Distributism: Novel Economic System

Tuesday, August 26, AD 2014

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I have never written much about Distributism because, to quote Gertrude Stein, there is no there, there.  Chesterton and Belloc I think used Distributism primarily as a springboard to attack the capitalism they both loathed.  The details were kept vague because it was obvious that, unless humanity were suddenly to become exempt from sin, the implementation of such a system, if it could be implemented at all, would require a very powerful state indeed, something that Chesterton and Belloc both loathed just as much as they loathed capitalism.  Thus Distributism was something to be trotted out in their writings periodically, but neither Chesterton or Belloc made any attempts to seriously implement it in the real world, and of course one would not expect a pair of writers to do so.  That would be done, if at all, by those inspired by the concept.  However, although the concept evokes a lot of sturm und drang on Catholic blogs, attempts to implement it in reality have been precious few and far between.  It is therefore only appropriate that a science fiction novelist, John C. Wright, has examined a concept that I think will always remain firmly ensconced in the fictional realm:

 

 

A reader asked me my opinion of Distributionism, which is GK Chesterton’s tentative venture into economic philosophy.

For better or worse, my take on Distributism is uniformly and unabashedly negative. You see, I had studied economics for many a year before I stumbled across the writings of Mr Chesterton, and I found him wise and witty and much to be admired in all other areas but this one. Once he starts writing about rich folk, he speaks frothing nonsense, and there is a touch of hatred, of true malice, in his tone I do not detect anywhere else.

Chesterton holds that the concentration of wealth into a few hands was bad for all concerned, and looked favorably on the idea of each man owning his own means of production, and their incomes being more equal.

By what means this was to be accomplished is left vague in his writings. Whether this was to be by a medieval guild system, or some form of government-run syndicate, or an all-volunteer affair, is never mentioned one way or the other. He states clearly that he opposes the Enclosure Laws, by which common greens, formerly owned and used communally, were made private property; but he does not state clearly how, or even if, he would reverse this.

His position differs from Socialism mainly by being nondoctrinaire by being unclear.

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26 Responses to Distributism: Novel Economic System

  • The economy is a hard thing to study! A chimera — not just a horse of a different color, but an animal made of parts of different animals ..always moving and racing through the landscape. Anyone who studies it within a certain time and culture is studying something very different that someone who studies it a century later in a different culture.

  • I’m not sure Distributism has ever been properly delineated much less any means of achieving it put to paper. As for Chesterton, I did not have the impression his antagonism extended much father than the landed interest. Of course, he wrote such a heap of material you could likely find an example.

  • I find that a lot of my friends who are very earnest, intelligent right-brained types, who love Chesterton, want to believe in Distributism.

    I think economics is a subject that requires a lot of left-brain type of thinking, though.

    My favorite writer, Whittaker Chambers, is an example of this. But even he helped appreciate the subject more late in his life, as he worked towards completing a college degree in Maryland. There is a wonderful passage in a letter to William F. Buckley where he writes about his frustration with being able to understand the concept of the Production Possibilities Curve, but not being able to graph it.

    That’s the left-brain, right-brain difference. I think Chambers would also appreciate the lamentation that modern economics has become overtaken with math!

  • I’ve always thought distributism was a freaking pipe dream. The Chesterbelloc were not trained in economics, yet we’re supposed to believe that two guys who never studied this subject came up with a system that would solve the world’s economic problems? To the best of my knowledge, neither of them ever had to run a business or meet a payroll.
    It is also my understanding that both of them were socialist or heavily influenced by it in their early years. Chesterson himself said that a person who was a socialist was one who was most likely to be a distributist. It is interesting to note that many of the earliest articles on distributism appeared in the radical leftist magazine The New Age.
    But the biggest thing that irks me about these people is their insufferable arrogance toward those of us who refuse to believe their pie in the sky foolishness. They automatically think, like a typical fanatic, that anyone who is leery of their hobbyhorse is one the wrong side of history and God. Yet, they have never brought any project to life that would prove their ideas would work in the real world. Of course, they’re always claiming co-ops like Mondragon are distributist, but that’s bullfeathers. Any reading of the history of co-ops shows they’re just another form of capitalism.
    If one desires to see some sound Catholic writings on distributism, go to http://traditioninaction.org/ and read their articles on it. Also Thomas E. Woods “Beyond Distributism” has a very good analysis of the fallacies of this idea.

  • “Chesterton and Belloc I think used Distributism primarily as a springboard to attack the capitalism they both loathed.”
    .
    What Chesterton and Belloc loathed was the abuse of capitalism. The indulgence and practice of greed combined with lust, avarice and all sin which denigrates the human person, destroys man’s sovereingty over himself and defiles mankind.
    ,
    Capitalism is to be practiced with all the virtues but mostly the virtue of charity in generosity. Capitalism is the reward for hard work and is the conduit for charity.
    .
    The virtue of charity may not be imposed by the state, nor tax money extorted for distributism.
    .
    Distributism is stealing by the state and taxation without representation. Actually, anything the state does that is not orthodox is taxation without representation.
    .
    Who gave the state the authentic power to scrape the immortal, human soul from the newly begotten human being? Denying the human soul is atheism, pure and simple. The devil is not an atheist.
    .
    One sailor says to the other sailor: “He (Jack Sparrow) is so evil even the devil spat him out.” a Truther.

  • My feeling about distributionism is that it is just like other schemes that implement Christian morality: well meaning, impractical, and yet probably needed for inspirational purposes.

    Let’s take the example of the accumulation of money in the hands of a few. Under capitalist theory this should not be a problem: the money is deposited in banks where it can be loaned to everyone. In practice this may or not happen; the large depositors do have the clout to influence the banks into lending practices that favor themselves and discriminate against everyone else. This creates diseconomies. Government can certainly establish regulations to combat such diseconomies, but regulations can also cause diseconomies, as we was in the events leading to the 2008 crash and as we see in today’s Little Depression.

    It would seem that Distributionism would fail as a legislated program, but it should succeed as an inspiration. Large depositors would refrain from unduly influencing banks if they kept its principles in mind, and so the banks would function better for all with minimal regulation. Such self-restraint has always been the basis of public morality in a free republic anyway, so why not extend it to the economic sphere?

  • Let’s take the example of the accumulation of money in the hands of a few. Under capitalist theory this should not be a problem: the money is deposited in banks where it can be loaned to everyone. In practice this may or not happen; the large depositors do have the clout to influence the banks into lending practices that favor themselves and discriminate against everyone else. This creates diseconomies. Government can certainly establish regulations to combat such diseconomies, but regulations can also cause diseconomies, as we was in the events leading to the 2008 crash and as we see in today’s Little Depression.

    1. There is no “Little Depression”

    2. Wealthy people invest their money in a variety of instruments and conduits: equities, bonds of various sorts, commercial and municipal paper, mortgage backed securities, asset backed securities, exchange-traded funds, hedge funds, REITS, &c. Very few are going to maintain large bank deposits or have a large mass of funds in certificates of deposit.

    3. I do not know who you fancy is being ‘discriminated against’, how, or why.

  • Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?

    I was googling names and came across this compendium post on Distributism in TAC.

  • Art, you state:
    1. There is no “Little Depression”
    Answer: Some call our current malaise a “Great Recession”. I (that’s in me, myself, and I) think that is a misnomer, because the malaise is due to an investment psychology similar to that of the 1930’s.
    2) Wealthy people invest their money in a variety of instruments and conduits
    Yes, I know, and I could cite a classical capitalist defense of each one. I simplified my argument to just banks because I didn’t want to write a book. It’s not wrong to do so.
    3) I do not know who you fancy is being ‘discriminated against’, how, or why.
    What, it’s not permissible to discuss discrimination in the abstract? Like it could never happen for reasons not foreseen? C’mon!

  • 1. There was a 5% decline in the rate at which goods and services were being produced during the period running from mid-2008 to mid 2009. There has been some overhang with regard to the labor markets and chronic problems with fiscal policy (which is mostly the responsibility of the Congress and the President). There is nothing remotely resembling the scale and severity of what went on during the period running from 1929 to 1941 (which included an economic contraction that ran on for 40 months in which production was declining at a rate of 9% per annum). The one point of comparison would be that it was co-incident with a banking crisis. See Anna Schwartz on this point: the problems of the banking system were ones of liquidity during the former period and solvency during the latter.

    2. No, it is not, if you do not give some sense that you understand what the social processes are. You implied that banks were making bad business decisions in giving sweetheart loans to their large depositors. With regard to commercial banks, their large depositors are likely to be businesses, but commercial and industrial loans make up perhaps 20% or so of their portfolio cross-sectionally assessed. About 30% would be residential real estate loans, about 15% would be consumer loans, about 25% would be commercial real estate loans, and 15% would be a miscellany of loans (farm loans, loans to governments, loans to philanthropies, interbank lending, securities lending &c). A higher share of their origination stream would be in residential real estate as those loans are more likely than commercial real estate to be sold to mortgage pools.

    So, which sort of clients are getting sweetheart loans, and what sort of loans are they receiving, and why is the competitive position of the extending banks not observably injured by this patronage?

  • TomD: “My feeling about distributionism is that it is just like other schemes that implement Christian morality: well meaning, impractical, and yet probably needed for inspirational purposes.”
    .
    It is HOW distributism and capitalism are executed or exercised. Distributism is not Chirstian morality. Distributism is government extortion, implemented to secure votes.
    .
    Christian morality imbues capitalism with grace. I give you what you need to survive and you give me what I need to survive: capitalism and the exercise of freedom.

  • Art,
    1) Stating “some overhang with regard to the labor markets” is an awfully elliptical description of the tens of millions of people who are un- or underemployed thanks to business stagnation. Most of the people I talk to believe that including the people who no longer look would bring the numbers up to 15-20%, which is Depression levels. Yes, corporate profitability has returned, but the profits are not being reinvested due to fear of future losses (hence the similarity with the 1930’s). Also, one of the reasons that the economy has avoided a Great Depression is that so much of it is a service economy that didn’t exist in the 1930’s – without this things would be much worse.
    2) You are totally misreading my original post
    You wrote “You implied that banks were making bad business decisions in giving sweetheart loans to their large depositors.”
    No I didn’t. I explicitly stated (not implied) that such things could happen (“might or might not”), as opposed to an idealistic view of capitalism which says that such things shouldn’t or ought not to happen.
    My apologies if my original wording caused this confusion, but you can’t tell me my intention was different from what I know it to be.

    But…a close friend used to work for a lending institution, and I later heard interesting stories of preferential lending to the powerful and influential. I know of a media person who became quite a slum lord. I can’t point out an example of a large depositor expecting special treatment (I made that up as an hypothetical example), but I do know of others who did receive special treatment for other reasons. Another friend lost her job when her bank folded – a developer persuaded them to not report his loans to his credit report, since he was such a special customer. No one was prosecuted, the developer declared bankruptcy but is back in business today, and my uncle’s stock in the bank is now in my scripophily collection since it has no other value.

  • Mary, I guess I meant to write something a little different.

    Capitalism is an economic system as much as it is a set of ideals, but those ideals are amoral. Distributism is a set of economic ideals with a distinct morality, but it is not a system because it lacks the rigor of real life (hence Don’s use of the “there is no there, there” quote).

    In this way I see distributism as the economic analog to pacifism. I think that a foreign policy based on pacifism is a really bad idea, and in many cases pacifism in one’s personal life is a really bad idea. Yet the Gospels undeniably contain pacific (and distributionist) undercurrents, and a total dismissal and negation of pacifism in our lives would be a denial of Christian morality. They should remain ideals for each individual’s conscience, and nothing more.

  • Whenever I tried read something about Distributism, it seems on one hand they set up a straw man of socialism that sounds nothing like any version have heard seriously proposed: on the other they set up a straw man of capitalism that sounds nothing like any version have heard seriously proposed.

    Then they split the difference between the straw men.

    This leaves me with a distinct lack of confidence in the concept.

    Like much “social Justice” commentary it misses the point. SJ is about how to act ethically in what ever economic system one has the misfortune to be located. It is NOT a prescription for how to set up an economic system.

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  • “SJ (social Justice) is about how to act ethically in what ever economic system one has the misfortune to be located. It is NOT a prescription for how to set up an economic system.”
    .
    Makes sense.
    .
    I see capitalism as an economic system grown and run, even to the ground, by the people and distributism as an economic system grown and run by the government, a government that has funded human sacrifice, pornography, a government that has become corrupt and unfit to grow and run distributism, a government no longer of the people, for the people and by the people.

  • Art Deco wrote, “As for Chesterton, I did not have the impression his antagonism extended much father than the landed interest.”

    The reason being that his model (which he took from Belloc) was France, where the Revolution had turned ten million tenants into heritable proprietors. Thus, in Orthodoxy, he refers to, “the square social equality and peasant wealth of France.”

    Tocqueville described this exercise in Distributism in a speech to the National Assembly:
    “And as for property, gentlemen: it is true that the French Revolution resulted in a hard and cruel war against certain property-holders. But, concerning the very principle of private property, the Revolution always respected it. It placed it in its constitutions at the top of the list. No people treated this principle with greater respect. It was engraved on the very frontispiece of its laws. The French Revolution did more. Not only did it consecrate private property, it universalized it. It saw that still a greater number of citizens participated in it. [Varied exclamations. “Exactly what we want!”]

    It is thanks to this, gentlemen, that today we need not fear the deadly consequences of socialist ideas which are spread throughout the land. It is because the French Revolution peopled the land of France with ten million property-owners that we can, without danger, allow these doctrines to appear before us. They can, without doubt, destroy society, but thanks to the French Revolution, they will not prevail against it and will not harm us. [“Excellent.”]”

  • “The reason being that his model (which he took from Belloc) was France, where the Revolution had turned ten million tenants into heritable proprietors.”

    Which was a myth. Between 30-50% of French farmland was owned by peasants prior to the Revolution. The actual transfer of land to peasant purchasers during the French Revolution was minor and much of it of marginal utility. Church lands nationalized only accounted for six percent of all land in France. The main beneficiaries of “land reform” in the French Revolution were the politically influential who became large landholders under Napoleon. The peasants did benefit from the abolition of feudal dues but that had little impact on the amount of land they farmed.

  • The peasants did benefit from the abolition of feudal dues but that had little impact on the amount of land they farmed.

    What the 19th c. agrarian reforms did was to alter the tenure regime, transferring allodial rights over rustical land to the peasantry who had previously held only rights of occupancy. That actually is a benefit to the peasantry even if not one acre of demesne land is transferred. It has some more generalized benefits inasmuch as these legal changes allowed the formation of factor markets in continental Europe. IIRC, somewhat less than a 10% of the acreage in France consisted of ecclesiastical land and about 20% was demesne land.

  • Two things strike you about Chesterton’s discussion of ‘property’. One is that absent any peculiarly ‘distributist’ measure, owner-occupied housing went from strongly atypical to normal among wage-earning populations in the post-war period in the United States. The source of this was a financial innovation which was jump-started by federal policy but which does not require state intervention to maintain it: the 20%-down-30-year mortgage issued by commercial and savings banks, which replaced the 5 year balloon mortgage issued by insurance companies (which was modal prior to 1930). The other thing that strikes you is that self-employment is atypical for a reason. Most who attempt it close their businesses after a few years because they are not making anymore than they might as an employee and have all the uncertainties which attend self-employment.

    There’s a great deal of interest in producer co-operatives in distributist literature. Producer co-operatives are benign, though there are theoretical and empirical complaints about the effect of such on labor markets. However, if you interest yourself in fostering this form, you do have to inquire what sort of sociologically discoverable impediments there are to the formation of such. They are common in timber production and agricultural marketing, but nowhere else. Why is that? What lesson can you draw from the Yugoslav experience with producer co-operatives?

  • I think the effort by some Chestertonians (and I’m a great admirer of the man) to create a distributist economic model is what befuddled me about distributism. Perhaps I have now reached a simpleton’s understanding of it, but it does seem that distributism is really nothing more than a romantic ideal expressed in non pragmatic ways. Schumacher”s Small is Beautiful seemed to be an attempt at systematic distributism. For Chesterton, distributism was a part of the family centered paradigm which required home ownership and sustenance against a modern economic world occupied by hudge and gudge.

  • I haven’t spent time chasing after it–or Marxism, actually–but it seems like
    Distributism is to Subsidiarity
    as
    Marxism is to charity. (The Christian kind, not just the “give people stuff” kind.)

    An attempt to make a sort of system to produce a good outcome. As many folks have pointed out, “from each by his ability, to each by his need” is not an inherently bad thing, but….
    ****

    For examples of where they work, there’s the family unit for charity (…ideally) and WinCo, plus some other “employee owned” places.

  • Art Deco.

    You are quite right to draw a distinction between ownership and occupancy rights.

    According to strict feudal notions the dominium utile or property is regarded merely as a burden on the dominium directum or superiority. The superior owns the land and the vassal does not. Thus, in Scotland, to convey the superiority, the granter dispones “All and whole the lands &c,” excepting from the warrandice the previously constituted feu right, whereby the dominium utile has been already carried to the vassal or vassals.

    In pre-Revolutionary France, the feu-duties were often very onerous: 30% of the crop (i.e. one-third after deducting the teind) was not unusual. In addition, there were the bannalités, whereby the vassal was thirled or astricted to the superior’s mill, oven, wine-press &c. Then, there were the casualties of superiority, notably the relief payable on the succession or entry of an heir or singular successor (including a grant in security), often a duplicand of the feu-duty.

    There was very little allodial land in France; even great nobles held by some nominal reddendo (a pair of gilt spurs or the like) as an acknowledgement of the king’s or a subject superior’s right. The only people who owned their land outright were six ecclesiastics, the Archbishop of Reims, the bishop-dukes of Laon and Langres and the bishop-counts of Beauvais, Châlons-en-Champagne and Noyon and six temporal lords, the Dukes of Burgundy, Normandy and Aquitaine (later Guyenne) and the Counts of Flanders, Champagne and Toulouse. Everyone else held of the Crown or of a subject superior

  • As long as economies of scale exist, Distributism will remain a pipe dream. Or worse.

  • Mary De Voe wrote, “Distributism is stealing by the state…”

    And yet the encyclical Populorum Progressio (1967) declares “If certain landed estates impede the general prosperity because they are extensive, unused or poorly used, or because they bring hardship to peoples or are detrimental to the interests of the country, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation.” I take this to be an example, for it is difficult to suppose that one régime applies to immoveable property and another to movables or to intellectual property, or that the one is liable to expropriation and the others are not.

    This was well understood by the National Assembly during the French Revolution. Take Mirabeau (a moderate) “Property is a social creation. The laws not only protect and maintain property; they bring it into being; they determine its scope and the extent that it occupies in the rights of the citizens” So, too, Robespierre (not a moderate) “In defining liberty, the first of man’s needs, the most sacred of his natural rights, we have said, quite correctly, that its limit is to be found in the rights of others. Why have you not applied this principle to property, which is a social institution, as if natural laws were less inviolable than human conventions?”

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour: ““If certain landed estates impede the general prosperity because they are extensive, unused or poorly used, or because they bring hardship to peoples or are detrimental to the interests of the country, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation.””
    .
    Amendment 5 – Trial and Punishment, Compensation for Takings. Ratified 12/15/1791.
    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
    .
    This situation is covered under the Fifth Amendment of the U. S. Constitution known as the “takings clause”. Property taken at eminent domain must be used for the common good. True value must be given to the owner if only to reaffirm social property laws not of natural laws.
    .
    Also it is good to note that Distributism as an economic system must be ratified and approved by the will of the people. The President counts only as one citizen.

53 Responses to From “Third Ways” to the First Way

  • You were attracted to what you thought was Distributism, but it really was something entirely different. Distributism does not distribute property to the populace, as if it were government, it is purely an economic system in which profits are shared among all the workers and each worker owns his own equipment.

    I stopped reading after your statement I was once attracted to the idea of Distributism, until I came to the vital question of who would be doing the “distributing” of the private property that everyone was supposed to own, but I assume that whatever your conclusions are, they are probably wrong because it was based on a false premise.

  • Good post. Yes, you hit on the dilemma of Distributism. The only example that I can think of is the Homestead Act of 1862 which ‘distributed’ land if people were willing to work the land. Unfortunately, much of that land was taken from the Indian tribes and a century later consolidated by oligopolistic corporations. In my reading of Christopher Dawson, culture and economic systems evolve over time. There was in the late medieval period a sort of distributism economy at work but this was destroyed during the Reformation. The introduction of usury at that time, rise of the nation state and confiscation of church lands effectively killed the evolution of a more distributive economy by the 17th century and the industrial revolution in the 19th century killed the small agrarian ‘lifestyle’ for good. Chesterton and Belloc were looking backwards towards that ‘lost’ model but you can’t impose distributism….it must evolve over time based upon agreed upon societal and cultural principles.

  • Third Way? Not even close.

    We shall have four more years of wrecking the evil, unjust private sector.

    I think we want to avoid starting out with “how we want ‘things’ to be” or “how we think ‘things’ should be” and analyze what/how things are. When you have a handle on what/how things are, you can form and suggest improvements. I try to make money from knowledge

    At the moment, a gang of unaudited, unelected PhD’s, and their crackpot monetary theories, run the World.

    KK: What does that mean? Is it that each worker is born with his own equipment, or is given it by God?

  • @T.Shaw: Obviously the worker would be given the gift of being able to work from God, but the materials he uses (such as his hammer, or a computer, or whatever) would be purchased from a retailer and not gifted to him by the company or government.

  • let us try to recover the Republic that out founders originally intended and the God our nation once trusted. Neither of your two choices is truly viable. There can be no compromise between good and evil. The Democrat Party should be anathema.

  • kyle,
    In Distributism what happens if a worker chooses not to spend all his profits? May he seek a return from his savings? If so, how?

  • @Mike Petrik: In the Distributist model of the economy, banks are replaced with Credit Unions. Last I checked, CU’s do offer savings accounts with interest.

    If you have seen It’s a Wonderful Life, you have seen Distributist banking in theory. Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, is the model of Distributist banking while Lionel Barrymore’s Mr Henry Potter is the model of Capitalist banking. Bailey is invested in the people and their welfare, Potter is invested in making more money.

  • Aren’t entrepeneur’s workers who actually work for the wealth they create while they hire other workers at a salary those workers agree to in order to create that wealth? And is not an agree-to amount of the wealth shared from (or paid by) the entrepeneur who works to his subsidiary workers? And is that not the distributionism to which we ought to aspire? You want wealth? Work for it!

    “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat.” 2nd Thessalonians 3:10

    You don’t get to have what isn’t yours.

  • @Paul. I think the difference is the underlying assumptions regarding human nature that inform the different approaches. Distributism would purport that humans are naturally relational, an approach of course originally proposed by Aristotle, interpreted by Aquinas through the lens of the New Testament, and, as far as I know, the current understanding of the Church. Therefore, society is not merely an aggregation of individuals. Indeed, the dichotomy of individual vs. society would be incoherent. From this perspective, a business owner should be just as motivated by contributing to the community (promoting the livelihood of others, producing an actual worthwhile product instead of something that plays off of human weakness) as they are by turning a profit.

    The other approach is derived from the Lockesian concept of radical individualism. Hiring employees is not seen as a “good” in and of itself, but merely a means toward the generation of wealth. Obviously many entrepreneurs do choose to hire people for less than self-motivated reasons (my brother makes a point of hiring people with mental handicaps to work at his restaurant), but that’s out of their own volition, not a product of the capitalist/classical liberal hybrid society we live in. As Tocqueville says, “Americans are better than their philosophy.” But once those other influences begin to wane, as we’re seeing with the replacement of authentic religion with a flimsy sort of humanism, I think we’ll see just how ugly and incompatible with Catholicism classical liberalism really is. If you have a First Things subscription, I’d encourage you to read Patrick Deneen’s recent essay on the unsustainability of liberalism. Good stuff.

  • “Indeed, the dichotomy of individual vs. society would be incoherent.”

    Though the concept of person and society isn’t and Paul’ comment does not contradict that.

    Perfect relation of unity and distinction is present in God in the Trinity. In human nature, especially fallen nature, there will always be some separation if not dichotomy.

  • @Phillip.
    Sure. We are individuals while also simultaneously part of a larger community. Lockesian philosophy seeks to separate the two, presenting the individual as a self-sufficient entity that can stand on its own, free of society, the Church, and the family. We are not and we cannot.

  • “Lockesian philosophy seeks to separate the two, presenting the individual as a self-sufficient entity that can stand on its own, free of society, the Church, and the family. We are not and we cannot.”

    I will agree with that to the extent I have read Locke. I don’t know if other Lockean scholars will agree.

    But its not clear that Capitalism (or the American experiment) is an effort at Lockean philosophy.

  • But as a societal or political regime, it will either rest upon consent or it will rest upon force.

    What societal or political regime, in the end, does NOT rest upon consent or force. In fact, what regime does not rest ultimately upon force? If not for the threat of incarceration or other penalties, which of us would pay taxes to subsidize government programs the ruling class decides we need?

    Even the right to private property has to be protected, in the end, by force. The use of force by the government is not ipso facto wrong. The problem is that the government is run by those with various levels of ability (or desire) to seek the common good. Some mistake their policies as consistent with the common good when in fact they are not. Now whether or not distributism is in fact consistent with the common good, I do not know.

  • Kyle,

    Distributists like John Medaille, Thomas Storck and Chris Ferrara don’t talk about Distributism as a “purely economic” model of a firm. They talk about it as a complete vision of society. If it really were just about employee ownership, well, a) we wouldn’t need a special theory called “Distributism” because its already a widely practiced thing (there are more workers in employee stock plans now than there are in unions) and b) they wouldn’t be talking about guild systems, the elimination of usury, financial regulations and a whole host of ideas that go far beyond the mere advocacy of worker ownership.

    JL,

    No one believes – not Locke, not anyone – by the way, that anyone is a “self-sufficient entity that can stand on its own, free of society, etc.” This is complete nonsense. That people form families and societies is a given in Locke’s state of nature.

  • JL,

    You wrote, “From this perspective, a business owner should be just as motivated by contributing to the community (promoting the livelihood of others, producing an actual worthwhile product instead of something that plays off of human weakness) as they are by turning a profit.”

    I agree and maintain that this must never be mandated by secular law but be taught by the Church. Secular law should (1) ensure a level regulatory playing field that protects public health and safety from industrial / medical / transportational / energy production / aviation activities with a potential for adverse impact on life or limb, and (2) prevent (or punish the doers thereof as appropriate) the initiation of force by one company, entrepeneur or worker over another company, entrepeneur or worker. Fossil fuel accidents like Deep Water Horizons and the Exxon Valdez are cases in point, as well as the Union Carbide toxic gas release in Bhopal, India in 1984.

    It “ain’t” the Federal Govt’s job to enforce distributionism except in those cases where taxes are required for public health, safety and the common defense. That said, local communities may elect to have local laws that provide services for the poor in their communities based on taxing the wealth-producing residents (entrepeneurial or laborer) of such communities. If a particular resident doesn’t like the vote of the majority, then he can move to a community without such mandated distributionism. This is called subsidiarity and freedom.

    I probably would agree to extra local taxes for the poor. But I object to extra Federal govt taxes for the poor. I am all for distributionism at the local level. I oppose it at the Federal level. The only exception are massive accidents like the Deep Water Horizon oil well blowout that killed 5 more people in 2010 than the 6 who who killed by the event at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011, and devasted the eco-system in the Gulf of Mexico with toxic sludge that will never ever decay away (unlike Cs-137 that has a half life of 30.17 years). And yes, BP should be subject the “re-distribution” necessary to pay for damages. It’s called “responsibility”.

  • C Matt,

    “What societal or political regime, in the end, does NOT rest upon consent or force.”

    Regimes established by cliques and cadres such as Jacobins and Bolsheviks, for starters – regimes that can only cement their rule through mass murder, ethnic cleansing and the extermination of millions. Those would be the most clear-cut examples. A regime in which all of the productive workers are expropriated by the government to support a horde of unproductive voters in exchange for political power, which is what we have in the United States right now, comes pretty close as well.

    “Even the right to private property has to be protected, in the end, by force.”

    I disagree with that. When you defend your rights, you certainly aren’t engaging in an illegitimate use of force. You’re repelling someone else’s attempt to use force in a completely illegitimate way. Yes, we can play semantic word games and call defensive violence “force”, but really what I am rejecting is the aggressive invasion of other people’s natural rights.

  • “The other approach is derived from the Lockesian concept of radical individualism. Hiring employees is not seen as a “good” in and of itself, but merely a means toward the generation of wealth”

    The generation of wealth benefits everyone. It benefits the poor more than everyone else. When producers are efficient, consumers are rewarded, and most consumers are poor. How is that not a social good? I reject the whole silly notion that production for profit is “selfish.” There isn’t a legitimate profit that is made that doesn’t involve the mutual benefit of at least two parties. In a society in which property rights are respected, you can’t make a dime unless you make the effort to correctly ascertain and provide what people express a desire for. That seems to be a necessary, indispensable requisite for “society.”

  • C Matt,

    I misread your question. My apologies. Everything rests on either consent or force. That was my whole point. People should be clear about which they are advocating for.

  • Bonchamps

    “No one believes – not Locke, not anyone – by the way, that anyone is a “self-sufficient entity that can stand on its own, free of society, etc.” This is complete nonsense. That people form families and societies is a given in Locke’s state of nature.”

    You misunderstand me. Locke argues that these relationships are completely voluntary, not a de facto, organic, intrinsic product of human nature. Individuals form societies simply to protect “natural rights.” They are not necessarily “social” in essence. There is no obligation to the common good. Locke’s views of child-rearing are especially troubling, as its essentially boiled down to a contract that terminates once the child becomes self-sufficient. Additionally, one of the compelling reasons Locke cites that serves as incentive for a child not to severe filial connections is the matter of his inheritance. This is certainly anything but the Catholic concept of the family, which is something we are born into, not to which we voluntarily consent.

  • JL,

    ” Locke argues that these relationships are completely voluntary, not a de facto, organic, intrinsic product of human nature.”

    They are completely voluntary, in the sense that – at least in a stateless society – no one is compelled to enter them by force. No matter how “organic” or “intrinsic” certain arrangements might be, whether or not they are voluntary depends solely on whether or not one is, or is not, forced to enter into them regardless of their will. Through the exercise of free will alone, you could decide not to have a wife, or children. Surely you won’t dispute that.

    “Individuals form societies simply to protect “natural rights.”

    No. They form governments to protect natural rights. “Society” and “government” are very clearly not the same thing, and a certain level of society must be reached before there can ever be a common agreement to a social contract establishing a government.

    “They are not necessarily “social” in essence.”

    Of course they are, if “social” means voluntary cooperation as opposed to forced participation.

    “There is no obligation to the common good.”

    Well, that’s false, since Locke identifies an obligation not only to care for one’s self, but for one’s family and in fact, insofar as possible, every other member of society. The common good is served in the pursuit of legitimate self-interest, moreover, which can only be satisfied by meeting other people’s needs.

    ” Locke’s views of child-rearing are especially troubling, as its essentially boiled down to a contract that terminates once the child becomes self-sufficient.”

    There is an implicit “contract” in any voluntary relationship.

    A truly self-sufficient being would be degraded if it were forced to stay in a dependent relationship against its will, especially one that has become abusive.

    “This is certainly anything but the Catholic concept of the family, which is something we are born into, not to which we voluntarily consent.”

    The capacity to consent begins with the use of reason. We aren’t born with that either, but if we were, family would hardly be necessary. The primary duty of parents towards children is their physical upkeep and their education. Once these tasks are complete, a family will either remain together out of love or disintegrate. We live in a world in which adults coddle children until they are 18 and in many cases for years and years beyond that. In different times and places, self-sufficiency is theoretically possible far sooner than that. The sooner the better, I say.

  • I think Bonchamps point that “everything rests on consent or force” is a very important one. No one has the right to initiate force against anyone else. That said, some will say (for example – there are plenty of other ones, but I will use one familiar to me) that they are being forced to breathe in the toxic refuse of coal fired power plants (which per the CDC kill 33,000 people annually in the US from lung disease due to particulate pollution). But these same people pay for electricity with nary a complaint about where that electricity comes from (because we all know that no electricity kills far more people than electricity from coal). So, are they being forced, or have they consented by virtue of the fact that they have paid for their electric bills? Now there is an alternative, but that alternative, instead of having a 90+ % capacity factor, has a 30- % capacity factor, and here it is:

    http://otherpower.com/

    People consent when they pay. Don’t want it? Don’t pay for it and erect your own wind mill that won’t give electricity 70% of the time. It’s that simple. If I really don’t consent to fossil fuel pollution, then why do I drive a fossil fueled vehicle? Answer: I make a risk trade off between cancer from fossil fuel pollution versus the luxury of getting where I want to go no matter when. Besides, fast transportation to the hospital in case I get sick or injured beats any day of the week not being able to get there.

    Govt has no right to force people to do anything except in the case where public health, safety and the common defense are adversely impacted. Rather, govt’s responsibilty is to level the legal and regulatory playing field. In the example above, if all things were equal and coal fired power plants were held to the same radiation emissions standards as nuclear power plants, then not a single coal plant would be operating (it’s all that uranium, thorium and radium in coal). But if I agree to buy electicity without specifying where the utility provides that electricity from, then I do not get to complain because I have consented – no one forced me. Besides, electricity is better than no electricity. Common good outweighs individual preference.

    It’s called responsibility. Most people want the other guy to pay, and when he refuses, then they cry that they are coerced. Horse manure!

  • kyle: Thanks for your response. What if I had an idea for a new product, but I needed serveral million dollars to get it launched? What should I do? Assume I tried to convince people to work on it in exchange for an ownership interest in the venture, but failed. Would Distributism preclude me from offering ownership interests to cash investors (to pay for the workers)? After all some people may believe in my idea and be willing to accept risk for reward. Is everyone limited to 1% credit union interest? Am I out of luck if I cannot find workers willing to trade work for ownership and the related risk?

  • This distributism of which you people refer has never existed and can never exist.

    It is all too beautiful and too good; and would fall apart before the first sunset. Something that we evil, worldly/work-a-day mules have been dealing with since the day of creation would crop up and knock over the whole thing. [I’ll be amazed if any know from whence I lifted that.]

    Same same with socialism. Except that mass travesty was perpetuated by impatient humanitarians with kalashnikov assault rifles and guard dogs; and jackboots perpetually stomping on human faces.

    The Pilgrims were as virtuous as you can imagine. In 1620, they landed on Plymouth Rock and attempted Christian socialism. It didn’t work, and virtuous people died that didn’t need to starve. They quickly reverted to individual initiative, private property and hard work.

    I’ve owned a home since 1979. I have been meeting mortgage payments since 1979. Truth: George Bailey loaned money at a spread over his cost of funds/what interest he paid on deposits/shares. Now, Capital One is making approximately 230 basis points on my monthly payments. Some may think that unfair, or [gasp] usury. But, without those loans, I woud not have owned my homes wherein I sheltered and raised my three sons. Also, a home equity loan helped me pay for three university educations.

    For my sins, I have worked at high levels (36 years) in financial services. I know mortgage banking and servicing, financial intermediation, financial derivatives and hedges, real estate appraisals, syndicated commercial lending, you name it.

  • I find it rather odd to put it mildly that Locke is here placed in the tradition of Catholic natural law theorists. Locke clearly reject the metaphysics and natural philosophy which underlie natural law theory. His views on faith and reason as expressed in his Essay On Human Understanding should offend any serious Christian. Lastly, the emphasis the author has on the voluntary nature of things in the article and comments clearly places him within the tradition of liberal political thought as opposed to the Christian or classical traditions. Pierre Manent’s book, A World Beyond Politics, quite clearly shows this is one of the fundamental contrasts between modern and pre-modern conceptions of politics, society, etc.

    further reading: http://www.ideasinactiontv.com/tcs_daily/2007/10/are-we-all-lockeans-now.html

  • Mercier,

    Allow me to explain myself.

    “I find it rather odd to put it mildly that Locke is here placed in the tradition of Catholic natural law theorists. Locke clearly reject the metaphysics and natural philosophy which underlie natural law theory.”

    I’ve had this debate before. There are different interpretations of Locke floating around out there, and it is recognized that his corpus contains significant contradictions. I would maintain that the Second Treatise, as a stand-alone text, is a work of traditional natural law theory. I am not convinced that his views espoused in other works mean that the very clear natural law arguments put forward in the ST must necessarily be read as somehow not in or opposed to the natural law tradition. Nor do I find useful or compelling the Straussian method of reading hidden messages in works of political philosophy. It’s possible that the real and final John Locke rejected all of the metaphysical underpinnings of natural law, but they are all present in the Second Treatise.

    ” Lastly, the emphasis the author has on the voluntary nature of things in the article and comments clearly places him within the tradition of liberal political thought as opposed to the Christian or classical traditions.”

    I don’t mind that at all. There is plenty of good in the tradition of liberal political thought, though to be absolutely clear, I reject much of what issued forth from the “Enlightenment.” In fact I find a society based upon the respect of individual rights and liberties to be utterly incompatible with the atheism and materialism that became so fashionable at that time, since both lead (at least the Western mind) to determinism, to a negation of free will, and therefore the total loss of human dignity. Libertarian views are more compatible with the Christian view of the soul and moral responsibility than they are with the stupid beasts produced by atheistic/materialistic evolution.

    “Pierre Manent’s book, A World Beyond Politics, quite clearly shows this is one of the fundamental contrasts between modern and pre-modern conceptions of politics, society, etc.”

    Modern society is a fact of life, not a choice. New technological and social arrangements require an updating in thought. How one does it is the problem. Many are radical extremists who want to tear everything down. The paleo-libertarian tradition of the Austrian school builds upon the very best of our historical inheritance and the Enlightenment. So there are different reactions to the modern world, one a stubborn reactionism that irrationally refuses to deal with changing realities, another an extreme radicalism that hates the past simply because it is the past, and still another that recognizes the inevitability of change but seeks to understand it through the accumulated wisdom of mankind.

  • FYI,

    I find it grotesque to suggest that the neoconservative imperialism of the Bushes is in any way a continuation of the “Lockean project.” The idea that people can be liberated at the point of foreign bayonets is a Jacobin and Bolshevik one, not a Lockean one. The founding fathers influenced by Locke, as the author notes, were non-interventionists who did not believe that it was their mission to secure natural rights around the globe. I’ll say more about the rest of the article later.

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  • I haven’t done a lot of in-depth study of Chesterton’s Distributist ideas, but the impression I have is that he defines “Distributism” as an economy driven by lots of small- and medium-size businesses, and individuals/families working for themselves as craftspeople, rather than by a few big corporations. He never, as far as I know, advocated forcible re-distribution of capital (that would be communism) but simply a more level playing field for the “little guy”.

    One way I can think of to put distributism into action would be for states and local governments to stop playing the “massive taxpayer-funded economic incentives to big businesses” game and implement a fair tax and regulatory environment for everyone. (See my post “The Economic War Between the States” from several years ago). Another way is to insure that all your laws and rules regulating the private sector are 1) really necessary, 2) not excessively burdensome, especially to small businesses, small municipalities and non-profits, 3) explain clearly what affected entities have to do (or not do), and 4) provide some kind of appeal or due process for those adversely affected. Rules per se are not evil; rules that are badly constructed, allow agencies too much discretion to do whatever they feel like and don’t provide any recourse for people who suffer because of them are evil.

    Distributism is an ideal, of course, never to be realized perfectly in this world, but achieving 50 percent or 20 percent or even 10 percent of an ideal goal is better than achieving 0 percent or not even bothering to try attaining it.

  • Such an energetic melange of human thought. What strikes me is how many times we see “perhaps you misuderstood . . .” or “what I really meant was . . .” Would that all the terms and concepts be objectively and identically understood and employed.

    Unfortunately, human ideas, obviously being of human origin, are always incomplete and subject to the mold of the mind that holds them. Vigorous debate is a lovely exercise, and God forbid the day we are “compelled” to refrain from it, but in the end I find I sleep better when I hold on to this first:

    “For it is written:

    ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.’

    Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” – 1 Corinthians 1:19-20

    Peace+

  • Distributism might benefit from a name change. Suggestions…

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  • Elaine,

    ” He never, as far as I know, advocated forcible re-distribution of capital (that would be communism) but simply a more level playing field for the “little guy”.”

    How is the playing field leveled? This is my problem. There is no clarity on this. It just happens. It’s “just an economic theory” that “proposes” that more people become owners. I’m only interested in the means by which it happens. No one who believes in capitalism from a libertarian point of view opposes people voluntarily doing whatever they like to create a more egalitarian economic arrangement. It would inconsistent and absurd for them to do so.

    And yet Distributism is always opposed to capitalism, as if it would replace it. If all they mean is that they believe that worker ownership would prove to be more happily and widely embraced than the traditional model of ownership once its benefits become manifest to all, then there is absolutely no opposition at all. There’s no need to set them up as antagonistic. It’s just a competition of models that people are free to try out for themselves.

    And yet I get the sense that it means something quite more than that, though what, exactly, is never made clear.

  • Of course, I should add that it seems that there are different versions of this idea floating around. Your (Elaine’s) post seems to highlight the “small is best” view, whereas in my understanding, very large firms could fit into a “Distributist” model provided they were structured in certain ways.

    I don’t see any reason to glorify small business, or for that matter, skilled labor, as many Distributists do. When you really consider how narrow these interests are compared to the interests of consumers, it becomes more difficult to justify – in the name of the “common” good – a regime that exists to bolster them at the expense of alternatives. |

  • Thank you for the reply. I am pressed for time so I will limit my reply. I am unconvinced that you can limit/compartmentalize Locke’s thought in the way you are doing. However, looking at the Second Treatise alone I am totally unconvinced of its natural law credentials. A good essay that deals with this indirectly through an examination of Maritain’s political theory is “Maritain and Natural Rights” by Frederick J. Crosson in the Review of Metaphysics 36 (June 1983). He draws out some of the contradictions between Lockean natural rights theory and scholastic political theory.

    A small remark on the far bigger issue of the common good. The focus on individual self-interest seems necessarily at odds with the primacy of the common good (see Charles de Koninck The Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists).

    two posts by Pater Waldstein are worth reflecting on that touch on these matters among others: http://sancrucensis.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/against-the-american-revolution/
    http://sancrucensis.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/political-order/

    Also an article from a site I am sure you are familiar with: http://distributistreview.com/mag/2010/11/locke-and-inside-catholic/

    Lastly MacIntyre’s famous closing of After Virtue gives at least a partial answer to what the Catholic should be doing in the face of the modern order:

    It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the Epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless, certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman Imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of the Imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead- often not recognizing fully what they were doing- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If this account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another-doubtless very different- St. Benedict.

  • “He draws out some of the contradictions between Lockean natural rights theory and scholastic political theory.”

    Can you spell those out?

    I don’t doubt that there are some points of divergence. I think Locke was doing something new, but I also think it was something necessary given the changing social and intellectual order. Some see Locke as a destroyer. I see him as a preserver.

    “The focus on individual self-interest seems necessarily at odds with the primacy of the common good”

    Well, it might “seem” that way, but I don’t think it is that way. Even the scholastics had a conception of the legitimate pursuit of profit, which necessarily involves meeting the needs of many consumers, dozens, hundreds, thousands or even millions. Locke develops it a bit further by highlighting the social usefulness of productive labor, which does not simply benefit the laborer but also everyone whom he exchanges his product with.

    Of course there is greed. Anything can be taken to excess. But the supposed antagonism between self-interest as such and the common good is just a fallacy in my opinion. Properly understood, they are in fact inseparable. In fact people who are forced to toil for reasons other than self-interest have never been the most productive workers, meaning they have never been the most socially useful and beneficial workers. If “the common good” were really something that people pursued at the expense of self-interest, communism would have a better track record. I think Rerum Novarum makes this all abundantly clear too. The right of individuals to private property is supplemented with assertions that they also have the right to a decent standard of living befitting of their human dignity, and only when that has been attained does the moral obligation (which is never to be a legal obligation, by the way) to give from one’s surplus labor go into effect. Self-interest is not selfishness. A neglected self will probably be of less use and benefit to others than one that attends to its needs and legitimate desires.

    Whatever Catholics ought to be doing is a separate question from whether or not people in general should be forced to participate in social schemes, or whether such schemes derive their legitimacy from the consent of the participants. That’s really what I’m interested in here.

    As for the modern world, as far as governance goes, Locke had the right idea. I don’t have to agree with his metaphysic, frankly, to simply understand the political implications of religious pluralism. You either use force to suppress all the heretics, or you learn to live with them. When the heretics are few, they can easily be suppressed. When they make up a significant minority, enough to resist suppression with substantial force, you have no choice but to negotiate. Eventually some will make a virtue out of necessity, and like Locke (or Hobbes or others) they may even spin a whole philosophy out of it. But the necessity is there no matter what you do with it. I think Leo XIII grappled with this necessity as best anyone possibly could. And I think anyone grappling with it is going to find something worthwhile in Locke.

  • Bonchaps:

    Are you saying that the U.S. led invasion of Iraq was Bolshevistic?

  • @Bonchamps

    Just a few points, because this discussion has died down and you clearly have bigger, fresher fish to fry (for what it’s worth, I’m squarely in your corner when it comes the ideas put forward in your recent article connecting the CT shooting with US-perpetuated violence at large.)

    “The generation of wealth benefits everyone.”

    I’m convinced that the generation of wealth is a neutral. It does not automatically benefit anyone. In fact, it can lead to as many ills as goods, especially if generated in societies predisposed towards excess and self-centered hedonism.

    “I reject the whole silly notion that production for profit is “selfish.” ”

    How we do things matters. In saying this, I’m reminded of a strand of thought from Chesterton. He makes the observation that a young man could be moved to chastity both by thinking abhorrently of the consequences of a sexually transmitted disease, or, conversely, by reflecting on the Virign Mary. Now it’s true that both methods could be effective means of chaste compellance. In fact, the former might even be more effective. But there is no question, at least in my mind, which is to be preferred.

    The same can be said of one’s approach towards business and economics. One can certainly view their own enterprise in a completely self-centered manner, ie “what’s in it for me, how does this benefit me,” without any concern for the common good AND STILL benefit the common good through the economic properties of capitalism you cited. But such an approach is, in fact, wrong and, dare say it, sinful. It’s all a matter of mindset, and I think it is a distinction worth making. Again, what we think matters.

    “They are completely voluntary, in the sense that – at least in a stateless society – no one is compelled to enter them by force. No matter how “organic” or “intrinsic” certain arrangements might be, whether or not they are voluntary depends solely on whether or not one is, or is not, forced to enter into them regardless of their will.”

    We are not taking about “voluntary” in the same sense. Either that or you are fundamentally at odds with Church teaching regarding human nature. One is born with certain obligations to their community and the common good. It is a condition of being a human being. There is nothing voluntary about this relationship. To be sure, someone can decide to voluntarily fulfill this obligation or not, but this says nothing of the existence of the actual obligation. To deny that this obligation exists, that we are naturally relational and not autonomous, is to disregard a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching.

    “Through the exercise of free will alone, you could decide not to have a wife, or children. Surely you won’t dispute that.”

    I won’t, but I don’t think that has anything to do with what we’ve been talking about. You’re referring to a hypothetical obligation that doesn’t exist becausethe conditions for such a relationship were never established. When talking about Locke and the family, I’ve focused specifically on the relationship between parents and children, two parties who already exist and from the moment of their existence (in their respective roles) shared a certain set of responsibilities to the other. That is not a hypothetical, it already exists.

    I said: “Individuals form societies simply to protect “natural rights.”

    You said: “No. They form governments to protect natural rights. “Society” and “government” are very clearly not the same thing, and a certain level of society must be reached before there can ever be a common agreement to a social contract establishing a government.”

    Locke says: “The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property, and the end why they choose and authorize a legislative is that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power and moderate the dominion of every part and member of the society.”

    Emphasis on that first bit. Society and government seem to be different sides of the same coin. One’s the structure and one’s the enforcing mechanism. I don’t disagree with you that it’s basically impossible not to be part of society here and now, but that’s not what Locke is talking about. He’s talking about “the state of nature,” and it is extremely revealing that he believes man begins completely independent and apart from society, and only enters on his own volition to secure his own interests. I’ve said it repeatedly, but it’s impossible to reconcile this premise with anything remotely Aristotelian or Thomistic.

    I said: “They are not necessarily “social” in essence.”

    You said: “Of course they are, if “social” means voluntary cooperation as opposed to forced participation.”

    It doesn’t mean either. It means you are born with responsibilities to society and the common good. Again, whether you choose to carry those out is your own decision to make. But not believing that such a social component of human nature exists doesn’t change the fact that it does, just as denying objective morality does not somehow frees you from committing grave acts of immorality.

    “Well, that’s false, since Locke identifies an obligation not only to care for one’s self, but for one’s family and in fact, insofar as possible, every other member of society. The common good is served in the pursuit of legitimate self-interest, moreover, which can only be satisfied by meeting other people’s needs.”

    Locke contradicts himself, plain and simple. One may, as you point out, serve the common good as some sort of secondary byproduct of his pursuit of self-interest, but this certainly does not mean this is a hard and fast rule. Today’s business practice are rife with examples of individuals serving their own interests at the expense of thousands of others. Locke wanted his cake and to eat it, too.

    “There is an implicit “contract” in any voluntary relationship.”

    Such thinking would explain the appallingly high divorce rates in America. Marriage is not a contract, but a sacramental covenant. Filial relations are far closer to the former than the latter.

  • JL,

    Thanks for the comment. Its nice to have a discussion like this. I’m convinced that much of our dispute is purely semantic, though some of it may actually be over values. We’ll see.

    “I’m convinced that the generation of wealth is a neutral. It does not automatically benefit anyone. In fact, it can lead to as many ills as goods, especially if generated in societies predisposed towards excess and self-centered hedonism.”

    This all depends on what you mean by “wealth” and what you mean by “benefit.” In a free market – and markets are free at least to some extent in this country, in spite of various regulations – production of goods and services for profit, which is the basis of capitalism, does benefit everyone. It makes the necessities of life easier to obtain for masses of poor and average people through competition and innovation, it provides incentives for people to work their hardest, it rewards people for using their money as capital and taking a major risk in doing so as opposed to simply squandering it on themselves. If a man with a thousand dollars uses it to start a business, he is surely doing more for society than if he uses that thousand dollars at the craps table or even if he simply gives it away to people who will just spend it on whatever.

    The Church has always been correct to point out that there are many needs that a market economy cannot satisfy. But a market economy does better what all other economies also try to do. And no libertarian worth a damn opposes the existence of organizations such as the Church to provide many of those non-economic needs. Perhaps it is the decline of the Church and not the rise of capitalism that some people ought to be most concerned with.

    “How we do things matters”

    For our souls, yes. But here I am concerned with the law, with the use of force and coercion. Do you think force and coercion ought to be employed against people who do things that have good effects for morally unsound reasons? I don’t even think it should be employed against many bad choices that have bad effects, and certainly not “bad” choices that have good effects.

    I don’t think it is the role of the state to ensure that we do the right thing for the right reason. It is the task of religion to shape and mold the conscience that informs behavior. It is the task of the state to protect individual human rights. THAT sort of dualism has always been accepted by the Church, in fact, which has always marked out the clear lines of distinction between itself and the civil authorities.

    “We are not taking about “voluntary” in the same sense”

    There is only one sense in which I understand the word. That which is voluntary, is that which is undertaken with sufficient knowledge and consent, that which is undertaken freely, without restraint or coercion.

    “One is born with certain obligations to their community and the common good.”

    This is not disputed, by Locke or myself. If we have a dispute here, it is over what “the common good” is, which I maintain is not harmed, and is served, by self-interested economic behavior.

    “There is nothing voluntary about this relationship.”

    No, there is “something” voluntary about it. We can’t choose whether it exists or not, but we can choose whether or not to carry out our duties inherent in it. In that sense it is absolutely voluntary.

    “To deny that this obligation exists, that we are naturally relational and not autonomous, is to disregard a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching.”

    I have problems with the word “obligation” in general, to be honest with you. I would certainly agree that failing in one’s duty carries with it consequences that most rational people would want to avoid. But the existence of freedom ultimately means that no one is bound, in the strictest sense of the word, to do anything. All obligations are conditional. If you would avoid pain, suffering, or even eternal damnation, you must do x, y and z. But you are always free not to do them.

    That is why I ultimately agree that you cannot derive “oughts” from what “is.” You can only derive “oughts” from “ifs”, and this because of the fact of our total freedom as spiritual beings. I don’t think this is heretical either, if that is where you want to go next (some do, so I apologize if I jump the gun). I’ve at least read enough on the Catholic Encyclopedia to know that certain theologians have argued more or less the same thing.

    “I won’t, but I don’t think that has anything to do with what we’ve been talking about.”

    Of course it does. That’s what I mean by voluntary. You can choose not to do it.

    “When talking about Locke and the family, I’ve focused specifically on the relationship between parents and children, two parties who already exist and from the moment of their existence (in their respective roles) shared a certain set of responsibilities to the other. ”

    Well, shift it a bit. You can choose to leave your already-existing spouse and children, as men sometimes do. The point remains. It is still a choice.

    Now, as for your Locke quote –

    Yes, I have seen that very passage, and I admit that his use of the word “society” there, taken out of context, can seem awful. But the fact remains is that much earlier in the same work, Locke totally acknowledges the existence of society before the government. This is clear to me, for instance, in Chapter 7 of the Second Treatise. The family exists first, “falling short” of a political society as Locke says. Then there is the household in which there are masters and servants, and this too falls short of political society.

    So be careful with the word “society.” Locke speaks of many different kinds of “societies”. As he says:

    ” But how a family, or any other society of men, differ from that which is properly political society, we shall best see, by considering wherein political society itself consists.” (Ch. VII, 86)

    So the family, the household, and the polity – these are all different kinds of “societies” for Locke, and it seems clear to me that it is the political society to which he is referring to in that much later passage you cited in the ST.

    “Again, whether you choose to carry those out is your own decision to make. ”

    That’s all that makes them voluntary. Nothing more or less.

    ” Today’s business practice are rife with examples of individuals serving their own interests at the expense of thousands of others. ”

    When they do so by force (i.e. by relying on government subsidies, prohibitive regulations that destroy competition, tariffs and quotas, and things of that nature) or by fraud (as in the case of some of these big banks and other corporations that are always tied up with the state and its interests), then yes. But on a free market, it is almost impossible to serve your own interests at the expense of others. As soon as “others” see that you’re bilking them, they take their business elsewhere, and if you bilk them badly enough, they will sue you into oblivion. In a free system it is in your interests to make other people happy or at least satisfied. That’s what leftists, socialists, and Distributists simply cannot conceptualize, and its a damned shame.

    “Such thinking would explain the appallingly high divorce rates in America.”

    No, what explains high divorce rates in America is quite simply a radical restructuring of the meaning of marriage in an industrial and now post-industrial information age. It would be foolish to deny the purely secular, social and historical components of marriage, especially in a country that was never a part of Medieval Christendom or an Islamic caliphate. Marriage has been mostly about the convenience of multiple parties, sometimes not even the people getting married. It has been for the parents, for the larger families to be joined, for the communities they lived in, and often economic and political motives have underlined them throughout history. Marriage was almost NOT voluntary in those times, either because people were forced into marriage by their parents or pure economic necessity made it completely irrational and foolish to go at life alone.

    Things are different now. The immaterial and spiritual benefits of marriage less obvious to the masses of materialistic and secular people. That’s the truth of it, and I have no idea what to do about it. I certainly don’t think it is “good” that the family is in such disrepair because we see what devastation that wreaks as well. But understanding why things happen is separate from endorsing them, and they will never be changed unless we can make that distinction.

  • And I realize, by the way, that my view of freedom and obligation takes me out of the traditional natural law camp. But I identify with it because I believe that the negative consequences of disregarding nature’s clear order are almost conceptually the same as the existence of these things called “obligations” that just “exist” independently of our wills. I think “law” can describe both things. We can dispute that in more detail if you like.

  • “How we do things matters”

    Yes, the Church teaches the three componenets of an act are its object, circumstances and intention. If any are evil then the whole act is evil.

    Of course the motivator for all these acts is Love. Capitalized deliberately in that it is those acts motivated the the Theological Virtue of Love that are truly good. This Love in turn presupposes the Truth. For without Truth, there can be no Love. That may even require us to change our positions where faced with the truth.

    Now, few acts, by businessmen, economists or other proponents of their varied positions are so purely motivated. Thus the role of govt. to set limits where appropriate.

  • No one was more insistent on the distinction between the state and civil society than Hegel, a proponent of the organic notion of the state, ““If the state is confused with civil society, and if its specific end is laid down as the security and protection of property and personal freedom, then the interest of the individuals as such becomes the ultimate end of their association, and it follows that membership of the state is something optional. But the state’s relation to the individual is quite different from this. Since the state is mind objectified, it is only as one of its members that the individual himself has objectivity, genuine individuality, and an ethical life. Unification pure and simple is the true content and aim of the individual, and the individual’s destiny is the living of a universal life. His further particular satisfaction, activity and mode of conduct have this substantive and universally valid life as their starting point and their result.” G W Hegel, “Philosophy of Right” 258

    The notion of “mind objectified” is also found in Yves Simon, when he says “The highest activity/being in the natural order is free arrangement of men about what is good brought together in an actual polity where it is no longer a mere abstraction.” It is in the polity that the abstract or notional good is made concrete.

  • Phillip,

    “Now, few acts, by businessmen, economists or other proponents of their varied positions are so purely motivated. Thus the role of govt. to set limits where appropriate.”

    I reject your “thus.” Motivations behind activities that do not violate anyone’s rights are completely irrelevant to the legitimate duties of the state. If someone uses force or fraud in the marketplace, then yes, this should be punished. If someone simply makes a profit because they want a new boat as opposed to really wanting to meet the needs of customers, this is not something for the law to be concerned with.

    Also, who is going to restrain and set limits on the government? Whenever you create a group of “regulators”, you create an agency with coercive authority that can be and almost always is staffed and purchased by the very people supposedly being “regulated.” It is the small business and the fresh entrepreneur who is “regulated” out of the competition, faced with completely prohibitive and unnecessary burdens usually concocted by the already-established players in the market.

    The best limits on the businessman are those set by the wrath of the consumer, who can and will solicit his competitors or take him before a judge the moment he violates their trust or their rights, respectively.

  • MPS,

    Hegel’s political philosophy is totalitarian gibberish, as far as I am concerned. First of all, it is a matter of fact – scientific, philosophic, theological – that we are free to choose. Because we are free to choose, all associations are voluntary. That being said, there are serious consequences that would follow from any individual’s choice to remain apart from society. Thus it is hardly “optional” for most people.

    Moreover, both as a matter of historical fact and morality, man precedes the state. Leo XIII affirms this in Rerum Novarum. Individual men, spouses, families, communities – all of these things exist before there is this coercive authority we call “the state” or “the government”, and that is why it can be said to be a rational creation of man. It exists because, and only because, without it that which men require for their life, liberty and happiness would be insecure. It does not exist to bring us into some totalitarian nightmare of collectivist “unification.” We have seen the Hegelian monster. We saw it under the name of Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, Stalinism in the Soviet Union, Maoism in China. We saw it in the mountains of skulls lining the killing fields in Cambodia, and we see it here with the worship of Barack Obama by sections of the American left.

    Against this horror I will stand with Locke and Jefferson, or Hayek and Rothbard any day of the week.

  • I would suggest that membership of the nation cannot reasonably be described as voluntary, inasmuch as nationality is defined by descent and birth, and it is neither revocable nor is it attainable at will.

    A man may lose his citizenship but not his nationality. This follows from the fact that the nation is a unit of common descent and blood and not of voluntary adherence and association – “They speak the same language, they bear about them the impress of consanguinity, they kneel beside the same tombs, they glory in the same tradition.”

  • “Motivations behind activities that do not violate anyone’s rights are completely irrelevant to the legitimate duties of the state. If someone uses force or fraud in the marketplace, then yes, this should be punished. If someone simply makes a profit because they want a new boat as opposed to really wanting to meet the needs of customers, this is not something for the law to be concerned with.”

    Thus, the reason I said “where appropriate.” Not all motivations are to be regulated. The ultimate point is that few act with a pure love of God.

    “Also, who is going to restrain and set limits on the government? ”

    I agree here also, thus my point of noting “proponents of their varied positions.” Govt. is frequently acting without proper motivations.

  • MPS,

    “I would suggest that membership of the nation cannot reasonably be described as voluntary”

    Sure, if you live in North Korea.

    ” This follows from the fact that the nation is a unit of common descent and blood and not of voluntary adherence and association ”

    If it makes you feel better to believe that, ok. It has no bearing on anything I would ever do with my life, though, unless you propose to use force to keep me within the physical parameters of this “nation” of yours. Whether or not an association is voluntary is simply a matter of whether or not you propose to use violence to keep me in it. If you do, you’re a tyrant and a slavemaster and you’ll be treated as such. If you don’t, then you’re holding on to a quaint mythology that does me no real harm and will be happy to leave to you.

    Of course you are well aware that this is not some European “nation” founded by the strongest tribe of roving savages thousands of years ago. This is a nation formed by already-existing polities which were in turn formed by people who fled the very blood bondage you speak of out of their own volition and through their own values.

    Phillip,

    No, the ultimate point is that you aren’t being clear on what you want to regulate and who you want to punish. Elaborate if you like, or don’t. Ambiguity on these topics is what I expect.

  • But that would require the specifics of each case. Regulation itself is a blunt instrument. But even the blunt instrument requires knowledge of the specifics of cases to form a proper choice.

    That is as exact as I can prudently get.

  • So there are no principles or general aims behind your regulatory proposals? The arbitrary wills and values of the individual regulators dictate all?

    And I’m supposed to think this is a fabulous idea why, exactly?

  • No. Most principles are those of Catholic Social Teaching, Though those don[‘t exhaust all political thought. Thus to learn from those and see where there is value.

    Locke has a measure of value. Maritain and Strauss. None exhaust God.

    Like Socrates though, my first claim is that I don’t know the answer to all, but that prudence will demand specifics be known. So perhaps ultimately, I am Socratic. And Aristotelian. And Thomistic.

  • “It has no bearing on anything I would ever do with my life…”

    But the individual’s nationality is what constitutes him; it pervades his nature and expresses itself in his actions

  • A man may lose his citizenship but not his nationality. This follows from the fact that the nation is a unit of common descent and blood and not of voluntary adherence and association – “They speak the same language, they bear about them the impress of consanguinity, they kneel beside the same tombs, they glory in the same tradition.”

    That is characteristic of Europe, but not of societies of migrants (the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina, &c).

  • Nationality was and is an essence of experience as a U.S. resident in this city where I’ve lived my life.

    The post is debating force and consent, which is over my head, but the nationality part …
    The city had Catholic and Protestant churches, Catholic and public high schools, Synagogues, bakeries, markets, church dinners, ethnic celebrations, cemeteries and even neighborhoods where people held to their nationality and customs, and welcomed others to events. We were able to learn one another’s customs, and parts of languages or menues. Life and politics weren’t always peaches and cream due to nationality and ethnic things to do with history and religion. My city was dominantly Irish, French, Polish, and some German and English. Next city over was dominantly Irish and Italian and so on. Catholics, Protestants, and Hebrews. Being a child of two different nationalities from neighboring towns was at first (in the 50’s) a novelty to teachers and those at church. The strongest ethnic, nationalistic group I’ve seen is the Puerto Rican migrant community, which began to grow in the 1980’s.

    Anyway, I think nationality is a rich characteristic that makes society interesting.

  • Pingback: Food for Christmas Thought « The Longwood Institute

Ferengi-nomics

Thursday, September 9, AD 2010

(Content advisory to the above video.  A few of the Rules of Acquisition are off-color.  You know what the Ferengi are like.)

We have been having a debate recently on The American Catholic between Austrians and Distributists.  As a devotee of free enterprise with as little government intervention as possible, I have found some wisdom in the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition as set forth in one of my favorite fictional realms:  Star Trek.  Many of the Rules of Acquisition of course are merely for entertainment purposes and would lead to immoral results, if not bankruptcy or prison, if attempted in reality.  However,  after a quarter century of running my own business, I believe these rules are insightful:

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2 Responses to Ferengi-nomics

  • Wow! They managed to get all 285 in during that video. Someone must have the book, as they never referenced all 285 on DS9. Setting them to Pachelbel’s Canon in D is a nice touch.

  • I didn’t watch the whole first video, but it skipped 5, 14, and 15, at least. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a complete canonical list.

    That second video is a classic bit. One of the great things about DS9 was its willingness to show the cloying, soft-tyranny side of the Federation.

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

  • Good post, David. Off-topic, but are you in CL?

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • Chris,

    Absolutely.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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/

  • Blackadder,

    Yes I am in CL. Drop me an email if you desire.

  • 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.

  • (and *affirm* the concomitant claim that economics is completely separate from ethics).

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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).”

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • “We cannot have Locke without Burke.”

    That’s a good argument for getting rid of Burke.

  • Joe H. Says, “We cannot have Locke without Burke.”

    Why would we want Locke at all?

  • In America, we’re stuck with Locke, and I don’t think he was all bad.

  • @ John C.M.

    LOL

    …Locke, Stocke, and Two Smoking Barrels!

    (Couldn’t resist)

  • It’s not longer a matter of will, intention, rationality, etc.? We’re just stuck with him?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • And how did we even get onto this discussion in the first place? We make some funny detours around here.

  • David & BA,

    CL as in Communion and Liberation?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 – I am curious to get your judgment of Carlson’s article on Karl Polanyi when you get a free moment.

  • David,

    I have the tab open. That means it will be read today 🙂

    It looks fascinating, and so yes I will comment!

  • 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.

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  • 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

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  • “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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0 Responses to Why Aren't There More Worker Co-Ops?

  • The principles of neoclassical economics are a flashpoint in some Catholic circles, where the mainstream economist is derided for his “science” and unwavering belief that economic phenomena are defined by something akin to scientific laws. But what are we to make of this:

    An increasing percentage of Mondragon employees, for example, do not have an ownership stake in the company, but work for it much as they would for an ordinary business. But while this may be a solution for a particular co-operative business, it is not really a solution for the co-operative business model so much as a gradual abandonment of it.

    The Catholic criticism of mainstream economics is fair enough — get the anthropology in the correct order before positing homo economicus, we’re told. I sympathize, but if there’s an incentive against expansion because of share dilution even at Mondragon, how do we square this apparent inevitability with the insistence that politcal economy and economic institutions are not deterministic?

    (This is a bit off topic and might make a good topic for a separate post.)

  • I don’t know that it’s necessarily that far off-topic. My issue with most discussions of economic “justice” is that they inevitably drift over toward equality of outcome at the expense of equality of opportunity. That is precisely the issue, it seems to me, with Mondragon and other worker co-ops.

    SOmeone has to set a relative value for the stuff being co-op’d. Whoever does that will be required to make value judgments as to the relative worth if various inputs to the system, and then to relate those values to outcomes. If we’re all OK with me being paid less than Blackadder because I only input potatoes while he inputs truffles (does anyone not-French really eat those things?), then we’re good. But when Blackadder becomes richer than me because his inputs are more valuable than mine, many Catholic sociologists will cry foul and seek to level the playing field. THAT’S when we get into trouble.

    Concentration of wealth, or resources, or whatever, into the hands of less than the entire society is inevitable, unless we desire to take everyone to the lowest comoon denominator. And remember: when everyone is at a subsistence level…the poor will STILL be with us, except that none of us will be able to afford largesse to aid them!

  • “If employers and employees find, for the reasons given above, that worker co-ops are less preferable than other forms in many circumstances, there is nothing wrong with that.”

    I really hope the assumption here isn’t that anyone ever said there WAS something wrong with it.

  • Deacon Chip,

    ” But when Blackadder becomes richer than me because his inputs are more valuable than mine, many Catholic sociologists will cry foul and seek to level the playing field. THAT’S when we get into trouble.”

    I agree. And Catholic social teaching is clear – men have a right to make a profit from their labor, to enrich themselves. They also have a MORAL obligation to use their wealth charitably (which is NOT the same as saying that the state should force them to; unfortunately we live in a world in which people can ONLY imagine obligations coming from the state, since they no longer believe in God).

    “Concentration of wealth, or resources, or whatever, into the hands of less than the entire society is inevitable, unless we desire to take everyone to the lowest comoon denominator.”

    I completely agree. But “less than the entire society” is very broad. It could mean almost everyone, or it could mean almost no one. What Catholic social teaching makes clear is this: in so far as POSSIBLE (the exact words of Pius XI and a paraphrase of JP II), we should look for ways to make more people full participants in the economic process – through degrees of ownership and control of the means of production.

    This doesn’t mean “do it, even if it will ruin the company or the economy.” It means, “examine each situation to discover how far this general principle can be applied, if it all.” And even BA is forced to admit that in some sectors of the economy it DOES work.

    In any case, we also have to remember that the aim of CST is to prevent or mitigate class warfare. The Church has always recognized a polarizing tendency in what we call “capitalism” and has suggested Distributism as ONE way of addressing it.

    The other ways – labor unions, and state assistance, have mutated into corrupt bureaucratic enterprises. In fact I would argue that it is because of a false hope that men in all classes put in these institutions that the real solution, Distributism, was never really tried on a mass scale.

    Now that the bankruptcy of organized labor and welfare-statism is evident, I believe the already empirically demonstrated upward trend in employee ownership (which I pointed out in this post:

    http://the-american-catholic.com/2009/06/25/worker-ownership-%E2%80%93-the-untold-stories/)

    will continue. Though some people make a career out of denying it, the dog-eat-dog individualism of the unfettered market does not and will not serve as the foundation of a stable or a just or a moral society. We are social beings, we are meant to live, to work, and to worship as a community (without negating our individual dignity or rights, of course).

    As a final thought, even Ronald Reagan supported employee ownership.

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  • Though some people make a career out of denying it, the dog-eat-dog individualism of the unfettered market does not and will not serve as the foundation of a stable or a just or a moral society.,-Joe Hargrave

    Dogs don’t eat dogs – despite the claims of those who make a career asserting it. However the 20th century experience with unfettered collectivism demonstrates that socialists do eat other socialists.

    I am pleased to see Blackadder’s article explaining that worker co-ops are rare not because they are wilfully suppressed by Secret Masters of Political Economy (SMOPEs) but because they are naturally selected against by people’s own individual choices. I am amused by advocates of distributism who use mass-produced computers and a ubiquitous Internet to stump for distributism without regard to the fact that such tools subsist in an economy where large capital formations are commonplace. As Blackadder put it, “worker co-ops tend to be disproportionately concentrated in labor intensive, capital light industries.” These haven’t been the commanding heights of a Western economy since the Industrial Revolution, maybe not even since the days medieval Benedictine monks built water wheels, windmills, and forges adjacent to their monasteries.

  • Micha,

    The extent to which you go to misrepresent arguments is well known, and unworthy of a response. I’ll pray for you.

Is the Means of Production an Obsolete Idea?

Sunday, May 9, AD 2010

The “means of production” (which may be defined, roughly, as consisting of capital goods minus human and financial capital), is a central concept in Marxism, as well as in other ideologies such as Distributism. The problems of capitalism, according to both Marxists and Distributists, arise from the fact that ownership of the means of production is concentrated in the hands of the few. Marxists propose to remedy these problems by having the means of production be collectively owned. Distributists want to retain private ownership, but to break the means of production up (where practicable) into smaller parts so that everyone will have a piece (if you wanted to describe the difference between the Marxist and Distributist solutions here, it would be that Distributists want everyone to own part of the means of production, whereas Marxists want everyone to be part owner of all of it).

Where a society’s economy is based primarily on agriculture or manufacture, thinking in terms of the means of production makes some sense. In an agricultural economy wealth is based primarily on ownership of land, and in a manufacturing economy ownership of things like factories and machinery plays an analogous role. In a modern service-based economy, by contrast, wealth is based largely on human capital (the possession of knowledge and skills). As Pope John Paul II notes in Centesimus Annus, “[i]n our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources.”

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0 Responses to Is the Means of Production an Obsolete Idea?

  • As long as people combine to form economic enterprises that can be quantified in terms of share ownership, discussions of the “means of production” will continue to have relevance.

    I’ll also add that Distributism, and Catholic social teaching in general, does not merely apply to America or other developed economies – though both still engage in agriculture and industry.

    “if you wanted to describe the difference between the Marxist and Distributist solutions here, it would be that Distributists want everyone to own part of the means of production, whereas Marxists want everyone to be part owner of all of it”

    Some Marxists. Others advocate total nationalization of the means of production, in which the state owns all of it. Though technically, I suppose, the theory is that a “workers state”, by representing the working class, owns and distributes revenues on behalf of the working class, and by that logic they may say that “the workers own the means of production.”

    In reality, the people who argued for actual, direct worker ownership of the means of production in Russia, the “Workers Opposition”, were suppressed by the Bolsheviks.

  • As long as people combine to form economic enterprises that can be quantified in terms of share ownership, discussions of the “means of production” will continue to have relevance.

    A law firm might have share ownership, but I’m not sure how useful the means of production would be in analyzing it.

  • Btw, you make a good point that much of the world hasn’t yet moved to a service based economy.

  • I’m not so sure it is an obsolete idea, although I am neither a Marxist nor a Distributist. I have a particular set of skills and knowledge that makes me useful to an insurance company. That knowledge and skill cannot be put to use except within a corporate environment. I could potentially quit and hang out a shingle and try to obtain consulting work, but there is no market for it. It is impossible for most individuals to be able to capitalize an insurance company, and it is also not desireable that this be done due to the risk of policyholders would face that the company would collapse and their claims go unpaid.

    In a certain sense, the modern corporation is in itself the means of production in a modern service economy. It brings efficiencies through organization, time management, concentration of money, and market share that cannot be matched on an individual or small business level. Small businesses have to find small niches in which to compete. In effect, we have migrated from “things” to organizations in a service economy. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s just the way things are.

    Now, there are niches in which small businesses can thrive, which larger organizations will fail in. It is crucial that individuals be allowed the freedom to pursue happiness and livelihoods in the manner of their choice, whether in a modern corporation or in a self-owned business. This is why I’m neither a Marxist nor a Distributist. I don’t want the government to try to force a particular “ideal” on everyone, as this is not conducive to human happiness. Government should simply step in when people’s liberty is being infringed upon.

  • “This is why I’m neither a Marxist nor a Distributist. I don’t want the government to try to force a particular “ideal” on everyone, as this is not conducive to human happiness.”

    Doug,

    Distributism is not about the government “forc[ing] a particular “ideal” on everyone.”

    Anyone can argue that any idea ought to be forced upon everyone. This isn’t exclusive to Distributism or Marxism.

    On the other hand, anyone can argue that individuals ought to embrace an idea freely because it is good. And this is one way to approach Distributism, and it is how I approach it.

    The role the government plays is a variable, not a fixed measure. It can be a little or a lot. It could even be none at all.

    If you want to learn more about Distributism from my point of view, I invite you to read this:

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

  • Doug,

    I think your example of the insurance company is more an issue of financial capital than of the means of production as such.

  • Yes! I think this is certainly true of intellectual workers, who are persons who are not interchangable and are themselves assets to the company.

    As you suggest, the idea of “the means of production” is not totally obsolete but is of less analytical value in modern industrial economies.

  • Even though I work for a company which is, in a sense, a manufacturer (of consumer electronics and IT infrastructure) it strikes me that in many ways most large modern corporations run more on organizational capital, information, financial and brand equity than on actually owning “means of production”.

    Thus, while many of us who work there would have a hard time making as much without working for some sort of large company, it’s also the case that employees are not interchangeable for the employer. With fairly specialized human capital, the employer doesn’t exercise nearly as much power as an 1880s era landholder or a turn of the century factory owner. (As demonstrated by the dramatic increase in wages.)

    I certainly think there’s been some sort of major shift in what the “means of production” are, and that this shift has implications for the economy and society, but I’ve got the feeling it’s a bit more complicated than simply “now human capital is the means of production.”

    Interesting train of thought…

  • The distributists never thought highly of intellectual property rights. Much of the modern economy is a discussion of IP rents. A cursory search on my part suggests Marx wasn’t all that cool with IP rights. While human capital could merely mean the training of works, it has tended to be code for IP.

    human capital cannot be easily alienated from the individual, either to another individual or to the collective as a whole.

    The movie and music industries would be counterexamples.

  • The movie and music industries would be counterexamples.

    I’m not sure I’m following your point — could you expand?

  • It is not unusual for a band that has gone on tour to owe the recording company money for doing the tour, leaving them no net. In the odd universe of music, performers sign away all their rights and the music companies give them permission to perform their works. This is most apparent if you read the complaint lists of American Idol winners. Likewise in the movie industry, a large portion of the gross does not go towards the actors. The amount that goes to the actors is actually quite insignificant once the headliners’s earnings are taken out of consideration.

    Of course this is in the end an argument of what is actually property. And despite BA’s protestations, worker ability and knowledge has been folded into working capital and been considered a part of it for a long time.

  • In the odd universe of music, performers sign away all their rights and the music companies give them permission to perform their works. This is most apparent if you read the complaint lists of American Idol winners.

    That does certainly suggest an odd state of affairs, though it sounds to me more like a case of people signing a contract based on an expectation of larger ticket sales than actually materialized. Or at least, it’s hard to imagine why it would be a standard business practice that people sign up to work for free.

    Though with American Idol winners, perhaps the key is that most of the skill leading to revenues is actually on the part of the marketers, producers, promoters, etc., while the “talent” is interchangeable.

    Likewise in the movie industry, a large portion of the gross does not go towards the actors. The amount that goes to the actors is actually quite insignificant once the headliners’s earnings are taken out of consideration.

    Isn’t that assuming that the only skilled “workers” involved in producing a movie are the actors? They are in fact a minority of those who work in a movie crew, and at a supply and demand level there are an incredible number of people eager to take minor film roles in hope of being “discovered”, or just for the fun of it.

    If anything, I would imagine that movies and music would be a good example of how technology has leveled things in the last 10-20 years, as independent musicians and independent film makers have become increasingly successful at working outside the studio system.

  • Joe, thanks for the link. It was informative.

  • An interesting article. Have you considered the possibility that the important thing now is that the government is trying to control the means of *re*production?

8 Responses to Best Candidates for Employee Owned Companies

  • Fun stuff, fun stuff.

    Ok, here are my comments.

    1) As you say, the first points against EOCCs are uncontroversial. Again, following J.S. Mill, or more recently, Robert Dahl and other advocates of economic democracy, it is widely acknowledged that there must be a period of worker-investor partnership. The shares alloted to workers are necessarily smaller, so that investors can profit. The idea is that a successful business will be able to gradually change the ratio of worker to investor ownership in favor of the workers.

    As Mill wrote, “it is even likely that when such arrangements become common, many of these concerns would at some period or another, on the death or retirement of the chiefs, pass, by arrangement, into the state of purely co-operative associations.” Others have suggested other means the same ends might be achieved.

    2) Regarding democracy, you write,

    “The success of such companies rely heavily on the creativity of the management team, and so they’re naturally going to be strongly top-down organizations. Democracy is much better at inertia than creativity, and thus the top down structure.”

    I think perhaps the fallacy here is the assumption that all decisions must be subject to a democratic vote. I would not propose that rank-and-file workers be granted creative control over new projects, or even a democratic veto. Of course the management team, if it so desires, can seek such input.

    But there are many, many operations besides the development of creative ideas that must take place in a company, no matter what they do. Administration, distribution, accounting, etc. There are day to day operations which have nothing to do at all with the creative process – there is no reason why the by-laws governing these non-creative processes cannot be democratically decided or influenced by those who must carry them out.

    The rank-and-file worker does not necessarily need a direct say in every decision made, in other words, in order for there to be democracy. The idea is to extend as much control and provide as much accountability possible within those areas that most directly affect the workers.

    3) Further on the topic of democracy, you write of large firms that

    “an individual worker’s vote is not going to count for much with so many employees.”

    I must object once again. I’ll leave aside whatever parallels might be drawn with political democracy and the implications that might have.

    Rather, I would suggest that, again, the concept of democracy need not be so narrowly applied. It need not be limited to a guaranteed vote on every matter. It may be as simple as having a say in the by-laws that govern a particular worker’s area of a particular firm, and a mechanism by which management can be held accountable. Or it could be more expansive. It depends upon what workers, managers, and investors are willing to agree upon.

    4)Here are what I think are serious problems: Ultimately a degree of good will must play a role, since I imagine that to many investors, it appears that a firm that keeps its workers in line autocratically or oligarchically will be more focused on the bottom line than one in which, yes, operations might be potentially held up by deliberations. This is one area where arguments against unions and arguments against economic democracy overlap; rising and falling stock values sometimes follow the victories and defeats of management versus labor.

    Superficial calculus might declare that more shares for the workers means less shares for the investor, but if worker ownership and democracy lead to greater productivity – and I think they can, do, and will continue to – then everyone wins.

    What we need are socially conscious investors who strive to do with their money what Christian morality demands of them, or their secular social conscience, or call it what you will. This is not to say that people should make BAD investments as an act of charity, but perhaps that they should forgo super-profits overnight for more modest returns over a period of time.

    For, in the end, if the model works, it works. There may be situations where slavery or some other hideous form of exploitation would yield even greater profits than the typical capitalist firm, but we avoid those and outlaw those because they are morally reprehensible. We let, in other words, a moral consideration, a view of the human person, draw a limit for our economic behavior.

    There is no reason this cannot also be a positive sentiment – instead of abstaining from a bad form of investment for moral reasons, engaging in a good form of investment for other moral reasons.

  • I would not propose that rank-and-file workers be granted creative control over new projects, or even a democratic veto.

    In what sense, then, would the company be “employee owned”?

  • In the sense that workers own shares and earn dividends from them…?

    I suppose I should say, it isn’t necessary that every worker have control over every process in EOCC. It is sufficient that they have control over their immediate area of work, have the ability to hold all management accountable for their leadership and performance, and own shares in the company.

    I mean, do investors typically insist on control over the creative work of the management team? No. They own the company but, to use an example Darwin might be thinking of, they don’t sit in at every meeting to design the next video game, they don’t hover over the shoulder of the screen writer or the producer of the next movie.

  • Here is the guy who blazed the train here in the US

    Learn how Jack Stack and his fellow employees transformed a failing division of International Harvester into one of the most successful and competitive companies in America using the principles of Open-Book Management.

  • Your typical investor isn’t going to be sitting in on board meetings, at least not at a large company. But if they don’t like the way the company is being run they can sell their shares, or vote against management at the next election. Because of this management is going to be very concerned about keeping shareholders happy, and would be unlikely to do anything that would upset the shareholders.

    In the case of a typical public company, keeping the shareholders happy isn’t inconsistent with a great deal of creativity and growth within a company. Where the shareholders are employees, however, the situation is somewhat different. Unlike a typical shareholder, who has invested only a small portion of this income in a given company, an employee shareholder will have almost his entire livelihood dependent on how the one company does, which is going to make him less willing to abide high risk/high return strategies. In addition, if an employee’s shares are going to be diluted whenever a new employee is hired, that is going to make employee shareholders less willing to expand, as doing so could lessen the value of their own shares even if it makes the company as a whole more successful.

    Mind you, all of that is premised on the idea that shareholders have some indirect control over management stemming from their ability to sell their shares freely and/or exercise voting rights. Presumably, though, you don’t think that employees should be able to sell their shares freely, as if they could the “employee owned” company would quickly become a regular investor-owned company. And based on your recent comments, it doesn’t seem like you think employee shareholders should have voting rights either (I kind of doubt that this is your view, but that’s what it sounds like from your recent statements). In that case I’m not clear on how you think employees are supposed to “hold all management accountable.”

  • “Your typical investor isn’t going to be sitting in on board meetings, at least not at a large company.”

    No kidding. And they aren’t going to sit in on “should Gandolf’s robe be dark grey or light grey in the Lord of the Rings video game” session either. The point here was simply that creative decisions are not going to be subject to democratic vote – but those coming up with the ideas will be held accountable for their performance.

    “Unlike a typical shareholder, who has invested only a small portion of this income in a given company, an employee shareholder will have almost his entire livelihood dependent on how the one company does”

    Understood. That still doesn’t mean that everyone has to have a vote on everything. This is a very simple point I am responding to. It isn’t an absolute requirement for economic democracy or worker ownership. It’s simple. There’s no need to nitpick the point. Either you agree or don’t. Either people have to be able to vote on everything for there to be democracy, or they don’t.

    Now, onto the other points…

    “which is going to make him less willing to abide high risk/high return strategies”

    Isn’t this assuming that the employee isn’t also earning a salary – like every executive is today? What is the difference between the executive with extensive stock options, whose “entire livelihood” is tied up with the company he works for, and the worker’s who stake is probably smaller? Wouldn’t it be less of a dependency on share value and more of a willingness to risk?

    On the other hand what makes a CEO and a well invested board of directors want to take major gambles with everything they have? Why is there a difference?

    “In addition, if an employee’s shares are going to be diluted whenever a new employee is hired, that is going to make employee shareholders less willing to expand, as doing so could lessen the value of their own shares even if it makes the company as a whole more successful.”

    It could do that, yes. Presumably, everyone will understand that possibility when they sign up. But even if the value of their shares decline, they would still be earning more than their counterparts in the industry who don’t own anything. Moreover, I see no reason to assume that this is a likely thing to happen. As the National Center for Employee Ownership reports,

    “Just as important, however, are potential productivity gains. Studies consistently show that when broad employee ownership is combined with a highly participative management style, companies perform much better than they otherwise would be expected to do. Neither ownership nor participation accomplishes these significant gains on its own. Companies want employees to “think and act like owners.” What better way to do that than to make them owners?”

    They do much better – meaning, as they company performs better, bringing on new workers will only make it better, and not necessarily cause a dividing up of the shares to result in a loss of income to the shareholders.

    As for the final paragraph….

    While I don’t think it needs to be a contract for life, I do think there has to be a contract of some kind, yes – for the reason you state.

    But the contract also includes voting rights, and I have absolutely no idea what “statements” you are talking about that suggest I don’t think employee shareholders should have voting rights. I do think they should have voting rights, I just don’t think they need to have a vote over everything.

    Let me try, try, to put it more clearly: some decisions depend upon objective knowledge, experience, skill, things that cannot be decided democratically. Those are the sort of things Darwin was referring to, companies that rely on the creativity of a small team to make big profits. I don’t think that creative process itself requires democratic oversight. But I do think that if it is manifest that the ideas aren’t selling, the workers can vote them out, like investors do with any poorly-performing executive officer.

  • Joe,
    CEOs, entrepeneurs, and creative talent gamble on risky, potentially high reward strategies because the payoff for success is so much bigger, and because they don’t usually risk everything – their chances of rebounding from a loss are higher. Investors who choose such companies also have a higher appetite for risk than your average company man.

    And Blackadder’s point about workers being hesitent to dilute their share of the profits by allowing more employees rings true to me – look at how unionized industries (services in Italy, for example) and professional occupations (doctors, teachers) both tend to resist allowing more workers (through deregulation and licensing reform).

    That said, I find your idea for transitioning from venture capital to employee ownership as an industry matures an interesting one – perhaps through a pre-established dividend amount/share buyback (e.g. 3 times the investment, adjusted for inflation?).

  • Sometimes its true about the unwillingness to dilute shares, but the situations you’re talking about aren’t the same ones I’m talking about. I think that if it is clear that adding more workers is going to make the company more successful, worker-owners are going to have better reasons to bring on more worker-owners than union workers or professional associations are.

    A wage worker’s wages, even in a union, are determined more by supply and demand on the labor market than the profitability of the firm they work for. With worker-owners it is the other way around.

    As for the transition, yes, something along those lines.

Pope John Paul II Comments on Rerum Novarum

Monday, June 29, AD 2009

I am going to provide everyone with a nice blast from the past- everyone I know respects Pope John Paul II- most orthodox Catholics refer to him as John Paul the Great. So I think what he thought officially as Pope on the question of Capital/Labor/State as part of the tradition deriving from Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum- is incredibly interesting and relevant. Here is Chapter One of Centesimus Annus with no personal commentary- let the “man” speak without any interference from me:

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7 Responses to Pope John Paul II Comments on Rerum Novarum

  • The very existence of Rerum Novarum puts to shame the thesis that industrial capitalism, all on its own, either did or would have addressed the problem of poverty.

    I have seen this argument, from Tom Woods Jr., Robert Novak, especially when they critique Distributism, that critiques of capitalism are entirely baseless. They take it as an unquestioned article of faith that any life under industrial capitalism is better than any life in a non industrial capitalist society, that prior to capitalism only one word could sum up the human condition: poverty, and perhaps another: oppression.

    In this particular case criticisms of modern conservatism as nothing but the guardian of Enlightenment liberalism ring true. To make this argument, one has to essentially say at the same time that Rerum Novarum was unnecessary, that workers movements in general were unnecessary. It is the same logic that the neo-Confederates make: slavery would have been abolished on its own, so there was no need for a civil war. Capitalism would have cleaned up its act, so there was no need for a labor movement, government intervention, or the moral condemnation of the excesses of the system by the Popes.

    The problem is that neither of these claims is substantiated by the historical record. They are made with a sort of “faith” in what could have been. Here and there you have a General Lee or a Teddy Roosevelt who argue against the worst aspects of the system, and this is dubiously stretched out as an argument that the system would have reformed itself without any outside interventions.

    Counter-factuals aside, the reality is that the Papacy believed that the problems of industrial capitalism were not “self corrective”, that the workers had every right to organize and make economic and political demands, and that the duties of businessmen were not just to meet the economic demands made by consumers but the moral demands made by society and those who worked for them. Time and time again the Popes implored Catholics and society at large to find ways to increase the share of ownership of the workers in businesses.

    So, we can all thank capitalism for technical progress. Even Marxists do that. But moral progress was the domain of thinkers and activists well outside the capitalist class, people who did not share its goals, and often opposed them in certain respects. It is easy to take for granted the rights of workers today but a read through of Rerum Novarum shows us that they were in some question 120 years ago. In many places, they are in question even today.

    In the 21st century I hope we can move beyond the words “capitalism” and “socialism”. They are outdated and useless. The kind of economy I want to see is one in which there are still markets, but in which wealth and decision making power are not excessively concentrated, which is unambiguously subordinated to a moral hierarchy of values oriented towards the common good, and generally accountable to the direct will of the people (the eventual pressure of market forces is not and never will be enough).

  • Does Modern Conservatism actually make all those arguments.

    I mean Does modern Conservatism and I am talking the mainstream actually want to abolish Unions? I mean they talk about the problems with Unions and their excesses and are against things like Card Check but I rarely here modern Conservatism wishing to abolish Unions.

    GOvernemnt Intervention? I don’t here modern Conservatism want to abolish in the Food and Drug administration and the testing of meat? Besides for some tweeking I don’t here many modern conservatives want to abolish all child labor laws. Most Conservatives think having common sense Govt regualtion is a good thing.

    I often think that Modern Conservatism or Movement Conservatism is being confused with some Libertarian economic viewpoint.

    It is true that the modern conservatives think Govt is better if its lesser but I would contend that those conservatives that want no Govt intervention is very very small

  • JH,

    The problem is that both sides are reactionary. Conservatives may be fine with some government intervention but set against liberals who want more, they end up sounding as if they want none.

    It is hard to avoid this. I can’t always avoid it myself on issues important to me. But we must always try.

  • Joe I think you have a point. I think the problem is the internet draws lets say the extremes. I am on several boards I meet people that call themselves Conservatives and ranting about how the GOP is not really conservative. Of course when you examine their post they are far beyond conservative and rant about getting the Govt out of public education and almost toeing the Club for Growth line

    They are are same folks that call McCain a “liberal”. Or as we saw incrdibily go on a huge campaign against Huckabee and call him a Christian Socialist. Yet despite the internet astroturfing, the massive emails sent to everyone it turns out the average GOP and conservative voter liked Huckabee and McCain despite the gnashing of teeth from groups that have their monetary self interest in organziations direct mail and caging companies

  • I read the excerpt from RN almost with dread; I feared perhaps I would be reading something which, startlingly, would shake my confidence in my conservative outlook on the role of government. Much to my surprise, that didn’t happen!

    I think you absolutely *destroyed* the straw man set up in the firat comment: those rascally Conservatives would have to Repudiate The Pope Himself in order to deny the obvious truths set forth in RN! And JPG only echoed and reinforced RN, spo there!

    The problem I see with that statement is this: there are few, if any, conservatives who advocate totally unregulated economic activity. You see…being *against* the federal government taking a controlling interest in GM, for example, does NOT equal being *in favor* of eliminating unions, child labor laws, and OSHA.

    There is a proper role of government (which, in my view, involves the use of force against malefactors inside and outside of the country, and facilitating commerce among its people, to include appropriate regulation of said commerce). The problem many conservatives have with Governmentalists (to coin a phrase) is that the Governmentalist looks to Government and the solution to ALL ills. And it just doesn’t work!

    JPG’s and Pius XI’s calls in their writings are for *appropriate* government intervention, in those areas suited to government intervention.this paragraph grabbed me in particular:

    “This should not however lead us to think that Pope Leo expected the State to solve every social problem. On the contrary, he frequently insists on necessary limits to the State’s intervention and on its instrumental character, inasmuch as the individual, the family and society are prior to the State, and inasmuch as the State exists in order to protect their rights and not stifle them.37”

    This is ther precise concern of the conservative: thatGovernment *never seems to know its legitimate limits*. Consequently, the potential *harm* from *too much* government intervention (all together now: “stimulus bill, GM takeover, Cap-and-Trade, Hah!). Government that *thinks* it knows better than the free market usually ends up trampling its people under the weight of bureaucratic poppycock.

    The government can lay the groundwork for a just functioning society; it cannot (and *should* not!) be in the business of trying to redistribute wealth! It will fail. Miserably! And all the while, we will create a set of conditions that stifle innovation (say, Soviet Union) and allow people to settle for far far less than that of which they would otherwise achieve for themselves and their companies.

  • Here’s the thing.

    I am not setting up strawmen. I understand full well that there ARE conservatives who DON’T oppose government regulations and interventions. You know how I know? I consider myself one. At the least I would call myself a social conservative.

    Pointing out that there ARE ALSO people who DO make these arguments, however, is not making a strawman. I am differentiating between different kinds of conservative. Tim and I and others have heard enough talk radio and engaged in enough discussions to know that there are plenty of conservatives and even Catholics out there who do hold extreme anti-government, anti-regulatory views.

    I cited Novak and Woods because they specifically seek to absolve early capitalism of practically any and all wrongdoing – not only that, they seek to give it the sole credit for whatever prosperity we enjoy today. You WOULD have to repudiate Rerum Novarum to hold onto THAT argument.

  • Right Joe- I base my own reaction to “liberals” and “conservatives” on the way the politicians/media figures/and some real average folks I know, and in fact ran into quite often when I ran for public office- they just don’t talk about issues like the popes- they don’t talk about common good, they talk about freedom from taxes (rarely pointing out that taxes are not all bad or even a good thing- the impression they give directly or indirectly is that tax = theft by government, or they talk about freedom to choose- choose what- well for liberals it’s ususally about abortion or gay marriage- not all but many-

    Again it isn’t everyone who claims the title liberal or conservative, but it seems that the politicians running for office and the media talking heads and the many very outspoken citizens at meetings- they are the ones who speak out very forcefully and polemically, and they don’t sound to me like the social doctrine and popes to my ear- I try to use the language of morality and balance- it’s hard- I’m not the Magisterium- but I definitely try to base my argumentation and beliefs on my studies of the official teachings and documents, along with my life experiences and intuitions- and I find it difficult to see how one would embrace any ideology too narrowly- be it liberal, conservative, whatever- I do believe it necessary to be part of a political party- but we should be very critical members of such, because no party really is based upon our Catholic social doctrine, and as such is clearly deficient- either in theory or practice. When asked if one is liberal or conservative, I think it is better just to say I’m Catholic- straight-up- that’s my goal anyway

16 Responses to Pop Quiz

  • “Our taxes going to the needy, however beneficial it might prove, is an abrogation of the human will towards charity. It not only bereaves us of the choice of where our money goes, but it also stunts the growth of charity in our souls.”

    That’s funny!

    You caricature the Right very well…

    “As a note, Senator Obama—like many on the left—seems to have little to no faith in human charity.”

    I know. Does not he see how little the poor need anyone beyond individual givers, uniting outside of the government? Case in point. Latin American countries under right wing dictators…the usa…

  • Did you use the Acton-Cliff Notes?

  • So Mark, do you believe the populace at large incapable of charity? Or if not, perhaps you can enlighten us as to how exactly we’re supposed to provide for the poor.

    Frankly, I can’t see how leaving people with their money to choose to spend/donate as they deem right is a bad thing. Even if they waste the money on trinkets or fast food, that’s jobs for people. Take that money away, that decreases the number of jobs available, which makes more poor. Handouts don’t cover what a steady job can provide.

    But you might have a different viewpoint. Please, enlighten us.

  • I personally know someone in my family who made some unwise decisions, got pregnant, lost her job and healthcare insurance for not being able to work (her healthcare was attached to her job). The man who got her pregnant is a deadbeat. So, she set her eyes on abortion. Luckily, she has a pro-life Catholic in her family and together, we made the decision that she shouldn’t do that.

    She’s received about 200 dollars a month from the government on unemployment. Many in our family contributed what they can to assist her with her baby that was born in July.

    My point? There was no way that this “redistribution of wealth” in anyway really changed the playing field. Or, what if that “redistribution” made it easier for people to be like me — the first in an entire family to go after higher education. It costs $30,000 a year to receive the education I do. My mother makes just about that much in a year. How many youth with potential are barred from going to school because of skyrocketing costs?

    It seems to me that even if I knew that the government would be assisting people, it would no in way bar me from doing charity. I think the notion that the government doing some of the work will prevent people from doing charity is absurd. The reason people don’t give charitably is selfishness — it’s not because someone else is doing it. Would you stop giving to charity? Would you not stop to help someone because the government gave them a few measely dollars that hardly enables them — even stretching the money — to live even comfortably in this society? Do you remember when minimum wage was $5.15? Have you ever watched a family struggle making it by on such a salary?

    Obama seems to have little faith in human charity. Maybe. But as far as the rich giving to charity, the amount they give is hardly a dime in terms of the money they have. What is $2 million dollars to Bill Gates?

    Moreover, I dare to ask how fair is the economic system we have. It’s fundamentally social Darwinism — survival of the fittest. It’s a system of unrestricted competition and it’s the very reason why a small few can set a monopoly on money and get richer, usually without doing anything. Perhaps, all it takes is nothing but an investment.

    But how is such a system that is naturally disadvantaged to the poor and lower middle class really compatitible with the Catholic faith? It’s not a natural law approach to anything. It’s a consequentialist ethic — which is in itself moral relativism with another mask. What is good in terms of business usually has more to do with profit, shareholders, and prosperity of that particularly business than with the human dignity and welfare of society. Ultimately, we’re banking on the moral uprighteousness of the private sector just as we’re banking on the moral uprighteousness of the government. All of mankind is fallen from sin. Why should we trust one over the other? Why is one method so much superior to the other?

    Sure you’ll disagree with me, but I think it is something that Catholic Social Teaching is entirely consonant with political conservativism. But political liberalism, or “socialism” is just bad business all over the place. If I’m not mistaken, Catholic teaching is beyond “left” and “right” politics. And though the issue at hand is not “non-negotiable” and thus we can have legitimate disagreement, we’re not both right. Or maybe we’re both wrong.

  • Eric,

    Excellent response, and tough questions to address. I don’t believe that government spending on the poor destroys all charitableness, or that the government shouldn’t spend money to help others. But I do think that government handouts have a tendency to harden hearts towards those receiving handouts, especially here in the U.S. where there is such a culture of individualism that we tend to look down on people in need. Indeed, I struggle a lot with the question of how we can justify railing against higher taxes when there are people in need. Aren’t we just struggling futilely to cling to material wealth, wealth that ultimately means little in the long run? My problem, ultimately, is not whether or not the government should send some tax revenue to aid the poor, but how much it should tax others to do so. How much is enough, and how much is too much? Frankly, if tax cuts increase federal revenue, then why speak at all of “raising taxes out of fairness” even if it means less federal revenue to spend on welfare?

    But the problem of charity is a real one. Certainly there is a problem when half the people you talk to complain about “lazy good-for-nothings, feeding off the government”. Does this mean that the government not giving out welfare will inspire charity? Not by any means. But I do believe there’s a point where the government takes so much and hands it back out to so many others that it starts to wound charity in the hearts of those who are taken from.

    I fundamentally disagree that our economic system is naturally disadvantaged to the poor and the middle class. Maybe that’s because I come from a middle class family, and am in third generation receiving a college education. Maybe it’s because I come from Wyoming, which has very few minorities, and thus I don’t see the discrimination minorities suffer from. Maybe it’s because in Wyoming, you can always work construction, the oil fields, or the coal mines, and make more in a year without a high school diploma than most college graduates make. Or maybe it’s because I’ve seen my father work hard and build a small accounting firm, and has risen from making barely $30K/year to over $60K/year. Maybe its because my family was willing to offer a friend of mine free housing, food, clothes, and even a car for cheap in an effort to help him make it through college. And that friend started from a poor “white trash” (he’ll admit the white trash if you ask him) family, most of which is still in the gutters, not because they can’t haul themselves out, but because they keep wasting all the chances they get.

    The way we think things work undoubtedly comes from what we see growing up. Eric, I’m not sure what all difficulties you’ve had to face in your life, so I can’t necessarily appreciate where you’re coming from. But when I look at the economic system we have, I can’t see a better system for providing the poor with opportunities to rise out of squalor.

    Wealth tends to concentrate on a small percentage of the population? That doesn’t bother me any. Most of those who are wealthy worked their way to it. I think it is a fundamental prejudice to suggest that the rich don’t do anything to earn their wealth. I’ll agree that some don’t, and I’ll agree that some get rich quickly from dirty methods. But those are a scant few among the other hard-working, successful people.

    I could rant about this for hours, but I have work to do, so I’ll let it go there, without having said anything of substance. And I do understand very well the story of the rich man who donated a lot of money to the temple, but only a tiny, tiny fraction of what he had, and the poor woman who gave up her last two talents, and how Jesus praised her before his apostles for the sacrifice she made. There, at least, I can readily agree with you.

  • One interesting group to look at in this regard is the Amish. They refuse both social security, medicare and any form of private insurance because they believe such approaches do not constitute truly “being your brothers keeper”. Instead, each Amish community has its own emergency fund. Everyone is assessed, according to his means, to pay into that fund, and the fund then pays out when families run into problems (medical or otherwise) that result in expenses they can’t meet themselves.

    Now, here’s the thing: Even the most well off know they need to contribute to that fund, not only in order to avoid social and moral ostricization, but also because they know they have no other recourse. If the rich Amish bought insurance, but everyone was supposed to pay into the community fund to help the poor ones who couldn’t afford insurance — I would imagine that it would be a lot harder to get everyone to chip in. People would still have their charitable impulses reinforcing the need to help with the community fund, but their sense of self interest would no longer reinorce that impulse.

    Not that I’m saying I’m eager to give up my insurance…

    What I do think it can show the rest of us, however, is that getting people to participate in charitable/solidarity actions at a serious scale (not a hundred spare dollars once or twice a year, but enough to really cover the needs of those without their own means) relies on a sense of urgent need. If your self interest is brought into play because you rely on the same community fund, that gives urgency. If you know that there are no other options out there, and so if your parish (to pull an example) doesn’t put together a significant scholarship fund, than many of the students from poorer families will simply not be able to go to college — that gives urgency. But if one has the general feeling that there must be an awful lot of programs out there (private and public) already meeting a given need, there’s not much sense of urgency and people tend to keep themselves to themselves.

  • Ryan,

    I’m not convinced that tax cuts increases federal revenue, in fact, I think the opposite. It’s heatedly debated in political circles. But that’s not our interest here. We’re concerned on how we as Catholics — even as we disagree — can transform the political landscape with millions of other people with whom we agree and disagree. That’s the challenge. Personally, I’m all in favor of the FairTax. But that’s not the current tax system.

    I believe that the government has moral purpose. How the mechanism is used is the fundamental question. It’s difficult to answer. I’m not sure I agree with people having a hardened heart in receiving government “handouts.” I’m sure there are plenty who are grateful. It seems to me that if we had a system where people could receive needed assistance for a specific amount of time — in other words, a transition period — with information forwarded to them to aid them in finding a job and provided evidence that they are searching, I think we would be better off. This would decrease dependency dramatically and encourage self-sufficiency.

    It also seems to me that there are shades of the culture of individualism in saying “this is my money and the poor shouldn’t get it unless I say they can.” People of that sort don’t seem to care for charity — either through the government or themselves. Now surely this doesn’t account for the majority of conservatives. Nevertheless, the question of how much the government should help is one of prudence and that’s not definitively answerable.

    I do share your concern that the government giving out too much can have an adverse effect to some extent. I’ve been in the car with friends who say when they see a homeless person, “the government really ought to do something to help him.” But I don’t think that the lack of charity is contigent on the fact that the government is helping people, but rather it inadvertently reaffirms the lack of charity and moral disordering (for an ordered morality demands charity) that already exists in their own life. And I don’t think that we can avoid doing as much good as we can through the mechanism of the government (without the State exceeding its boundaries) for the sake of unintended consequences. It’s like not standing up against injustice because one fears that it’ll cause an unwanted backlash.

    In terms of our economic system, it depends on if its an unrestricted free-market or a free-market with a few minimal regulations. I favor the latter. I think the former does naturally give advantage to the upper middle class and the rich. I think that there are opportunities for people to rise out of poverty, but I attribute it more to God’s grace than to the system itself. I’m not entirely convinced that most of the wealthy worked their way to it. Just at my school, I see kids with a silver spoon in their mouth who in many ways are totally ignorant of the plight of others. Their parents can easily and readily afford college. Many of them have gone to private school their whole lives–some with tuitions just as high as their college tuition. They are born with all the support they need and with many advantages. What about children born to parents who aren’t as well off?
    Supposedly 60% of the bottom of the socio-economic scale is comprised of single parent households. Statistically children raised in such environments are more likely to do drugs, drink alcohol regularly, to drop out of school, to repeat a grade, to be sexually promiscuous, and the list goes on. I was born into the place on the scale. My grandmother who is 75 years old, to this day works, cleaning houses for two different families. One of which she has worked for her entire life (my grandmother’s family always worked for that family and I believe generations ago was “owned” by that family). The family she has worked for the longest is very wealthy. The lady — Mrs. Moroney — is a very liberal, pro-choice Democrat (she supports government intervention). She also happens to believe in me so much that she is willing to pay all remaining costs of my education — out of pocket — which has totalled over $30,000 by now. This was all generous charity and I am very grateful. But I ask myself to question — of the thousands of people that are born into a similar situation as mine, how many receive the same blessings?

    I’m not saying “let’s have a mass government ‘hand-out’ party,” but that there is some merit to the government assisting people. And yes, I’m looking at all of this through the lens of my own life — and I’d like to think through the lens of the lives of other people who won’t share my blessings. I find it very disheartening when things are just classified as “socialism” and dismissed. It really cuts off rational discourse and creates the endless culture war — this clash of orthodoxies — that we’re experiencing and are all frustrated about. Many Democrats, myself included, aren’t in favor of equal results in life. That’s not realistic. But we do favor an equality of opportunity and currently — and I don’t think anyone would argue this — there is a large disparity in the socio-economic ladder that makes this very difficult. Thus, people should be provided the resources they need — public and private — to help them achieve those means. No, we shouldn’t just subsidize it and give them a free ride and teach them that a lack of personal responsibility is alright; it isn’t.

    But I think a safety net that relies solely on charity in the western world is a recipe for disaster. It won’t happen. And the worse our education gets (its happening), the worse our morals get (its happening), and the more we’re all geared for ruthless competition with one another, we will fall. We’ve got to help as many as we can and I think it requires — at least at this point in history — that the government be involved. That’s my perspective.

  • Ryan,

    Would you say that the Amish system is an honest example of the doctrine of subsidiarity and distributism?

    Just a rhetorical question from a die-hard free-market capitalist just learning about Catholic teaching on economics and rethinking his position.

  • Eric,

    As a quick note, I might have been confusing about it, but the “hardened hearts” refer to the people seeing others getting handouts, paying their income into handouts, not the people receiving the handouts.

    I see the growth of government as a necessary effect of the decline of the morals of the populace. As people become less inclined to take care of themselves, the government has no choice but to step in a fill in the gaps. So to some extent I agree that government-funded welfare is a result of uncharitable hearts. I do feel that there’s a feedback in the system, though. As charity decrease, the role of the government increases, further justifying reduction in charity, forcing more government increase, and so on.

    But government exists to be a safety net, so I will never argue against the government providing safety nets. Government exists to protect us from outside threat. We could, perhaps organize that on our own with a bunch of independent militias, but it would be ineffective. Thus it provides a safety net there. Government exists to protect our rights from impinging neighbors. While we might have some success dealing with matters privately, and privately should be our first recourse, the courts exist as a safety-net to assure our rights are preserved. (I just wish they would stop inventing rights at the drop of a hat.) And these are cases that don’t directly touch upon the economic issue we’re talking about. Yes, we cannot count on safety nets that rely solely on charity. That, I believe, is actually called anarchy.

    The government first and foremost has to respect the human dignity of those it governs. Included in human dignity is industry, and compensation for labor. Thus I agree with government policy that regulates the markets so as to prevent monopolies and unjust wages. Thus I also agree with taxes, for I see the government as a body of people also deserving in compensation for their labor.

    The government has the ability to steer us through particular market forces, through taxes and subsidies. It can introduce artificial demands and artificial supply restrictions. And in do so, it can throw the market out of whack.

    Let’s consider colleges, for example. The cost of college is high, true, but its purpose is also to provide a further education and qualifications that make an individual valuable for some select positions in the market. Not everyone needs to go to college. Others can find themselves quite content with trade jobs or as laborers. Not everyone wants to be an executive. I agree, though, that having a college education gives one quite an edge in finding a nice, comfortable, high-paying job, and that many people who would be suited for those positions don’t get the chance because of financial considerations.

    What happens when we subsidize college education? The demand for college increases, as we’ve seen. We’ve struggled to send as many of our youth to college as we can, which in turn increases the demand. The demand is especially for prestigious universities. So what happens to the cost of attending? It goes up. On the flip side, a college needs students for a large portion of its funding, especially private universities that don’t receive state or federal funding. So more students means more funding. Except for the need for more facilities, more professors, more housing, more equipment, and so on. The net result? A mess. Usually the cost of attending continues to soar. At least, that’s how it has been at the University of Wyoming, and this little state university is one of the least-expensive to attend in the nation, even as an out-of-state student.

    Saying that, of course, calls my attention back to your silver-spoon students, who had no clue of the problems people around them suffered. Extrapolating from Wyoming probably makes me one of those, doesn’t it?

    “No, we shouldn’t just subsidize it and give them a free ride and teach them that a lack of personal responsibility is alright; it isn’t.”

    What is the right balance between providing, and enabling sloth? The problem, of course, becomes that the further away from the beneficiary you are, the less capable you are of making that decision. That’s why I feel government should be a last resort, and that family and community should be the first responders. They’re the best ones to know what you need (statistically speaking, anyway).

    To use your benefactor as an example: God bless Mrs. Moroney for her generous donation. Her example definitely supports what you said before about government intervention not preventing charity. But she also, by your very words, justifies my position. She knows you, knows your needs, believes in you, and thus has made a contribution. (You can burn me if I’m speaking out of line, too personal, or such, or if I’m just flat out wrong.) She wouldn’t necessarily do that to someone off the street because she doesn’t know if such a contribution would be worthwhile, what that person actually needed.

    Back to the college example, we don’t know if everyone needs the opportunity to go to college. For some, maybe going to college is the last thing they need. It certainly is telling when you provide a college education, practically free of charge, and many students simply flunk out for lack of care. Maybe it makes more sense to make the last two years free of charge as opposed to the first two. Federal Stafford loans already reflect this: the further you get in college, the more you can borrow.

    The problem I have is that too many of the policies suggested smack of eating the whole harvest without preserving seeds for next year’s planting.

    I would ask, then, what do you view as the ideal economic policy? How would you craft things so that everything works perfectly? I don’t ask this to be flip, but as a serious consideration. For a long time, I was very Ayn Rand-ian about unregulated free markets (while my sister was very, very Marxist, go figure). But I’ve migrated from the radical end to feeling that regulated free-markets, with government safety nets to assist those who fall through the cracks in the market work well. I might go a little further left of that, if convinced, but I cannot see any other economic policy in existence that provides the poor with as many opportunities.

    One thing that always caught me was this. Suppose we all stopped eating fast food and donated that money to charity. Well, that would nice at first, except it would put some 10 million people out of jobs, needing more charity. So suppose we cut out other luxuries in our lives and donated that money to charity. That’s more money given to the needy, but more people out of jobs, too. Keep following this line of thought, and suddenly we have huge unemployment and nowhere near enough money to help everyone. That’s why I was for a long time a follower of Rand’s “Virtue of Selfishness”.

    But then there’s the catholic concern about God and mammon. That’s what changed my mind. Economic growth is important, because it is far more beneficial for a poor man to have a job than handouts. But we can’t subscribe to Rand’s selfishness, because it is selfishness itself that causes the corruption in the markets. And addressing immediate crises in human lives is more important than keeping economic growth high. Putting the growth of capital over all other considerations is just as evil as socialism. But certainly, there has to be some concern about economic growth. I just haven’t figured out the right balance, yet.

  • Tito,

    I would. And the distribution here doesn’t bother me much because it is down at a community level. What worries me about government redistribution is that it is impersonal and wasteful. The thing is, I have no problem with saying that the rich have an obligation to assist the poor. Ideally, I would like that to remain between the rich and the poor without any government intervention. Of course, thing’s don’t work that way.

  • Ryan,

    I was thinking the same thing about distributism. I like the concept, but at the smallest nuclear stage as possible.

    Being raised in a very small town in the middle of the Pacific, I can see this model working well in a neighborhood setting as opposed at the federal or state levels.

  • Ryan,

    You’re misunderstanding me. I can’t answer you point by point, so let me hit a few points. Since we’re talking about the United States, when I say “government,” I’m not necessarily saying the national government. If something can be taken care of at a more local level, then it must be done there first if it can be just as efficient. Therefore, the city government or individual state governments — in my view — bear the responsibility of providing a “safety net” without going beyond its own means. I’m very much in favor of state and local governments providing assistance first to avoid the creation of unnecessary bureaucracies. Moreover, the farther away from the situation one gets, the less pressing it is and the less efficient one is at managing it. So, I think there is a way one can honor the principle of subsidiarity while seeking other principles of Catholic Social Teaching such as preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.

    I think such a half-way measure allows for much common ground debate instead of the polarizing back and forth, endless system of liberals vs. conservatives. Why? Liberals initiate new programs, seek to fund older ones that are falling apart, and they tend to do it especially while having a majority at the national level. In comes the conservatives, they deregulate, cut taxes, cut programs, etc. It goes back and forth and the tug-of-war effects the economy and many who are on the receiving end of such things.

    In my view, human dignity must trump economic growth. A respect for human dignity usually leads to some sort of solidary and community–which usually doesn’t allow for economic collapse. A lack of respect of human dignity leads to a cold machine of unrestricted free-market capitalism, where what’s good for the businesses is good for everyone (which really means almost everybody) and it’s based on a consequentialist ethic of right and wrong, which as I have said, emphasizes profits and shareholders over public interest and I don’t see how this is at all compatitible with Jesus’ teaching. However, to be fair, there must be a working economy if we’re going to be able to help those in need and therefore, the regulation by the government has to be kept to a minimum and this is why I support doing it, as much as possible, away from the federal level so that regional or state problems are solved within the state and only assisted federally if it is necessary.

    There is no such thing as a perfect economic system. But I believe that a free market that has “common good” oriented regulation that is kept to a minimum, without handicapping the market, I think is most effective. But that’s my view and I’m not absolutizing it anyway. Though, I don’t think I’m fundamentally wrong. For example, in regard to minimum wage laws the reason that the Bishops support it is because there have been cases of people being employed for wages that are not sufficient to live decently in our country, particularly to provide for one’s family. Making $5.15 an hour is ridiculous (the current wage is $6.44, I think). Now, arguably, it might have been better for each state to deliver a different minimum wage law, but nevertheless be required to have one could have been a common ground solution. Surely it’s cheaper to live in some states than others. But the fundamental recognition in law that there has to be some relative wage that is fitting to the economic situation of our country that respects human dignity should be established.

    Now in regard to education, you have some good points. But I’ll just point to Texas. I live in a state that is predominantly governed by conservative policies because everyone votes for Republicans. Every fiscal year when we start cutting the budget, education is usually first in line. So in places like “third ward” in Houston, which is essentially a ghetto of blacks and hispanics — the schools are run down, underfunded, science labs have no equipment, teachers are poorly paid. The cost of college as you mention is rising. All of this, but we’re having an 11 billion dollar surplus this year in Texas.

    In my view, it’s not simply the money that’s required, it’s the priortizing and the budgeting. Clinton ended his presidency with four surpluses and a deficit of 5.63 trillion dollars. (I’m not saying that he deserves all the credit — he doesn’t). When Bush leaves office, that deficit will have about doubled. We’re fighting a war that requires us to borrow $10 billion dollars a month. On a side note, over half a million Americans die from various forms of cancer and we spend about $5.5 billion on cancer research. That’s not even a month in Iraq.

    When political conservatives take office, funding for public education and financial aid for students are first in line to be cut and money is delivered elsewhere. So in my view it’s not entirely about cost (costs do matter) but when it comes down to what matters, what doesn’t, what’s more important, and what isn’t, is when I begin to go liberal. I think a lot of problems could be solved if our priorities in our budgets were different.

    And what I really want to get at here is that I’m talking here mainly in theory–sort of like a framework. The approach liberals take, I generally agree with. Now are their policies and tendency toward nationalizing some matters an immediate consequence? I don’t think so. I’d argue that I’m “liberal” and other self-identified liberals sometimes aren’t. Just to give an example or two. If liberals really cared about the weak and vulnerable, they would oppose abortion. If liberals really cared about personal freedom, then they would support transitory welfare systems with strict limits so that Americans don’t become ultra-dependent on the government for survival. In that way, I can argue that I’m adopting a more faithfully “liberal” position.

    I think it’s fair to say — as usual — we agree, more or less, on principle and not on policies.

  • Eric,

    I feel I need to go paragraph by paragraph here…

    P1) Good to get on the same page. I was thinking you only meant federal government. Now that that’s cleared up, with you 100%.

    P2) Still 100%

    P3) Still 100%. I really think that full respect for human dignity and a thriving economy go hand-in-hand, that the second naturally springs from the first. Yes, human dignity must indeed trump economy when it becomes an either-or situation. I think we only differ on when that happens. Maybe the how, as well. We’ll see.

    P4) I’m only cautious about the minimum wage thing. That might be because in Wyoming, in most cities the cost of living is cheap. (Not in Laramie, where college students drive housing prices up, or in Rawlins, which is struggling to house a massive number of construction workers, or in Jackson a.k.a. “Little California”.) There’s a lot I could say about minimum wage, and it reflects back on immigrant workers that cram together in a small house, only staying there to sleep, essentially, as they struggle to make ends meet. But then, I don’t know if finding roommates to help split the cost is a good idea or not, giving the potential of abuse. And I suppose, reluctantly, that it makes sense to index minimum wage against inflation, but minimum wage is minimum wage for a reason. It is the wage that says “I have no skills, yet”. I’d rather see a bill mandating a certain amount of raise every so often than a bill raising minimum wage. Your thoughts on that?

    P5) To fix education, we have to fix our public schools and the success of our students there. I have no good ideas of how to do that. The cure, I don’t think, is as simple as throwing money at the problem. Do you think Texas might be willing to have recruitment of public school teachers on the level that it recruits football players? Get all the public schools together and have a draft of potential teachers, of which stats regarding each one’s teaching ability are publicly known? I’d definitely be willing to distribute some of that $11 billion surplus to help each school acquire teachers up to some set salary cap.

    It seems to me that fixing college, or making college available to more and more people, does little unless we actually make our public schools quality schools again. But then, I’ve also heard that a lot of failing schools are failing due to cultural reasons, not financial ones. Do you know or have any experience with this?

    P6) Priorities are going to be a place we differ. All I can say about your example, though, is that cancer is something that plagues all mankind, the Iraq war that is primarily an American and Iraqi problem. The problem I have with the Iraq War right now, and ever since the terrorists decided to make Iraq the central front, is that the Iraq War seems to be a low priority thing, even with all that we seem to be dumping into it. It doesn’t feel, to me, that we’re taking the war seriously. If we had really been serious about it, ramped things up to the levels of previous wars, I think we’d be out of Iraq by now. And since we thought we could fight Iraq in our spare time, I don’t think we should have gone in in the first place. I guess maybe I would amend what you have to say, then, is not just priorities, but commitment to them. Enough half-baked ideas or empty promises.

    P7) Makes sense to me.

    P8) I talk in theory a lot, too. My field of research is theory. Mathematics is about as theoretical as you get. So don’t worry if you’re getting too theoretical.

    P9) I think, between us, we could hammer out an acceptable policy. Let’s try to have one drafted up to present to the next president, whoever he is!

  • Ryan,

    In regard to your first question on minimum wage. Currently, minimum wage laws are done from the federal level. States can raise the wages higher, but cannot be lower than the federal mandated minimum wage. The notion of a “living wage” was introduced by Pope Leo XIII against the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism and communism. The Holy Father affirmed the right to private property while insisting on the state requiring a living wage. In essence, private property requires state protection and a certain dimension of the common good requires state regulation. Thus, minimum wage is a set legal stature by which the state mandates that all workers be given a “living wage,” which is necessary for a person to achieve a humane standard of living–a person should be able to afford quality housing, foods, utilities, transportation, health care, and minimal leisure.

    Some excerpts of Rerum Novarum:

    “If a worker receives a wage sufficiently large to enable him to provide comfortably for himself, his wife and his children, he will, if prudent, gladly strive to practice thrift; and the result will be, as nature itself seems to counsel, that after expenditures are deducted there will remain something over and above through which he can come into the possession of a little wealth. We have seen, in fact, that the whole question under consideration cannot be settled effectually unless it is assumed and established as a principle, that the right of private property must be regarded as sacred. Wherefore, the law ought to favor this right and, so far as it can, see that the largest possible number among the masses of the population prefer to own property.” (#65)

    “Wealthy owners of the means of production and employers must never forget that both divine and human law forbid them to squeeze the poor and wretched for the sake of gain or to profit from the helplessness of others.” (#17)

    “As regards protection of this world’s good, the first task is to save the wretched workers from the brutality of those who make use of human beings as mere instruments for the unrestrained acquisition of wealth.” (#43)

    How the state ensures a “living wage” can have a variety of forms, I imagine. The most common method is through minimum wage laws. Obviously, I support minimum wage laws. Given the unique structure of the American political system, I don’t think minimum wage laws — as I’ve said — have to be legislated on a national level. Since each state has its own economy, since the price of living in Alabama is not the same as the price of living in New York, then it seems to me preferrable that minimum wage laws still be made, but by the state rather than federal government. That way, the minimum wage in New York or California (places where it’s relatively more expensive to live) be higher than the minimum wage in Louisiana or Nebraska where the cost of living is notably lower. Giving differing state economies, it is more reasonable to not have an across the board minimum wage law. That’s my view on that matter.

    In regard to education, I don’t think we disagree much. We spend more money than any other industrialized nation in the world on education and we have a poor quality of education. One thing — we’re also a much larger country than many others and we have a profoundly different system. So in some ways, I think it’s not always good to compare. There is a need of money, as I noted with schools with outdated textbooks, lacking scientific lab equipment, and poorly paid teachers.

    One thing I think is the emphasis on athletics and not on academics, particularly in the south. The other is the shortage of teachers. Teachers aren’t paid well for all the work they do. A lot they do for free (e.g. staying after school to tutor students for hours). One thing is that education needs to be the item on our list that doesn’t face routine budget cuts. Huge surpluses and problems in our education system such as the ones we have, don’t make much moral sense.

    On the matter of proving the quality of education, I agree entirely. I’m in favor of all but abolishing standardized testing. All it does is gear the entirety of one’s education toward remembering facts to pass some test. The emphasis in education should be on writing well, thinking rationally and critcally, and being able to articulate clearly and synthesize ideas coherently. This usually curbs one’s tendency toward relativism because many of these tenets are present in a liberal arts education.

    Education is also suffering because of at home issues. Students in single parent households are likely to do poorer in school than those who have a traditional family setting. Some parents (Asians especially) are more interested in their children’s academic success than other ethnic groups (African Americans and Hispanics especially). This needs to be a factor that influences our approach to education so that this isn’t a cycling, never-ending reality. The people who grow up to vote, to effect the morality of our country and our culture, come through the education system. There will always be some failing at home and if there isn’t a “safety net” of some sort in the education system to limit cultural and moral relavitism through educating people away from that, we’ll continue to have problems. I suspect in retrospect that one of my high school teachers was a Catholic and that he geared me away from such forms of thinking. Surely, an aversion of relativism isn’t contigent on one’s being Catholic, but simply on being rational (so it’s possible to achieve). After all, everyone who approaches the abortion debate with a poor understanding of morality (and the ‘answerless’ question of when life begins) came through the American education system. It’s why I think it is so fundamental.

    In regard to priortizing issues, I was merely pointing out the fact that it seems that our priorties are misplaced. For someone who calls himself a “liberal,” I think most liberal methods in international policies are severely flawed. To give one example, sending millions of dollars to African governments to help people is commendable in intention, but in policy it doesn’t work. To send money through the machinery of a corrupt government is to waste money because it’ll never reach the people. There is a sufficient amount of food in Africa, it just isn’t distributed justly. I’ve been told (so I’m not sure if it’s true) that the government stores food up and keep it from its citizens. So we have to find more creative ways of dealing with these morally-pressing problems besides throwing American money at it. Essentially, I’m bad mouthing putting more financial power on foreign rather than domestic issues. Cancer was just the example I used. And I too agree that much of what we do, we do half-heartedly, which is an essential ingredient to its failure.

  • Eric,

    I’m ambivalent about standardized testing. For the one year I tested the waters in the college of education, I was exposed to a lot of prejudice about how schooling is to be done. Standardized testing is bad. Dividing students up into tracks is bad. Lots of projects that span many subjects are good. Lessons should be tailored so that the brightest and slowest are each engaged and learning. Grades should be based on rubrics, not the 100 point or A, B, C, D, F scales. Some of these points I agree with, others I don’t. One of my presentations was on standardized testing, and because the prevailing attitude was so negative, I tried to put as much positive spin on it as I could, and I couldn’t muster very much. (Even so, everyone thought I was a crazy conservative who was gung-ho on standardized testing.) But the question becomes, how do you ensure that certain benchmarks are met, that students are actually learning what they need to learn?

    The problem, like in all other areas, is the human factor, especially with teachers. Do we trust all teachers when they say that students have learned what they need to learn, or do we have some other measurement to go by? We can probably trust good teachers, but what about bad ones? But then, how can we trust test written and graded by people who are distant from the students have no idea if the results correspond to the student’s actual abilities? So I don’t think standardized tests are good, but I don’t have a more reasonable alternative, either.

    On the cultural issue affecting education, I’m with you 100%. But I’m not sure how to fix that problem. You can’t legislate that there have to be two parents, and you can’t mandate that parents take sufficient interest. I kind of feel that the only hope is to try to stress to our youth the importance of respect for sex, the sanctity of marriage, and the strength of a stable home in order to try to make life for the next generation better. And that becomes increasingly difficult as the nation is rapidly purging itself of respectable role models.

    As for minimum wage, I can agree that letting the states decide where the minimum is a good idea, especially in the respect for local economies. One of the problems I have is that the minimum wage can only go up. That might be all right if minimum wage is indexed against inflation (though I have arguments about that involving an increase in minimum wage only exacerbating inflation), but there are times when the economy slumps, and companies can only offer lower wages or lay people off. Another problem I have is that I have strong feelings against minimum wage being the base “living wage”. I’m not entirely certain why at the moment. Minimum wage is for the base, green, unskilled worker. Someone who has held a job for a year should not be making minimum wage. He should have seen some raises along the way, at the least. But that is theory, not practice. But here’s the main concern: when you increase the cost of unskilled labor, business tends to be less inclined to hire unskilled labor, and that hurts the unskilled laborers, makes it more difficult to develop skills and build a resume. So I guess the question is: is it really better to have no job at all than a job at $5.15/hr?

    I have no idea how much cost of living in in some places, but I think two people can live frugally in Laramie on about $1500/mo. That ends up being $750 per person take home. Using my sledgehammer approach to taxes (I assume the government simply takes 20% at this level), this amounts to needing to make a little less than $6.00/hr, assuming 40 hours a week, 4 weeks a month. At $5.15 an hour, this means the need to pick up a part-time job, but it is manageable. I know this doesn’t offer much chance of getting ahead, and any emergency can quickly destroy the budget.

    How do these numbers weigh against where you’re at?

    For the priority issues, I feel I might have stepped a little out of line with parts of what I said, and I apologize. And everything you said in your last comment about priorities is dead on, so I don’t have too much to add there.

  • I don’t think you stepped out of line on anything. Your apology is well accepted, but it isn’t necessary.

    To be brief, minimum wage laws are complicated and I don’t think we can come to an exhaustive, objective conclusion on what we should do. You pointed out correctly, I think, that a bare minimum wage can allow a person to live decently if they’re conservative and unyieldingly prudent with their spending habits. However, the slightest emergency can lead them to financial ruin. All I have to say is look at the skyrocketing cost of health care and the basic requirement of education today — with students needing supplies for projects, entire classes being mandated to purchase something, etc. The greater the number of people in this situation, the worse off we’ll be. Because we can’t have that many people fall through the cracks and expect our economy to survive. At the same time, we have to promote personal virtue and responsibility and not go into communism. So it’s a fine line.

    I agree entirely on standardized testing. I did change the standard of measuring progress: “The emphasis in education should be on writing well, thinking rationally and critcally, and being able to articulate clearly and synthesize ideas coherently.” I’m not opposed to testing if the entirety of your education is geared toward the goal of a sort of liberal arts — writing, analyzing, critical thinking skills, and being able to synthesize (coherently) information. If the education is good, then any sort of standardized test at the end of the day should be fairly simple. That’s currently not the case. Our education is geared toward passing a test and not toward being a fully developed human with knowledge of history, the arts, and the capacity to articulate and communicate effectively orally or in writing. Therefore, with the failure to do well on standardized tests, standards of education become increasingly lower, more class time is spent on taking practice tests, etc, than on actually developing these deeply needed skills. I think that’s why education is in such a crisis.

    I truly support any American who teaches their children at home because of personal disatisfcation with the current system. I’m glad this conversation is happening here because it deeply concerns me that Christians, especially Catholics, are not at the front of the American education reform movement. Most of whom I know (or rather, I have discussed it with) are just are very cynical and apathetic toward it. Behavior, values, etc. are learned. And if we cynically criticize culture and education, but aren’t the agents of change, our Christian values will receive — at most — lipservice. That’s what has happened in this country. Every sort of moral relativism, every affirmation of birth control, religious relativism, etc. will be conditioned into the next generation–in both education and culture. This is what I think happened in the late 20th century. The education system was taken away and Christians have not been on the forefront in reform and influence. We’ve created private schools, began to home school, but the mainstream public education that influences the majority, we’ve left to its own designs. And we’re paying for it now.