Acton Institute Powerblog

Is Distributism a Form of Capitalism?

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G. K. Chesterton
(one of the founding fathers of distributism)

Today at Ethika Politika, in response to a few writers who have offered, in my estimate, less-than-charitable characterizations of capitalism, I ask the question, “Which Capitalism?” (also the title of my article). I ask this in seriousness, because often the free economy that people bemoan bears little resemblance to the one that many Christians support. In particular, I ask, “Which Capitalism?” in reference to the following from Pope John Paul II, who outlines in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (no. 42) two different forms of capitalism as follows:

The first is “an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector” that “is the victorious social system” since the fall of the Soviet Union and that “should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society.” The second is “a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious.”

All three of the authors I take issue with are Roman Catholic and two of them have voiced their support for distributism as an alternative to capitalism. However, I ask with all sincerity, “[S]hould not distributists be asking whether distributism is a form of capitalism, rather than setting it up as an alternative to capitalism?” Given the high praise given by Pope John Paul II to capitalism, rightly understood as the free economy, ought not distributists simply be arguing that they, perhaps, have some valuable insights for supporters of capitalism, rather than opposing distributism to capitalism, uncharitably understood?

The Journal of Markets & Morality, of which I am assistant editor, actually published an article by Charles McDaniel last Spring exploring the insights of the Austrian, post-Keynesian, and distributist schools of economics for better understanding financial crisis (here). He points to G. K. Chesterton’s concept of consolidarity as a helpful insight to explain the loss of freedom that a society may suffer when economic causes and consequences become disconnected. It would seem, perhaps, that distributists (or at least G. K. Chesterton) have some valid insights to offer, but I worry that perhaps contemporary proponents of distributism have not considered the consequences of dissociating themselves from those who support the free economy.

Now, certainly distributists are entitled to prudentially disagree with Pope John Paul II and reject even that capitalism he commended as “the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress,” but I recommend an alternate approach. The fundamental question, I think, is whether or not distributism, to distributists, is a form of capitalism, well understood.

If so, then why not be more open toward fellow Christians who support the free economy and change their rhetoric and outlook? It does not further any discussion to debate only a straw man of one’s opponents. As Carlo Lottieri writes in his Journal of Markets & Morality review of John C. Médaille’s Toward a Truly Free Market,

In the book, we find many critical reproaches against classical liberalism. Unfortunately, Médaille offers us a cardboard image of the market, and he reduces the free economy to its schematic and Chicagoan description. The simplest way to rebut an intellectual opponent is to build a parody of his ideas, thereby showing that they are not useful to explain reality.

It seems to me that, in light of the foregoing, continuing to oppose themselves to capitalism, and offering only uncharitable caricatures, as is often the case, only will serve to antagonize potential allies and unnaturally isolate distributists from the much broader conversation of faith and the free economy. On the other hand, if capitalism truly is, to them, universally and irredeemably flawed, and Christians who support it are naive at best and hypocritical—possibly even heretical—at worst, then I fear that they have already isolated themselves.

Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.

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