Until recently, many thought that Europe had escaped the worst of the 2008 financial crisis. Some even argued that the crisis has demonstrated the European social model’s superiority over “Anglo-Saxon capitalism”. In 2010, however, we have seen an entire country bailed out, riots in Athens, governments slashing budgets, and several European nations staring sovereign debt default in the face. Some are even claiming that the euro is finished. So what went wrong for Europe? How adequate have been the responses of European governments? And what are the consequences for America? The video is from the Aug. 2 Acton Lecture Series in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Forgive the blunt title of this blog post, but the point needs to be made in no uncertain terms.
The Zenit News Agency has interviewed John Medaille, author of Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More, which calls for a direct if brief (more later, perhaps – I have yet to read the book) response from this Catholic defender of the market economy.
Whether or not Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate is a boon to “alternative economics” as the Zenit interviewer claims, the market economy has come under attack from just about every corner since the global financial crisis of 2008. It’s easy enough to kick a system when it’s down, even when there’s plenty of blame to go around. Some critics, however, have been suffering through many decades of capitalist triumphalism to get their revenge. Among these are the distributists.
As I’ve noted in some recent blog posts, distributism has its origin in the writings of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc who, for the brilliant Catholic apologists they were, seem to have known very little about economics. As the Zenit interviewer remarks, “many are skeptical, and believe distributism is simply romantic agrarianism, or worse, just an aesthetic sensibility, without any real practical solutions.”
Identified as a “neo-distributist,” Medaille wants to make up for the deficiencies of his fathers. He takes economics more seriously and argues that distributism is the “truly” free-market system compared to capitalism or socialism, though it should be remembered that Chesterton and Belloc also supported distributism in the name of economic liberty, private property and less interference from the state. Be that as it may. The question is ultimately whether distributism, neo- or paleo-, lives up to its claims as an “alternative” or “third-way.”
Medaille starts by critiquing the related notions that economics is a physical, rather than a human, science and that economics has nothing to do with ethics, especially justice. I don’t know who he is debating here. When I studied economics as an undergrad at a large secular university and worked as an international economist for the U.S. government, I may have come across such types, though no one was so brash to say that ethics didn’t matter. But it definitely does not describe those of us who appreciate Austrian economics and promote a Catholic understanding of the market economy.
More to the point, the question is how economics as a human science is to “practice” justice. How exactly can an economic system ensure justice between a buyer and a seller who come to a common agreement? Doesn’t the virtue of justice require just persons? And isn’t legal justice the purview of the state that legislates against force, fraud, theft, etc.?
For an example, Medaille says that, in matters of trade, foreign financing of domestic consumption is impoverishing to both parties and presumably unjust. While I could be convinced of its imprudence or undesirability in certain situations, I fail to see why or how such financing is always and everywhere unjust and therefore deserving of a blanket condemnation.
Medaille then states his case for distributism as the truly free-market system compared to capitalism and socialism. He makes the obvious point that any system that concentrates power is bound to leave individuals worse off and less free. Socialism is clearly guilty as charged but does capitalism necessarily lead to greater concentrations of economic power? The problem of concentrated power mainly occurs when corporations and the state work together – a.k.a. corporatism – which hardly describes a market economy worth defending and may even resemble the distributist model.
A truly free-market economy must allow free competition; it is only when capitalists collude to restrict competition that power is concentrated and freedom restricted. Yet this is precisely what guilds seek to do. Or have the neo-distributists distanced themselves from Chesterton and Belloc’s defense of guilds and critique of competition and advertising? I cannot tell.
Medaille is on firmer ground when he reminds us that the government should be doing less and that government interference often leads to the concentration of power. But he then ruins his case by looking to the state and trade associations to collude, which seems to be acceptable so long as it all happens at a local level.
Medaille explicitly proposes using tax policy, property law, licensing authorities and other political means to the advantage of some over others. But how is local government somehow exempt from draconian or overly restrictive interference? In fact, the history of republican government is full of such examples, especially in cases where an obstinate minority asserts its rights against the majority. The concentration of power often begins “small”, “locally” or “popularly” and grows from there; see Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom for a well-known demonstration of the phenomenon.
In the end, I am left wondering just what the distributists think is so good about economic freedom. As far as I can tell, it is not about using our God-given skills and talents through the division of labor for the benefit of all, and I see absolutely no mention of poverty reduction, longer life expectancies, medical and technological advances, the social virtues encouraged by commerce, and other goods brought about by economic freedom. The distributist vision of economic liberty and private property seems to feed a misguided notion of self-sufficiency and pride that is as antithetical to Catholic social teaching as materialism and consumerism.
Furthermore, the neo-distributist case for free markets is riddled with the same contradictions and problems that plagued its predecessor. Making the case against socialism and a mythical laissez-faire state of affairs is simply not good enough these days. Instead of urging serious Catholics and others who take ethics seriously to seek new economic models or “lifestyles,” why not encourage them to understand how markets work and what moral freedom and responsibility require from us as citizens and in the marketplace?
Over at MercatorNet, there is a discussion taking place on the “world’s most dangerous idea.” Entries include the idea that human beings are no more dignified than animals, that the cheap, abundant information found on the Internet is a good thing, and that the holding of dogmas is only for the narrow-minded. But the one “dangerous idea” most interesting to PowerBlog readers may that “capitalism is the most ethical form economics.”
This last contribution comes from Prof. Jeffrey Langan, chairman of the Liberal Studies Department, Holy Cross College at Notre Dame University. Langan’s argument is that the victory of capitalism over communism and fascism in the 20th century has blinded us to the serious defects and “real injustices that are part of its foundation, history, principles, and ethos.”
Langan argues that capitalism is based on a “subtly dangerous materialism,” that the greatest period of capital formation took place as a result of King Henry VIII’s theft of Church property, that self-interest is simply a euphemism for avarice, that capitalism promotes usury and the rule of the strong over the weak, and lowers the wages of the workers. Not content to stick to these very negative economic consequences, Langan then asserts that capitalism promotes “the widespread use of birth control, abortion, easy divorce, and now gay marriage. Children in proudly capitalist families are frequently beset with alcohol, drug and sex addictions.” He concludes that “[c]apitalism is not compatible with the principles of equitable human development” and that we are better off avoided the term “capitalism” as such.
These are bold accusations to make, especially in such a short commentary, and even more so when they are made without a shred of evidence. (Langan writes that footnotes are available upon request, but he has yet to reply to my request for them.) Though he does not use the term “distributist,” it seems that Langan has been strongly influenced by the critique of capitalism offered by that school of thought, the problems of which have been dissected by Thomas E. Woods Jr. in the 2008 Acton monograph Beyond Distributism, in an Acton University Lecture I gave in June, and partially taken up in a previous blog post of mine.
Without the footnotes, it is difficult to refute Langan’s core arguments about the theory and history of capitalism. Part of me wants to think that Langan is being deliberately provocative, exaggerating his case of rhetorical effect, or even arguing tongue-in-cheek. But if Langan truly believes that supporters of capitalism are blind to its defects, he is purposely ignoring what Catholic social teaching had to say about capitalism, and especially Pope John Paul II’s qualified acceptance of an ethical form of capitalism in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (see especially n. 42) as well as his preference for terms other than “capitalism” to describe the market/free/business economy. More recently, Pope Benedict XVI has also gone to great lengths to recall the benefits as well as the challenges of economic globalization in last year’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate (see, again, n.42).
What is even more damning of Langan’s critique of capitalism is that it provides cover for those who wish to deny the connection of human freedom and responsibility that is the result of our God-given dignity. If human beings are simply driven by their desire for even-increasing amounts of material goods and do not posses the ability to say “no” or even “enough,” then there really is no responsible use of freedom and we would be nothing other than clever animals. It can and should be admitted that an unethical form of capitalism can treat people as nothing more than consumers. But if this is the anthropology at the root of capitalism, if human beings are not capable of living freely and responsibly, why shouldn’t we opt just as easily for those 20th-century ideologies of communism or fascism? Do we favor capitalism just because it gives us more stuff and makes fewer demands of us? Far from being a dangerous idea, ethical capitalism is what we need now more than ever.
I think that the oppression threatening democracies will not be like anything there has been in the world before….
I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls….
Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority, if, fatherlike, its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances….
Thus, it reduces daily the value and frequency of the exercise of free choice; it restricts the activity of free will within a narrower range and gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all this, inclining them to tolerate all these things and often even to see them as a blessing.
Thus, the ruling power, having taken each citizen one by one into its powerful grasp and having molded him to its own liking, spreads its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic of spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them; rarely does it force men to act but it constantly opposes what actions they perform; it does not destroy the start of anything but it stands in its way; it does not tyrannize but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls so much effort that finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.
I have always believed that this type of organized, gentle, and peaceful enslavement just described could link up more easily than imagined with some of the external forms of freedom and that it would not be impossible for it to take hold in the very shadow of the sovereignty of this people.
Alexis De Tocqueville, 1840.
Democracy in America, pp. 805-6.
This week I’m attending Mises University, one of the largest and most rigorous summer courses in the Austrian School of economics (or “reality economics,” as my friend Michael McKay likes to call it).
Among the various lectures, there was one in particular that struck me as particularly relevant to the work of the Acton Institute. Peter Klein, professor of economics at the University of Missouri, delivered a presentation on entrepreneurship, a large part of the focus of his academic work.
Dr. Klein approaches the subject of entrepreneurship from the more realistic Austrian perspective. Rather than viewing people as examples of the homo economicus, as almost robotic, quantitatively-driven machines, Dr. Klein views human beings as unique and free actors. When we act, we do so under conditions of time and uncertainty. Though every human action presupposes cause and effect, there is no guarantee that our instincts are correct or that our efforts will pay off. In this way, every one of us, whenever we choose some action, is a kind of entrepreneur. In the face of uncertainty, we have an intended – but not guaranteed – result of action.
Combine that with the Austrians’ very realist take on production: production is not some kind of abstract graphical function, but the concrete act of taking a natural resource (e.g. some wood, a stone, some metal ore), and using one’s labor – almost investing a part of oneself – to physically transform it.
In a very broad sense, we all participate in this two-sided entrepreneurial action: actively and consciously transforming the world around us, and doing so in the face of uncertainty and imperfect knowledge.
In a much more specific sense, this activity applies to the people we would usually call entrepreneurs (Ludwig von Mises called them, “entrepreneur-promoters”). These are the businessmen we all know: the small-business owner, the investment banker, the risk-taker. These are individuals whose entrepreneurial spirit in a special way exceeds those of everyone around them. They are the ones willing to take on greater risk, confront greater uncertainty, and make more difficult decisions.
In any case, I find that this realistic description of the role of entrepreneurship fits extremely well with the theology in The Call of the Entrepreneur. In the film, we learn that the entrepreneur is a “co-creator”: He participates in the act of transforming raw materials and natural resources into products for consumers; but the entrepreneur does so by investing time and energy into the production process. And creativity and imagination play an indispensable role in this process of co-creation.
I remember a kind of feeling of awe when this thought dawned on me during Dr. Klein’s lecture. Here we find yet another example of how the market process, when understood and employed correctly, is not simply a morally indifferent result of choice, but a morally positive thing. Society and its consumers are made better off, and both the laborer and the entrepreneur are reminded of their human dignity as they participate in God’s work of fashioning the world.
At MercatorNet, Sheila Liaugminas looks at the bank regulation push — enshrined in another 2,000 page document that few of the legislators behind this effort will actually read. In “Social Order on the Surface” she recalls an Acton conference where she heard this from Rev. Robert A. Sirico:
Politicians are not our leaders in a rightly ordered society, they are our followers … Not all views of culture are equal. but we can’t engage socially on our disagreements because everything becomes political … There is no legislature that can govern the human heart … A correct understanding of who the human person is is important to social ordering. Man is prior to the state. You can’t have a ‘common good’ if the good of the individual is not taken into consideration first.
Liaugminas also links to Research Director Samuel Gregg’s recent journal article “Smith versus Keynes: Economics and Political Economy in the Post-Crisis Era” in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.
“Statism is expanding in the U.S. right now under the guise of ‘the common good,'” Laugminas said. “Acton is only one institute engaging the debate about how Washington is handling the moral and ‘economic dimension of human reality,’ but we’d better pay attention.”
Advancing the “common good” behind the banner of statism has turned out to be an exercise in reckless selfishness and rapidly advancing insecurity. Where the gospel of redistribution of wealth was advertised as a way to ensure social equality, it now threatens to impoverish great masses of those who bought into the glittering promises. And promises are still being made. Recall President Obama telling Joe the Plumber that “spreading the wealth around” would be good for everybody (see video above).
Culture matters, much more so than politics. In “End of the European Siesta?,” Guy Sorman on City Journal explains why the financial fix for Europe’s debt problems are really superficial and temporary. Europe, he contends, needs to throw off the socialist ideologies — now embedded in cultural attitudes — that are at odds with its founding free market philosophy.
… the European Union is based on a free market. It was so conceived in political philosophy and in economics, and the only possible way to govern it is in accordance with such economic freedom. Yet all the national governments, even those of the right, have in fact created gigantic welfare states inspired by socialist ideology.
The fact is that, at the origins of Europe, Jean Monnet, a Cognac entrepreneur with strong American connections, concluded that European governments had never succeeded and would never succeed in making Europe a zone of peace and prosperity. He thus replaced the diplomatic engine with an economic engine: free trade and the spirit of enterprise, he envisioned, would generate “concrete areas of solidarity” that would eliminate war and poverty.
The “fatal drift” away from economic freedom, Sorman explains, inevitably led to the EU project going off the rails. Is America headed down the same path? Is the culture of free enterprise, for so long integral to what it means to be an American, now in permanent decline? More from Sorman on Europe:
Unfortunately, the national governments thought it possible to reap the economic benefits of a free Europe and the electoral delights of socialism. By “socialism,” I mean the unlimited growth of the welfare state—the accumulation of entitlements and jobs protected by the state. This de facto socialism, this sedimentation of electoral promises and acquired rights, grew in Europe at a much faster rate than did the economy or the population. It could thus only be financed by loans, which seemed risk-free, since the euro appeared “strong.” The euro’s strength drove its holders into a frenzy: suddenly, anything could be bought on credit. The result was a remarkably homogeneous indebtedness in all the countries of Europe, on the order of 100 percent of national wealth—ranging between Germany’s 91 percent and the Greeks’ 133 percent (a relatively modest difference), all reflecting a common socialist drift. Germany, Greece, Spain, and France differ less in their levels of debt or modes of administration, which are in fact quite similar, than in their debtors’ capacities to repay. All European states are run socialist-style, in contradiction with the European Union’s free-market principles. Some will be more able than others to deal with defaults, but all have drifted off course.
How shall we explain this fatal drift? The true cause lies in ideology. Socialism dominates minds across Europe, whereas liberalism—which has retained its original free-market meaning in Europe—is under attack in the academy, in the media, and among intellectuals generally. In Europe, to support the market against the state, to recommend modesty on the part of the state, is taken for an “American” perversion. And socialist ideology is sufficiently engrained that it’s almost impossible for a non-suicidal politician to win election without promising still more public “solidarity” and still less individual risk. These welfare states, through their financial cost and the erosion of ethical responsibility that they foster, have smothered economic growth in Europe. We are the continent of decline, albeit decline with solidarity.
A reminder that tonight’s Acton on Tap promises to be another good one. Jonathan Witt, writer and Research Fellow at the Acton Institute, will lead a discussion about J.R.R. Tolkien’s views on freedom, capitalism, socialism, and distributism, and he will look at some of the ways those views have been misrepresented. The event takes place from 6-8 p.m. at the Derby Station in East Grand Rapids, Mich. (Map it here.) No advance registration is required. The only cost is your food and drink.
About the discussion leader:
Jonathan Witt, writer and research fellow with the Acton Institute, wrote scripts for The Call of the Entrepreneur and The Birth of Freedom, and co-wrote the script for The Privileged Planet (2004), all of which have aired on PBS. He also wrote scripts for the Effective Stewardship DVD Series, published by Zondervan. Previously Witt served as the writer in residence with the Seattle-based Center for Science & Culture and as a tenured professor of literature and creative writing at Lubbock Christian University. His academic writing has appeared in Philosophia Christi, Touchstone and Literature and Theology; his opinion pieces in such places as The Seattle Times, The Kansas City Star, Science & Theology News and The American Spectator; and his narrative writing in the literary journals Windhover and New Texas. He is the co-author of A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (IVP, 2006).
In this new Acton Lecture Series audio, Acton’s Michael Miller discusses why many blame capitalism as the primary source of cultural disintegration. Miller, director of programs and Acton Media, asks: Does capitalism destroy culture or are other forces at work?
Listen to the lecture online here:
From Miller’s Jan. 21 Acton Commentary, “The End of Capitalism?”
At least on equal par with a juridical framework as a factor in sustaining market systems is a specific moral culture. This includes trust, diligence, collaboration, honesty, perseverance, and prudence. If this crisis has taught us anything, it is the importance of morality for a market economy. The list of the seven deadly sins comprises an outline of the crisis’s causes. How many of us out of greed, gluttony, or pride used credit cards to buy things we did not need or could not afford, just so we could have the latest gadget or keep up with the Joneses? What about Wall Street bankers who couldn’t resist the chance to make ever more and took imprudent risks with clients’ money, or out of pride bought financial instruments they hardly understood. Markets cannot succeed without a strong moral fabric among the citizenry.
On the Economix blog at the New York Times, Uwe E. Reinhardt wrote a post titled “How Businesses Create Wealth.” That elicited attention from a commenter who wondered where he was “trying to go with this essay.” Reinhardt, an economics professor at Princeton, answers with “Companies: What Are They Good For?” He also cites an article from Acton’s Journal of Markets & Morality: “A Communitarian Model of Business: A Natural-Law Perspective.” Reinhardt:
Actually, I was not trying to go anywhere with my analysis, other than to point out that businesses create value and wealth beyond the usually narrow slice that accrues strictly to the owners.
In most firms, the largest fraction of the gross value that businesses create with the goods and services they produce is channeled to employees. That allocation helps create household wealth, which may be held in the form of a home or other real estate, pensions or investments in mutual funds, or highly productive human capital — that is, highly educated offspring.
With their chronic suspicion of for-profit business, commentators on the left of the ideological spectrum insufficiently acknowledge that major contribution that business makes to social welfare.
Former Acton colleague, Jay Richards just reported that his book Money, Greed, and God has just been released in paperback. It is a thoughtful Christian analysis of the market economy and an excellent summary of the many key fallacies that plague the way we understand–or rather misunderstand–economics.
My tentative title for the book had been The Christian Case for Capitalism. I had even referred to it that way for a couple of years while I was working on it. But the publisher came up with Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem. I have friends who still think my original idea is preferable, but I’m not so sure. I’ve haven’t gotten a sense that anyone has been confused about the title. The only negative effect is that a few wags have suggested that “Money, Greed, and God” sounds like the platform for the Republican Party. I gotta admit, that’s pretty funny.
In any case, the more controversial question has been, why did I choose to defend something called “capitalism”? Wouldn’t it have been better to put “free enterprise” or “free market” in the title? I do have some thoughts about that, which I’ll write about later. But I should say that I was quite intentional in defending something called “capitalism.”
You can also order a copy of the book at the Acton Book Shop. We’ll have paperback copies in stock soon.