Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Defending Distributism - A Response to First Things

by Various



Rambling in the April Public Square the other day, minding my business and enjoying the view, I was suddenly set upon by a distantly familiar figure. It was Father Neuhaus, armed with nothing stronger than a back issue of the Chesterton Review and a bad dose of pique ("Economics in Verse and Prose" and "But To Be Fair . . ."). The Review contained an article in which I defended "distributism," the creed of small proprietorship frequently associated with G.K. Chesterton and his circle, in vogue a few years ago but now thought invincibly innocent in the face of a harsh competitive world. Initially taken aback, I was assured that my assailant would treat me with "an irresistible penchant to be fair." Up to a point this was true. He accused me of promoting poetry and preaching. Catching the glint of a clerical collar, I thought this promised well: he was about to hand over his own wallet. Here was the kind of distributism I could support any day of the week.

The presentiment of fairness was not sustained by what followed. Leave aside the oddity of a complaint of distributism’s vacuity that omits mention of any of its arguments. Forget the peculiarity of dismissing poetic avenues to truth while quoting Johnson’s verse as the beginning of political wisdom. Marvel rather at the skill with which straw men are tossed and gored. "Today it would seem that there are no alternatives to the market economy." Here is a proposition no distributist disputes. "It is a sloppy . . . habit of mind that blames the failings of this or that social order on ’capitalism.’"

Any habit of mind so obviously sustained by cliche is sloppy. (Even more sloppy, by the way, is to assume equivalence within definitions of capitalism and anticapitalism.) "Distributism is an [antiquarian] economic theory . . . [rescued] by Chesterton’s devoted disciples." It is not primarily an economic theory; it is not the property of any particular group; it has been criticized with more subtlety by Chestertonians than by "neoconservatives"; and it certainly makes no claim that only one model of economic behavior, ancient or modern, should be sanctioned.

The burden of Father Neuhaus’ complaint is that distributism, engaging as social vision and even necessary as corrective to consumerism, has nothing but sermons to offer to "the world of economics daily chronicled by, say, the Wall Street Journal." Could this be the same Father Neuhaus who has written that "the question about consumerism is not-certainly not most importantly-a question about economics. It is first of all a cultural and moral problem requiring a cultural and moral remedy" (Doing Well and Doing Good, p. 202)? The busy world of commerce is not to be denied or wished away, and Father Neuhaus is right to demand of distributists that they speak to it. The difficulty is not their silence but their garrulity. They have any number of responses to the Wall Street Journal, none of which deny the need for enterprise, competition, profit, personal responsibility, or creative engagement by individuals and communities with the earth’s bounty. Distributism has its peculiarities and occasional inconsistencies, but it can offer a perfectly respectable self-justification on purely economic grounds.

Yet to speak of the dismal science is to miss the point. Distributism is less an economic theory than a moral anthropology. Its economic claims proceed from anterior moral claims about the acting person and the nature of charitable community. It is concerned above all with the creative subjectivity of human persons, their openness to transforming grace, and their capacity for dignity through work and property. So also is Father Neuhaus. Insofar as the debate between distributists and "neoconservatives" is interesting, it is for this reason.

The uninitiated must wonder, however, at the heat of a dispute surely more notable for agreements than disagreements. The commonalities are easily rendered. Each offers, with John Paul, a defense of private property, of the family, of subsidiarity, of the economic autonomy of the individual, of solidarity. Each lays claim to a distinctive notion of "community" about which there may be honorable debate. Each deplores the emptiness of collectivism and mass culture, the indignity of welfarism, the sterility of consumerism. Perhaps-that irresistible penchant to be fair again-a period of charitable cooperation is therefore in order.

Dermot Quinn
Department of History
Seton Hall University
South Orange, NJ



As the co-organizer and chairman of the International Chesterton Society’s Croatian conference mentioned in the April issue, may I try to clarify a couple of points? I invited to Zagreb a mixed group of theologians and economists, experts on law and Catholic social teaching, Chestertonians and non- Chestertonians. The purpose was not to "preach distributism" to Eastern Europe but to open a debate on the interpretation and application of contemporary Catholic social teaching in post-Communist societies.

That debate did begin, and it continues.

Some of its participants (such as Dermot Quinn, Russell Sparkes, and those influenced by Dorothy Day, Wilhelm Roepke, or E. F. Schumacher) were and are much more sympathetic to the ideas and intuitions of the distributists than others. Some (notably David Schindler) developed their position expressly in terms of Centesimus Annus and the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. For all of us, the starting point and assumed framework for our discussion was the teaching of John Paul II that a free economy is now the only option for Europe. It is simply that many of us remain convinced that certain enduring principles affirmed by distributism and particularly by G. K. Chesterton can be helpful in fleshing out what exactly the Pope means by this "free economy."

However, it is important to make clear that the debate started by the conference, which has been taking place since that time within the pages of the Chesterton Review, Communio, New Oxford Review and elsewhere, is not and never has been merely about the relevance of distributism to Eastern Europe. In fact, talk about distributism can function as a distraction from the broader issue, which is precisely an attempt to respond to what Fr. Neuhaus calls "the structures and policies of the world of economics daily chronicled by, say, the Wall Street Journal." That response is (and must be) in the first place theological. In other words, it must engage those structures at a level more profound than any at which the Wall Street Journal itself habitually operates. Some of the participants in our dialogue are professionally more concerned with engaging those structures at the level of economic policy, while remaining convinced, as I do, that the theological level is fundamental.

Inevitably, the bringing of this debate to the public eye has involved some of us in attempting to express our differences with the neoconservatives. I am sure that as a group we would regret giving any impression of unfriendliness through the tone of these criticisms, and would not wish to detract from the considerable neoconservative achievements of the last few years-not the least of which is the journal First Things itself. It would be a good thing if we could talk in a serious way about the matters that still divide us. No one here (least of all David Schindler) is proposing to "die for an
economic theory," as Fr. Neuhaus puts it. But to take Christ seriously, we have to take theology seriously; and if we do that, we may find ourselves looking at economics in a different light.

Stratford Caldecott
Oxford, England


. . . One wonders if Fr. Neuhaus does not protest too much over the persistent criticism of American capitalism. He appears to find such criticism particularly inappropriate after the collapse of the purportedly only "real" alternative-state socialism. He dismisses as dreamy and naive any system other than capitalism, especially the distributism championed by Belloc and Chesterton.

Christians ought to have continuing reservations about a system that by its inner logic allows pornography, drug trafficking, prostitution, and child labor. Through law derived from our religious traditions we restrain these social pathologies, but capitalism itself makes no such moral distinctions. It knows nothing of love and mercy, without which no human civilization can long survive. . . .

If we believe, as apparently does much of the Catholic tradition, that small entrepreneurship, worker participation in the ownership of industrial concerns, and family farming are also good, i.e., conducive to a more stable society and tending to foster a more Christian way of life, then a set of policies and a legislative agenda to promote these are not difficult to formulate. Tax incentives (and disincentives) alone can easily encourage small scale entrepreneurship and the growth of ESOP’s (Employee Stock Ownership Plans). The elimination of agricultural subsidies to large concerns would benefit the family farm. Zoning laws can favor traditional shops over the proliferation of Wal-Marts and other megastores.

Even giving the poor access to capital can be achieved by adjustments in the tax treatment of loans or seed capital to those not yet in the "circle of productivity and exchange."

The issue then is not whether the distributist ideal can be approached through the democratic process; it certainly can and in some aspects it already has. The real issue is whether we as a Christian people are willing to put limits on our material prosperity for the sake of a more authentically Christian way of life.

Nicholas J. Healy, Jr.
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Steubenville, OH


I rather suspect that if G. K. Chesterton were alive today he would, far from sharing Father Neuhaus’ infatuation with "democratic" capitalism, be mourning the fact that his warnings were not heeded, that corporations have grown unbelievably huge and centralized while family farms and shops have nearly disappeared.

But defending Chesterton against the criticisms of Catholic neoconservatives is rather like defending a giant against a band of pygmies: the pygmies may appreciate being taken seriously, but it is hardly a pressing or necessary task.

And why do you misrepresent Dr. David Schindler’s criticism of neoconservatism as "a dispute over an economic theory"? His criticism is primarily a theological one and I have never seen any of the neoconservatives address his objections. The economic critique put forward by others is secondary.

Daniel Nichols
Wooster, OH


©First Things
August/September 1995

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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