Posts tagged with: distributism

“More and more, I find Catholics dividing themselves into capitalist and distributist camps,” writes Bernardo Aparicio García, president of the Catholic journal Dappled Things. To help readers establish “a firm foundation” for thinking about economic questions, García opened up the pages of his journal to Robert T. Miller, for capitalism, and John C. Médaille, for distributism. The result is a lengthy exchange “On Truth and Trade: Economics and the Catholic Vision of the Good Life.”

Miller is a professor of law at the Villanova University School of Law and writes for First Things. Médaille is an adjunct instructor of Theology at the University of Dallas, and a businessman in Irving, Texas. He writes for the Distributist Review. Here are some snippets from the debate:


… I will defend a more modest proposition, namely, that, for people like us in a society like ours, capitalism is the most reasonable choice among the various economic systems we might adopt. To defend this more modest proposition, I start with some deep assumptions about human life.

Among these, the deepest is that human beings, being physical beings, have material needs and so must organize the world’s material resources to meet them. Another deep assumption is that even modestly complex manipulations of material resources—let alone sophisticated projects like building transcontinental railroads, designing computers and their software, or refining petroleum products—require the cooperation of very large numbers of human beings. This point is vastly under-appreciated. In 1958 Leonard Read famously estimated that the number of human beings involved in producing an ordinary wooden pencil from raw materials to final product exceeds one million; nowadays, in a more complex economy, that’s probably a gross underestimate. Yet another assumption is that information about the various possible uses of resources is difficult to obtain and analyze and, moreover, changes very rapidly.

From a moral point of view, what we want from an economic system is that it generate and distribute resources in a way that maximizes the long-run probability that all members of society have enough goods and services to lead decent lives. One way to do this would be to appoint a central body authorized to allocate resources and charged with responsibility to ensure that everyone receives a fair share. This is socialism, and it has proved a very poor solution to the economic problem. There are two main reasons for this. The first concerns information: the central authority cannot acquire enough reliable information, much less process it fast enough, to allocate resources efficiently. This results in tremendous waste. Thus, in the former Soviet Union, warehouses full of unneeded machine parts sat and rusted while consumers found no toilet paper on the store shelves.


Clearly, the standard model of economics has failed us. Not only has it failed to bring a stable economic order, but it has destabilized the family and the community as well, and grown the government past any reasonable bounds. Clearly, a different model is needed. Note that I said “different” rather than “new.” It is not a question of inventing new systems, but of examining existing systems to see what works and what doesn’t. Economics—or rather political economy—is preeminently a practical science. We need to find out what works, and adapt it to our own circumstances. Inventing models is easy; getting them to work is hard. And if a system has no existing implementations, we are permitted to assume that it can’t be implemented. So, can we find a system on the ground and working that will address our questions of political economy?

I believe we can, and that system is distributism. This system seeks to restore distributive justice to its proper place in the economic order; its main tenet is that without a proper distribution of the rewards of production, markets cannot be cleared, family life will be disturbed, and the markets will become more dependent on government and consumer finance to clear.

Now the major difference between distributism and conventional economics has to do with property and a just wage; that is, with the things the Catholic Church teaches as essential to economic order. Standard economics justifies the wage on the basis of “free contract,” that is, if there is no government coercion which forces someone to accept a given wage, then the wage must be considered “just.” Further, through free bargaining, both sides, capital and labor, will get what they actually produce and productivity will be properly rewarded.

Also see Beyond Distributism by Thomas E. Woods Jr., available in the Acton Bookshoppe.

Blog author: kjayabalan
posted by on Wednesday, September 1, 2010

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.

J.R.R. Tolkien

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).

Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc

Over the past five years, many conservatives and religiously-inclined people have been turning to the works of Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton as part of an effort to rethink the nature of economic life. Both these figures wrote about many other things than economics – and some would say that, for all their insights as Christian apologists, economics was never their strong point. Indeed many of their economic writings were heavily criticized when they were initially published in Britain and the United States. Here is an example of one such critique that appeared when Belloc’s The Servile State was first published under an American imprint in 1947. It repays close reading.

From Mises Daily: Belloc’s Puzzling Manifesto by Garet Garrett.

Having proved by logic that capitalism, socialism and collectivism all tend inevitably to bring the servile state to pass, Belloc comes to speak of the solution and there his distributive state fails him. The way back to that state of society in which ownership of “the springs of life” shall be happily universal is a road of appalling difficulties. They are perhaps insurmountable. Suppose you think of doing it boldly, as to say, “all shall own,” instead of saying, as the collectivists would, “none shall own.” Very good. But by what scale of justice shall this new ownership be apportioned among the people? What will the people do with it? How would you keep the many from selling it back to the few?

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Friday, August 29, 2008

Distributism may be a foreign term to many, but it is a movement of some importance in the history of Catholic social and economic thought. Popularized especially in early twentieth-century England by the prolific writers G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, distributism has enjoyed mini-resurgences from time to time on both sides of the Atlantic. That it still packs some punch here in the U.S. is demonstrated, for example, by the recent creation of IHS Press. (IHS is not exclusively a distributist outlet, but distributist literature represents a significant portion of their publishing program.)

In a nutshell, distributism envisions an economic order modeled on the guild-dominated economies of medieval Europe. Advocates take Catholic social teaching seriously; indeed, they frequently insist that CST virtually obligates Catholics to support a distributist program. There is much of value in the distributist vision, including criticism of consumerist culture and an emphasis on wide ownership of property and communal cooperation. (See Wikipedia for a fuller, sympathetic treatment of the subject.) In practice, however, many observers believe that implementation of a distributist agenda would mean major regulation of and restrictions to entry to industries and professions, controls on prices and wages, and heavy-handed government involvement in the economy.

There have been few critiques of distributism published in recent years, but the renewed interest it is receiving demands that some attention be paid. Thus, the latest Christian Social Thought Series, from bestselling and award-winning author Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: Beyond Distributism. Order it now at the Acton Book Shoppe.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The prolific Thomas Woods has a new book out (with co-author Kevin Guzman): Who Killed the Constitution?

Woods is the author of the Templeton Enterprise-award-winning The Church and the Market, a volume in the Lexington Books series, Studies in Ethics and Economics, which is edited by Acton’s Sam Gregg.

I haven’t yet read Woods’ latest, but his work is always interesting and forcefully argued. And I’m inclined to agree with any effort to reassert some constitutional limits around our legal/political affairs.

Here’s Publishers’ Weekly:

Woods and Gutzman (two bestselling authors in the Politically Incorrect Guide series) appeal to both left and right in this constitutionalist jeremiad. Liberals will agree about the unconstitutionality of the draft, warrantless wiretapping and presidential signing statements. Conservatives will agree about the unconstitutionality of school busing, bans on school prayer and Roosevelt’s suspension of the gold standard. The common thread is the authors’ brief for a federal government strictly limited to the powers explicitly granted by the Constitution. The authors’ exegeses of the Constitution and court decisions, heavy on original intent arguments, are lucid and telling.

A sneak preview: Woods is the author of the forthcoming volume 13 in the Christian Social Thought Series, not yet available for purchase. He marshals Catholic social teaching, history, and economics in the cause of a powerful critique of distributism.