September 03, 2012
Labor Day lessons
By Jason Godin *

By Jason Godin *

Labor Day gives many Americans a chance to extend their weekend away from work.

It can also provide people of faith in the United States an opportunity to reflect on the nature of economic activity and the proper roles of their government in it. For Catholics, the words of Blessed John Paul II can provide a common place to start.

To Stabilize, Sustain…

In 1991 John Paul II spent an entire section in an encyclical letter, Centesimus Annus, discussing general functions of the government – what he called the “State” – in economic affairs (§48). The Holy Father began by stressing how a market economy takes as fact “sure guarantees” of individual freedom, private property, stable currency, and efficient public services. Seeking to achieve the full security of such guarantees, the first role of government becomes stabilizing economic activity. Stable economies, he concluded, allow workers and producers to “enjoy the fruits of their labors” and “feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly.”

John Paul II next focused on the role of the government in “overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights” in economic activity. He specified how primary responsibility in this regard “belongs not to the State” but with individuals and the collective variety of “groups and associations” in society.

Where the government could and should take the lead toward these ends, the Holy Father instructed, is in sustaining economic activities by “creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities,” “stimulating those activities where they are lacking,” or “supporting them in moment of crisis.”

… and to Substitute

Centesimus Annus also proposed that the government has the right to substitute weak or infant “social sectors or business systems” with “supplementary interventions" under “exceptional circumstances.”

Importantly, the Holy Father carefully described and circumscribed the role of government in such situations. Perhaps initially “justified by urgent reasons touching the common good,” he warned that direct government intervention in economic activity “must be as brief as possible” to avoid “removing permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs” as well as “enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom.”

A Message for All

Take a moment on Labor Day to consider what happens when the people of a nation forget that the fundamental goal of economic activity is “to the service of persons, of the whole man, and of the entire human community” (cf. CCC, 2426).

Results may include:

The lust for profits replaces providing for people.

Government responsibilities grow larger as our sense of individual responsibility grows weaker.

Work serves to discourage our search for and sense of vocation.

We confront brief, exceptional circumstances only to resign ourselves to believing that they’re lasting, ordinary norms.

Blessed John Paul II, with one section in a single encyclical, addressed the stabilizing, sustaining, and substituting functions of government in economic activity. He warned of potential moral hazards that could emerge from misunderstanding the true nature of financial activities. His lessons mean as much now as they did over 20 years ago. And, most important for our time, they never once demean a person because of political party affiliation.

Jason Godin teaches United States history at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas. You can find him on Facebook here.

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