilities do not need to be things, nor do they need to be owned by you or even ownable at all. For example: people (or, more precisely, relationships to people) may also be thought of as assets and/or liabilities.
Before I knew the real definitions, I (like a lot of people) only had a vague notion that liabilities are bad and that assets are good.
This is very wrong, and it leads to people seeing things in all the wrong ways.
If you think of an asset as something good — anything you need or want or something with intrinsic value and worth — you’ll think of anything that benefits you as an asset. A car would be an example of something often erroneously perceived to be an asset. After all, you need a car to get to work, so in some real sense it’s helping you bring in income. As mentioned above, however, the reality of owning a car is actually a source of ongoing cost and maintenance.
This sort of miscategorization happens all the time, and almost always takes the form of mistaking a liability for an asset.
Education is often categorized as an asset, even though student debt is a serious liability on many personal balance sheets. Companies talk about their employees as assets, when they are actually cost-centers. Society talks about “the children” as an asset, in some vague metaphorical way, but on the government’s balance sheet, children are almost always liabilities.
From a human standpoint, liabilities are not bad, nor are assets good. This is because humans have other conceptions of value besides strictly the financial.
Most of the time, you need your liabilities. In fact, a strictly rational economic actor (like a business, for example) will only allow liabilities which are needed. The rest are dispensed with.
It’s worth noting, if it isn’t obvious, that something can often be an asset for one party and a liability for another. If I own a rental home with tenants, that home is an asset to me (the landlord) but a liability to the people who live there.
Moreover, since human beings have conceptions of value that cannot be quantified in terms of economics, we at times assess high value where there is no economic benefit. An infant may be a financial liability for a family, but he is considered to have inestimable value. From this perspective, a child is viewed a highly valued asset, regardless of the financial cost. This perception can be described as non-financial value.
We humans are able to understand non-financial value because we are not solely rational economic actors. Our lives, our choices, and our values are not (ideally) driven by rationality and financial concerns.
When moral human beings consider the worth and value of human life in general or a specific human life, they do not think in terms of financial assets and liabilities.
This is a good thing, and this is the way it ought to be.
You are a human being with a soul and a mind. You have irrational thoughts and uncontrollable emotions. You love, you hate, you learn, and grow. You are motivated by an infinite number of conflicting desires and drives that you yourself may not fully understand, and which certainly no other person can know. You have secret dreams and secret motivations, plans and schemes, and goals and habits good and bad.
You are not a rational economic actor.
Governments have almost none of those qualities. They tend to do well on the “plans and schemes,” and often “secret motivations,” but you’d be hard-pressed to find a government that loves or learns. They grow, but more like a cancer than like a healthy human. They have no soul.
You may possess the ability to be rational, but you yourself are not wholly rational. And you may engage in economic activity, but you are not solely (or even primarily) an economic actor.
Governments, however, have no such sense of non-economic value. Governments tend to be strictly rational economic actors, pursuing their own corporate interests and understanding only economic definitions of value.
This is also true of any for-profit business of a sufficient size.
Rational economic actors will tend to nurture and increase their assets, while attempting to reduce their liabilities. While it would be wrong to attribute emotions to corporate entities, taken from a similitude with human action, one could say that governments and corporations (and all rational economic actors) love their assets and hate their liabilities.
For this reason, neither governments nor corporations can see a person the way we, as people, see a person. For a strictly economic actor, the only meaning that a person has is as an asset, or as a liability. Only their financial value matters.
Even though both corporations and governments are run by people, the needs of the organization itself will almost always trump the compassion of the individuals who make it up. This is because the entire purpose of corporations and governments is to sublimate the activity of individuals into a higher and more complex set of goal-seeking behaviors. It is for this reason that humans create organizations like businesses and governments in the first place.
So, if governments and corporations view people in similarly dehumanizing ways, they are both similarly bad and should be avoided, right?
It is only bad for a person — as a human — to view another person in a way that is reductive and dehumanizing. For a corporate entity, such as a business or a government, to do so is morally neutral. This is because corporate entities have no soul. They have no true point of view – only a set of behaviors to which we can analogically ascribe a point of view.
Both governments and businesses are concerned with economic value over human value. But this concern manifests in an anti-life manner for governments, and in a pro-life manner for businesses.
The key difference has to do with the goals of government and the goals of businesses.
Typically, a corporation’s goal can be said to be exploitation and profit-seeking. A government’s goal is taking care of the interests of its people. This is a rough sketch of their purpose, but an accurate one.
To many people, this means that governments are “caring and good” and that corporations are “greedy and evil.” But this understanding is naïve.
Corporations make profits in a lot of different ways, but at their core they make profit from selling things to people. All the other machinations of industry rest on this fact. People, therefore, are an asset (generally speaking) to corporations. They have value (money) that corporations wish to exploit (by selling them stuff).
This means that human beings are inherently valuable to corporations. To the extent that a soulless, lifeless entity with no mind and no emotions can like something, corporations must like people.
Remember I said employees are liabilities? This is true. But businesses need those employees in order to pursue their goals. So even if a business doesn’t like its employees, it usually needs them. It is in a relationship with them that requires care and maintenance on the part of the organization. It doesn’t have to like them, but it typically can’t thrive if it acts in ways antithetical to their interests.
What about governments?
Governments are in the business of “taking care of people.” Whether that means protecting them from foreign invaders or providing health care to those who can’t afford it or planning clean cities for them to live in or inspiring them with moon launches, the entire structure of government is predicated upon the notion that people need to be taken care of and that government is the best entity for the job.
Taking care of something has an expense, of course. Every person being taken care of represents a liability to the government that is tasked with that care. And the more care being given, the higher the liability.
Government, as an institution, cannot love. It cannot understand non-financial value. It cannot know the true worth of a human being.
Unlike a business, which views its customers as a source of value (an asset) and its employees as a required liability, a government has only one way to understand human life: as an unneeded liability. Not only does each human life represent a government expense, but no individual life (expect perhaps a few elite politicians) is really needed by the government for its continued functioning.
This is especially true of the poor, who represent nothing of value to the government (they do not tend to pay taxes), and who, because of government-run welfare programs, represent a huge expense.
Is it any wonder that so many people sense that government hates the poor? Of course it does.
And what does a rational economic actor seek to do with liabilities?
It really should not be a surprise to anyone that the rise in social welfare programs — which have increasingly turned individuals into government liabilities — has coincided with a rise in support for abortion “rights,” and in the actual number of abortions being performed.
And, also unsurprisingly, children of the poor comprise a gigantically outsized percentage of the abortions performed.
In fact, this is precisely the purpose of abortion — to rid society of those classes of people that society considers to be liabilities. Abortion is genocide for the poor, especially poor minorities. The (relatively) small handful of babies aborted by upper and middle class white women are not intended targets, but merely collateral damage in society’s war against the poor and others it considers unfit to live.
Access to safe and legal abortion, along with the general acceptance of birth control as a basic healthcare need, has its roots in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a racist eugenicist and admirer of Adolph Hitler. Her anti-life birth-control agenda had as much to do with “assist[ing] the race toward the elimination of the unfit” as it did with the emancipation of women. Interestingly, Sanger herself was not in favor of abortion. Planned Parenthood did not begin advocating for abortion access until after her death. But this change in policy can be seen as simply the logical outgrowth of the founding principles of the eugenics movement.
It would be enough to show that a welfare state is inherently anti-life based on a purely economic argument, as I have done above. The facts are fairly straightforward: those receiving aid are a liability which must be eliminated.
This would be the case even if abortion and other anti-life policies, such as assisted suicide and government-funded birth control, were merely an after-effect, a natural development.
But they were not a natural development. They were not unforeseen side-effects of a benevolent attempt to care for all people.
As documented in Edwin Black’s War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, eugenics was one of the central organizing principles for the early Progressive movement (and, really, all of early 20th century intellectual society). Moreover, it was part of a larger program of government planning that changed government from an entity focused on defense and general order to a leviathan concerned with taking care of people and ensuring quality of life (for those deemed fit to live).
Government-run welfare programs are not just accidentally anti-life. They are anti-life by design.
What then, do we do?
Dismantling the welfare state is likely to cause more damage at this point than leaving it alone, assuming that such a thing could even be possible in the first place — which it probably isn’t. Various attempts by the political right to limit its effectiveness tend also to make things worse, because the ideology of most conservative politicians is no more pro-life than that of most liberal ones.
In fact, the seed of this problem is the basic idea that by fixing government, we can fix society. This is wrong, and dangerously so.
The answer, then, is not primarily to seek government solutions (and dismantling a program is as much a government solution as starting one). We do not need more government solutions, but more Christian ones.
Pro-life Catholics must engage in pro-life activities, actions that demonstrate the real (non-economic) value of human life. Additionally, we can engage in business and financial activity that raises the economic value of individuals, thus shielding them from rationalistic economic judgements by helping them to become seen as assets rather than as liabilities.
Blessedly, many Catholics and other Christians are already doing precisely that. Every married couple raising a quiver of Godly children is doing more to promote the value of human life than a hundred otherwise passive “values voters.” Every business owner creating jobs and economic value is doing more to eliminate poverty than a thousand government welfare programs.
We can also do more — as churches and as individuals — to reduce the need for government assistance. Obviously, we can work for and help fund private charities, and other similar activities. But we can also watch out for our own neighbors and friends. We can help members of our parishes pay their bills instead of helping them fill out government assistance forms. We can invite the hungry into our homes for dinner instead of handing them a few canned goods and the phone number of the WIC office. We can demonstrate through our liturgy and our lives that every child — regardless of circumstance — has a place in our Church and in our community. We can be the social safety net.
Life itself — the real life of falling in love and marrying, raising children, conducting business, worshipping God, engaging in one’s neighborhood — is the greatest pro-life movement.
Adam writes about philosophy, theology, libertarian politics, anarcho-capitalism, software development, the Open Source movement, Christian liturgy, and sacred music.