48 Responses to Thomas Woods and His Critics, The Austrian vs. Distributist Debate Among Catholics

  • Zach says:

    Great post – I agree this discussion is fascinating. IT it is very much improved by the frank admission and acceptance of the principle of the autonomy of the temporal order, and the civility of the contributors to the discussion. I hope to see more posts like this here.

  • I hate this post. I don’t like things that remind me of how poorly read I am. ;)

    In seriousness, thank you very much for writing this; I think it will give people like me a basis for understanding this debate. Now if only you could out enough time to go with the many links!

  • jonathanjones02 says:

    Great roundup. Thanks.

    Let us generalize about right-liberals and libertarians of various stripes (I might be described as paleo-libertarian, but the concept still seems to me to be in development, and I dislike all liberalism):

    Insofar as they are fine with a determinism of the “free market” economic conduct, they are wrong:
    by this I mean a view that the market is incompatible with ethics. “Efficiency” is NEVER to be valued above morality. The “market” has NO “inner logic.”

    Thus a good society is built upon the morality of its people, and culture is more important than politics and the construction of economic structures.

    Market-Determinism, it might be called, is anti-human, just as collectivism is anti-human (Ayn Rand was right about the Soviet Union and wrong about herself).

    Markets come from society. They are social institutions, flowing from law and custom. A market mechanism punishes inefficiency – great. But morality and family (and from family, tribe, and from tribe, nation, if a nation is not to have large-scale internal conflict) must be the foundational basis of organizing influence upon a polis.

  • I have one issue with this debate – it seems too narrowly framed. Although I admire distributism, I don’t really regard myself as one. It’s a little narrow in its focus. And the Austrians are a little kooky and fringe. The real argument is between Catholics who support the postwar experiment in Christian democracy (which, as the pope says, is very close to social democracy in its economic aspects), and the resurgent laissez-faire liberalism that held sway long before Hayek started worrying about welfare states and dictators.

  • RL says:

    I’m curious about something and would like to it throw something out here. I am not very well read on economics, but I’m under the impression there are no major true laissez-faire capitalist voices out there. My impression is that most everyone acknowledges a role of the government in the economy, and that the debate is really one of degree and type of involvement. Is that a fair assessment?

  • Art Deco says:

    resurgent laissez-faire liberalism

    The Libertarian Party is good for 0.7% of the national vote. Dr. Paul won about 5 1/2% of the Republican primary and caucus ballots two years ago; Alan Keyes once did about as well.

  • MM,

    If you really want to talk about real, current alternatives in the current political and economic landscape, I’m not clear that Christian Democracy or even Social Democracy are much on the table either.

    If I were to venture a guess though, I think that the appeal of Distributism for many Catholic readers/writers is that:

    a) It is a specifically Catholic phenomenon, which Social Democracy is not and Christian Democracy only partly is and

    b) For many Catholics, I think that the European example of Christian Democracy and Social Democracy in the post-war years is seen as tainted by what seems to have followed naturally from it: a breakdown of the communal in favor of the individual, and a relationship between individual and state replacing other more subsidiary relationships.

    Distributism, in it more communitarian forms, appeals to those who might be more receptive to ideas of Christian Democracy if they hadn’t seen how it worked out in reality. In that Distributism has (or can have) communitarian elements, yet lacks the centralizing and statist impulses of Christian Democracy, its fans hope that it would fair better.

  • jonathanjones02 says:

    Regarding a supposedly resurgent laissez-faire liberalism….since when exactly? Maybe in the time of McKinley and Taft, but certainly not since the first large-scale American centralizations, which began with Wilson (who could make W. Bush look like the head of the ACLU) and continued with the New Deal and the Great Society and continues right on up to the corporatist spirit and value transferrence of….well, today’s Republicans and Democrats (although, hey, maybe the big banks and companies and major foundations and Wall Street crowds will give a lot less to leftist parties and causes this year, given the economy – typically they fill up those coffers).

    The real argument is, increasinly, between our elites (government, media, big business, big public sector labor unions, ethnic activists, those that transfer instead of create value) and the folks really getting hammered – small business owners, family farms, manufacturers, ect (ie people that make our economy hum and don’t want to think too much about politics as they raise their families). Douthat hinted at this yesterday: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/06/opinion/06douthat.html?_r=1&ref=rossdouthat

  • Blackadder says:

    My impression is that most everyone acknowledges a role of the government in the economy, and that the debate is really one of degree and type of involvement. Is that a fair assessment?

    I’d say so. These days even anarchists acknowledge a role for government.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Chris,

    Thanks for this excellent overview!

    Many of you know that I am intimately involved in this dispute. I was a contributor to the Distributist Review, and was unceremoniously dumped when I began to take more libertarian positions.

    Indeed I have been characterized as a “Distributarian” for my attempt to reconcile the two positions (and I thank you for including my old article, my first attempt at that).

    I have been fascinated with the work of Hayek and Ropke, and I have come to believe ever-more strongly in the positive goodness of economic liberty. I think my evolution is quite similar to David Jones’, in that it is impossible for me not to acknowledge what the Austrians get right.

    Those who want to learn more about my perspective are also invited to read:

    http://joeahargrave.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/markets-and-morality-ron-paul-and-wilhelm-ropke/

    http://joeahargrave.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/the-distributist-manifesto/

  • pb says:

    The Distributists err when they claim the Austrians are a bunch of heretics. In Catholic Social Doctrine there is the principle of the “Autonomy of the Temporal Order”. The Church does not mandate we embrace a specific economic (or political) model. The Church has been critical of both Socialism and Capitalism in the past, but also recognizes that we live in a global economy today. The prudential application of moral principles can be applied in both a Distributist and Capitalist economic model.

    Actually, the charge is that the Austrians deny that the Church has any sort of teaching role in economic matters (and the concomitant claim that economics is completely separate from ethics). The Church does not mandate any particular order for all polities, but it does provide general principles.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Let me also say that I agree with Johnathan Jones about the importance of culture. We cannot have Locke without Burke. We cannot have freedom without values. We cannot have liberty without Christ!

    But having said all that, I believe many of the critics of economic liberalism undermine the free-will that is inherent in human nature, that is a property of the souls God gave us. It is free-will that bestows a dignity upon man above all of the animals; it is free-will that makes us moral beings. To undermine free-will by attempting to micromanage the economy is to degrade humanity, in my opinion. There should certainly be a framework, but within it, there should be as much freedom as possible.

    I think we are voluntary collectivists by nature. So I reject involuntary collectivism as well as voluntary individualism. And I think Christianity is ultimately voluntary collectivism, and what we ought to be working towards.

  • American Knight says:

    Excellent. Thanks for taking the time to put all that together – I hope to get through it all someday.

    I think a great point made, that deserves to be mentioned again, is that the issue is morality, virtue and character.

    Austrians maybe right about the market (I happen to agree); however, men are not angels. Although the market is the preferred method for ferreting out problems, it fails without Church (conscience) and government (fair broker). The problems we face are that we do not have a church in this country, we have churches and although there is really only One Church in truth, we are not there yet. We also have to deal with the fact that centralized statist power necessarily attracts men of low character and questionable morality, if any. Therefore, the government is not a fair broker.

    The government and the corporatists look out for each other at the expense of everyone else. This is what caused Jesus to flip tables in the Temple.

    We need to have this debate; however, in order for it to be something more than an academic and theoretical one, we need to restore the US Constitution, apply subsidiarity (federalism) and restore the moral order – first within ourselves, our Church, our communities and then elect men of character as our representatives. Then this discussion can have practical results.

    In the current corporatist-statist paradigm neither Austrian theory, nor Distributism have any place. We are given the option of Socialism leading to Communism leading to an evil oligarchy and reducing us to serfs (slaves), or Capitalism leading to corporate usurers being in control leading to an oligarchy and reducing us to employees (slaves). The result is the same either way.

    Me thinks the majority of people given the latter two choices, would prefer either of the former choices as an economic system for this country.

  • jonathanjones02 says:

    In meaning that culture is more important than politics, and that the family is the very foundation of a good society, it should also be noted that the strands of activist statism and liberalism (because even right-liberalism is an invitation to statism, as “freedom” is isolating and people become open to state-sponsored communion, and so I use liberalism to mean “equal freedom”, as enforced equality is left-liberalism) invite hubris. Protection against this is the genius of Madison in Federalist 10, writing that a dim view of human nature is most reasonable for the conduct of public affairs. “The good life of man” he traced to the Greeks, who asked not what kind of society can we mold but how can we mold ouselves to a concept of the good. Such (proper!) questions are why literary insight matters so much to governmental organization – as governmental organization should be concerned with following the good order of souls, which will always gravitate towards communion (hopefully in the Eucharist), no matter their stated desires (and so I agree about humans being “voluntary collectivists).”

  • Blackadder says:

    Actually, the charge is that the Austrians deny that the Church has any sort of teaching role in economic matters (and the concomitant claim that economics is completely separate from ethics).

    The Austrian position is more limited than this. Here, for example, is Woods:

    My position, therefore, in no way involves the claim that the sciences per se, including economics, are exempt from moral evaluation. They are, however, exempt from technical critiques on the part of the Church, since churchmen may speak only as individuals on such questions and not for the Church as a whole. Thus if a certain medicine could be produced only by ripping the hearts out of living human beings, the Church should condemn such a thing, no matter how many doctors were in favor of producing the medicine. But if two kinds of medicines are suggested to treat a particular ailment, and no moral objection can be raised to either one, then in such an area the Church must defer to those who are schooled in that specialized science.

    The confusion arises, I think, from the fact that Catholics often make moral claims which presuppose certain factual assumptions. These assumptions can seem so obvious that a person doesn’t even realize they are there. It just seems like straight morality. So when an Austrian denies the conclusion and says it goes beyond the Church’s competence, it sounds like he is denying a moral teaching.

  • pb says:

    Blackadder: Do the Austrians claim that economics is purely descriptive? If so, then on what basis do they make normative claims?

    Medicine or pharmaceuticals is a product of art subordinate to biology — it’s not exactly a good analogy since all human transactions are moral in nature and cannot be studied in abstraction of their morality. One cannot say that these are just our observations about how operate work in the “marketplace” and they are morally neutral. If economics were just like physics or biology, one could claim the Church has no competence to criticize. But it’s not.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Well, I think Locke is a part of the American political tradition via the founding fathers and particularly Jefferson.

    So no, I don’t think you can just will the legacy of Locke’s ideas out of the American political consciousness.

  • Paul Zummo says:

    Locke’s influence on the Founding is overrated. Locke was but one of many writers that were quoted and cited in the literature of the time, but if you look at the philosophy of the men who truly formed our republic – Madison, Hamilton, Adams, etc – he was not a formative influence in any meaningful way.

  • Art Deco says:

    One thing that strikes me as peculiar about the point of origin of this discussion is your identification of ‘Austrian’ economics as the counterpoint to certain trends in Catholic social thought. ‘Austrian’ economics is an odd and controversial set of conceptions and not accepted by aught but a small minority of macroeconomists with an affinity for libertarian notions of justice.

  • David says:

    jonathanjones02 & DarwinCatholic – All brilliant comments and observations. I agree with them, I think.

    Joe – Blosser referred me over to your blog. Wow, great stuff. You and I will be talking I am sure. I will definitely read the links you provided above. I am especially interested in learning more about Ropke’s thought. If memory serves me correctly ISI publishes some of his works or at least book(s) about his thought. At this moment I am reading the foundational texts of Distributism. I also what to read the newer books of Distributism that the Distributist Review Press is putting out. I also desire to read more Robert Nisbet, Russell Kirk, & Karl Polanyi. Maybe I can find time for Ropke as well. You might find this article of interest.

    http://www.mmisi.org/ir/41_01/carlson.pdf

    PB – I agree with you.

    American Knight – Brilliant comments as well. I would slightly differ with you on that it is possible to find small ways to live the Distributist lifestyle in our time. Refer to the works and thought of Wendell Berry, Eric Brende, Rod Dreher, Caleb Stegall, etc. The work and thought of John Médaille and Richard Aleman are especially helpful in this regard. Refer to the Aleman’s recent talk at the Chesterton conference. I am not sure it’s available yet though.

    http://chesterton.org/2010conference.htm

    Maybe he will be kind enough to provide the text of the talk to us. Refer to his podcast interview though on Uncommon Sense #17.

    http://uncommonsense.libsyn.com/index.php?post_id=573724

    John Médaille – As a 2001 IRPS grad (last class under Bushman) from UD I salute you. Thank you for all your years of work advocating Distributist thought. What you and others have done with the Distributist Review is simply beautiful. I am really excited about where DR is going.

    WJ, John & Joe – I prefer Burke over Locke… I wonder what Russell Kirk has to say about Locke? I would also remind folks of Masonic influence on Locke’s thought. Blosser is now beating his head on the table. hehe

    http://ressourcement.blogspot.com/2005/09/freemasonry-and-america-part-iii.html

    Tito – yes CL means Communion and Liberation in my case.

  • David says:

    What concerns me about the Austrians or anarcho capitalists, especially Rothbard’s and even Lew Rockwell’s thought as far as I have read or heard them, is this… They never it seems to me distinguish between the local, state and federal governments. All government is bad, all the time. This is simply not reasonable. This is not in line with Catholic Social Ethics either. Things should be handled at the lowest level possible (subsidiarity) – individual, family, neighborhood, parish, community, state, nation, etc. Government is not evil though, which is the presupposition of the Austrians. I reject that. Government is necessary for the common good in a fallen world.

  • David says:

    In addition to the above link that I provided here are some others. Here are just some of the historic conversations I have had with Blosser and others on the influence Masonic thought on our Founding Fathers refer below.

    http://ressourcement.blogspot.com/2007/09/george-washington-and-freemasonry.html

    http://ressourcement.blogspot.com/2005/11/how-charles-carroll-influenced-us.html

    Locke and others are talked about in the comments of this last link.

    One could argue the liberalism (classical?) that they Austrians argue for is related to this topic as well.

  • David says:

    As an attempt to gently guide us back to the topic of the main post. If you had to put me in a box politically I would state I am a traditional conservative, or to use Rod Dreher’s term – a crunchy conservative. Refer to his book, Crunch Cons. Libertarianism for me is like a shoe one size too small. I am very attracted to it at times, but the shoe just doesn’t fit. I like what the Austrians have to say about the monetary policy (i.e. fiat currency & the Federal Reserve), but I can’t swallow their promotion of anarchy, either in the economic or political spheres. I agree with the comments above about the importance of morality and values. A government can enact moral and just laws. A government can regulate the market for the common good. I would just argue this needs to be done at the lowest level possible. I share the same concerns of many above about collectivism.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    I hear you David. I think matters would be helped if we considered that there is a difference between:

    1) “government” and “the state”, and

    2) “the state” and “the State”

    Re. 1, I think it is arguable that “the state” – the modern state as we know it – is a relatively recent invention. It is a permanent set of coercive institutions operated by professional bureaucrats. Governments, I think, are the sum of administrative institutions. At least that’s how some people would draw the distinction. There are anarchists who say they are “anti-state” but not “anti-government”, and that’s how they do it (crudely, roughly). Personally, I don’t see how you have a government without at least a minimal state – the “minarchist” position.

    I’m closer to minarchism these days, but I do see a positive role for government in providing benefits and incentives to inherently good and socially beneficial activity. Really I’d just like to go back to city-states, in my fantasy land :) Catholic city-states… like medieval Venice… I think those accord much better with CST than say, the reign of the Sun King.

    Re. 2, here much confusion arises, especially among Catholics. I think when the pre-councilar popes, especially Leo XIII, are speaking of “the State” with a capital S, they are speaking about something somewhat different than say, our federal bureaucracy. When I read Aristotle’s Politics, for instance, it seems rather clear to me that in many places in which “State” appears, we might use the word “society” or even “civil society” – as a sphere distinct from coercive authority. And I see a similarity in Leo’s encyclicals. It could mean both, it could mean either.

    So “State” capital S seems to suggest a great deal more, and at the same time, a great deal less from the coercive power.

    I could be wrong I suppose. But if I’m right, then it puts some of the social teaching in a new light.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    David,

    I read the article. Polanyi’s arguments are very familiar to me, and indeed I used to share many of them. At the root I still share them, but I think many of the individual ideas are based in a selective and incomplete historical narrative.

    “Laissez-faire” is a slippery term. But the argument that production for exchange isn’t “natural”, i.e. Aristotle’s argument, is just not obviously true. It makes sense in Aristotle’s world, but then, so did slavery and the total subjugation of women. At the same time, Aristotle recognized the implications of technological progress in a very poetic and perhaps unintentional way when he wrote in Book I of the Politics, justifying the reduction of a man to an instrument of production:

    “For if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which, says the poet,

    of their own accord entered the assembly of the Gods;

    if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.”

    Arguably our modern technology has brought us far closer to this fantastic ideal than Aristotle could have ever imagined. So those who use Aristotle to try and justify reactionary economic arrangements today would do well to realize that Aristotle was something of a technological determinist himself.

    Next, the idea that there was this marvelous social order on the eve of the 19th century that laissez-faire broke apart forcibly is only partially true. These processes had been taking place for centuries, and it is arguable that it began with the massive labor shortages caused by the Black Death.

    It also ignores the rise of commercial capitalism in the Middle Ages, and particularly in the Italian city-states, in which there were limited-liability contracts, profitable lending (some would call it usury), and other financial instruments to encourage economic growth. The maritime trading empires of Venice and Genoa especially were built on the “unnatural” form of wealth-getting.

    Alongside commerce and trade existed the Church, whose morality was the foundation upon which all was built. Leo XIII recognized this as a great example of the Church’s positive contribution to civilization in Libertas:

    ” Neither does the Church condemn those who, if it can be done without violation of justice, wish to make their country independent of any foreign or despotic power. Nor does she blame those who wish to assign to the State the power of self-government, and to its citizens the greatest possible measure of prosperity. The Church has always most faithfully fostered civil liberty, and this was seen especially in Italy, in the municipal prosperity, and wealth, and glory which were obtained at a time when the salutary power of the Church has spread, without opposition, to all parts of the State.” (46)

    Here, btw, is another example of Leo’s use of the word “State” meaning something different than our use of the word “state”. Clearly here “State” means more than the coercive power and its bureaucratic appendages.

    This brings me to the last critique I would make of Polanyi: his belief that the artificial, bureaucratic interventions of the welfare-regulatory regime somehow “restored balance” to a social order upset by laissez-faire. I can see how at the time these institutions and interventions were seen as necessary; I believe a century of historical experience has shown that they make the problem worse. The state cannot replace local, organic, spontaneous institutions created through a shared culture and values. Instead it becomes something like a powerful magnet that, through sheer force, draws all of the atomized individuals to it in an undifferentiated mass.

    And the labor unions have proven to be a reactionary force as well. I think they actually prevent the Distributist goal of widespread ownership by bolstering illusions in wage labor. Nisbet mentions “unions and cooperatives” as if they are part and parcel of the same process; I say that the latter will really only begin to thrive as the former finally disappear. I see them as rival visions for improving the lot of the common man.

  • David says:

    the Daily Bell
    Let’s Talk About Natural Rights by Dr. Tibor Machan

    When various skeptics question the soundness of the American political system, one of their targets is the idea of human nature. After all, the founders took their political philosophy mainly from John Locke who thought human nature does exist and, based on what we know of it and a few other evident matters, we can reach the conclusion that all human beings have certain rights. This is what is meant by holding that there are natural rights and that they are pre-legal, not a creation of government…

    http://www.thedailybell.com/1357/Let-Us-Talk-About-Natural-Rights.html

  • Jim B says:

    “It’s not an either/or solution, it’s a both/and solution. Test everything, hold fast to what is good in both camps.”

    I have been saying this very thing for a couple of years. Both “camps” seem to me to be excessively doctrinal (and academic) in their writings and debates; so much so that I felt the need to withdraw and take a “time out” to digest it all.

    It’s hard enough for non-academics to absorb this stuff without the the exchange of missiles between the two sides.

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