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The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a new statement this month that examines important questions about farm owners, farm workers and government agricultural policy in light of the Church’s social teaching.

In some ways “For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food” represents a welcome and positive shift toward a clearer understanding of the bishops’ roles as moral authorities and a coming to grips with the economic realities of certain farm issues. In other ways, it demonstrates the continuing inability of the USCCB and its advisers to break out of conventional understandings of the relationship between government and the economy.

Of paramount importance is the statement’s explicit and repeated avowal that its policy recommendations involve “prudential judgments and that people of good will may disagree about the application of Catholic principles to specific policies.” With few exceptions, moreover, the document’s arrangement makes clear where the principles of the social teaching end and the policy judgments begin. By so doing, it helpfully delineates between the bishops’ role as teachers on matters of faith and morals and their activity as sponsors of policy recommendations, which may be open to countervailing arguments on the basis of facts, logic, or even consonance with the principles of Catholic social teaching.

At the level of principle, the bishops note that the dignity of the person is at the foundation of Catholic social teaching. They invoke the principles of solidarity – a commitment to the common good arising out of the human being’s social nature – and subsidiarity, which dictates that higher level institutions must support, not usurp, the activities of individuals, families, and local institutions. The statement affirms the “right and duty” to work, and the rights to economic initiative, just wages, and association.

At the level of application, the statement falters at several points. First, the statement exhibits a bias in favor of “family farms on a human scale.” It claims that this bias is justified on the grounds of the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, but the logical derivation of the former from the latter is not clear. The concept of a “human scale” is itself impossibly difficult to specify. Many farms run by families today are operated on a scale that might have been considered “inhuman” by previous generations of farmers.

In addition, although a preference for family farms over massive corporate agribusiness is fine (I share it), does such a preference justify policy prescriptions to enable smaller farms’ survival and thriving? As economists often remind us, there is no such a thing as a free lunch. Any resources directed toward family farms are resources unavailable for some other purpose. The financial well-being of people on farms and in rural communities is certainly a deserving goal, but this goal should not be achieved at the expense of the financial well-being of others. Subsidies, transfer payments conducted by the government, do exactly that.

The statement repeatedly asserts that farming is not just another occupation and that food is not just another product. Farming, it insists, is a valued way of life and food is sustenance necessary for life. True enough. But farming is an occupation and food is a product and, as such, food production is not exempt from the economic laws that govern all such enterprises. The extraordinary gains in agricultural activity over the past two centuries are a testament to the skill and ingenuity of inventors and farmers who have responded to the demands of the market by finding and using increasingly efficient methods to grow crops and raise livestock. To lessen or eliminate the demanding character of the market is to discourage such progress.

The document also succumbs too easily to the trendy language of “environmental sustainability.” This concept is inherently vague and unhelpful, since the practices, population, and standards of living that are “sustainable” are constantly in flux as tastes change and technology advances. The bishops recommend targeting subsidies to “environmentally sound and sustainable farm practices.” But the government’s record on rewarding environmentally sound practices is notoriously bad.

The extension of private property benefits (and obligations) is a far more reliable means for bringing about genuine progress on environmental issues. Scholars at the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, among others, have demonstrated the potential for markets to be harnessed in the cause of environmental health and have detailed the dangers incumbent when the forces of the market are ignored. Creating markets in water rights, for instance, can be an effective way of managing stream levels and fish populations.

These specific examples point to a more general, fundamental weakness of the bishops’ statement. The underlying presumption driving the entire policy discussion is that just and prosperous agriculture depends on the clever and well-meaning balancing of concerns by government officials. The government, the statement presumes, is a better adjudicator of the trade-offs involved in the questions of farm size and environmental impact than is the market.

Experience and reasoned reflection on the nature of government and the economy suggest that this presumption is mistaken. Because of its capacity to collect and disseminate incalculable amounts of information through the price mechanism, the market can perform in ways that government, however well-meaning, simply cannot.

Government’s role is indispensable; it provides the juridical framework for the market. Equally indispensable and of preeminent importance is the moral framework of the market, the maintenance of which depends on the work of religious leaders such as the Catholic bishops.

But the good intentions of neither politicians nor bishops will be sufficient to create adequate income for workers, thriving communities, or a healthy environment. The realization of these goals depends on the coordination of natural and human resources that occurs most efficiently through free exchanges made by persons and institutions – in other words, through the market.

Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for  the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004).