4.2.6 RN part 3: The role of government in ensuring just working conditions (##32-47)

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Unit 4 Contents

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In coming to the topic of the role of government, we need to remember how different things were in 1891 from today.  Most significantly, there was no welfare state.  Nor was there an established mindset or culture that favoured setting up public welfare provision.

However, some voices had emerged calling for certain kinds of state intervention for the sake of the working poor.  One very significant example was the British Evangelical Christian, Lord Shaftesbury, who had campaigned tirelessly for laws to limit working hours, the Factory Acts.  You might like to read a brief outline of his life and work.

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Optional reading (3pp)

Spartacus Educational, ‘Lord Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury

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But the opposite view had had much more prominence during the nineteenth century – namely that governments should not interfere in such ways, because doing so would distort the free market in labour.  Don’t forget that the defenders of liberal capitalism argued that rules restricting how people act in markets should be minimized.  Such rules were seen as ‘intervention’ that would necessarily distort self-correcting markets.

Although what Pope Leo says about this in RN is hedged around with qualifications, this part of the encyclical makes it very clear that he saw it as wholly legitimate and necessary for governments to pass laws that would set bounds to what can be done in markets, in order to protect workers.

Having emphasized that government’s role is to serve the common good, he says, “the public administration must duly and solicitously provide for the welfare and the comfort of the working classes; otherwise, that law of justice will be violated which ordains that each man shall have his due” (#33).

Later he discusses a number of matters which should be protected “by legal enactment”.  First on the list is private property (#38).  Second, he says that “public peace” should not be “imperilled” by strikes (#39).  This does not amount to a refusal that there is a proper right to strike, although he is open to interpretation as holding a position close to this.  Third, he has a lengthy discussion about what law should ensure for working people, namely:

  • provision for rest, including a weekly day of rest and occasional other holy days (#41)
  • limits to the number of hours that can be worked each day, which should be less for more physically arduous kinds of work (#42)
  • minimum ages at which age people may be employed, to avoid child labour (#42)
  • just wage levels, in order to ensure that “frugal” people earn enough to look after their families (#43).

The passage on wages is worth quoting at length.

We now approach a subject of great importance…  Wages, as we are told, are regulated by free consent, and therefore the employer, when he pays what was agreed upon, has done his part and seemingly is not called upon to do anything beyond. The only way, it is said, in which injustice might occur would be if the master refused to pay the whole of the wages, or if the workman should not complete the work undertaken; in such cases the public authority should intervene, to see that each obtains his due, but not under any other circumstances.

Here the Pope is describing the laissez-faire liberal position.  But he continues:

To this kind of argument a fair-minded man will not easily or entirely assent… for there are important considerations which it leaves out of account altogether…  The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to be wanting therein is a crime. It necessarily follows that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work. (#44)

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.  In these and similar questions… it is advisable that recourse be had to societies or boards, or to some other mode of safeguarding the interests of the wage-earners; the State being appealed to, should circumstances require, for its sanction and protection. (#45)

[A] workman’s wages [should] be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children. (#46)

With these statements, Pope Leo set a course for modern CST that meant it was firmly opposed to laissez-faire liberalism.  It has remained on this track ever since. CST therefore represents a position that is clearly and deeply different from the ‘neo-liberalism’ that has dominated economic thinking in Western countries for the past 30 years.  (You can explore this further in Unit 5.)

So the fourth plank in RN’s solution to the crisis of the conditions of workers is that the political authorities, the state, must use law to ensure that workers are treated justly.  Donal Dorr says, “This amounts to a call for a major change in the role which the State had been playing in society in Leo’s time”.1

You might wish to read this important third part of RN.

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Optional reading (9pp)

Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum,

##32-47 (third part)

You will need to scroll down from the beginning to #32.

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End of 4.2.6

Go to 4.2.7 RN, part 4: Workers have a right to form associations/unions

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  1. D. Dorr, Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Catholic Social Teaching (2nd ed., Orbis, 1992), 19 

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