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?
The search for an economic and political “third way” has haunted intellectuals for over a hundred years in the Western nations. Many forget that fascism was at one time considered a viable “third way” between liberal capitalism and communism, preserving for the most part private ownership of the means of production for profit but subjecting it to near total control and regulation by the state. Many other models would follow, from the local and anarchistic to the national and statist, appearing under many different names.
I too was caught up in the desperate search for a “third way”, as are many Catholics who eventually find their way to Distributism. But it became quite obvious to me that what people who actually defined themselves as libertarians and capitalists were promoting and defending really wasn’t what I had always thought it was, nor was it anything I could possibly find objectionable.
We here at The American Catholic, along with conservative Catholics in general, have been accused many times of “Calvinism” by certain writers at Vox Nova. I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that this accusation is nothing more than a massive projection made by people who harbor Calvinist theological assumptions themselves, of which they may or may not be fully aware. Particularly, I think in their constant shilling for big government programs, for slavishness before all forms of authority, for the unlimited extension of “rights” (i.e. entitlements), and the rest of the statist agenda, the leftists at Vox Nova and throughout American political landscape have absorbed a perverse Calvinist doctrine of their own, namely that of the total depravity of man.
I have actually written about this before: the process by which radical leftism transformed from a project rooted in optimism, in a fanatical belief in man’s goodness and reason (apart from God of course), to one of utter pessimism and misanthropy. The first communists, and particularly Marx – for all of their deep flaws, errors, and hatreds – retained a belief in man’s goodness that they had mistakenly come to believe Christianity had rejected through the heresies of the Protestant rebellion.
I’ll begin by stating that part of the blame or praise for this post ought to go to Christopher Blosser and David Jones for their excellent overview and commentary on the ongoing political/economic dispute between Catholic Distributists and Catholic libertarians.
I wish I could easily come up with a logical, smooth flow to all of these points. But really I just want to get them out there, no matter how disjointed in appearance.
Finally, I really mean it this time: we will have a respectful discussion on this topic, or none at all. That means certain people and their comments will likely be banned from the discussion. It will not be possible to avoid charges of “being afraid” to debate with such indestructible champions of the one true political philosophy, given their amazing ability to rule out all other possible reasons, including their coarse and offensive personal behavior, as to why no one wishes to engage in discussions with them. C’est la vie.
The best way to contribute here, though, is to ask questions that I can answer for this FAQ!
Where does the word “Distributarian” come from?
The word “Distributarian” was pejoratively applied to me and a few others who have attempted to blend libertarian and Distributist ideas by those not so enamored with the project. Since I see it as a good thing, I don’t mind wearing the label as a badge of honor.
What is a Distributarian?
It is one who does not see a necessary conflict between the basic propositions of Distributism and libertarianism, and insofar as possible, seeks to incorporate both of them into their social vision.
What are these propositions?
The following propositions are both necessary and sufficient for each ideology:
Of Distributism: property should be as widely distributed as possible.
Of libertarianism: social relationships should be as voluntary as possible.
Naturally some doctrinaires will dislike the wording “as ___ as possible”; why should we care about what is possible when great ideas are at stake? Either they exist full-fledged without imperfection in the world or they may as well not exist at all! If we move past this childish expectation and begin with the possible, I think we will find that there is no contradiction between these propositions.
Distributism and libertarianism challenge each other in a good way. Distributism challenges libertarianism to move beyond individual autonomy and articulate a vision of the common good; libertarianism challenges Distributism to clearly articulate how property distribution ought to come about – through force, or through consent?
Not only do they challenge each other; they compliment each other. Property owners will thrive in an environment of economic freedom; genuine liberty will thrive as it is rooted in solid social institutions based upon private property. As property ownership will increase the self-sufficiency of individuals, families, and communities, it will decrease dependency upon the state.
And please note that this is a work in progress!
“The questionable things of this world come to grief on their nature, the good ones on their own excesses. Conservative respect for the past and its preservation are indispensable conditions of a sound society, but to cling exclusively to tradition, history, and established customs is an exaggeration leading to intolerable rigidity. The liberal predilection for movement and progress is an equally indispensable counterweight, but if it sets no limits and recognizes nothing as lasting and worth preserving, it ends in disintegration and destruction. The rights of the community are no less imperative than those of the individual, but exaggeration of the rights of the community in the form of collectivism is just as dangerous as exaggerated individualism and its extreme form, anarchism. Ownership ends up in plutocracy, authority in bondage and despotism, democracy in arbitrariness and demagogy. Whatever political tendencies or currents we choose as examples, it will be found that they always sow the seed of their own destruction when they lose their sense of proportion and overstep their limits. In this field, suicide is the normal cause of death.”
From A Humane Economy, p.90
In one paragraph, this man has encapsulated everything I believe.
This one will be under 1200 words, so help me. Your time is valuable, even if mine isn’t
A certain contributor to a certain blog, who is welcome to post a comment here if he likes, often makes a claim I find absurd and ignorant: that a defense of second amendment gun rights is necessarily a manifestation of “liberalism and individualism.” People who make this claim understand nothing about why we have a second amendment, what its political and social value is, and consequently, while people become so engaged in the defense of gun rights.
Now, I defend gun rights. I am a big a supporter of the second amendment, and of the natural right to self-defense. On the surface, it looks like a fairly libertarian position: I have an individual right to life, I have a right to defend myself, and in today’s circumstances, a personal firearm is often the best and even necessary weapon with which to do that. Provided a person isn’t mentally ill or has a history of violent crime, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to buy and own a gun.
But there is more to the argument than that.
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.)
The so-called American conservative movement is not conservative in the sense that many of its proponents would suggest. In reality, American conservatism, in many ways seeks to preserve and reassert classical liberalism. In fact, the entirety of the American political spectrum is liberal in different ways and varying degrees—but it is unmistakably and manifestly liberal.
This should come as no surprise since many of the Founding Fathers were men of the Enlightenment and there is no more obvious case than that of Thomas Jefferson, the author of that quintessential Enlightenment masterpiece The Declaration of Independence. The philosophical paradigm by 1776 had already shifted—anthropology was evolving toward an increasingly false view of man and the natural law (because the philosophical concept of “nature” was changing) was something different than that articulated by classical philosophers, which had been incorporated into the Christian tradition.
The American legal tradition seeking to adhere to the letter of the social contract, i.e. The Constitution of the United States of America, seems to have individual liberty at issue in every question of law. This, to be sure, is not something to be regarded as a problem in and of itself, insofar as the operative definition of liberty is not philosophically false and the norms of justice, in the classical sense, are not contradicted.
To the learned mind, it is patently clear that the predominant philosophical paradigm, anthropological assumptions on human nature, concept of the nation-state, view of society, of freedom, of responsibility, and so forth found in the Western world is undoubtedly borne of Enlightenment thinking. The United States is most certainly no exception. In America, across the political spectrum, there is a dubious philosophical premise, that of an abstract ideal of autonomy, which, no matter how admirable or attractive it may seem, is radically incomplete. Indeed, man does possess a free will, but the form of freedom requires content. Continue reading
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.