An Aristotelian preference for balance and variety, a Burkean delight in the little platoons, a Chestertonian love of the local and the down-to-earth—that was Roepke.
This is all very well, you might say, but where are the economics? Actually, Roepke’s technical work on credit, monopoly, the business cycle, interest rates, inflation, employment, and the gold standard was of a very high order. He could wield graphs with the best of them. He did more than complain about Keynes: he out-argued him. To be sure, he insisted on the complexity of his subject because he understood the complexity of the world it sought to explain, parting company with his Austrian colleagues when he thought they overstated the scientific side of economics. “A very inefficient way of producing vegetables,” Mises famously remarked to him as the two men walked by some allotments after the war. Perhaps, Roepke memorably replied, “but a very efficient way of producing human happiness.”
That was his answer to economics as mere technique, as applied science. Even Madame Obama, digging for victory in the White House garden, seems to intuit the wisdom. There she is, a peasant in Prada, urging us onward to spinach Nirvana. Good for her, but even better were she and her husband to understand the point. Roepke might have helped them. The significance of that famous exchange with Mises is that Roepke was epistemologically modest, knowing that the most rational thing about rationality is that it knows its own limits. When even sensible economists forget they are dealing with human beings, we should forget them.
My undergraduate program, the Program of Liberal Studies, requires a capstone senior essay for graduation. Long, long ago, in the 2005-2006 academic year, I composed mine on Distributism. I believe — hope, certainly — that I could write it better today than I did then; nonetheless, I’ve posted the introduction, which tells the story of my “conversion” to Distributism.
The subject matter of this essay will be fairly clear: I present an argument in favor of Distributism as an economic system best suited to democratic society. To this end I provide an overview of Western economic history from the ancient Greek world to the modern day, and I criticize, from the perspective of English Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc, capitalism, socialism, and the welfare state. I discuss the distributive system, rooted in Catholic Social Teaching and championed by Belloc, describing its history and principles and comparing it to and contrasting it with other systems. I conclude that Distributism creates a strong, stable foundation for economic and political liberty and equality through its championing of the ‘small man’ over the large, and its skepticism toward a large State. Then I consider arguments raised against it, and refine it in light of those criticisms. Finally, I present methods fo the implementation of the system to the greatest extent possible.
However, this essay represents something beyond mere academic exercise: it stand perhaps not as a final end, but, nevertheless, as a certain point of culmination in my personal philosophical journey.
When I was younger, the only connection that I realized between my faith and my politics related to the ‘life issues’, primarily abortion. Because of this issue and my family’s traditional, though not particularly zealous, leanings, I considered myself to be a Republican. And my path toward Distributism had at its inception nothing to do with my faith.
I come from a small, rural town in northern Indiana that probably saw the last of its vibrancy before I had learned the art of riding a bicycle. But a few businesses remain: among them is Ray’s Super Foods, an independent grocer known until 1997 as Two Joes; my great-grandfather founded it in 1902 and it remained in our family until the current proprietor purchased it. I have worked there since the summer of 2000.
Before I started at the store, I had never conceived that Wal*Mart had anything to do with my life, aside from the fact that my mother sometimes shopped there. But then I would find myself replenishing the milk case, or sweeping the floor, and would hear comments to the effect of “Oh, we’ll get that cheaper when we go to Wal*Mart.” So I began to dislike Wal*Mart, though not in all respects, but only insofar as some stores, the nearest to my hometown among them, sold groceries. I founded my view not on principle, but in the interest of my employer and thus, indirectly, in my own interest. Slowly this changed: I began to realize how much of his time and money my boss dedicates to our community, and I saw just how much Wal*Mart dominates the economy of this country, and of the world. I began to think of the positive effect that my family had for decades had on North Judson, IN, compared to what Wal*Mart does in and to America.
Over time I grew to despise Wal*Mart, but not only this store. I came to resent the idea of the chain store in general, and saw chains as posing immense threats to the sense of independence embodied in the American tradition, to innovation, to quality, and to community – something that, as I began to realize, truly matters to me. Feeling as if I needed better to understand what makes chain stores evil (in my mind) before continuing to rant about them, I searched for and bought books that chronicle questionable practices on Wal*Mart’s part and the battles that communities wage in order to keep the store or one of its brethren out of town. As I continued to read, I discovered more reasons not to support these large stores. The centralization of a region’s economic activity in plazas and strips – located sometimes as far as thirty miles away from the homes of shoppers – increases environmental and safety concerns, air pollution and traffic congestion among them. Though because they have greater assets these corporations can afford to funnel large sums of money back to communities, often, proportionally speaking, those small businessmen with ties to the communities contribute more financially, and also in myriad other ways. The greed that typifies corporate America causes my stomach to churn even more, particularly when I see side-by-side the yearly income of the CEO of Wal*Mart Stores, Inc., and that of an average full-time (28-35 hours per week) Wal*Mart employee.
Beyond these more easily discerned consequences of the dominance of absent-owner chains, I discovered a more profound harm done by these stores: the destruction of the beautiful. On Main Street in most towns, at least those which predate the middle of the twentieth century, one finds storefronts positioned close to the curb, with only a sidewalk separating them from the street; the buildings, typically two or three stories tall, if not more, are proportionate in height to the width of the street. The architects responsible for these buildings, realizing the relationship between inside and out, included windows commensurate to the building both in number and in size, and often adorned these windows – and the buildings’ façades on the whole – with intricate details meant to evoke a certain, almost inexplicable feeling of civic and social welcomeness. This feeling permeates the traditional business district.
On the contrary, with regard to the modern shopping centers, Richard Sennett, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, observes that
“it is curious how the designers of parking lots, malls, and public plazas seem to be endowed with a positive genius for sterility, in the use of materials and in details, as well as in overall planning. . . . The modern urbanist is in the grip of a Protestant ethic of space.”
‘(Sub)Urban wasteland’ is not a particularly inaccurate description of most shopping centers, which are little more than acres of parking in front of windowless (or poorly windowed) cinderblock buildings that bear the same look as the stores’ outlets in the next city’s shopping center.
The world around us matters, and for it beneficially to affect us I believe that it ought not turn us off, even in ways that we sometimes fail wholly to recognize; rather it must welcome us, enliven us, and make us feel comfortable: aesthetically and psychologically it must fulfill us.
Not until college, when I became immersed in Catholic culture in a way in which I never before had been, did I begin to see the connections between my faith and my burgeoning views on the capitalist system. I learned of Catholic Social Teaching, the ‘hidden gem’ of Church doctrine. The Church became more than just Sunday Mass, the Sacraments, and the Ten Commandments: in Her I discovered an important social force, one greatly responsible for the development and preservation of Western Civilization, for the creation and protection of great art, literature, architecture, science, and philosophy, and for the protection of men from poverty and starvation. Eventually I discovered the works of Belloc and G.K. Chesterton; I became familiar with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum and with Distributism, a movement scholarly and theological that arose as a ‘third way’ alternative to both the materialism and the practical failings of capitalism and socialism – a movement that secures political and economic liberty and equality, not perfectly, but, as I will later explicate, more effectively and stably than do the aforementioned economic systems.
Perhaps paradoxically, I present in this essay a case against capitalism from a Catholic point of view that I reached almost wholly free of influence from my faith. I face my greatest challenge in persuading the modern world to accept my ultimately Catholic argument. This requires explaining why the Church’s teachings fit the whole world, rather than just the faithful, and proving the universal nature of the Church without forcing the Faith on the reader.
I believe that a very important, not always considered, nexus exists, or at least should, between Distributism and New Urbanism, as I very briefly note toward the end of the essay, forty-some pages later. Moreover, I believe that the only effective salve to the cultural, social, political, economic, and moral disease from which we suffer lies in an political philosophy that encompasses and intertwines Distributism, Anti-Federalism, and New Urbanism. Over at The League of Ordinary Gentleman, E.D. Kain has a phenomenal post, “Redefining Prosperity,” to which I intend to post a response wherein I discuss this philosohpy. Do read the post, to which Mr. Larison, who righty dubbed it Front Porch-worthy, has already responded.
From the forthcoming issue of The Terrapin Times (It’s about damn time we go to print again. *sigh*), my CPAC 2009-inspired op.-ed. on the tension between conservatism and capitalism.
Having submitted to morbid curiosity, I ventured to the Friday installment of CPAC 2009, hoping again to hear and to meet Ron Paul (Double-check!) and to attend a panel debating what constitutes a conservative foreign policy (dominated by opponents of the current Mesopotamian catastrophe, I happily note; delayed by Mitt Romney’s address, the panel began, I lament, after I departed for dinner).
Waiting for Dr. Paul to address a sizable audience (replete, of course, with Kool-Aid drinkers), I, most vexedly, endured a session the name of which had intrigued me: “Will Obama’s Tax Policy Kill Entrepreneurship?”
My computer’s built-in dictionary defines “entrepreneur” as “a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.” I recall not one mention of upstart small businesses — the serious risks involved, the number of jobs that they create —, let alone how Obama may “kill entrepreneurship.” However, the purportedly conservative speakers captivated the sympathetic crowd with sky-is-falling rhetoric about the threats he poses to stock-market capitalism.
Yes, attending a session ostensibly dedicated to the confabulation of entrepreneurship-at-risk, I suffered through the woe-am-I complaints of men, either disingenuous or stupid, whose fears of the death of a morally bankrupt economic system keep them awake as owls disseminate wisdom; as hedgehogs collect golden rings whilst breaking the sound barrier; and as I, obsessing over this paper, consume prodigious amounts of energy drink, slowly blighting my internal organs.
Most troubling was the incessant, joyful repetition of Schumpeter’s description of capitalism: “creative destruction” — eradication of sluggish, monolithic entities by the innovative forces that propel new ventures. In some respects, this is good and necessary. Stagnation is hardly desired, even by us who call ourselves traditionalists. However, that “creative destruction” has extended well beyond marketplace battles, to tear to shreds our social fabric, ripping apart communities and families and destroying moral and cultural values, is both incontrovertible and undeniably unseen — or ignored — by the modern “conservative.”
My money is on the willful disregard of facts that, should we address them sincerely, may compel us seriously to reconsider our unflinching embrace of capitalism.
Permit me to release the proverbial feline from its burlap hoosegow: Capitalism is neither intrinsically conservative nor a necessary tenet of conservatism. Furthermore, I aver that, properly understood, conservatism stands opposite capitalism, awaiting the day when her knight, bedecked in armor most brilliant, slays the dragon of liberal capitalism and re-enthrones her.
Look to the origins of the left-right political spectrum. The French conservatives stood for the ancien régime; for the crown, church, and aristocracy; and, often, for a more traditional economy. The liberals, sitting on the left in parliament, espoused laissez-faire capitalism.
I mean not to inveigh against a market economy per se; central planning, substituting state apparatuses for the community, is antithetical to conservatism. However, capitalism elevates economics to queenship of the sciences, usurping once-reigning theology and promoting the individual good over the communal. It is the apotheosis of the self, and its logical conclusions are the subversion of the local to the regional, the regional to the national, and the national to the global. It empowers the state and the rootless elite. Government and business collude. Property, at the core of a free and stable society, becomes commoditized and abused. Anathema to the true conservative this all is.
Wilhelm Röpke, instrumental to the Wirtschaftswunder and favorite economist of Russell Kirk, intellectual father par excellence of American conservatism, elaborates in A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market: “[T]he market economy is not everything. It must find its place within a higher order of things which is not ruled by supply and demand, free prices, and competition. […] Individual responsibility and independence in proper balance with the community, neighborly spirit, and true civic sense — all of these presuppose that the communities in which we live do not exceed the human scale.”
Did not Edmund Burke, the only man in England who, Adam Smith claimed, properly understood The Wealth of Nations, make precisely this case in his foundational Reflections on the Revolution in France? “[T]o love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.” Such belief one can trace all the way to Aristotle’s Politics, perhaps the most indispensable treatise to which conservatives have recourse.
The Catholic Church, a bulwark against the excesses of modernity, has long professed animus toward both capitalism and socialism, beginning most comprehensively with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Rerum Novarum. This exegesis of Catholic social thought fundamentally influenced Chesterton, Belloc, and the Distributists, whose love of ordered liberty — within the framework of community — and respect for private property put to shame the duplicitous praise for the “ownership society” expatiated by the apparatchiki of “compassionate conservatism.”
The Southern Agrarians, influential to the incipient stages of modern American conservatism, rallied against the burgeoning capitalism of the early Twentieth Century and its deleterious effects on traditional ways of life, just as early American agrarian Thomas Jefferson, to whom conservatives owe more than often conceded, rejected the servility of industrial capitalism and its malignant sibling, centralized government.
Finally, Kirk, though an adamant believer in the market, equally spurned, to paraphrase Rod Dreher, the substitution of the global and abstract for the local and particular. Borrowing from Eliot, he dubbed libertarians “chirping sectaries.”
The postwar fusionism of Buckley, Meyer, et alios, which unified traditionalists and libertarians against the perceived threats of communism, has unraveled, leaving in its wake enervated conservatism and libertarianism and empowering leftist, imperialist neoconservatism. Whether the disparate forces of the Right can overcome serious philosophical divides to combat their shared enemies remains to be seen. Either way, we conservatives should do for ourselves, and society, a magnanimous deed by reconsidering the historical enmity borne toward individualist capitalism — liberalism. Eschew “creative destruction” and rediscover Aristotle’s Oikonomia, let the healing begin, and watch as the Leviathan recedes into the mists of oblivion.
Filed under: Agrarianism, Catholic Social Teaching, Conservatism, Culture, Distributism, Economy, Political Philosophy, Roman Catholicism | Tagged: Adam Smith, Aristotle, Edmund Burke, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Russell Kirk, The Terrapin Times, Thomas Jefferson, Wilhelm Röpke | 8 Comments »
At the heart of Catholic culture must be the parish. Here, members of the faithful, ideally, undergo instruction (The family, of course, ought to supplement this!), either, when possible, through the Catholic schools or, otherwise, through CCD programs. The should share in worship, in celebration, and in community. They should also be inspired — in multifarious ways. Doubtless, many fine examples remain, but my experience suggests that most parishes lack in any or all of these, serving as a one-hour-weekly (maybe two when a Holy Day of Obligation emerges on the calendar.) stop for Catholics too busy working too many hours, trying to raise families, and attempting, once in a while, to enjoy leisure (but usually willingly, but wittingly, substituting mere entertainment). How Catholics can be expected to live in all ways a life that Catholicism permeates when such chaos abounds is beyond my comprehension.
As I noted at the beginning of Part I, I missed out on learning a pretty banal, but important bit of Church teaching; this is not the only thing I failed to learn in eight years of CCD and a ninth year in Confirmation preparation. I was, I should note, probably the most eager, and certainly one of the most capable, of my cohort; that many of my peers have strayed, to some extent or another, since high school should surprise no one. In those nine years (even in the ultimate, taught by my the-parish priest, an intellectual, orthodox priest now serving in California), I never heard the word “Magisterium“, read anything directly from the Catechism, learned even the faintest about Catholic Social Teaching, or had suggested to me that certain types of music were more appropriate for the Mass than others. (I was fortunate enough — and still am — that my parish eschews the use of the guitar, piano, or other less worthy instrument, and still employs a typically marvelously played organ. (My grandmother manipulated the keys, switches, and pedals in the loft of Ss. Cyril & Methodius for sixty-five years!) However, I never heard Gregorian chant, and experienced only a few bits of Latin, at some of the more beautiful Masses held in the church before Fr. John Zemelko — in rehab last I knew and wholly unfit to wear the collar — did everything within his incapacity to take the Roman Catholicism out of the parish.)
Maybe, with the benefit of hindsight, I expect too much of my home parish in rural Indiana; I don’t think so, though. Perhaps Fr. Mazza hesitated to inculcate into us any more than was absolutely essential for us to be confirmed because he knew that for eight years, our religious instruction, though proffered by well-meaning parishioners, was wholly insufficient, having been proffered by generally unprepared, inadequately educated parishioners. ‘Twas the blind leading the young and blind. This, I fear, is a desperately systemic problem in the Catholic Church, one resulting from years of spiraling away from Roman Catholicism into the amorphous pseudo-religion known as American Catholicism. Under the current parish priest (and, maybe, sloppily, under the recently removed Fr. Zemelko), a Catechism study group has started — We also seem now to have Eucharistic Adoration, though it occurs at a mercilessly early hour.
Not only in instruction in the Faith did Ss. Cyril and Methodius fail me , but also in providing a true Catholic community . Save the annual parish picnic, at the town park, I can recall few instances of anything resembling true community in the parish. I suppose that all-youth band that performed carols before Midnight Mass for a few years counts for something, but that was exceedingly exclusive and fleeting. Every Father’s Day morning, as part of North Judson’s annual (but perpetually purportedly dying) Mint Festival, the Church (specifically the Knights of Columbus, I think) hosts a pancake breakfast, which brings together members of the parish and stimulates formal interaction with the community at-large. Within the last decade, parishioners have organized a chapter of the K. of C. and St. Vincent de Paul Society, both worthy additions to the parish, but neither sufficient to facilitate and to sustain a rich parish life. No annual church festival; no Knights of Columbus (drinking) hall; no parish drinking festivals; nothing to celebrate the rich Czech, Italian, and German heritages of the parish.
All of these struggles, and Ss. C&M at least has the benefit of being situated on a traditional gridded street system in our (small, humble) downtown, on the same block as the US Post Office, a diner, a bank, a funeral home, and Ray’s Super Foods. Of course, in a small, withering rural community dominated less by the original “ethnic” Whites and more by Kentucky transplants of English and Scots-Irish extraction, and various Protestant religions, maintaining a vibrant Catholic culture isn’t easy. Especially when the parish decided to strip down and to whitewash the interior of a once gorgeous church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.
1. It is absolutely imperative that I note that, despite the criticisms I provide herein, I absolutely cherish Ss. Cyril & Methodius, that I did develop much there (especially under Fr. Mazza, without whose encouragement I may never have applied to Notre Dame, for whom I for many years served the altar — most of those years, without those unbearable intruders known as “altar girls”), and that, as I point out in the text, much of what I lament is systemic, and not an isolated issue at Ss. C&M.
2. Moreover, I do still retain some sort of kinship with those with whom I matriculated through the CCD program, even if many have slid away from the Church, and I rarely see, or even communicate, with any of them. Working in the grocery store, I also built upon relationships with customers who would have been otherwise quasi-foreign to me, save that they, too belong, to Ss. C&M.
Filed under: Abortion, Architecture, Catholic Social Teaching, Culture, Education, Music, New Urbanism, Roman Catholicism | Tagged: CCD, John Zemelko, Mark Mazza, Melczek, North Judson, Second Vatican Council | Leave a comment »
At Caelum et Terra, Daniel Nichols laments, well, the fall of America; I guess that’s as good a way of describing his post as any other. Please, read this.
I mean, look around you. We live in a nation in terrible crisis. We are mired in two wars against native insurgencies, historically a losing proposition. Evidence mounts that these wars were engineered by a criminal political cult, the neoconservatives, who distorted intelligence to achieve their ends. We torture our enemies. Anyone, even an American citizen, can be plucked off the streets and held without charges or legal counsel for years, if the President orders it. Said President openly declares that he will not abide by limits to his power, even as he signs them into “law”. The economy is in free fall, a collapse triggered by greed and predation.
All of this should provoke outrage but no, the price of gas is shaping up as the big issue in the presidential campaign.
The price of gas.
I once had dinner with an elderly Hungarian couple, refugees from communism, and the woman said it best. She talked of how they had come to America, thrilled at the idea of living in a free society, and of how they had gradually become disillusioned with the American people. “Zeez Americans”, she said, “Give zem beer, television, and hamburgers and zey are as happy as peegz in sheet”. Change the formula to chardonnay, foreign films and brie; the point is the same.
Do read the ensuing conversation in the comment box, too!
Filed under: America, American Politics, Catholic Social Teaching, Christianity, Culture, Election '08 | Tagged: American downfall, Caelum et Terra, Catholics and election, Gas prices, John Kerry, John McCain, Wendell Berry | 1 Comment »
Still ruminating over the Chuck Baldwin-versus-Bob Barr question, and of how I might go about choosing, and posting thoroughly about the question, I present, for now, my wish-I-could-be-sincere-but-am-only-joking endorsement: Average Joe Schriner.
Filed under: American Politics, Catholic Social Teaching, Election '08, Paleoconservatism, Roman Catholicism | Tagged: Average Joe, Catholic Social Teaching, Joe Schriner, President, Third party | Leave a comment »