The search for an economic and political “third way” between socialism and capitalism has been underway since the early 20th century, if not sooner. In Catholic circles, Distributism is a third way that many are eager to discuss. I suspect many of the people reading this blog have heard of Distributism by now.
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 and how it would be done. To be vague or silent on this question is completely unacceptable. And yet there are really only two possible answers. Either people will be persuaded via reasonable argument and successful example to get together with like-minded people and distribute property in various ways, or people will be forced to do it at gunpoint.
It didn’t take me long to realize that there was really no “middle ground” between these two options, just as there is really no middle ground between free will and determinism (even if various factors can influence person’s will). If you haven’t persuaded someone to do what you want, the only other way is force. So the question becomes: is it legitimate to use force to impose an ideology on society? Is it legitimate for a band of political visionaries to come together and either use the power of the existing state or establish a new state to drag the unwilling or apathetic masses along? And does a system which is supposedly in man’s best interests need to be established at gunpoint, as if it weren’t?
One of the continuing trends of agrument, in the insular intellectual cage match which is the political Catholic blogsphere, is whether classical liberalism (of the sort seen in the Scottish Enlightenment and among the founders of the US) is an individualist ideology which is unacceptable from a Catholic point of view.
Something which it strikes me as reasonable to consider in this regard is that classical liberalism, with it’s definition of individual rights, was in many ways a reaction to new trends in Monarchy. The 1600s and 1700s had seen the restraints which tradition, the Church and simple lack of communication and resources had traditionally placed monarchies fade away. Through much of Europe, monarchies became more centralized and absolute, less traditional. In Britain, this (combined with economic and religious tensions) let to the English Civil War, and by the early 1700s English monarchy had been successfully limited and existed essentially at the sufference of Parliament and the liberties of the unwritten English constitution. On the continent, however, the drive towards absolutism continued.
The recent series of posts expressing indignation that many people who work for the USCCB lean left reminds me of a pet theory of mine: All other things being equal, people working for non-profits will tend to lean farther left than the general population.
This fits pretty well with my experience, both seeing most of my more progressive friends seek work at non-profits (in the cases of religious ones, often parish or diocesan work.) But I think there are some general reasons why we’d see this be the case.
1) Selection bias: It’s one of the major themes of modern progressivism to be suspicious of the profit motive in general and of for-profit corporations in particular. If you see an organization making a profit as being particularly corrupting, it makes sense you’d gravitate towards organizations which are committed to provide a service to society without making a profit. You can see a reflection of this attitude in President Obama’s proposal to forgive college debt for people who go into non-profit or government work — behind which lies an implicit assumption that people working for non-profits and for the government are participating in work that is more virtuous or more valuable to society than people who work for mere businesses. (My impression is that conservatives tend more towards a “job is a job” attitude, seeing non-profit jobs as not being all that different from business jobs.)
Over the last few months, I’ve been gradually working my way through a set of lectures on the history of the United States by professors Staloff and Masur of the City College of New York — emphasis on the gradually as several months and 22 lectures in I’m around at around 1800.
One of the things that has been striking me is the discussion on the ideas about how a republic ought to function current among the colonists and the Founders’ generation. In early America, it was generally only male property owners who could vote — sometimes with an additional limitation on how much property you had to own. This was not, however, out of a desire to exclude the poor and empower the rich. (Though one could certainly see it that way, and I’m sure that some people did.) Rather, it’s purpose was to assure that only “masters” had a voice in the running of the republic(s). I use the term “master” not in reference to slavery, but in an almost feudal sense. A master was a man who owned property in the sense of owning some means of support: an estate, a farm, a business, etc. But this wasn’t just a position of power, it was also one of responsibility. A master was expected to assure the well-being of all those who worked for him or lived in his household/estate. Sometimes, these were one and the same. A master craftsman might well have one or two apprentices living in his house, with his family. Journeyman laborers might live in the shop, or also in his house. Even if his workers lived under another roof, a master was not merely an employer, he was also a patron and head of household to all who depended on him.
I’ve been on an early modern French history kick lately, reading The Battle: A New History of Waterloo, Alstair Horne’s The Age of Napoleon, and now Paul Johnson’s Napoleon: A Life, and Alistair Horne’s La Belle France. All this has led me towards a contention — though I suppose one on a quirky enough topic few will be interest.
It seems to me that there can be no such thing as a “monarchist”. An -ist indicates some sort of intentional form of government which one may support establishing or working towards. Yet looking at the various attempts to bring back the ancein regime or something like it, it strikes me that monarchy is not something which can be intentionally established, except as a cultural and political figurehead of sorts. Monarchy must necessarily be an unintentional form of government, and so while one may admire it where one finds it in history, it doesn’t seem like something one can be a supporter of establishing. An intentionally established monarchy would not be a monarchy in any sense worth valuing.
Seeing a fair amount of discussion as to what “conservatism” is or is not cropping up on various threads — and not having time to write a massive treatise on the topic — I’d like to put forward a few basic thoughts on the topic and then turn it loose for conversation with our readership, which clearly has a number of opinions as to the matter.
I would argue that conservatism is, to a great extent, a relative term. Conservatives seek to preserve the ways and institutions of the past. In the ancient Greek and Roman world, there was a worldview present among conservatives that there had been, in the past, a literal golden age — in the age of the great heroes. Among modern conservatives, resistance to change is rooted more in a suspicion of programs of change based upon ideologies that seek to remake the human person or society into new forms. In this sense, conservatives do not necessarily hold that the way things have been in the past are necessarily good, but they lean towards the fear that drastic change will make things worse.
This Newsweek article about Nobel Prize-winning economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman contained an interesting biographical detail:
Krugman says he found himself in the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, especially the “Foundation” series—”It was nerds saving civilization, quants who had a theory of society, people writing equations on a blackboard, saying, ‘See, unless you follow this formula, the empire will fail and be followed by a thousand years of barbarism’.”
His Yale was “not George Bush’s Yale,” he says—no boola-boola, no frats or secret societies, rather “drinking coffee in the Economics Department lounge.” Social science, he says, offered the promise of what he dreamed of in science fiction—”the beauty of pushing a button to solve problems. Sometimes there really are simple solutions: you really can have a grand idea.”
I was somewhat fascinated the other day, when participating in a discussion of school vouchers on another blog, to hear someone make the assertion that public schools are “more democratic” than vouchers because everyone must use the curriculum which is decided via “the democratic process” in public schools, whereas with vouchers someone might attend a religious (or otherwise flaky school) teaching things you do not believe to be true.
This strikes me as interesting because it suggests to me a view of democracy rather different from my own. Thinking on it further, I think there are basically three reasons why one would consider deciding things democratically (defining that broadly here as “by majority vote, either directly or via elected officials”) to be a good thing:
Smart takes from Manzi and McArdle. A question: I understand the political argument for an automobile industry bail-out. Unions are a valued Democratic constituency, and many of the potentially affected employees and suppliers live in swing states.
But is there a good argument for the bail-out on policy grounds? If GM can’t convince investors to buy additional equity or debt in the corporation, why should the U.S. government tax other companies (struggling in the same economy) to make an investment the market is unwilling to make? Is Congress better at spotting good investments?
Update I: See also Ryan’s comment on the “National Money Hole” thread.
Update II: Blackadder has a good post up about the administration of the bailout.
Okay, maybe not.
But one of his characters was more intellectually- and existentially-consistent that many (or even most) Americans of any religious affiliation, including Catholics. I’m talking about the hitman Vincent in the 2004 film Collateral, starring Cruise and Jamie Foxx and directed by Michael Mann.
It is election season in the United States, and so there is even more than the usual amount of fuss in Catholic intellectual circles in this country about the place of Catholics within our republic.
Can a Catholic vote for a politician who is “pro-choice”? Can a Catholic vote for a politician who supports the Iraq War? Can a Catholic support capital punishment? What is a “Catholic response” to the economy? What is a “preferential option for the poor”? Is it true that “universal health care” is a “life issue”?
Some, who claim to be more in touch with that illusive entity “the rest of the world”, inform me that it is uniquely American for people to engage in these sort of knock-down, drag-out fights about how it is that our faith tells us we must vote. This may be, though I must admit that I find it a little hard to accept, since it seems nonsensical to me to claim that people in other countries vote on the basis of something other than what they believe to be right — and that they determine what is right by some means other than consulting their moral and theological/philosophical understanding of the world.