Monday, January 15, 2007

The Good of Distributism: A Reply to Critics

by Thomas Storck

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to the replies to my article, "What is Distributism?" which appeared in the January issue of the Concourse. I will reply to Mr. Harold first. I welcome his comments on the evils of consumerism and the dangers inherent in the notion that property rights are absolute. He very rightly notes that it is necessary that individual and social attitudes toward these must change. "Structures are a function of attitudes, and it is capitalist attitudes which must be changed before capitalist structures can change." However, he and I differ, apparently, when it comes to the question of whether the state can have any positive role in bringing about such changes. Mr. Harold writes, "This is all very different, however, from any type of government coercion or political action to change structures, which is the approach of Marxism, and which seems to me the prime danger of distributism as explicated by Mr. Storck. It is one approach to try to conform our own attitudes and actions to the truth, and another to imagine that this strenuous task can be bypassed by blunt political action."

I have never advocated that state action should attempt to bypass conversion of heart, but I do not think there is any necessary opposition between these two modes of acting either. Just as the state can have a tremendous influence on opinion via bad laws--Roe v. Wade is a prime example--so by promoting good laws the state can influence opinion to the better. The 1931 encyclical of Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, in which the Pontiff called for a thorough renewal of society upon the basis of Christian morality, advocated both conversion of heart and legal action on behalf of social justice. Such sentiments have been echoed by numerous popes, as in these words of Pius XII:

And, while the State in the nineteenth century, through excessive exaltation of liberty, considered as its exclusive scope the safe-guarding of liberty by the law, Leo XIII admonished it that it had also the duty to interest itself in social welfare, taking care of the entire people and of all its members, especially the weak and the dispossessed, through a generous social programme and the creation of a labor code. (Address to Italian workers on the Feast of Pentecost, June 1, 1941)

Since, as St. Thomas taught, man is by nature a social and political being, we cannot ignore the role of the state in promoting a just society. It is true, as Mr. Harold states, that governmental action will accomplish little in the absense of a true conversion of hearts, but the point is that both are needed. One of Satan's biggest successes in the modern world has been to divide Catholics, and indeed many others, into two groups: those who look to the state for obtaining everything, and those who look only to individual or private activity or charity. But in fact neither of these two groups is correct.

Moreover, distributism, unlike socialism, does not look to the state to accomplish everything, but primarily works for the establishment of groups--modern "guilds"--which are not organs of the state and which are to play the most important role in ensuring that property serves its true end, namely, the promotion of human welfare.

Mr. Zoric and Mr. Welker, however, unlike Mr. Harold, do not seem to understand that the mere celebration of material riches hardly comports well with the gospel message. Yes, capitalism is certainly responsible for the creation of mounds of material goods. Mr. Zoric and Mr. Welker celebrate the ubiquity of telephones and electricity, cars, VCRs, microwaves, air conditioning, cable TV, washers and dryers. While I would not dispute that many of the inventions of the industrial revolution have done good, one wonders, however, if the indiscriminate production of all the above products really has brought men closer to our Lord, has helped to create a Christian society, has increased charity and justice in our hearts. Perhaps a few quotes would put the matter into perspective.

If abundance of riches were the ultimate end [of life], an economist would be ruler of the people...The purpose [finis] of the people having come together however seems to be to live according to virtue. For to this men come together, that they may live well together, which each one living by himself is not able to obtain; the good life however is according to virtue; the virtuous life therefore is the end [finis] of human society.(St. Thomas Aquinas, De Regimine Principum, I, 14)

John Paul II, speaking of the attempt by non-communist nations to rival communism in the years after World War II, wrote,

Another kind of response, practical in nature, is represented by the affluent society or the consumer society. It seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a free-market society can achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs than Communism, while equally excluding spiritual values. In reality, while on the one hand it is true that this social model shows the failure of Marxism to contribute to a humane and better society, on the other hand, insofar as it denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.(Encyclical Centesimus Annus, no. 19)

And from the same encyclical,

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards "having" rather than "being," and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.(Encyclical Centesimus Annus, no. 36)

And lastly, from one of our separated brethren, John Wesley: "I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion.... But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches." (Quoted by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.)

After their praise of the material products of capitalism, Mr. Zoric and Mr. Welker deal with some of the specifics of my article. They argue, for example, that my account of the stock market is incorrect. But the notion of a real connection between the investor/owner and the company is largely a capitalist fairy tale. If, as they argue, most investors hold stocks on a long-term basis, why do thousands of shares change hands every day, and why is the minute by minute rise and fall in stocks so eagerly watched by both traders and investors? In fact, there is little similarity between private property as the popes have championed it and private property as it exists via shares of stock.

I also stated the following: "If my business supports myself and my family, then what right do I have to expand that business so as to deprive others of the means of supporting themselves and their families?" Mr. Zoric and Mr. Welker argue that "business expansion does not deprive others of the means of supporting themselves; rather, it offers additional opportunities for those seeking such means." But do Mr. Zoric and Mr. Welker really believe that Wal-marts have never put any small shops out of business? That chain stores have never caused mom and pop stores to close? Economists must look at the real facts of the economy, not simply at deductions from their econometric model of what is supposed to happen.

Moreover, distributism is not the enemy of technological development as Mr. Zoric and Mr. Welker seem to think it is, though perhaps it would slow such development down a bit and give us a means of looking more closely at alleged improvements. After all, does mankind really need a new release of Windows every year--often with very little improvement over the old system, but with lots of money for Bill Gates? Does all the money spent on continual computer "upgrades" really represent a wise use of the resources God has given us?

As I indicated above, although Catholicism has always condemned the classical liberal notion that the state and state action are to be reduced to the smallest role possible, nevertheless distributism is not a statist system. It is not a form of socialism nor does it owe anything at all to the Marxist tradition. Rather, this social philosophy would seek to restore to individuals the actual possibility of owning productive property, so that the system of private ownership would work for the common good. Then we would see that it is not for the mere piling up of consumer goods that the economy exists, but for supplying our necessary material needs so that we can turn our minds to things much more important. For after all, "a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15). n

Mr. Storck lives in Greenbelt, Maryland

© The University Concourse
Volume V, Issue 7
March 27, 2002

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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