Saturday, December 13, 2008

Why Care about Distributism?

This post was cross-posted at Donald Goodman's personal blog.

An old friend has been commenting on my post Consumer Confidence or Consumer Recklessness, and he's led me to an interesting question. He asked me why I bother with this whole distributism thing at all? After all, he observes, it's exceedingly unlikely that I'd ever live to see distributism put into place; why not focus on making capitalists more virtuous, rather than explaining to them why the system itself is bankrupt?

I can respond in two ways. First, of course, is that while I might not see a distributist system in place in my lifetime, I can certainly see certain distributist principles put into practice. Some of this is happening already, though often under different names. The credit union system, for example, is in a certain way quite distributist (in others not really at all). Another example is the increasing prominence of farm co-ops. The people who form these efforts rarely go by the name "distributist"; however, these efforts are eminently in accord with distributism, and can and should be supported as such by distributists. My advocacy for distributism can therefore forward these and other efforts that I can actually effect, even if an entire distributist system is unlikely in the immediate future.

Second, I advocate for distributism the same way I advocate for Catholicism. While I'm talking to a Protestant, for example, it might be extremely unlikely that I'll convert him entirely to Catholicism, but pretty easy to convince him that he should venerate Mary. I'll certainly try to convince him to venerate Mary (as I certainly now try to convince capitalists to be more virtuous); but that doesn't mean that I give up trying to convince him to adopt Catholicism (as I don't give up trying to advocate for distributism over capitalism).

Well, this friend replied, you do that because God has commanded you to try to convert people to Catholicism, so it's different. However, God has commanded us to spread the truth, and distributism's economic principles are truth, while capitalism's are falsehood. To spread the truth, then, I must try to spread distributism; I can't exclude this one part of the truth any more than I could exclude Marian veneration from spreading Catholicism.

The capitalist at this point generally smirks knowingly, as he's now certain that his interlocutor is not quite straight in the head. Are you seriously claiming, he'll ask, that distributism is just as important as Catholicism? That's absolutely absurd. Well, yes and no; is distributism just as important as Catholicism? Obviously not. But is Catholic social teaching just as important as Catholicism? Unquestionably, yes; indeed, it is part and parcel of Catholicism, and one cannot be had without the other.

Is that absurd? If so, I'm afraid you'll have to tell that not just to me, but also to John Paul II, who said precisely that. Catholic social teachings, he argued, are an integral part of the Gospel and must be spread along with it. Rerum Novarum, for example, the flagship of Catholic social teaching, "is a document of the Magisterium and is fully a part of the Church's evangelizing mission, together with many other documents of this nature." Centesimus Annus, no. 54. Think for a moment about how strong a statement that is; the late Pope is saying that Catholic social teaching is part of the message that the Church must spread throughout the world. That's a pretty high-octane statement if spreading distributism is pointless.

Now, distributism is a name for an economic system that attempts to embody Catholic social teaching; as such, it could be mistaken in some particulars, and can't be called, by itself, part of Catholicism. But the Catholic social teaching that it seeks to embody unquestionably is such. So I must, when spreading the Gospel, spread Catholic social teaching, including those parts that are fundamentally antithetical to capitalism. Such as:

  1. Just wages cannot be set merely by the market, but must be compelled to be at least sufficient to support a worker and his family. Rerum Novarum no. 63; Quadragesimo Anno p. 36; Centesimus Annus no. 15.

  2. Women should be legally compelled to avoid certain occupations, no matter to what the market might lead them. Rerum Novarum no. 63.

  3. Some industries not only might, but ought to be owned and run by the state. Quadragesimo Anno, p. 55.

  4. Onwership of private property is a right, but the use of private property is not, and is subject to just state and community regulation. Rerum Novarum no. 25; Quadragesimo Anno p. 24-25; Centesimus Annus no. 30.

  5. Free competition is not the best, or even a good, way to organize economic affairs. Quadragesimo Anno p. 44.

  6. Social justice and social charity are just and, in fact, are the "soul" of a just economic order. Quadragesimo Anno p. 45.

  7. Income earned by a man which is not necessary for his upkeep according to his state is subject to just regulation and use by the state and community. Quadragesimo Anno p. 26.

And these are just specifics; they barely begin to get into the principles of capitalism as opposed to the principles of Catholic social teaching.

So yes, it is important to spread Catholic social teaching, and as such the particular way of embodying it that I support, which is called distributism. To spread Catholicism without it would be omitting an essential part of the Gospel message. Truth is truth; I will try to spread all of it whenever I can.

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