Distributism, state power and papal teachings

by Thomas Storck

Last spring an interesting dialog took place in the pages of the University Concourse on the subject of distributism, which is the economic system elaborated in the first half of the twentieth century by such Catholic writers as G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Fr. Vincent McNabb. Its most complete exposition was in Belloc’s book, The Restoration of Property (1936). In the latest round of this controversy there seem to be several points which are especially at issue. The first is the question of the role of the government in promoting a just economy, in particular, a distributist economy. For example, Dr. Kevin Schmiesing, in his article in the May 4 Concourse, advocates what he calls a “free economy,” in which a just society would be brought about by “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,” and in which the government would have little role. And Mr. Philip Harold similarly warns against the “temptation” to rely overmuch on governmental power to implement a program of economic justice. Therefore we should first look at this question of the role of the state and of state power in creating and maintaining a just economic order.

It would be easy for me and for the others who have taken part in this discussion to state our opinions about the degree and kind of governmental intervention in the economy which is justified. But in doing so we would too often be simply asserting our opinions. I suggest that the correct method of procedure for us as Catholics is to look to the entire encyclical tradition, that is, the tradition of modern papal social teaching beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891 and embodied in encyclicals and other documents down to the present day. There we will find an interrelated body of doctrine addressing this very question, as well as other questions about the relationship between the moral law and the economy. In my previous articles I quoted several passages from these encyclicals, but I cannot recommend too highly to the readers of this journal that they return to the sources and read these seminal documents in their entirety, especially Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII, Quadragesimo Anno of Pius XI, and the present Holy Father’s three social encyclicals, Laborem Exercens, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and Centesimus Annus. Nor is it the case, as some have asserted, that somehow Centesimus represents the overturning of all the previous documents—as if the Church had suddenly disavowed all that she formerly taught. Centesimus is firmly in the same tradition as its predecessors.

Suffice it to say that the general attitude taken by these documents toward the role of the state in the economy is one of neither minimizing nor maximizing state power. Certainly the principle of subsidiarity, which Dr. Schmiesing cites and which Pius XI formulated in Quadragesimo Anno—that the state should not assume tasks best left to lower groups—is of fundamental importance, but that same Pontiff in the same encyclical notes that the economic proposals of the moderate socialists of his day (1931) “often strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers” (QA, no. 113) and that “certain forms of property must be reserved to the State, since they carry with them an opportunity of domination too great to be left to private individuals without injury to the community at large” (QA, no. 114).

I cite these remarks simply to show that the papal, and perforce the Catholic, approach to state power in the economy cannot be reduced to Dr. Schmiesing’s principle of “less rather than more state intervention.” But I do not want to start a war of papal quotations. I would prefer that all our readers look at the encyclicals themselves, and I trust to their good sense and open minds in doing so.

Moreover, there is another aspect of the question of the government and the economy that we should keep in mind. This is that, no matter what a government does or does not do with regard to the economy, it is taking a stand. Just as a state that passed no laws condemning abortion could not take refuge in the sophistry that it was neutral on the subject, so a state that takes a hands off attitude toward the economy is taking a position on the economy just as much as the most statist regulatory regime that one can imagine. It is impossible for a government not to affect the economy, either by its laws or its lack of laws. There is no such thing as simply “allowing the economy to be itself,” for the economy, like all the other creations of mankind, must have some framework in which to function. The question is, shall this framework be one that we try to make (as much as we can) a Christian framework, or one that follows the deistic philosophy of the eighteenth century?

Another point that was raised in our discussions concerns what are often called “occupational groups” or “guilds.” These entities are not only an integral part of the distributist program, but have figured very largely in papal teaching. In Quadragesimo Anno Pius XI devoted a good deal of space to describing how these groups would function, and his successor, Pius XII, continued to champion them. Nor does John Paul II neglect them, as when, in Laborem Exercens, he refers to “intermediate bodies with economic, social and cultural purposes; they would be bodies enjoying real autonomy with regard to the public powers, pursuing their specific aims in honest collaboration with each other and in subordination to the demands of the common good….” (no. 14)

Anyone acquainted with the papal social tradition would immediately see here a reference to occupational groups.

However, I still must answer Dr. Schmiesing’s question: Would the decisions of these groups be backed by the power of the government or would they be merely voluntary organizations such as the American Bar Association?

Pius XI contrasts the occupational groups with free associations such as the ABA, and pointedly notes that he hopes that a flourishing of free associations will “prepare the way and…do their part toward the realization of those more ideal vocational fellowships or `groups’ which We have mentioned” (QA, no. 87). Generally Catholic commentators on this question see the occupational groups as analogous to the medieval guild on this point, in that in order to practice a certain trade or profession one was required to be a member of the appropriate guild and abide by the decisions of the guild. And the power of the state stood ready to enforce guild decisions, if necessary. However, the government did not set guild policy nor appoint guild officials, who were elected by the members. This sort of arrangement often puzzles those accustomed to capitalism. They understand purely private entities and they understand the government. But the notion of some sort of intermediate body, with a real role to play in bringing order to the economy, yet not a department of the government is strange to them. But before concluding that such bodies are unnecessary or harmful to the economy, I would simply urge my readers to remember that the tradition of economic thought with which we Americans are most familiar stems ultimately from the deistic tradition of Adam Smith, a bitter enemy of the Catholic Church incidentally.1

Space unfortunately prevents me from going into detail about the role of occupational groups in the economy, but we must remember that they are not an example of state power, but of the natural grouping of those working to further the same endeavor.

Dr. Schmiesing cites various examples of the abuse of state power. I deplore them as much as he does. But it would be as easy to bring up examples of the abuses of private corporate power, beginning with Rerum Novarum, which speaks of “a small number of very rich men [who] have been able to lay upon the masses of the poor a yoke little better than slavery itself” (RN, no. 2). Moreover, as I set out at more length in my first article (January 28), distributism is not a statist system. Just because it rejects the unrestrained competition of capitalism (something also rejected again and again by the Popes), does not mean that it makes use of the government to regulate the economy. Distributism calls for the wide ownership of private property, with the laws (for example, the tax code) designed to discourage the concentration of property in the hands of a few. It is hard to find anything in the Catholic tradition which is against such arrangements.

A third and very important point that is at issue in our controversy concerns the role of the law as coercive agent. Both Dr. Schmiesing and Mr. Harold warn that using the laws to promote economic justice must tend to become a violation of human freedom. And in the first place, I repeat that any attempt to establish a Christian economic order must be preceeded and accompanied by a renewed preaching of the Gospel. Men’s hearts must turn to God if the society is to turn to God. But this does not mean that the law can never have a punitive effect. One last quotation from Pius XI in which he refers to the laissez-faire philosophy of the nineteenth century will illustrate what I mean.

A stern insistence on the moral law, enforced with vigor by civil authority, could have dispelled or perhaps averted these enormous evils. This, however, was too often lamentably wanting. For at the time when the new social order was beginning, the doctrines of rationalism had already taken firm hold of large numbers, and an economic teaching alien to the true moral law had soon arisen, whence it followed that free rein was given to human avarice.2

In most matters we recognize that the law is both teacher and restrainer of evil doers. Thus we want to prevent abortion even if we cannot convert the abortionist. Our Catholic ancestors applied the same philosophy to the economic order, and however much they strove to convert those who injured the common good by their greed, they also sought to restrain them precisely to protect the most economically vulnerable members of the society.

Probably the biggest reason that Americans today have difficulty thinking about making fundamental changes in the economy is that we are convinced that our economy is doing so well. Every day we are bombarded with positive economic statistics, from rising Dow Jones averages to increased GDP or worker productivity. But one way to put this in perspective is to ask, How many families can afford to live on the income of the father alone? If we accept that a normal family life allows a mother to devote herself full-time to the care and education of her children, what can we say about an economy that makes a normal family life so difficult for so many? Despite the statistics, I do not think such an economy can be regarded as healthy.

My plea and hope is that Catholics will allow themselves to ask some fundamental questions about the economy which go beyond the usual assumptions which we receive from the culture around us. Then we can look at what our Catholic tradition has said and perhaps find some surprising truths, but truths which are nonetheless part of the salvific message of Jesus Christ, as held and taught by his teaching Church until the end of time.

Thomas Storck’s latest book is Christendom and the West : Essays on Culture, Society and History. He is a contributing editor of The New Oxford Review and a member of the editorial board of The Chesterton Review.

  1. Adam Smith described the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages as “the most formidable combination that ever was formed against the…liberty, reason, and happiness of mankind….” The Wealth of Nations, bk. 5, chap. 1, pt. 3, art. 3. ↑
  2. Quadragesimo Anno, no. 133 ↑

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V,5 What is distributism?, Thomas Storck V,6 (re)Distributism (re)Considered, Joseph Zoric V,6 Towards a humane economy: a reply to Thomas Storck, Philip Harold V,7 The good of distributism: a reply to critics, Thomas Storck V,7 Inner life of society determines value of economic systems, Daniel Ellis V,8 Distributism or the Free Economy?, Kevin Schmiesing V,8 A personalist point regarding economics, Philip Harold VI,1 The legitimacy of wealth, Genevieve Belland VI,2 A different interpretation of the social encyclicals, David Schmiesing VI,2 Broadening the Distributism Discussion, Philip Harold VII,1 The economic role of the medieval guilds, Thomas Storck VIII,1 Social credit: a distributist reform of the financial system, Oliver Heydorn VIII,2 The unfeasibility of the Social Credit solution, Gabriel Martinez VIII,2 Social Credit is no alternative, Joseph Zoric VIII,2 Kudos to Heydorn, Thomas Storck V,8 Beware of economic Puritanism, Kathleen van Schaijik

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