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MacIntyre, Catholicism and social justice

Someone sent this to me yesterday: The Only Vote Worth Casting in November, a statement by Alasdair MacIntyre on the presidential election. The statement is no longer quite topical, but it’s still worth comment because MacIntyre is a distinguished thinker and his views are in line with those of many Catholics who try to see things whole independently of current political preconceptions.

What he says is that we (meaning Catholics) shouldn’t vote in the election. Bush and Kerry are both intolerable, and we shouldn’t try to choose the less intolerable and so lend the system that offers such alternatives the legitimacy that comes from participation. He then goes on to say:

“Why should we reject both? Not primarily because they give us wrong answers, but because they answer the wrong questions. What then are the right political questions? One of them is: What do we owe our children? And the answer is that we owe them the best chance that we can give them of protection and fostering from the moment of conception onwards. And we can only achieve that if we give them the best chance that we can both of a flourishing family life, in which the work of their parents is fairly and adequately rewarded, and of an education which will enable them to flourish. These two sentences, if fully spelled out, amount to a politics. It is a politics that requires us to be pro-life, not only in doing whatever is most effective in reducing the number of abortions, but also in providing healthcare for expectant mothers, in facilitating adoptions, in providing aid for single-parent families and for grandparents who have taken parental responsibility for their grandchildren. And it is a politics that requires us to make as a minimal economic demand the provision of meaningful work that provides a fair and adequate wage for every working parent, a wage sufficient to keep a family well above the poverty line.”

He then proposes a negative income tax as a way to give everyone a sufficient minimum income.

As usual, grand principle is easier to agree on than specific application. I agree that if both major party candidates are intolerable you shouldn’t vote for either, but I don’t see why not voting is the answer—I did a write-in for Peroutka. I agree that a basic problem is that the right questions don’t get asked, and that the right questions include what people owe each other and how we should arrange things to foster the best kind of life. (I also agree with his suggestion later in the statement that for Democrats abortion is much more sacred than economic redistribution, while for Republicans the reverse emphasis applies. In normal politics, getting what those on top want for themselves is trumps.)

What I don’t agree with is his emphasis on top-down social policy, in particular direct continuous redistribution and (apparently) a regime of direct government aid to non-traditional families, as the way we can fulfill our obligations to others and promote a better life. The former, by establishing the principle that the electorate in effect chooses directly how much the rich keep and how much the poor get, abolishes property, while the latter subsidizes family disorder and so promotes it. At bottom, I disagree with the tendency, which MacIntyre seems to share with many intelligent and ardent Catholics, to say that existing political configurations make no sense and the right political approach would combine Democratic “social justice” issues with Republican “life” issues.

MacIntyre’s comments—his “doing whatever is most effective in reducing the number of abortions,” for example—seem to reflect an administrator’s attitude. I’ve been reading the social encyclicals lately, and what strikes me is the complexity of what they call for, the dislike of centralized administrative solutions, the emphasis on personal, family and local action and responsibility, and the impossibility of direct imposition by a central authority of anything resembling the public good, “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” That complexity and restraint gives each of us plenty to do, but make it impossible to force things. We are told, for example, that social justice is a matter of “provid[ing] the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.” That’s a very complex matter, if taken in its full meaning. The modern tendency is to shorten the way by redefining and simplifying what the nature of things is thought to be, and what is due them, in such a way that everything can be reduced to straightforward enforceable procedures. That’s dehumanizing, and I don’t believe it’s Catholic social justice.

It seems to me a that fundamental threat to Catholicism and humanity generally today is managerial left/liberalism: a movement toward a comprehensive all-pervasive social order that is administered on rational hedonistic principles and insists on eradicating everything at odds with itself. The Democratic Party now stands comprehensively for that kind of movement toward a sort of universal EU, and has to be opposed. Abortion is part of that movement, and so is the current conception of social justice. Social justice is now understood as the delivery of ultimate results to individuals that seem just on a simplified theory of justice. That requires a uniform centrally controlled way for the results for each individual to come about, and therefore elimination of local autonomy and initiative, and the effects of history, cultural differences and the ways people live their lives individually and socially. To me that means universal tyranny, and I don’t think Catholics should support it.

The right—including strong elements within the Republican party—is defined as such by its resistance to that movement one way or another. I think it should be supported, although critically since the resistance is partial and opportunistic and the vision of something better is mostly lacking. It seems to me the task of Catholics is to provide that vision—to rethink social justice independently of the left/liberal understanding, so it becomes less a bureaucratic scheme and more a complex goal and process in which people and communities participate but can’t be centrally guaranteed.



Messrs. Kalb and MacIntyre are right that the Democratic and Republican parties are unworthy of Catholics’ votes. As long as there are other alternatives, it does not necessarily follow that the only proper choice is not to vote. In the 2004 presidential election, Catholics had alternatives, although doubtless most Catholics did not consider them. The Constitution Party’s Peroutka is a candidate for whom Catholics could vote in good conscience, and that is what I did. If orthodox Catholics had rallied behind a candidate like Peroutka, we could have sent a plainer message than silence or - worse, and what I suspect happened - acquiescence in the candidacies of the establishment parties’ unworthies. HRS

Of course voting isn’t just a particular selection, it also represents personal assent to the contents of the ballot and the politics which produced it, irrespective of the particular selection one makes. Someone who votes thereby personally affirms that yes, the process, assumptions, and concrete values which produced this ballot are acceptable and legitimate. That personal acceptance and explicit assent has effects on the outside world and on the voter himself that have to be considered. So voting for a third party candidate who is destined to lose is not necessarily the obvious correct choice, on either a moral or practical basis, compared to not voting at all.

I think Matt is reading too much into the act of casting a ballot. It seems to me that by writing in Peroutka or for that matter Elmer Fudd you’re saying formally and publicly that you don’t like what you’re being offered. I don’t see that as giving away the game in advance. You can’t live with people or communicate with them without participating in the whole web of practices and attitudes that constitutes the status quo.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I don’t think it is an issue of purity; it is a question of what exactly one is trying to do by voting. The essence of voting as an act is to grant voluntary personal consent and approval to a particular political state of affairs. The difference between granting that approval and not isn’t a minor one, it is an essential one; a greater difference than which specific preferences are chosen from the available buffet. The elections held in communist countries may have seemed a sham to Americans, because Americans have a real though very narrow range of choices next to which the communist options seem to be no choice at all; but nevertheless they were well attended and performed a very real social function in acquiring the explicit consent of the governed for the current state of affairs.

That this is seen as essential is demonstrated by the “get out and vote” movements. What is seen as critical is not the particular choices made, but that citizens get out and vote irrespective of which choices are made. Apparently in some countries an eligible voter who does not vote - no matter for whom - is fined, and there are rumblings in the culture about how dangerous non-voters are and how they ought to be shunned or even persecuted. So clearly there is a significant, essential difference between willing voters and unwilling non-voters; a difference that the culture finds significant. So someone considering a course of action might want to consider that essential difference in coming to a decision about what to do.

But every act short of a total war of annihilation against the social order in general has a social context that the act accepts. The act therefore signifies among other things consent to the social order. Inactivity and silence are normally understood as acceptance, for example. When you’re given a chance to complain and you don’t take it you can’t keep your silence from implying consent simply by doing nothing. It seems to me that the best way to clarify the meaning of your act is to do something explicitly communicative, and a vote or write-in vote for a protest candidate does that.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Mr. kalb writes:
“Inactivity and silence are normally understood as acceptance, for example.”

The links I posted are specific examples of how willfully not voting is, at least in the eyes of some, an exception to that general tendency, though.

Jonathan Freedland may be being a bit hyperbolic when he describes willful non-voters as “a genuine threat to Britain’s national cohesion - even to our democracy” and “Britain’s most dangerous minority”; and when he compares them to people who riot, loot, and burn.

Robin Wallace may not (or may) really mean it when he recommends:
“Anti-voters should be subjected to the same fear of social ostracism and cultural peer pressure that works so effectively in forcing us to keep up with the Joneses in other areas of our lives. Don’t invite anti-voters to your parties. Don’t let your kids play with their kids. Ignore them when you run into them at the supermarket.”

But in any case the two different acts - voting for a write in or willfully not voting - are profoundly different; and those differences ought to be taken into consideration by the person engaging in the act, because clearly it is not the case that wilfully not-voting is just another run of the mill non-act.