By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Marco Rubio turned to his Catholic roots to make his case for a restoration of “common good capitalism,” in an address at the Catholic University of America on Tuesday, saying that the market economy can at times interfere with building strong communities.
The Republican senator began his remarks by quoting from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 landmark document on workers’ rights, Rerum novarum, and also briefly drew from the three most recent popes, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, whose teachings he said offers the foundation for understanding the dignity of work.
Rubio said that the 19th century papal writings of Leo XIII, which dealt with questions over balancing the rights of workers and businesses in the shadow of the industrial revolution and growing appeals to socialism, offer parallels to our current era.
Then, as in now, he claimed, workers and businesses were seen as competitors and not as partners, which he said runs contrary to the “kind of economy that most Americans would want us to have.”
He went on to lament that the United States has turned into “a nation that appears incapable of identifying our common good.”
Rubio’s remarks, titled “Human Dignity and the Purpose of Capitalism,” were predominantly descriptive, spending the majority of his nearly 40 minutes of prepared remarks focusing on the “catastrophic economic crisis that left us with this disordered economy,” and only occasionally turning to the Church’s social teaching to offer a prescriptive way forward.
The senator critiqued both major political parties, saying that that conservatives have neglected the rights of workers, while progressives focus too much on the “obligations” of businesses to share their profits with workers and the government.
Recalling his own experience of entering politics at a young age, he says that he remains an “unabashed supporter” of both American exceptionalism and the American dream, but that the country’s strength could not be viewed in strictly economic terms, but must consider the health of its communities.
He went on to say that it is “impossible to be a strong country with millions of people feeling left behind,” adding that the lack of dignified work corrodes communities and that men are especially wounded by this reality as it “rips away” at “the core” of “being a man, which is providing for your family.”
The senator enumerated a number of economic failings of today’s economy, lamenting the current divide between coastal elites and the rest of the country, the challenges of home ownership, and the fact that many Americans are delaying having children until much later in life – all of which he summed up as a system “rigged against them by the very people who created these problems.”
In pointing a way forward, he said the country must come to a “national consensus” that the challenges of today are not one of cyclical economic downturns but “an economic order that is bad for our society and for our people,” which he said would not be solved by the market.
In making his case for “common good capitalism,” he said it is “a system of free enterprise in which workers fulfill their obligation to work and they enjoy the benefits of their work and where business enjoy their right to make a profit.”
He said that current government policies get this wrong and incentivize business practices that promote economic growth that solely benefits shareholders without improving jobs or better pay.
He went on endorse tax preferences that reward businesses for reinvesting their profits in a way that creates new jobs, as well as to promote his own plan for paid family leave, saying that while the market fails to account for the good of such a policy, common good capitalism requires such support.
The “ancient and enduring truth that it is impossible for a country to be strong if the whole nation does not benefit from its strength,” said the senator.
Although he did not call out any specific individuals during his speech, the senator weighed in on some of the themes being discussed in the run-up to the 2020 Democratic primaries, arguing that a government that guarantees a basic income, controls where you work and how much you make. He went on to allege that a government that promises free healthcare controls your doctor, and a government that promises free education controls where you go and what you’re taught.
An estimated 500 students and faculty from the Catholic University of America were on hand for the senator’s speech. Previously, in July 2014, Rubio spoke at CUA on the theme of “Strong Values for a Strong America.” More recently, in August of this year, he penned a 1,100-word essay titled “What Economics is For” in the conservative journal First Things, where explored some of the same themes he raised on Tuesday.
Rubio was introduced by Andrew Abela, dean of CUA’s Busch School of Business, which sponsored the lecture, who said that “at a time when religion is often under attack” in the public square, the senator “defends it courageously.”
In recent years, the Busch School of Business has come under scrutiny for accepting funding from the libertarian leaning Koch Foundation, often seen at odds with Catholic Social Teaching.
In 2016, CUA’s President John Garvey told Crux that there was no ideological motivation for accepting Koch funding and that the University was “happy to take money from anyone who is interested in the same projects that we’re interested in.”
Following Rubio’s remarks, John Gehring, the Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life, told Crux, “it was good to hear Rubio challenge the gospel of free market fundamentalism, but his consistent failure to support raising the minimum wage and endorsement of tax policies that benefit the wealthiest few made his words ring hollow.”
“When you’re speaking at the same university where Fr. John Ryan once helped bring church teaching about living wages to the center of political discourse, the senator’s disappointing record on this issue was a big elephant in the room,” he said.
Before leaving campus on Tuesday, Rubio posed with a student for a selfie during he question and answer session, where he agreed to sign the student’s “Make America Great Again” hat- although he refused to don it for the photograph.
In concluding his remarks on Tuesday, Rubio dismissed the idea that his speech was meant to offer a vision for a post-Trump conservatism, insisting that his intention is merely “to do whatever it take to keep our country from coming apart” – in hopes that “the 21st century will also be known as the new American century.”
“We have an opportunity to create a country, America, that’s even greater than it’s ever been before,” he said.