02 March, 2017

Distributism and Capitalism: Some contrasting features - Part 2


Continued from Part 1

There are many supposed facts of economic life that any student of economics, or even any observer of political and economic news, is familiar with, matters such as unemployment, corporate mergers and acquisitions, labor relations, business cycles, and so on. I call these supposed facts, not because they do not exist, but because their existence is contingent upon man-made economic arrangements, such as laws and tax structures or even cultural norms. Contrary to the impression one takes from writings both of professional economists as well as from journalists, these things and events are not natural and necessary facts like the changing of the seasons or the daily rising of the sun. They need not exist, certainly at least not to the extent that they do in a capitalist economy. Let us take one of the items from the above list, business cycles, and consider it more carefully.

What are business cycles? "A business cycle is a swing in total national output, income, and employment, usually lasting for a period of 2 to 10 years, marked by widespread expansion or contraction in most sectors of the economy," is how the economist Paul Samuelson defines business cycles in his macroeconomics textbook.[2] Although everyone living in a capitalist economy is familiar with such cycles, or their effects, one might wonder why, apart from the special and external factors I will note below, such cycles exist. Consumer demand for necessary and reasonable goods normally will not fluctuate much - demand for food, clothing, housing, books and the like. Nor will the size of the workforce, and hence of the economy's ability to provide consumer goods, usually experience short-term major decreases or increases. Thus there is no reason to expect the two most important factors in moving an economy, demand and the ability to supply that demand, to change significantly in a short period of time. Of course, external factors, such as famines, natural disasters, wars, migrations, and so on can cause a sudden and large increase or decrease in either demand or the capacity to supply that demand. As such, a distributist economy will be as subject to such external dislocations as is a capitalist economy. They are simply an inescapable part of life on this earth. But there are other factors which are peculiar to capitalism which have caused probably the majority of business cycles, at least the majority of those which have occurred in recent decades.

Capitalism is fueled by an imperative of production for the sake of sales, regardless of consumers' needs or of their spontaneous desires for the goods or services in question. As such, it always rests upon foundations which are liable to be shaken. Distributism, on the other hand, rests upon the solid foundation of human nature and its natural needs and reasonable desires. But capitalist demand, which is usually artificially stimulated by advertising, is necessarily fickle or fragile. The artificial desire for larger and larger houses or cars, for example, tends to drive up prices of those goods, and can lead to so-called bubbles in which prices rise exponentially. Eventually these bubbles will burst. Such extreme up and down movements of prices can cause numerous related economic dislocations, such as panics or depressions, which are simply instances of severe business cycles.
History is marked by bubbles in which speculative prices were driven up far beyond their intrinsic value.... Speculative bubbles always produce crashes and sometimes lead to economic panics.[3]
In addition, although criminal greed is a characteristic of postlapsarian mankind in general, it is capitalism that has institutionalized such greed, and even praised and rewarded it. So, for example, exploitative or risky financial practices by banks are not always illegal, and even when illegal, those engaging in such practices often go unpunished or lightly punished because of the overall climate of opinion in a capitalist society, which tends to take a benign view of economic misdeeds. In the Middle Ages in Europe usurers were popularly regarded as among the most heinous of sinners, and this popular judgment was based on the teachings of society's intellectual elite, theologians, canon lawyers, philosophers and so on. The popular climate of opinion in contemporary America, on the other hand, reserves whatever moral animus it still has for other types of misdeeds, and too often among Christians believers it is only sins against the 6th or 9th commandments which are seen as really worthy of condemnation. All this is the result of the pervasive commercial mentality which affects most Americans.

The point of all this is that the natural end of mankind's economic activity is to supply our necessary and reasonable need for external goods and services. This is why God has given us the capacity to engage in economic activity. Given the fallen state of mankind, however, it is usually necessary to erect laws and institutions to guide our conduct toward its intended end. This distributism seeks to do in the economic realm. Capitalism, on the other hand, not only has done away with the safeguards against economic misdeeds which the Catholic civilization of an earlier age set up, but suffers from an inherent tendency toward economic exploitation and dislocation. And the commercial cultural climate which capitalism has produced fails to understand that any other way of carrying on economic activity is possible or feasible. But this is not the case. Catholics, in particular, who have a developed critique of economic conduct available in the Church's social teaching, have an especially grave responsibility to form their thinking according to this teaching. Capitalism is not inevitable. There are other real possibilities. It is chiefly a matter of our having the will to bring about the changes that are necessary in our economic activity. But it can be done.

Notes:
2: Macroeconomics, 16th ed., 1998, p. 125.
3: Ibid., p. 177.

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