Picking up the comment thread from this post.
pauldanon says: “Because distributism is people-centred, things like medicine would be a priority. There’d need to be infrastructure for that, but nothing like the grotesque infrastructure we presently have for shipping frivolous imported goods around the country.”
I know it’s futile to point out obvious things to a distributist. The fixed, false beliefs undergirding distributism are impervious to reason and experience. But let me try one more time, perhaps for the benefit of those new to this nonsense.
Wishing a “people-centred” economy into existence is integral to the distributist fantasy. But how does its magical, humane “infrastructure” come into being? Would you have the steelworker who loads the arc furnace at the mill that supplies the metal for the dentist’s drill become more “people-centred”? How? Maybe he is ordered to pause every 30 minutes to read Wendell Berry poems to his co-workers as the furnace melts its batch of scrap? Or perhaps the fellow on the diesel engine line gets a union-mandated break to strum folk music on his banjo? Or maybe the jumbo jet assembly plant can set aside plots of land for organic gardening?
These examples are as absurd as distributism. Which is more of an aesthetic, a sensibility, a nostalgia for a bygone era that conveniently ignores pervasive wretchedness, than an economic possibility. And at the heart of distributism is the hidden coercive impulse that would prohibit ordinary folk from behaving and consuming, as pauldanon says, in “frivolous” ways.
That’s the key isn’t it? In a distributist economy, we’ll need a Czar of Aesthetic Consumption to decree what is “frivolous” and what is not. That’s how you order “priorities.” Perhaps the Czar would publish a regular Compendium of Consumer Errors, updated to thwart any new and distasteful consumer demand. But pauldanon’s frivolity and mine won’t always line up. Imagine all the frivolous things and past times that actually make life tolerable for masses of people who care nothing about the distributist program. Would the Czar of Aesthetic Consumption allow a person to walk into Walmart and buy a box set of some really bad TV show for viewing on a monstrously large flat panel HD screen? Horrors! How about a weekend bus trip to Branson to take in the latest Elvis tribute? Are you kidding? Playing golf on a summer afternoon? The Czar would not be amused.
But oh wait — there’s Mondragon, a “cooperative.”
pauldanon says, “Mondragon looks a bit industrial and kibbutz-like. Don’t they make machines and run supermarkets? That’s somewhat removed from three acres and a cow.”
But Mondragon sells its capital goods, appliances, industrial components and whatnot into the vastly larger market economy – according to the market economy’s competitive demands – and without which Mondragon would cease to exist.
Here’s the latest news about Mondragon’s global expansion in the auto industry. Doesn’t sound much like the guild system to me. Btw, “polymer” is a euphemism for plastic, the raw materials for which are made in petrochemical refineries. These refineries can cost billions of dollars to build, and millions of dollars annually to maintain. The engineers who construct these plants don’t follow a “small is beautiful” ethic. And where does Mondragon get the computer-controlled machine tools necessary for molding the auto parts? Does it ring up the Ancient Order of Molding Machine Craftsmen?
Mondragon auto parts coop moves into India
This joint venture is a part of the globalization process which the cooperative is undergoing in order to meet the requirements of the key players in automotive manufacturing, who aim to set up a panel of suppliers able to offer global development and production. The new India plant will be the second Cikautxo facility in Asia, as this year production was commenced in China, in the plant located in the industrial park which MONDRAGON has in Kunshan, an area close to Shanghai. Cikautxo, apart from its plants in the Basque Country and Aragón, also has production plants in Brazil, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, China and now India.
The Cikautxo Group, which develops and manufactures parts and groups in polymer materials for different applications, forecasts consolidated sales this year of 220 million euros, of which 85% will be from the Automotive market.
A funny thing happens when you give people the freedom to make their own economic choices. They do quirky and “frivolous” things. But that freedom is indispensable to the sort of life we actually live today in this country. Most don’t want to join the distributist hobbits in their workshops hand tooling leather sandals and fitting barrel staves together. Short of a distributist takeover of America (which could only happen in a bad TV show), millions of souls who daily and freely make untold numbers of economic choices that affect their own well being will merrily go on doing their own thing. They may choose to work and shop in co-ops, or not. Whatever they choose to do, one thing is certain. The distributists will carry on with their fixed, false beliefs.
Acton’s tireless director of research Samuel Gregg has a post up at NRO’s The Corner in reaction to yesterday’s bad poverty numbers (46.2 million Americans live below the poverty line now—2.6 million more than last year). Gregg is ultimately not surprised about the increase, because not only does the American welfare state produce long term dependence on governmental support, but the huge debt incurred by poverty programs tends to slow economic growth.
It is now surely clear that the trillions of dollars expended on welfare programs since the not-so-glorious days of the 1960s have not apparently made much of a dent in significantly changing the ratio of Americans in poverty.
In some instances, America’s welfare apparatus may have prevented some people (especially the elderly) from falling into abject poverty. There is, however, very little evidence that it has helped millions of people out of relative poverty. There is also plenty of data to indicate that many welfare programs have produced intergenerational dependency on the state—a point that even Bill Clinton seemed to have grasped by the mid-1990s.
Gregg then warns against the temptation to double down on government-as-the-answer, arguing that we don’t have the fiscal leeway to experiment as we did in the 1960s.
We need to keep these serious failures of America’s welfare state in mind because these new poverty numbers will almost certainly be used as an argument by some people of good will (as well as those whose motives are far less noble) to resist any reductions in welfare spending, despite America’s far-from-healthy debt and deficit situation. Yet the sheer size of government spending on entitlement programs (by far the biggest item in the federal government’s budget) makes cuts in these areas inescapable if—I repeat, if—our political masters are serious about wanting to balance the government’s books.
Indeed, such cuts are assuming an ever-increasing urgency in light of the studies which continue to appear indicating that crushing levels of public and government debt run the risk of significantly impeding growth. That’s worrying, not least because a slowdown in growth will hurt those in poverty far more than the wealthy. Strong growth rates are one of the most powerful antidotes to poverty – just ask anyone living in mainland China or India. More welfare spending is simply not the answer.
Full post here.
Current events in India have left the country wrestling with an important question: What is civil society and what does it consist of? These are not easy questions to answer as definitions of civil society can greatly vary.
According to a story on the Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time section, “…political demonstrators have demanded greater civil society involvement in the governing country…” While many throughout India are trying to define a civil society and who represents it, the Journal cited a definition by Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute:
Samuel Gregg, … notes that up to around the 18th century, the term “civil society” was used to distinguish the realm of the secular from the realm of the church, but then underwent a shift. India Real Time made a stab at defining the term “civil society” from his work as comprising those “intermediate associations” of society – academic, cultural, religious or charitable – that are separate from the family, and from the institutions of the state and the market. Mr. Gregg calls such associations “little platoons” that draw “people out of their immediate family without subsuming them into the state” and that have “the capacity to assist people to look towards those higher ends of truth, beauty, and the good.”
This definition effectively covers charities, non-governmental organizations or NGOs, civic associations like local Residents’ Welfare Associations, social movements, traders’ associations, social service initiatives, faith-based groups and so on.
Click here to read to full article.
Over at the Comment site, I review Dambisa Moyo’s How the West was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly—and the Stark Choices Ahead. In “War of the Worldviews,” I note that the strongest elements of Moyo’s work are related to her analysis of the causes and the trends of global economic power. “Faced with the combined might of the Rest,” writes Moyo, “the West is forced to grapple with a relentless onslaught of challengers from all corners of the globe. And all these countries are growing in confidence, gaining in competence, and jockeying for a frontline position in the world’s economic race.”
A recently released World Bank report echoes Moyo’s sentiments, which are broadly shared by many forecasts. As Motoko Rich at the NYT Economix blog summarizes, “A new report from the World Bank predicts that by 2025, China, along with five other emerging economies — Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Russia — will account for more than half of all global growth, up from one-third now.”
One way of understanding these trends is that it is simply what you get in an age of global competition. Nations like China, India, and Brazil are increasingly able to make sustained GDP gains because of increased access to global markets, particularly the US. And the US is forced to adapt to remain competitive, and in many cases this hasn’t happened. It’s not clear at all why all this is such a bad thing. After all, it’s not that the US will cease to be affluent in the foreseeable future. It’s just that other nations won’t be as relatively poor.
Even so, Moyo can’t help but cast these developments in negative terms for the West: “…even while globalization could contribute to a rising tide for all boats, it is clear that the relative quality of life will almost certainly have to decline in the West to accommodate a rise in the Rest.” Thus the relatively greater quality of life enjoyed in the West will decline compared to the Rest. But why must this be so dire for the West?
The weakest part of Moyo’s project comes through in her attempts to provide prescriptive guidance for the West to avoid this “precarious path of forecast decline.” All you really need to know about her suggestions appears in this line: “there is, after all, nothing inherently wrong with a socialist state per se if it’s well engineered and designed and can finance itself.”
Moyo wants the US to adopt the Chinese model of state-directed markets because of the “the speed with which policies can be taken and implemented.” Deliberative democracy is just too slow, too cumbersome, and too captive to special interests. We need a lean, mean set of government committees to run the economy properly and efficiently.
What’s difficult for me to understand is why, given the West’s historical success by embodying “a fully fledged capitalist society of entrepreneurs,” we should abandon that model. Moyo should instead be calling the West back to its strengths, its foundations in “democracy and the sanctity of the rights of the individual elevated above all else,” instead of issuing the siren song of state-driven capitalism. If it is really a competition between state-run and entrepreneurial “capitalism,” it’s not clear at all (as Moyo seems to think) that the statists will win.
It seems to me that the West will only truly be “lost” when we give up our commitments to the inherent dignity and rights of the individual, the rule of law, freedom of association, exchange, religion, and expression. The thrust of Moyo’s book is a classic, “It became necessary to destroy the West to save it,” project, and that’s one that’s simply not worth fighting for.
An interesting report in The Economist on the rise of flashy and free spending entrepreneur “gazillionaires” in India and China and how they are perceived:
In much of India, life is getting perceptibly better each year. Wealth per person has vaulted by 150% in the past decade, from $2,000 to $5,000. Many Indians think the nation’s entrepreneurs deserve some of the credit. In Dharavi, a slum outside Mumbai, an illiterate mother called Aruna sits in her tiny one-room flat, which is home to ten people. Asked how she feels about the rich, she says: “They have worked hard. And we must work hard, too.” Her eldest daughter has a job entering data at a bank. The next one is studying diligently. The family may be near the bottom of the ladder, but it sees a way up.
But this in China:
The perception that commercial success often depends on political ties makes inequality in China more galling. In the mid-1980s Chinese incomes were more evenly distributed than India’s—hardly surprising, since China was nominally communist and India is afflicted by a caste system. But now China is less equal than India, with a Gini coefficient of 0.4 to India’s 0.37. China has 800,000 dollar millionaires, but also 400m people who live on less than $2 a day.
This August 3 Wall Street Journal article is based on a Legatum Institute survey comparing Indian and Chinese entrepreneurship and raises important issues about the roles of the state and the family in promoting entrepreneurship.
The common elements between Indian and Chinese wealth-creators are their optimistic view of the future, compared to Americans (“Why I’m Not Hiring”) and Europeans (“Everything’s Fine With Greece, Just Ignore Some Facts”) presumably, and their lack of concern about the impact of the global financial crises on their businesses.
But Indians and Chinese differ widely on why they become entrepreneurs in the first place, where they look for capital, and whether they look to the state to support and encourage them. As the article’s subtitle puts it, “Indians believe they succeed despite the state. The Chinese say they succeed because of it.”
I draw two conclusions from the study: Those who favor freedom, creativity and self-employment seek limited government, while those who seek greater wealth for its own sake are seemingly indifferent about the size and scope of government. And greater trust in the family seems to go along with less trust of the state.
It follows that friends of freedom and the family ought to favor the Indian to the Chinese version of entrepreneurship.
I recently spoke with journalist Antonio Gaspari of the the Zenit news agency about Caritas in Veritate. Here’s the interview that Zenit published:
Kishore Jayabalan: Development Involves “Breathing Space”
ROME, JULY 10, 2009 (Zenit.org).- An Acton Institute director is explaining the importance of “Caritas in Veritate” for India and China, and is pointing out the innovative ideas of Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical.
Kishore Jayabalan is the director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office. He is a former analyst for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, where he dealt with environmental and disarmament issues and served as a desk officer for English-speaking countries.
In this interview with ZENIT, he spoke about Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical, which was released to the public Tuesday.
ZENIT: What is your overall opinion of the encyclical “Caritas in Veritate?”
Jayabalan: My very first reaction was that it is long and not an easy document to read quickly and summarize. But as I have been reading and re-reading it, I am starting to appreciate its vast scope and significance.
The moral and ethical basis for the market economy is very often neglected.
Even its supporters tend to make utilitarian arguments in favor of the market, while opponents tend to blame the free exchange of goods and services for all kinds of cultural phenomena which have little to do with economics itself.
When things are going well and everyone is making money, no one wants to hear about greed and materialism. But once the bubble bursts, everyone seems to become a moralist and a prophet with amazing hindsight.
This is what Benedict has referred to in other places as “cheap moralism,” one which takes no account of the technical workings of the economy but reminds us of the need to make ethics more integral to our everyday lives. So in this encyclical, the pope realizes it makes no sense to issue condemnations that a child can make. (more…)
“The statue will be of the Maratha warrior king Shivaji, considered a hero in Maharashtra for his defiance of Mughal and British forces.”
The officials apparently have in mind a rival for the American Statue of Liberty: “Vishal Dhage, a state government official, said the statue would be about the same height as the Statue of Liberty – which, with plinth included, stands at 305ft (92.69m).”
But where the Statue of Liberty was intended in part as a sign of international friendship and, later on, as a symbol of welcome to immigrants. In 1903, Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” was posted on a bronze plaque standing inside the Statue of Liberty. The poem reads in part:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
That’s a far cry from some of the symbolism behind a modern Indian statue of Shivaji: “King Shivaji is an icon adopted by the militant right-wing Maharashtra group, Shiv Sena, which says more should be done to promote the rights of ‘local’ people in the state rather than ‘outsiders’.”
If the US hasn’t always been as welcoming to distressed and oppressed immigrants, at least since 1903 it has had an ideal to aspire to.
The conflicting images I spoke about last week, the obesity of poor children in America, are the subject of a weekend piece in the NYT, “India Prosperity Creates Paradox; Many Children Are Fat, Even More Are Famished.”
Of course, in India these aren’t the same kids: by and large the poor ones aren’t the fat ones. Someni Sengupta writes, “In short, while new money and new foods transform the eating habits of some of India’s youngest citizens, gnawing destitution continues to plague millions of others. Taken together, it is a picture of plenty and want, each producing its own set of afflictions.”
The social problems are accompanied by the requisite calls to expand inadequate government programs. “In a rare rebuke, the Supreme Court of India this month ordered the government to expand swiftly the number of nutrition programs in the country. The programs now serve around 46 million children, at least on paper.”
Here’s a sample of what one of these programs looks like in practice.
One morning in a destitute rural district called Barabanki about 300 miles northwest of here, a dozen small children, most of them barefoot, some of them barely clothed, lined up for help at a program known as Integrated Child Development Services.
On this morning, every child received a scoop of dry cereal, a bland mixture of wheat, sugar and soy that is called panjiri in Hindi.
Some brought a plastic bag to hold their gift. Others made a bowl with the dirty end of whatever they wore. They sat on the ground and shoveled the food into their mouths.
Mothers in this village said the dry ration cereal sometimes made their children sick. No cooked food was available at this center. The center was also supposed to dispense vitamin-fortified oil to the villagers, but they said it rarely came.
These don’t seem to be practices that place a premium on human dignity or instilling self-sufficiency, but are rather based on perpetuating dependency on government.