Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Another Kind of Economy

Will someone please tell me what is wrong with capitalism?

I find the antimony between the pro-market Catholics and the Distributists puzzling. I hope I am not the only one. There are two problems with capitalism: its friends and its enemies; and the same may be said of Distributism. Distributists (may their number ever increase) insist on the importance of family over finance. They believe that human beings are best served by an economy wherein private ownership of land is widespread and working for wage, renting, and borrowing are the exception rather than the rule. I do not think they are wrong. But the Distributists insist on presenting their truths as if they were practical—which is silly. What is practical depends entirely on what you want to get in the end; and if one wants to make money (as most Americans do) then Distributism is not practical at all. It is rather worse than that, however; for the Distributists, while offering us a very good picture of a golden economy, give us no notion of how to achieve that picture or how to sustain it. If they would acknowledge this, all might be well—and they would indeed be practical, at least by their own lights. To insist that describing the way things ought to be is practical is absurd. It is worse than absurd; it is unkind! They are encouraging us to fall in love with a dream that may or may not come true—offering us a description of a treasure for which they lack the map. They therefore enable their enemies (who are many) to present them to the world at large as kooks.

Of course, the Capitalists aren’t much better. We (and I will say we, despite the dangers) have a tendency to paint the free market as if it solves all men’s problems. If you don’t believe me, try a few minutes listening to Milton Friedman. (He has a set of lectures, Free to Choose, that make the capitalist case as well as anything I have ever read.) This claim that capitalism creates utopias is of course patently false. I do believe—the evidence is there—that the free market would solve most if not all of the world’s financial problems; but as the Distributists so rightly point out, financial problems are not what we are placed on earth to solve. To suggest otherwise is not merely absurd, but positively immoral. Indeed, I feel a little inclined to suggest that the old monikers of “The Evil Party” and “The Stupid Party”, formerly attached to Democrats and Republicans, be transferred to Free Marketers and Distributists, respectively . . .

I have said it before, and I will say it here again: if you suppose that capitalism means the unbounded exercise of existing wealth for the sake of creating more wealth without regard for the physical, psychological, and spiritual condition of the common man—then I am dead set against it. But when I say “capitalism”, that is not at all what I mean.

My form of capitalism (and it is hardly original to me) is a simple principle: the more an economy is controlled from above—the more trade is restricted, whether by the government or by the monopolies of large businesses—the less wealth the nation will have. This obviously says nothing about such important questions as, How shall monopolies be regulated? Who will ensure that the government does not take too much control? How can we help people get a start in life, or protect those who’ve had bad luck? But these are questions to which no one has yet given a completely satisfactory answer; and a capitalism that makes no bones about its inability to answer them ought not to be criticized for its failure to do what it lays no claim to doing.

I realize that “my form of capitalism” may be rarer than I would like; but it is hardly non-existent. And it is hardly in conflict with the Distributist ideals of widespread ownership of property and emphasis on individual liberty. In fact, if I may say so, the sort of capitalism that encourages free trade is precisely the sort that is likely to enable those who understand the value of land to liberate themselves by its purchase.

I’d like to close with a quote from one of the four great economic encyclicals, John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. (The other three are, of course, Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, and JPII’s Laborem Exercens.) Although his use of “capital” and “capitalism” tends to be more negative—for admittedly we see most often its more negative form—he does make a point not too far removed from mine.

42. Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism . . . capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? . . . If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative [emphasis mine], even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy”, “market economy” or simply “free economy”. But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

The Marxist solution has failed, but the realities of marginalization and exploitation remain in the world, especially the Third World, as does the reality of human alienation, especially in the more advanced countries. . . . Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.

43. The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations [emphasis mine], through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another. For such a task the Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation [emphasis in the original], a teaching which, as already mentioned, recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but which at the same time points out that these need to be oriented towards the common good. This teaching also recognizes the legitimacy of workers’ efforts to obtain full respect for their dignity and to gain broader areas of participation in the life of industrial enterprises so that, while cooperating with others and under the direction of others, they can in a certain sense “work for themselves” through the exercise of their intelligence and freedom.

The integral development of the human person through work does not impede but rather promotes the greater productivity and efficiency of work itself, even though it may weaken consolidated power structures. A business cannot be considered only as a “society of capital goods”; it is also a “society of persons” in which people participate in different ways and with specific responsibilities, whether they supply the necessary capital for the company’s activities or take part in such activities through their labor. . . .

The full texts of Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Laborem Exercens, and Centesimus Annus can be found online at:





  1. My dear Saturday,

    You know as well as I do that I have nothing but the utmost respect for your intelligence. Do me the courtesy of humoring a small conceit of mine and going to the website of the Mises Institute and reading this article:


    wherein Rockwell, a capitalist among capitalists (and I do not hesitate to add, of the sort I least admire) and a proponent of this mythical beast called the free market (did you just hear me say that? I think you did!) attempts to argue that a menial existence, on the level of the most lonesome beasts, the existence of a Scrooge sans conversion, is somehow not just economically beneficial, but in fact an actual state to be desired! Then tell me how it is that there is not an opposition there.

    No, Saturday, my dear, I do not think you are as capitalist as you claim. Rather, I think you are, like me, a distributist with a sense of prudence, a "middle way" between capitalism and the original "middle way." You might like to read Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, I think you would enjoy it.

  2. My dear Tsunami,

    Many thanks for your respect, and I will indeed read the article! (And someday I will get to Schumacher too.) However, since the point (or A point) of my article was precisely that CAPITALIST does not mean the same thing to everyone . . . therefore I am not sure that reading the words of another amoral capitalist is at all likely to lead me to disavow the name.

    Is there in the end any difference between being a "Distributist with a sense of prudence" and being a "capitalist with a heart"? Or, to borrow a little alliteration and an adjective from a recent president, a Compassionate Capitalist?