18 September, 2014

Distributism Basics: Distributism vs. Christian Socialism

One reaction to this Distributism Basics series is that a particular group of commenters has asserted that their economic and political theories are so close to distributism as to make them virtually indistinguishable. In various ways, they have assured me that, if I would only read the writings explaining their views, I would be left scratching my head wondering what separates them from my own. Is this true? Is distributism just another name for what others call "Christian socialism?"

Because this assertion is that distributism and Christian socialism are essentially the same, I've decided that this specific claim needs to be addressed as an addition to the more general explanation of the incompatibility of distributism and socialism I previously published. Therefore, even though this article has been written after the rest of this series, I am inserting it after the previous article on socialism, and it should be considered the third in the series.

The purpose of this article is two-fold: On the one hand, it is to explain to Christian socialists the reasons why their view is fundamentally at odds with distributism. On the other hand, I hope to show any other readers who suspect that distributism must be some form of socialism why that is absolutely not the case. As I pointed out in the first article of this series, distributists make many of the same criticisms against capitalism as the socialists, but we also make many of the same criticisms against socialism as the capitalists. Christian socialism is no exception to that assertion, despite the claims of certain Christian socialists that their views are the same as those of distributists.

The apparent confusion on this point lies in how close their view appears to be to distributism. This is not as much in the fact that we make the same criticisms of capitalism, but because the terms some of them use when advocating their positions are very similar to those used by distributists. However, this similarity is only on the surface. It is said that the devil is in the details, and it is precisely in the details where the irreconcilable differences between distributism and Christian socialism can be seen as if in a bright light.

For this article, I have reviewed three writings by authors recommended to me by Christian socialists: The Acquisitive Society by R. H. Tawney, Progress and Poverty by Henry George, and The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi. While I believe these authors were sincere in their attempt to address the injustices capitalists seemed incapable or unwilling to address through capitalism, and I believe many of their criticisms of capitalism were both just and correct, they seemed to miss where their proposed solutions were just as faulty as the other socialists they criticized. Ultimately, the views Christian socialists have about the nature of property and economics, the relationship of those things to the individual and society, and the relationship of society to the individual, is no less utilitarian and materialistic than those of any other form of socialism. While the end goals of the Christian socialists and distributists may sound similar, the basis for justifying both those goals and the methods proposed for accomplishing them are incompatible.

While Christian socialists appear to agree with distributists that there is no such thing as an absolute right to an unregulated use of private property, they appear to disagree that the right to own and pass on to heirs property legally obtained, including property in land, is inviolable. Distributsts advocate policies that promote the widest practical ownership of productive property, but they must be formulated to avoid injustice against current owners. They must encourage as natural a transition from concentrated to distributed ownership as possible. The idea of merely abolishing title by a stroke of law, as suggested by some of these authors, is not compatible with distributism. In addition, the position of the Christian socialists seems to put the power of regulation in the highest levels of the government, but distributists insist that it must local wherever possible and practical.

R. H. Tawney asserted that he would apparently deprive ownership to those who own property for rent in urban areas but not those in rural areas. He also asserted that the state should invest in and maintain ownership of large industries and advocated a form of joint ownership between the state and the workers. This is not presented as a temporary measure. He wrote that the state should acquire title (either exclusive or joint) to productive property and hold it. Many of his other views are not necessarily incompatible with distributism, but his views on the rights of property ownership are not in line with the other writers suggested to me. In my view, this makes his association with Christian socialism tenuous at best. However, his views on joint state and private ownership appear to have gone beyond public ownership of resources and utilities. Based on this, it seems to me that he may have been more of a corporatist than a distributist.

As we move on to Henry George, it must be remembered that distributism is not an attempt to negotiate a middle ground between capitalism and socialism. It does not attempt a harmonious blending of the two. Mr. George, on the other hand, declared this was his specific intention. He asserted that you may own your house, your shop and all the things in them, but not the land on which they sit or any natural resources of that land. Distributists advocate as many people as possible, or at least as practical, to privately own productive property, including land.

Mr. George also accepted usurious forms of interest charged on loans of money, justifying it on the grounds that, because the activities of production result in a general increase throughout society, and even throughout the world, the charging of interest on money loaned achieves an overall economic balance. The problem with this justification is that the lender is effectively protected from loss while the borrower is not. The chance of the borrower getting an increase is tied to the success of his activity, but the lender's chance of increase is tied to the presumption of overall increase rather than his ability to wisely choose borrowers. Not only is usury not compatible with distributism, the idea of a transaction where only one side holds a risk is fundamentally unjust. What Mr. George advocated is a scheme where the borrower is at risk based on his particular endeavor, but the lender is guaranteed an increase based on the presumption of an average general increase of all endeavors including those with which he has no involvement. In other words, if I make a business loan to you, and your business fails, you lose but I still win.

Exactly how Karl Polanyi's, The Great Transformation, could be presented as evidence that Christian socialism is essentially the same as distributism remains beyond my comprehension. While he seemed willing to apply some level of subsidiarity to national government, this was only for the purpose of preserving culture. I found no evidence that his idea of subsidiarity really applied to anything else, or that it applied for anything more local than the state. He dismissed subsidiarity altogether in economic matters. This is because, in his view, industrialized economy has moved beyond national boundaries, making those boundaries anachronistic for modern economics. I have not found this notion in any explanation of distributism. Even though this is enough to show that Polanyi's views are not compatible, there is another point where he clearly diverges from distributism.

As I explained in my article, Is Distributism Catholic?, the philosophical basis for many distributist positions predate Christianity. Additionally, you can find teachings very close to distributism in many other faiths. The distributist movement has basically always had adherents who are not Catholic, and even some who are not Christian, but while these could typically assert the compatibility of distributism with their own faiths, I don't believe any of them would have denied its origins, much less its compatibility with the Christian Gospels. As I explained in the first article of this series, distributism, as a distinct and named economic system, was founded by Catholics in response to papal teaching. I don't think that anyone who has studied distributism, even if they disagree with it, would deny that its positions are an attempt to apply philosophical positions on economic and social structures in ways that are specifically compatible with the Catholic Faith.

Some Christian socialists who have assured me that their views are nearly exactly the same as distributism have directed me to Mr. Polanyi's writings for evidence of this claim. Instead of evidence of an economic system based on the idea that the Gospel message still applies to modern societies, Mr. Polanyi rejects this idea, agreeing instead with Robert Owen's assertion that "the Gospels ignored the reality of society."
"Owen recognized that the freedom we gained through the teachings of Jesus was inapplicable to a complex society. His socialism was the upholding of man's claim to freedom in such a society. The post-Christian era of Western civilization had begun, in which the Gospels did not any more suffice, and yet remained the basis of our civilization.

The discovery of society is thus either the end or rebirth of freedom. While the fascist resigns himself to relinquishing freedom and and glorifies power which is the reality of society, the socialist resigns himself to that reality and upholds the claim to freedom, in spite of it. Man becomes mature and able to exist as a human being in a complex society. To quote once more Robert Owen's inspired words: 'Should any causes of evil be irremovable by the new powers which men are about to acquire, they will know that they are necessary and unavoidable evils; and childish, unavailing complaints will cease to be made.'"
If this is a position of Christian socialism, in what way is it compatible with distributism? In what way can it maintain a claim to being Christian?

While some of the goals of Christian socialists sound similar to those of distributists, the underlying justifications Christian socialists give for their goals reveal a philosophical foundation that is at odds with that of distributism. These get mixed with other goals that are not in the least compatible so that, in the end, what Christian socialists wish to accomplish is not the same as distributists. Because of this, the results of implementing their overall goals will naturally be very different from the results of distributism. In addition, the methods condoned by Christian socialists to achieve their goals cannot be accepted by distributists. These authors, recommended to me by Christian socialists, have affirmed my conviction that pope Pius XI was correct when he wrote:
"If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist."
There is one final point I feel I need to address in this article. Distributists have been criticized by certain capitalists for not rejecting the notion of a progressive tax as an instrument to facilitate the transition from capitalism to distributism. Among these criticisms is the notion that, because socialists, like Marx, also supported progressive taxation, this proves we actually are socialists. Since this article, combined with the previous article in this series on socialism, addresses the fundamental incompatibility of distributism with socialism, I will take this opportunity to address this specific criticism on two points.

The first point is the idea that, because some socialists supported an idea, anyone else who supports that idea must also be socialist (no matter how forcefully they renounce socialism). Well, the socialists I reviewed for this article not only allow for, but actively advocate the private ownership of the tools of production. One advocated charging of interest on money loaned. If these capitalists are to be consistent, they must either reject the ideas of interest charged on money loaned and private ownership of the tools of production, or admit that they are really socialists. I am, of course, kidding, but this does illustrate that one has to look at the entire position presented and cannot justly accuse someone of being a socialist merely because of one or two particular points where their positions seem to match. Distributism, as a system, rejects fundamental principles that are the very root of socialism.

The second point is that, while I cannot speak for other distributists, I consider progressive taxation to be an extreme case solution. This is because, as I stated in previous writings and comments, there are certainly aspects of progressive taxation that can be considered unjust. It could only be considered if, after a true attempt to apply more just methods, they were found to be inadequate for accomplishing sufficient change. Even then, due consideration to the principle of double-effect would have to be applied. I would also point out that, in my view, progressive taxation would only really be compatible with distributism if done at a local level rather than at a state or federal level. I admit that, at this time, I believe that it is likely to be needed, but this is because capitalists have historically used taxes and other laws to establish the current economic environment, and those same tools may be needed to undo what they've set up. However, this is an issue I am still studying, so my position on this may change. Regardless, I would be happiest if the wider distribution of privately owned productive property could be accomplished without this type of drastic measure. I would strongly advocate avoiding progressive taxation if doing so is possible because I believe not using such measures is more consistent with the fundamental ideas behind distributism.

Other articles in this series:

The Nature and Roles of Government

Distributist Economic Society

1 comment:

  1. This article was updated. It was pointed out where I had misinterpreted certain points regarding R. H. Tawney. I have modified this article to correct this mistake.

    Thank you to John M├ędaille for catching this error and pointing it out to me.