Distributism or the Free Economy?

by Kevin Schmiesing

Mr. Storck’s reply in the latest issue of the Concourse is a helpful clarification of his positions. While I am in agreement with his assertion that Catholics ought to look both to the state and to individual and private efforts in building a just and humane society, I would nonetheless like to point out some concerns that his article raises. I do not presume to speak for others besides myself, but I suspect that my views are shared broadly by many Catholics who, genuinely concerned with living out Catholic social principles, disagree with the interpretation of those principles set forth by “distributists” such as Mr. Storck.

On Mr. Storck’s first point—the ability of the state to influence moral opinion—we are agreed. Anyone other than the zaniest of libertarians will grant that law has an educative value. I assume Mr. Storck would agree that the objection to “legislating morality” is based on a false dichotomy, and that, to a significant extent, laws against murder, tax code favors toward families (e.g. child tax credits), even speeding penalties, are all based on a moral vision and the belief that certain things are good and certain things are evil. The question at hand is the prudential one: just how far should the state go in attempting this task? For reasons I will elaborate later, I believe it wise to limit strictly the direct action of government on this score.

On the issue of material wealth, the situation is more complex. Mr. Storck is right to criticize the tone of Messrs. Zoric and Welker’s article insofar as it celebrates riches without noting the inherent dangers. He errs, however, in failing to note the real human benefits of material progress. Consider the devastating floods around the world in the last few years, from Honduras to Venezuela to Mozambique. To a significant extent, the extraordinarily high number of casualties these disasters brought was due to a lack of infrastructural development such as flood prevention measures and quality housing. Floods of a similar ferocity in the United States would have been far less destructive of human life. Many such examples could be cited. While I have no quarrel with Mr. Storck’s contention that material goods generally do not “[bring] men closer to our Lord,” in a direct fashion (for exceptions, consider the material goods of bibles, rosaries, edifyingly beautiful tabernacles, works of art, etc.), this should not call into question the genuine human benefits of material development.

In this context, too, Mr. Storck cites John Paul II in Centesimus Annus on the dangers of materialism and consumerism. Again, there is no disagreement. To less effect, he quotes John Wesley on the relation between increasing riches and decreasing religion. I doubt this claim stands the test of history. Once one gets beyond the crassest of historical generalizations (e.g. that wealth has increased in Europe since 1500, while religious practice has declined), this relation breaks down. Look at the United States during the twentieth century. A strong argument could be made that the 1950s saw increasing religious practice and vibrant churches concurrent with unprecedented economic prosperity. The general and difficult-to-pin-down relation between economic progress and religious practice aside, it is indisputable that wealth can be used for good or ill, that it is fundamentally a morally neutral object, and that it has moral character only in relation to human action. I hope, for instance, that Mr. Storck would not object to Thomas Monaghan’s acquisition of incredible wealth, honestly gained and now generously given.1  

I will run out of space if I try to address each of Mr. Storck’s criticisms of the current economic system. Suffice it to say that if one accepts the principles of a “free economy” (a term the Pope has endorsed as better than “capitalism”), no one claims there will be no hardships (poverty), no painful adjustments (downsizing), no attendant evils (consumerism). The point is that the free economy, with minimal state intervention, can often address these problems better than the alternatives. Wealth creation, not wealth redistribution, is ultimately the most effective answer to poverty. Layoffs are difficult and corporate managers should do their best to avoid them, but the economic efficiency that results from the ability to modify and adjust to changing technology and changing conditions will ultimately provide more and better jobs. Consumerism is a genuine problem in an affluent society, but it is a moral evil that has to do with human attitudes, not merely with the possession of goods.  

In the end, the debate comes down to a question of alternatives. If not the free economy, then what? Mr. Storck offers “distributism.” If by that he means simply the broader distribution of property, I am all for it. But if he intends to utilize state power to achieve the ends he has in mind, I would urge caution. Here I return to the point about limiting governmental power. There is no principle, Catholic or otherwise, that defines precisely to what degree the state should intervene in the economy. My argument, based both on principle and on experience, is that, when in doubt, we should tend toward less rather than more state intervention. The principled part of the argument has to do with a concern for human freedom. I embrace John Paul’s formulation of freedom as always being oriented toward the truth (as opposed to license). But it is also a point of Catholic moral theology that virtue is dependent on freedom; i.e., there is no virtue in a coerced act. When we seek to harness state power to moral concerns more properly and more effectively addressed by the Church, we create problems. The Pope’s recent apology for the abuses of the Inquisition and the Crusades highlights the fact that the excessive entanglement of Church and state usually has pernicious consequences for both.

From the experience of the last hundred years, we can see the disastrous consequences of vigorous state power. Besides the evidently evil totalitarianism of fascism and communism, statist abuses have had other manifestations. In the U.S., the government has waged a “war on poverty” for more than 30 years, with little effect other than a deepening of dependency and despondency. The usurpation of the proper roles of mediating institutions such as families, churches, and local organizations, has resulted in the enervation of these organizations without a compensating increase in social benefits. In short, we would do well to follow the principle of subsidiarity and call on the various levels of government to assist only when the task at hand is beyond the competency of local groups.

Perhaps Mr. Storck agrees with these last two paragraphs. If so, then I would ask, in what way does his distributist vision differ from that of the free economy? Here a more detailed explication of the distributist program is needed. Mr. Storck refers to the creation of “guilds” that would ensure that property serves its end of human welfare, but that would not be “organs of the state.” It is difficult to envisage such entities. If the power of state coercion is not behind the decisions of the guild, what is to guarantee that the guild’s programs are carried out? If the enforcement of the guild’s guidelines is dependent on its internal discipline (i.e., if one does not comply, one is ejected from the guild), then it is not clear how the guild differs from contemporary organizations such as the American Bar Association, nor how the creation of more such guilds would fundamentally alter the makeup of contemporary economic life.

If all Mr. Storck advocates, then, is the employment of moral suasion in a call for simpler living, more generous aid and care for the impoverished and marginalized, and more voluntary efforts to ensure that all people participate in the productive process through ownership of property, our positions do not differ. I would say we both support the current system of free economy, at least in its essential characteristics. If, however, he envisions using government’s coercive powers to implement limitations on profit, burdensome regulation of business, or a redistribution of wealth, I would advise that he think seriously about the consequences, moral and economic, of that route. It might be better to approach social problems in the way John Paul speaks of the Church’s approach to evangelization: “the Church’s method is always that of respect for freedom.”2

Mr. Storck is clearly no socialist. But it is possible, as the Pope has observed, for those ostensibly opposed to socialism (including capitalists and distributists) to fall into the fundamental anthropological error at the heart of socialism. One aspect of that error, he writes in Centessimus, is the belief that “the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil.”3 It has become a truism of historical experience that economic, political, and religious freedoms tend to stand or fall together. Upholding these freedoms will not ensure that people will always choose what is economically or politically or religiously good. But, if the insights of Dignitatis Humanae4 and the current pope’s corpus of writings are correct, the curtailment of freedom in the name of the good ultimately fails to serve the good, because it undermines the foundation of virtue, which is free human decision. And it is the formation of a truly good society, we can all agree, that is our goal. n

Dr. Schmiesing graduated from FUS in 1994. He now works for the Center for Personalist Economics in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

  1. Thomas Monaghan is the founder and former owner of Domino’s Pizza, who has funded, among other charitable projects, the formation of Ave Maria Law School. ↑
  2. Pope John Paul II, Centessimus Annus, no. 46. ↑
  3. Ibid., no. 14. ↑
  4. Dignitatis is the Declaration on Religious Freedom, a document of the Second Vatican Council. ↑

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