ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

PATRICK O'NEILL: Should we have Social Security? Without a doubt

GRAND FORKS -- In evaluating any program or policy, economists typically focus on one thing: efficiency. Using our quantitative reasoning skills along with models of how markets and the economy operate, we try to discover the most efficient way t...

GRAND FORKS -- In evaluating any program or policy, economists typically focus on one thing: efficiency. Using our quantitative reasoning skills along with models of how markets and the economy operate, we try to discover the most efficient way to achieve any given outcome.

An analysis of Social Security therefore entails an exploration of the most efficient way to maintain it. That is what my colleague David Flynn does in the companion piece to this essay.

For my part, I want to focus on something economists used to do -- back in the days of Adam Smith -- but rarely do today. That something is to step beyond efficiency and to assess the validity of the goal itself.

This takes the analysis into the realm of philosophy and morality, where my training as an economist is (perhaps) necessary, but certainly not sufficient, as a guide. Thus, I must look beyond that training to something else for guidance.

As a Catholic, the something else I look toward is the social teaching of the Catholic Church.

ADVERTISEMENT

This teaching was referred to as "the gold standard" for business ethics at a recent luncheon at UND that preceded the annual Olafson Ethics Symposium at the College of Business and Public Administration.

So, the question here is not how best to fix Social Security, but rather, should we have it all?

Again, my training as an economist prepares me to address the former question, but not the latter. But the social teaching of the Catholic Church does provide an answer to the latter question of whether we should have Social Security.

The answer is an emphatic yes. I will present the case for that answer by pointing to a small sample of the rich heritage of Catholic Social Thought related to the economy.

The origin of Catholic Social Thought is an encyclical by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 titled Rerum Novarum in which the Pope wrote on the rights and duties of capital and labor, in reaction to the conditions of workers during the industrial revolution.

Fast-forward a century to the writing of Pope Francis and his two immediate predecessors -- Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. All three have continued to develop the themes presented in Rerum Novarum. Some quotes:

• "Further consideration of this question should confirm our conviction of the priority of human labor over what in the course of time we have grown accustomed to calling capital."

-- From paragraph 12 of Laborem Exercens (Sept. 14, 1981) by Pope John Paul II

ADVERTISEMENT

• "Thus every economic decision has a moral consequence."

-- From paragraph 37 in Caritas In Veritate (June 29, 2009) by Pope Benedict XVI

• "The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies."

-- From paragraph 203 of Evangelii Gaudium (Nov. 24, 2013) by Pope Francis

To me, a central point from this century of teaching is that markets and the economy are for people, not the other way around.

Thus, since the Social Security system provides assistance when the market might not, it needs to be there and needs to be healthy.

In closing, it should be noted that underlying all of the papal writing quoted above is the fundamental teaching of the Catholic Church that human beings have an inherent dignity that stems from being created in the image and likeness of God. (See paragraph 357 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

This dignity needs to be protected -- and if the market system does not do so, it is the market system, not the human beings, that needs to be modified.

ADVERTISEMENT

As an economist, this is not a conclusion my training would lead me to. As a Catholic, I can conclude nothing else.

Patrick O'Neill is professor and Clow Memorial Fellow with the Department of Economics at UND. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the policy or perspective of UND.

What To Read Next