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Video: A Gentleman’s Debate – Distributism vs. Free Markets with Jay Richards and Joseph Pearce

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On February 18th, the Acton Institute was pleased to welcome Jay Richards and Joseph Pearce to our Mark Murray Auditorium for an exchange on two distinct ideas on economics: Distributism vs. Free Markets. The gentleman’s debate was moderated by Acton Institute President Rev. Robert A. Sirico.

Joseph Pearce, writer in residence at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, and Director of the college’s Center for Faith and Culture, argued in favor of distributism; Jay Richards, Assistant Research Professor School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and Executive Editor of The Stream, defended free markets. It was a lively exchange, and we’re pleased to present the video of the event below.

Marc Vander Maas


  • Ray Tapajna

    The following is related to a question about the functions of the World Trade Organization impact of social and our economic day. It shows what is missing in any discussion about the free market which in reserved for only a few to enjoy in a global economic setting we live in.

    Again, the question presumes the WTO is a legitimate organization. The World Trade Organization acts as an international tribunal to rule about trade disputes and thus controls the flow of wealth for the masses. However, it credentials are not based on any democratic process and it is outside the will of the people. It automatically puts things together as one without any real checks and balances. They take on the right to rule events that once were only done by nation to nation actions. It is another attempt by globalist free traders to enforce the concept one size fits all. They approach solutions with a “plantation owner” mentality.
    So before asking the questions, someone has to tell the workers of the world and businesses, who said we had to compete with one another for the same jobs or commerce in a global economic arena like gladiators fighting for our economic survival. Obviously in the way free trade economics is performed, there are automatic consequences and the degradation of the value of workers and labor. This in itself represents trillions of dollars in value lost forever.
    The value of workers and labor may be even a better money standard than all the paper money created out of nothing. Something that is created out of nothing needs many manipulations to create something out of nothing.
    However, the value of workers and labor has a real value embedded in itself. Free enterprize is a simple process based on the owners and workers having the right to enjoy a decent return for their time and efforts. Workers have the right to property too. This property is the fruits of their labor and it should have the same quality of values as the investment communities enjoy. The two are completely out of balance in the global economic arena where the free market is reserved for only a few to enjoy.
    Free trade betrays workers and their dignity

    • “someone has to tell the workers of the world and businesses, who said we had to compete with one another for the same jobs or commerce in a global economic arena like gladiators fighting for our economic survival.”

      That was Marx’s view of international trade. Economics since Adam Smith has taught the opposite. International trade is not competition but cooperation. Please read about “comparative advantage.” Only individual companies compete; countries always and everywhere cooperate.

  • I am almost in tears. I had hoped for a defense of distributism that demonstrated its precise use in the problems that face the US right now. What problems we have! Our wages are stagnant, our growth is pure speculation and useless, our financial sector in particular has failed us. There are states on the verge of bankruptcy, my own Illinois among them. And there are applications of distributism that address these issues, men and women running projects in the US, or have run them, as well as current projects in the rest of the world. I personally argue that distributism cannot work without a return to the kind of civic order provided by the Catholic state, but I would rather sit here disappointed over failing to talk about that than about the failure in this debate to present distributism at all, in practical application (beyond those few beer narratives). Nor was the vision of Mr. Richards challenged, and God knows it should have been. We’ve gotten richer? My God, what blindness! With whom does he dine at day’s end?! Competition a great thing? Did he read The Big Short? Does he have family members enjoying the thrill of the newly monetized health care system? Does he know what’s happening in today’s economy? It’s the end of capitalism, and he’s discussing its wonderful benefits as if it were the eighteen hundreds at the beginning of its spurt fueled by black slavery and free lands stolen from natives.

    May I just point out, finally, with intense exasperation, that distributism was not conceived by Belloc and Chesterton, as this discussion seemed to suggest . Distributism is the name those men gave to an economy that lasted for fifteen hundred years, blossomed with the great cities and villages of Europe, and was deliberately overthrown by Mr. Richards’ fellow capitalists beginning in 1517. That economy was small, local, democratic in the best sense, and fully functional to deliver a good life to the majority of citizens, not the few. At the end of the fifteenth century virtually 100% of Europeans owned their own land and the tools to work it. They were free. We are wage slaves. They were fully enfranchised, there were more men and women enrolled in university (relative to the population, of course) than now. And university was free. They were practicing brain surgery in hospital rooms larger than those we die in, and religious orders cared for all, without regard to payment. That’s where our ideal of universal care for all comes from, as well as our laws protecting private property. None of that was said, although much of The Servile State is devoted to reminding us of that long-suppressed history, and every statement I made is completely verifiable. Distributism is not theoretical, whereas ‘free market,’ that’s always been a dangerous fantasy, and that fiction went unchallenged on this stage.

    Can we not please have another debate with a distributist who has developed a political platform–that is, specifics relating to our overall economic problems? Because it’s a viable solution, and we are desperately in need of one, ‘free market’ capitalism having worked well for a few but hung the rest of us out to dry and its evil little twin socialism has done the same as well.

    • You need to read Deirdre McCloskey’s books, “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World,” and “Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce,” In them she explains that the best economic history available shows that the world was poor and starving, except for a small elite, until the rise of capitalism in the Dutch Republic in the 17th century. The philosophy and economics for capitalism came from the Catholic Scholars of Salamanca, Spain. Because of their free market philosophy, the people in the developed world as 30 to 100 times wealthier than the society you idolize from the 16th century.

      Distributists are socialist lite and so have gotten economics and history completely wrong.

    • Stephen_Phelan

      The debate was a bit disappointing, and you’re right that the distributist position was not well argued. Indeed, it was soundly defeated, even if one agrees it was not a defeat of distributism’s best.

      But as one who believes that distributism is a fine way to organize a local economy with people freely choosing to share and collaborate, I’m still confused by this post as I am by Pearce’s arguments. It seems like serious free market advocates and serious distributists agree on many things, but then the distributist starts lobbying anecdotes and emotional non sequitirs, and denying that “economics” as a field is either empty or is itself inclined towards indifference toward evil, or something. They start by talking about the goodness of locality, lower regulation, and general freedom to make economic decisions, but then start cataloguing corporate corruption and errors and imply that the government “needs to do something about this,” as if there is a government somewhere whose interventions tended toward modesty and were implemented by morally sound people. It’s like the basis even for disagreement disappears because the terms of the debate change, and when pressed on what specific policies they are calling for they simply retreat to emotional condemnations of greed and abuse that no one disagrees about but are not carefully thought through in terms of actual causes.

      That is, they stop listening to the free market position and change the terms of the debate, which is bad form. I would be open to a good argument for how distributism addresses macroeconomic questions and policies with someone who doesn’t dodge the questions about specifics, and who acknowledges that government control of markets not only tends to be a one way ratchet toward greater social control, and has unintended effects that usually have the greatest effect on the most powerless part of society, leading to even more control to supposedly fix the injustices and making it nearly impossible to open a business. Etc.

  • Greg Guest