R&L: In 1986 you were co-chairman of the Lay Commission which issued a statement on religion and the economy and which was signed by a number of lay Catholics. What motivated you to do this? What were some of the reactions, both positive and negative?
Simon: The Lay Commission tried to take seriously the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which is that the laity bring a special Christian Wisdom to worldly affairs. Its critics tried to portray the Lay Commission as some sort of dissident movement. That’s nonsense. We simply wanted to express the principles that have guided our lives as Catholics and businessmen. The bishops were going off in another direction, and we felt that it was vital to bring our point of view to bear. We have been pleased to see that the Pope’s new encyclical, Centesimus Annus, shares our views on the inextricable link between freedom and prosperity, underscoring the value of the free enterprise system in promoting both.
R&L: How do you account for the lack of economic understanding among today’s clergy? What has been the effect on today’s religious business leaders?
Simon: Part of the problem is lack of education: I don’t know of a seminary that has a serious economics course for its students, and I’m delighted to see the Acton Institute is beginning to fill this gap. Then, of course, there’s an ideological problem – many younger clergy have been far too much affected by the leftist drift of church bureaucracies. The problem is not that this leftism is going to have a great impact outside the Church; socialism is as dead as a doornail. But the lack of spiritual support that business men and women get from their priests, ministers, and rabbis is a problem. There is a real void here, and I hope our churches can begin to find ways to fill it.
R&L: What is the connection, in your opinion, between religion and economics?
Simon: For 90 percent of Americans, biblical religion is the source of personal morality. And free enterprise can’t survive without moral foundations: without honesty, thrift, prudence, trust, and teamwork. In my day on Wall Street, business was carried out by a handshake: now the lawyers have a field day drawing up the most complex kind of contracts. I think we also have to keep in mind that, as Thomas Jefferson said, “the God who gave us life, gave us liberty.” As I read the Pope’s new encyclical, the Holy Father would find that a congenial formulation.
R&L: In the closing pages of your 1978 book, A Time for Truth, you speak about the need for a “counterintelligentsia.” What is this, and is it still needed?
Simon: We’re in the midst of a kind of culture-war in America today. The elite universities, supported by the prestige press and the popular entertainment industry, are promoting a wholesale attack on traditional values and the free institutions that have served the American people so well for 200 years. Happily, there is a counter-current now, as evidenced in the success of Dinesh D’Souza’s book, Illiberal Education, which exposes the influence of extremists in our universities. But we’ve got a long way to go before the weight shifts back in favor of scholars who think of themselves as the great Western tradition rather than as its debunkers.
R&L: We have frequently heard the phrase “preferential option for the poor.” What does this mean to you? Can it be accomplished in a free market, non-interventionist society?
Simon: Somebody once said that “preferential option for the poor” sounds like a bad English translation of a bad Spanish translation of a dumb German idea. And there’s no question that the “preferential option” has been used to promote a socialist agenda and state-centered development schemes in the Third World. But I think the Pope has taken a decisive step in the right direction with Centesimus Annus, which stresses that the poor are empowered best through participation in a free economy. That’s what I mean by a “preferential option for the poor”: getting poor people off the welfare plantation and into productive work. The best way to do this is by letting the free enterprise system thrive; this is the best jobs program ever devised.
R&L: Religious leaders have repeatedly expressed concerns about the problems of Third World development and the need for a new monetary system and exchange rates, as seen in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, On Social Concerns. Would you envision something like the gold standard as being a viable application of the encyclical’s recommendation?
Simon: One of the most important teachings of Centesimus Annus is that countries are poor not because they have a particular monetary system or because they’ve been “exploited” by the developed world, but because they’re cut off from the world market. Foreign aid is rarely effective in promoting development; indeed, the evidence is that aid filtered through corrupt governments with no commitment to economic freedom makes matters worse. We know that the development success stories–Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore–have happened because these countries have been integrated into the Western economic system, and have welcomed foreign investment. We know that private enterprise is the only way to create lasting development; socialist “development” means creating an oligarchy of government or military bureaucrats sitting on top of a country of serfs.
R&L: In what areas can religious institutions work together with private enterprise to effect social change in such areas as the inner city, drug abuse, or the environment. How successful could such an endeavor be?
Simon: The urban underclass is a national tragedy, but we can do something about it if we move the emphasis back on fundamentals like “character.” Some people are poor for reasons that they can’t help, of course, such as an illness or a personal catastrophe of some kind. But many people are poor because of choices they’ve made, to take drugs, for instance, or to drop out of school, or to engage in sexual activity at an early age so they have children they can’t support. Now I understand that the problems of the inner city are extremely complex, and I believe government does have a role in helping the needy. But I don’t think government can be effective if its programs are not bolstered by traditional American values of hard work, family and responsibility for one’s actions. I liked the slogan “Just Say No,” for example, which was widely mocked as too simplistic. Well, it may be simple, but it’s also true. Saying “no” requires conviction, and the strongest convictions are religious convictions. So I think religious institutions and other voluntary organizations are far more likely to deal effectively with the moral collapse that has largely created the urban underclass than are government social workers. People interested in the future of the work force – and in simple human decency – ought to be more aggressively supporting churches and other groups that are getting back into the character-building business.
R&L: We’ve been in a war on poverty now for decades. Has this enormous social spending really exemplified Gospel principles? Has it brought about the kind of moral change that Church leaders argue it can and will?
Simon: No. First of all, there is a broad consensus in the country now that the problem of poverty has more to do with individual behavior than it does with government spending, as I said before. But even if government programs were capable solving all our problems, such spending would not exemplify Gospel principles. Gospel principles require us to give of our selves, to be personally generous with our money and our time. Spending someone else’s money through government programs is not the same thing as personal sacrifice. Sadly, all the government programs have to some extent crowded out individual initiative in helping the poor; many people figure they are already doing their fair share through the high taxes they pay.
R&L: Would you like to comment on the morality of the tax system and monetary system as it presently operates? What can be done to make it a more morally just and economically sound system?
Simon: Well, Congress ought to stop using tax policy as a way to enforce quasi-egalitarian social goals, and begin to use the tax system as it was intended to be used: to raise money for legitimate government purposes. For many decades now politicians have spent taxpayer money as a way to ensure their own re-election. Tax policy has too often been a means to this end, rather than a means of achieving worthwhile goals for our country as a whole. The result has been less equality, less economic growth, less investment, and fewer jobs. With regard to monetary policy, the Federal Reserve Board is all too often forced to create money to fund the Congress’ irresponsible spending. This is a sure prescription for inflation. Alan Greenspan is doing a terrific job holding the line, I might say, and I’m delighted he was reappointed for another term. As for solutions to the spending problem, I have long advocated a limit on political terms of office. If our politicians knew they could not go on being re-elected forever, perhaps they would look to the long-term interests of the country instead of concentrating merely on what they can do to win more votes in the next election.
R&L: You are a successful businessman, as well as a Christian. Do you find a contradiction between your beliefs and your work?
Simon: Well, I suppose you are asking whether someone who has prospered materially as much as I have can be a good Catholic. The answer to that is “yes.” I’ve always strived to follow Andrew Carnegie’s admonition in his Gospel of Wealth that those who have been blessed with wealth must consider themselves trustees of that wealth and use it for the well-being of society. We must use our resources to create new opportunities and jobs and try to place within reach of every child of God a ladder which he or she may climb. My wife Carol and I try to use our wealth with a great deal of care. Yes, we live very well – but not ostentatiously. We give a lot of money to charitable causes, and it is a source of great joy to be able to do this. I try to use my God-given abilities as best as I can. I often think of the biblical Parable of the Talents in which God praises those who have made maximum use of what they have. I can’t play the piano or the violin, and I’m not a life-saving surgeon. But God has given me a talent to make money, and I feel an obligation to try to do good with it.