Careers, Capitalism, and Catholicism
Questions that may arise during the job-hunt
Apply, interview, wait. As a current senior, I find myself caught in the sometimes-maddening cycle known as the job search. While this process raises typical questions about what my passions are, or about where I see myself in five to ten years, it has also prompted me to explore something deeper: What is the end or purpose of a career? Often told that the first job might simply be a “stepping-stone” to the next, I would like to know what it is that I’m supposed to be striving towards. No pressure for a twenty-one-year-old.
In the American model of capitalism, does a career path epitomize the “pursuit of happiness” described by our founders in the Declaration of Independence? Should a career aim at some common good for the betterment of the political society in which we live? Must a career always point to the greater glory of God? Or is it some combination of these things?
I began thinking more seriously about these questions after attending a conference in Washington D.C., where one of the panels included a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who explained how her Catholic faith has informed her views on economics. She argued that both the means and ends of production in a capitalist society cannot possibly bring humans closer to their ultimate goal of living in union with God. Denouncing market production, she emphasized extra-market work such as work with family and work on the land.
This speaker had compelling faith-based reasons for advocating that humans should work less—or in her ideal world, not at all—yet I found her to be describing a market-less society that was, in fact, not a society at all. In a free-enterprise system, the market incentivizes participants to provide goods and services for both themselves and others and fosters networks of interdependence foundational to the well-being of the society. Without such market-based interactions, humans would live without much need for one another outside familial relationships.
Of course, capitalism and the American system as it currently stands are not without flaws and faults, but the solution is not simply to disengage; it is to reevaluate how we view our individual roles within the market economy. Contrary to the approach outlined by the conference speaker, I do not think that the Catholic faith or Christian values demand that we retreat from capitalism. I do think that looking at the principles underlying the “labor theory of value” and connecting these principles to our faith provides a better road to a solution.
The labor theory of value, presented in varying forms in the works of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, David Ricardo, and John Locke, asserts that the economic value of a good or service is determined by the amount of labor exerted in production. While modern economists generally reject this explanation and claim economic value is determined by supply and demand, the theory does offer some food for thought on how individuals, even Catholics, can view their role in a capitalist system.
In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke claims that because all humans have a natural right to self-ownership, they therefore own the work of their hands. When humans combine their labor with natural resources to create property, they increase the value of those resources and thus contribute to the greater economic well-being of society.
Locke discusses the inherent connection between labour and property in terms of “self-ownership,” but it can also be understood slightly differently through a Christian lens. Thomas Aquinas defends the existence of private property and the importance of commercial transactions in a political society in writing that “human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately.” Thus, according to Aquinas, private property contributes to human flourishing by lending order to social organization and allowing humans to multiply and share the fruits of their labor.
The theories of both Locke and Aquinas rely on the concept of private property, yet Aquinas diverges from Locke in a notable way. He emphasizes that property remains a gift from God, and humans must work with a view to achieving the common good as well as union with God. We combine our labor with nature and possess property because we belong to the all-giving Creator, not because we own ourselves.
This distinction is key when considering certain Christian critiques of market-based economies. Private property and capitalism are not the problem; we have allowed the Thomistic explanation of labor and property to fall to the wayside because we prefer that Christianity not interfere with our idea of “self-ownership.”
While we might think we are simply college students interviewing for entry-level jobs in the services sector of the American economy, the Thomistic understanding of property remains relevant to our own lives. Today, the goods and services we will provide as consultants or researchers or bankers or engineers may seem to have little to do with “nature” and are externally assigned value by the laws of supply and demand, but perhaps we can find intrinsic meaning and purpose in our careers by recalling the value of our labor within the context of Christianity and acknowledging God as both the source and aim of our work.
Kate Lederer is a senior studying economics and political science. Her surfing career began and ended when she visited Lisbon, Portugal during her semester abroad this past spring. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.