Thursday, January 08, 2009

An Interview With Thomas Storck

We are honored for the opportunity to interview author and distributist, Thomas Storck. Mr. Storck has written articles in many prestigious publications. He is the author of The Catholic Milieu, Foundations of a Catholic Political Order, and is on the Editorial Board of the Chesterton Review.

Mr. Storck will represent The Society for Distributism at this year's "Catholicism and Economics" conference.

The Distributist Review: Mr. Storck, I would like to start this interview asking a question about your book The Catholic Milieu (Christendom Press). The book is a treatment on the topic of Catholic culture. In particular, economics and technology act as integral components of it. How can they, as you mention in your book, take advantage of our fallen nature?

Thomas Storck: The fundamental difficulties that are apt to arise from both economics and technology, as you suggest, stem from man's fallen nature. Because of the Fall we are all too apt to be greedy, lazy, proud and all the other vices. Thus instead of using the economic system as a means of providing ourselves with necessary quality goods and services, we can use it for the production of useless and even harmful goods, for mere financial speculation with the aim of getting rich as quickly and effortlessly as possible, and for exploiting our fellow man. But surely that's not the reason God created us with the need for external goods and the capacity to make and use them. No, this is as much a misuse of an economy as contraception is a misuse of sex. Everything has to be subordinated to the purpose of right living, and that in turn is subordinated to the attainment of eternal life in Heaven.

With technology it's a similar matter. Without some kinds of tools and machines we would live a pretty impoverished life. Man naturally wants to create necessary tools for himself. But the phrase "appropriate technology," which has been popular since the 1970s, I think, is a good term for expressing what should be our relationship with our devices and inventions. Technology should serve mankind. I know that this is a truism, but I'm afraid it's a truism that is repeated more often than understood. Technology, like everything else in life, has to serve man's life in its totality. Thus just because we can invent some device or process that allows us to do something more quickly or cheaply doesn't mean that that device or process really serves human life as a whole. The narrow bit of good that a machine might do has to be weighed against its bad effects, on both the social and physical environment. Many think the automobile, for example, has contributed toward the destruction not only of the physical environment, but more importantly of our social environment, by loosening family and community ties, killing off local shops and businesses, all of which in turn gives rise to many other social and economic problems.

And when we built huge factories that spewed out chemicals we didn't think about whether this ultimately might be harmful to the world which is our home. But right now we have the problem of our water full of so much pollution that many kinds of fish are either inedible because of poison or at least suspect to eat. Interestingly, Christopher Dawson, the great English Catholic historian and sociologist, warned in the early 1920s about water and air pollution, long before it was taken up as a popular secular concern.

Because man is prone to be greedy and lazy, we very often take the path of least resistance. It's easy to say that technology is neutral, it's all a matter of how it's used. But that's not quite true. Given our fallen natures, if we have something at hand, we're apt to use it. In theory, for example, television could be used responsibly and in moderation, but it's so easy just to turn it on and veg out, as they say, sitting mindlessly flipping channels.

Moreover, some inventions, such as the automobile, have transformed the way we organize our lives. We design our cities around them, we separate our work from our homes. Even if we used cars only in moderation, we would still need most of the gigantic infrastructure of highways, parking lots, used car lots, junk yards, that don't exactly beautify our country. Medieval European cities have great charm precisely because they were built on a human scale and most often with an eye for beauty. Most modern cities were built with neither in mind. But surely if our technology is to serve human life in its totality, not simply make some one process faster or cheaper, then we have to evaluate technology on wider criteria than we're accustomed to.

TDR: The work of English writer R.H. Tawney left a lasting impression on you. Who is he and what were the consequences of your study of his work?

Thomas Storck: Richard Tawney was an English economic historian and social theorist who lived from 1880 to 1962. I discovered him in high school, chancing upon two of his books in a bookstore, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism and The Acquisitive Society. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism is his most famous book, and is basically a history of late medieval and early modern economic thought, especially in England. Tawney was an Anglican, not a Catholic, but he seems to have been a sincere Christian.

Tawney was important in my own life because he showed me that the Catholic Church had a doctrine about social morality that included economics, and that economic activity could not be separated from morality. His thinking is pretty much in line with Catholic social teaching and parallels the thinking of the best Catholic commentators and interpreters, such as Amintore Fanfani, Christopher Dawson, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Heinrich Pesch, John A. Ryan, John F. Cronin and many others.

Tawney shows the relationship between early Protestantism and capitalism. This relationship was complex. Luther and Calvin were by no means friendly to most of the new economic ideas and spirit that was already about a hundred years old by then. But Protestant ideas nevertheless ended up giving capitalism a huge boost, at first mostly indirectly it is true, but nevertheless crucially. The kind of mind produced by Protestantism, especially Calvinism, fit in very well with the spirit of capitalism, with its desires and aspirations. This has been noted by other writers, including Dawson and most famously Max Weber in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

TDR: The increased interest in Distributism is bringing together disenchanted disciples from the left and the right who are looking for alternatives. Social reformer Msgr. John A. Ryan argued against labels like “liberal” or “conservative.” He didn’t believe it was necessary “to be tagged with either designation.” Do you believe our political markers should inform our economic and social perspectives?

Thomas Storck: Well, I'm certainly against our current use of liberal and conservative, and I've written more than once about those confusing and harmful terms. Certainly what you call "our political markers" ought to be related to our economic and social ideas, but first we need better political designations.

I have several fundamental objections to the words liberal and conservative as we use them today in the United States. First, both the liberal and the conservative positions are a hodgepodge of conflicting viewpoints, with no internal philosophical consistency. For example, why should it be considered conservative to be against abortion and likewise conservative to be against labor unions or in favor of the war in Iraq? What relation do these positions have with one another? I would even argue that they're opposed to one another. If we see, for example, that state action is necessary to protect the defenseless unborn, why should there not be action to protect the poor and the worker from those trying to exploit them? The Catholic Church, of course, in her social doctrine has always linked positions in such a way that she is neither conservative nor liberal. She might seem very conservative on some issues and very liberal on others. But that's because the Church is consistent and her social morality flows logically out of her doctrine about man and society.

But our categories of liberal and conservative are basically accidental conglomerations of viewpoints. In the 1940s, for example, it was the Republican party that was championing a constitutional amendment for so-called equal rights for women, and Democrats and unions were generally opposed because they saw such an amendment as an attack on the working man by the rich, an attempt to lower wages. But around 1970 much of this began to change and the Republicans emerged as the self-professed upholders of what we call traditional morality, while the Democrats more or less embraced the feminist critique of sex and the family. But in each case it was an uneasy alliance, since capitalism and market society are probably the greatest means of undermining the family, and yet the Republican party claims to support both market society and the family. On the other hand, the Democrats profess to support organized labor and the working man, and yet these workers are often quite opposed to the feminist and homosexual critique of Christian sexual morality. That's why we had the so-called "Reagan Democrats," workers who voted Republican because of the takeover of the Democratic party by feminists and homosexuals.

When you look at some of the examples which are often taken as representing either right or left, you see big contradictions with our understanding of those terms. For example, the Fascist and quasi-Fascist parties of the 1930s in Europe are always classed on the extreme right. Yet their economic policies often had more in common with socialism than with any free-market sort of capitalism. And before the late 1960s the Swedish socialist party held a pro-family position which championed wives and mothers staying at home and concentrating on raising their children. All these conflicting views cannot be placed on a simple left/right spectrum.

Much of the liberal/conservative debate presupposes a Lockean state, that is, society organized according to the ideas of John Locke, who saw the purpose of society as simply the acquisition of material goods. Government in Locke's view has nothing to do with honoring God or promoting the religious and moral welfare of citizens.

Pope Leo XIII, in a series of encyclicals in the late nineteenth-century, encyclicals such as Libertas, Immortale Dei and Sapientia Christiana discussed the foundation of the State, and stressed that the State had a concern with more than man's material needs. In fact, man organized as a State had duties toward God, including the duty of worship. This doctrine was in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas and even in that of such pagans as Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, who could not have conceived that men organized into political communities would somehow officially ignore supernatural realities. It's absurd, when you think about it, that a family, for example, would make sure to worship God and inculcate duty to God to their own children, yet when those same parents join with other parents to organize a State, they would act as if God did not exist or as if it didn't matter what religion we have. If God exists and if he has revealed how he wishes to be worshipped, then it's as necessary for the State as for the family to conform to those duties toward God.

TDR: Ryan’s books should be required reading, specifically The Living Wage and Distributive Justice. Why do we speak of justice in the marketplace? Isn’t charity the optimum avenue for achieving it?

Thomas Storck: Pope Pius XI, who reigned from 1922 to 1939, wrote much on social justice and other themes of Catholic social teaching. He explained that charity, while vitally important in creating bonds between citizens in any society, can nevertheless not be a substitute for justice. "Charity cannot take the place of justice unfairly withheld," he wrote in Quadragesimo Anno. If workers are denied the living wage that is due to them in justice, charity cannot make up for that debt of justice. The lack of interest in justice on the part of many Catholics today is astounding. In part it stems from ignorance, in part from an identification on the part of so many not with Catholic orthodoxy, but with conservative ideology. Of course, there are other Catholics whose primary identity lies in liberal ideology. Often these Catholics say a lot about justice, but for them it's just as likely to be moral error or heresy, such as claiming that women have the right to be ordained or that same-sex couples have the right to contract a marriage. When we make any secular ideology the center of our thought we move away from Catholic orthodoxy, which is the only sure touchstone of reality that we have.

TDR: If we follow the evidence, most of us would say the theories of “economic growth” (among others) lead back to the 18th century’s Adam Smith. Yet, an acquaintance of mine suggests looking further, to philosopher David Hume’s influence on Smith. What are your thoughts on the development of financial expansion and the results of so-called “worldwide prosperity”?

Thomas Storck: In José María Gironella's novel, The Cypresses Believe in God, a venerable professor of law remarks that if they begin a discussion of the origin of the usurpation of government by force this might lead back to the murder of Abel by his brother, Cain. "You are mistaken, sir," remarks one his students. "It would lead back to the revolt of the angels." So it's hard to know where to begin tracing the genealogy of an idea.

It has been argued by some, including Richard Weaver, that the intellectual origins of modernity can be traced to the nominalist philosophers of the late Middle Ages. I think this is probably true. But I think that the proximate intellectual cause of the new commercial society which was coming into being in the eighteenth century, and which Adam Smith and others gave the intellectual framework for, can be found in John Locke. Locke was earlier than Hume, and as I remarked a little while ago, Locke rigidly separated government from any real interest in religion, in God. Under Locke, religion must always be a private and ultimately trivial affair, for it concerns only the individual and perhaps the family, but not real affairs of state, matters of importance. Of course, I would not deny that Hume played a part in this, as did many other writers of that era.

But what we have to understand is that an utterly new conception of social life came into being. Instead of seeing mankind as brothers headed toward eternity, and seeing Christian men as brothers in the Mystical Body, and all their other practices, whether of economics or whatever, as needing to be subordinated to our eternal destiny, the so-called Enlightenment began to see human beings as so many competing individuals and society as a place where their competing interests would be worked out according to quasi-mechanical rules. The consequences of this are enormous. Karl Polanyi's book, The Great Transformation, is essential reading for understanding what happened, as is Tawney's book that I mentioned earlier. Max Weber is also very good, although he was not a Christian believer. Christopher Dawson likewise has much good material on this point, some scattered in his essays. Dawson's "Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind" is as good an introduction to this whole topic as any.

TDR: As the result of an expanding government, many Christians are turning to the Austrian school of economics for answers. I want to ask your thoughts on that, and then focus on Friedrich von Hayek. Altruism is absent in his thinking, as self-interest is the pivotal agent in the execution of all economic transactions. From this behavior there arises a spontaneous social order. Is this acceptable from a Catholic point of view?

Thomas Storck: From the standpoint of sane and realistic economic thinking, Austrian economics is simply a variety of the same kind of economic thinking that produced the current neoclassical synthesis. Such thinking is not grounded in reality. It looks on the economy as largely a self-regulating machine, whereas in fact, it is relations of power, and the existence and shape of various institutions and customs, that primarily determine economic outcomes, e.g., how high wages are or what profits corporations will receive or what CEO salaries will be. If you look at papal encyclicals, you will see an understanding of how an economy works that is very different from that of most of our economists. This is particularly clear in the encyclicals of popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. They understood that the rich oppressed the poor and the poor needed aid, either from government or from their own collective efforts or both, to protect themselves from exploitation. The notion that wages, for example, are primarily determined by the law of supply and demand is utterly foreign to Catholic thinking as contained in the papal social encyclicals.

In order to highlight the contrast between these two approaches, let me take Paul Samuelson, author of an economics text that has been used continuously since 1948 and has been translated into numerous languages. In fact, it's probably the most widely-used economics textbook in the world. He writes that "Wages are really only the price of labor; rents are similarly the price for using land. Moreover, the prices of factors of production are primarily set by the interaction between supply and demand for different factors - just as the prices of goods are largely determined by the supply and demand for goods."

But the social teaching of the Church has a different understanding of this. For example, Pope Leo wrote in Rerum Novarum (1891) that a worker who receives less than a living wage "because an employer or contractor will give him no the victim of force and injustice." Leo XIII understood that in economic relations human freedom, and thus the abuse of human freedom which allows for injustices, has plenty of room to act. The economy is not some self-regulating machine in which prices and wages are determined solely by mechanical laws of supply and demand. Market forces are real, certainly, but they are never the only factor in determining economic outcomes, and often not even the most important. But when one group of men has power over another group, very often the first group will abuse that power. Thus there is always the possibility of injustice among sinful men.

TDR: Mr. Storck, if we could shift gears for a moment to the topic of liberty. John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” has influenced this nation, which is still wrestling with a profound belief in the sovereignty of the individual. As a result, we toss around the term “liberty” capriciously. You, on the other hand, summon it cautiously, and insist it cannot be placed as the highest objective for human existence. Isn’t liberty the cornerstone of a just society?

Thomas Storck: Leo XIII gave the most profound analysis of this entire question in his encyclical, Libertas. Liberty on the one hand is inseparable from a rational creature. No one can take away my free will, except perhaps by drugging me. Political freedom, the freedom from restraint by political authorities, while obviously a good, for we don't want adults treated as if they were children or led around by their noses and fed like animals in the zoo, must have limits. And I see no reason to think that such liberty is the most important or the highest thing in a political community. It seems to me that justice must hold that place. I have no legitimate liberty to do anything contrary to justice or to the common good. And this includes not just commutative justice, but distributive justice and social justice. The distinctions between these kinds of justice, as well as what is called legal justice, are important parts of the Catholic intellectual tradition, though they hardly figure at all in Anglo-American political thought. Many people think social justice involves working in a soup kitchen or collecting clothes for the homeless. Those are acts of charity, admirable acts to be sure. But they are not acts of social justice.

TDR: In one of your articles, you contrast Lockean political philosophy with Catholic tradition. The former restricts government attention to man’s property and freedom, while the latter defines the state as a “natural institution” with “care for man's moral development” as you put it. How can Distributism (or any system) foster virtue while limiting government coercion?

Thomas Storck: Clearly man is a creature with his feet in two worlds, as it were. Our souls are spiritual, our bodies corporeal. We share something with the angels, but much with the other animals too. We should never forget that we are rational animals, and both parts of this traditional definition are equally important. To overemphasize one of the parts of this definition always has bad results for human life, both individual and social. Now, if we admit that we have an eternal destiny beyond this earth, it seems silly for us, when we establish governments, or any other sort of human society for that matter, to pretend as if life beyond the grave did not exist or was only a private matter. That is my fundamental objection to Locke and his political philosophy. He would have government, the state, which both Aristotle and St. Thomas call a perfect community, ignore what was most important about us.

Now you ask, how can distributism foster moral virtue. No earthly system can guarantee virtue. But we ought to frame all our systems so that they contribute as much as they legitimately can to our attainment of eternal life. At least we do not want them to be an occasion of sin. My contention is that capitalism, by fostering greed, unnecessary competition, concentration upon wealth, cooperates with some of the worst tendencies of our fallen nature, and as a result makes it that much harder to reach eternal life. Distributism, on the other hand, while promoting our legitimate efforts to satisfy our human temporal needs and build a good society, tends not to foster the ills of capitalism that I just mentioned. This does not mean that no one will be greedy under distributism. But it does mean that there will not be a built-in stimulus for greed, for the piling up of useless goods, for enriching oneself at the expense of others, such as there is in capitalism.

TDR: Earlier this year, you spoke about co-housing in a lecture series sponsored by the organization Building Catholic Communities. May we ask you to explain how it works for the benefit of our readers? Co-housing appears to be a potential solution given today’s housing crisis, wouldn’t you say?

Thomas Storck: The Cohousing Association of the United States defines cohousing in this way: "Cohousing is a type of collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods. Cohousing residents are consciously committed to living as a community. The physical design encourages both social contact and individual space." This is certainly one legitimate way of approaching mankind's need for shelter. It needn't be the only way. My wife and I live in a housing cooperative, which has a few of the features of cohousing, but is less intense than what I understand the typical cohousing community is. But in our housing, as well as in everything else that we make, we should remember what St. Paul said about being content with what we need.

If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall in temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs" (I Tim. 6:8-10).

St. Paul doesn't mean, of course, that food and clothing are all we need and we don't need houses, medicine, books, etc. He is rather calling our attention to seeking to satisfy our genuine temporal needs and not aiming at more than those needs. Since about 1970 the average house size in the United States has been growing. I don't know if that's begun to level off or not, but for several decades the average house size was growing while the average family size was shrinking. That's not a rational approach to housing. It's certainly far from St. Paul's exhortation to be content with what satisfies our needs. So I welcome exploration of all types of housing alternatives which can satisfy our legitimate needs for shelter without fueling greed for unnecessary possessions.

Another thing that our housing arrangements can either promote or make more difficult is community. For example, in the housing cooperative in which I live, our townhouses are grouped into what are call courts. We live in a court with fourteen units, fourteen townhouses, that is. The design of the court does a lot to promote community, for generally one will know his neighbors, often see them coming and going, have occasion to talk to them, and so on. Many cohousing communities, as I understand it, are designed even more to encourage community, and some, I think, have communal meals once a week or so. The point, as I see it, is not so much whether we fulfill the exact definition of cohousing, but whether we try to make the way we live, including the physical design of our living spaces, an aid for promoting genuine human goods, and as a result something that will help promote the ultimate human good, gaining eternal life.

TDR: We've heard supporters of capitalism claim John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus unambiguously supported the capitalist position. What would you say to those who make this assertion?

Thomas Storck: I've dealt with that at some length in an article called "What Does Centesimus Annus Really Teach?" published in The Catholic Faith magazine in the May/June 2001 issue and I refer you to that.

TDR: On April 4th, you will participate in a debate on Long Island, New York. Michael Novak and Dr. Charles Clark will join you and respectively present the capitalist and socialist positions, while you represent the distributist. What do you hope will be the fruit of this event?

Thomas Storck: The debate on April 4th at Nassau Community College is probably the biggest distributive event in this country in years. As such, it's an opportunity to make distributism better known. Now, for the most part, people think that we have to choose between either capitalism or socialism, neither of which they even understand well. But I hope that distributism will begin to be seen as a legitimate alternative to both of those systems, and an alternative that avoids the bad features of both.

Interview with Thomas Storck

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