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Business: A Strategic Vocation for Social Justice

The ever-thoughtful Michael Novak made a stunning observation recently: “Business is the most strategically central vocation in the whole field of social justice.”

Yes, business. In his speech at the Catholic University of America, Novak continued:

The business vocation is the main hope of the 1 billion human beings around the world still locked in poverty. The business vocation is the main support of the multitude of institutions of civil society—the main support of private universities, cancer clinics, soup kitchens, symphonies, hospitals for the poor, sports activities both in neighborhoods and in major cities, service organizations such as Lions Clubs, the Rotary, Kiwanis, the Elks, the support of religious activities without number. Without business corporations, there would be no great power standing between associations of citizens and the Leviathan of the administrative state. Without business, there would be only a very weak private sector indeed…

When he was the age of most of you in this room, then, Jesus was helping run a small business. There on a hillside in Nazareth, he found the freedom to be creative, to measure exactly, and to make beautiful wood-pieces. Here he was able to serve others, even to please them by the quality of his work. Here he helped his family earn its own way. Creativity, exactitude, quality, beauty, service to others, independence—this was the substance of his daily life. In preparation for all that was to come.

I think some of us shy away from free enterprise because working to earn a living is hard. If you strip down many complaints about business, they often come down to two vices: envy and sloth.

That’s not to say there are no legitimate criticisms of businesses. My biggest area of complaint with businesses is usually rent-seeking, or what we call crony capitalism. But that’s also born of vice—it’s when the leaders of a particular business try to gain a position not by earning it, but by cheating other people. We are all sinners, so people will sin in running a business just as we will sin outside of business. Just as we criticize the sin and not the sinner, so we should criticize an evil business action rather than business itself.

But until reading this speech, I had never thought before of the fact that Jesus worked for a living. And so did the Apostle Paul. They didn’t consider it shameful or degrading. In fact, they commended work.

Novak includes some other insights (and you should really read the whole thing—it’s mentally nourishing), such as this one:

The point of giving assistance to women and men of enterprise in poor regions may be solidarity with those in need. But the point of new businesses is to create new wealth in these poor environments. Increased local economic activity helps each new business grow. A business enterprise is not a lonesome cowboy. It is part of a social organism necessarily networking with many other players. Business enterprises are necessarily social; they need investors, workers, customers, suppliers, marketplaces. In this way markets are one of the most fundamental of all social institutions, even more universal than political bodies.

In other words, enterprise helps create a sustainable society. While giving is good, it’s even better if an initial gift can multiply into a network of exchange and mutual support through markets.