A moral economy

my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

The past months have seen the questioning of the free market or capitalist economic system, with many pointing giddily to the merits of socialism. While the Marxist or communist economic models have clearly been utter failures, nevertheless, due to the uncertainties of the global economic situation, the idea that government should redistribute wealth is gaining appeal. Which is unfortunate.

Any policy that admits to the idea of entitlement, that people have been victimized by the "system" and thus is owed by society itself should be rejected. Rather than encouraging people to work and meet the demands of society, a mere whiff of the notion that one is helpless, that government is there to take care of them, is all it takes for people to refuse to take accountability for their lives. It’s human nature.

Our country’s present entitlement culture certainly provides numerous disincentives to work: why work if you’ve been told by politicians and academics that you’re entitled to receive money in exchange for nothing via the Conditional Cash Transfer? Or acquire property simply by squatting in it? Or demand to receive a professional’s benefits but without the need to act professionally thanks to the Kasambahay Law?

Oh, and by the way, because you’re poor you’re excused from following the law.

This is the kind of mentality that Nathan Oppman decries. In his "Food Stamps and Stewardship" (Aug. 23, 2013, www.frcblog.com), he points that that while indeed people should care for the poor, "we should not allow that care to cause us to be blind to systematic abuses that actually hurt those the system is intended to help. Love demands that we provide for those around us, but wisdom demands that we not give to those who wantonly throw away what we are entrusting to them. Good stewardship requires honesty and honesty requires us to admit that good intentions are not enough."

Unfortunately, for many in civil society, good intentions rather than outcome are what matters. And the use of buzzwords, like "sustainability." Which is perhaps the reason why Doug King ("It’s Time to Ban the Empty Word ‘Sustainability’," Aug. 30, 2013, www.theconversation.com) wants it banned.

And hence why a paternalistic type of government is so contemptible. As Gerald J. Russello wrote (in "A Catholic Defense of Freedom," Sept. 5, 2013, www.crisismagazine.com): "A centralized state, which tells us what is good for us, and promises to provide for us, corrodes that habit of learning and exercising wise choices."

Speaking of learning, I previously pointed out that "the default excuse is to blame the lack of education for our people’s propensity to vote criminals, plunderers, or traitors into public office. But how can this be when public spending on education constitutes between 15-17% of overall expenditure and when our country’s literacy rate, particularly in the last two decades or so, hovers around the 95% mark?"

The answer to this is because education is not merely limited to rote accumulation of words and numbers. The true value of education, which we ignore completely, is the development of our citizen’s virtues. And it is the development of our people’s virtues that is crucial in determining whether our country moves forward or stagnates. The point is that, rather than give our people -- specially the youth -- a sense of entitlement, more demands on their self and their sense of responsibility should actually be made.

Of virtue, Russello writes: "... virtue was the basis for government, and liberty meant, first and foremost, government of the self before self-government as a community could occur. Those habits of virtue were only partially, if at all, able to be fostered by the state. Rather, small communities, and the family above all, were the source of those habits."

Virtue in people is what makes democratic societies work. As Michael Novak ("Democratic Capitalism," Sept. 24, 2013, www.nationalreview.com) declared: "The prospering of free societies depends on certain moral and cultural practices."

Furthermore, "the particular habits of the dynamic economy are enterprise, invention, discovery, intelligent organization, and hard intellectual (and physical) work. The institutions that nourish such virtues include: the rule of law, private corporations (especially small ones, which create most of the jobs in the economy), open and competitive markets, rights of association, rights to an inexpensive and easy incorporation in law of new businesses, respect for private property including patent and copyright laws to protect original ideas and compositions, and tax codes favorable to good habits that bear practical fruits."

To sum up, best to use the words of J. L. Liedl ("Want a Good Economy? Try Virtue," Sept. 4, 2013, www.ethikapolitika.org): "The dehumanizing theorems and charts of the economist have done us enough harm already... There is something metaphysical in play here, and it must be observed even when dealing with the nitty-gritty, physical practicalities of capital and labor. Virtue, more than anything else, more than economic theories or fiscal policy, is what a society needs to have a good and just economy."