21 January, 2021

On the Foundations of Distributism: Property, Family, Politics, Economy. Part 2


The following is the English version of part two of an article/interview by Thomas Storck, “Sui Fondamenti del Distributismo: Propriet√†, Famiglia, Politica, Economia,” published in Bollettino di dottrina sociale della Chiesa, July/Sept. 2020, pp. 73-84.

For information on the Italian publication, see here.

Part 1 can be found here
 
Can you explain in more detail how distributism implements or realizes the fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching?

If one had to articulate the most basic principle of Catholic social teaching it would be that the economy is part of the whole complex of human activities that must be subject to the law of God and must contribute, or at least not hinder, the attainment of our last end, eternal life with God. From this fundamental axiom flow a number of others. Since the economy is part of a hierarchy of activities, it cannot be conceived as something operating solely under its own laws as a self-regulating mechanism. In fact it exists to serve the human race, and if it results in actions that harm more important human goods - such as the "creative destruction" of capitalism usually does - then something is awry. Likewise, given the fallen nature of mankind, the acquisition and possession of material goods is often a source of temptation, a temptation to acquire more than we reasonably need and to manipulate the entire economy for our own behalf and the behalf of our family, friends and associates.
 
Catholic social teaching recognizes that there must be regulation of the economy, regulation that is able to enforce its rules, but at the same time it understands that simply to centralize power in the organs of the state is not wise. Hence the need for intermediate groups. Finally, the Church knows well that man is weak and easily yields to the temptations that abound in the economic field. Thus the need not only for prudent regulation and sound institutions, but for a reform of morals, for without virtuous men the best systems are capable of manipulation and corruption.
All those versed in social matters demand a rationalization of economic life which will restore a sound and true order. But this order, which We Ourselves desire and make every effort to promote, will necessarily be quite faulty and imperfect, unless all man's activities harmoniously unite to imitate and, as far as is humanly possible, attain the marvelous unity of the divine plan.
(Quadragesimo Anno, no. 136)
How does distributism seek to make these aspects of Catholic social doctrine concrete? The two chief points of distributist theory are well-distributed property and the correct use of property within the economy so that it contributes, according to its own proper nature and function, to the common good.

I have already discussed the idea of well-distributed property, doubtless the most well-known doctrine of distributism. It rests on several fundamental distributist principles. One is that without widely distributed property, individuals and families will be at the mercy of owners of capital, who will usually make decisions based solely on what will benefit them financially. Secondly, large accumulations of property allow their possessors undue influence on the political process, and, perhaps most importantly, tend to corrupt the culture itself, creating a commercial or consumer culture, in which everything is valued or measured in terms of money. One example of this is how, in the United States, education, and especially higher education, is regarded most often as merely an economic investment. Since, at least till recently, those with degrees generally earned more money than those without degrees, this is pretty much the only justification for higher education even offered. Education as initiation into the world of learning and into our intellectual and cultural heritage, as enabling one to be free of the prejudices of one's time and place and learning to truly think - these are seldom mentioned, and for the most part higher education is evaluated solely in terms of the financial benefit for the individual.

With regard to the right use of property in an economy, both Catholic social teaching and distributism recognize that economic freedom in the sense of free competition is not a sane or just way to run an economy.[i] But if the idea of a self-regulating economy ruled solely by competitive forces is rejected, then the question becomes: Who exactly is to do the regulating? Many socialists and other types of statists argue or simply assume that this is to be done by the central government. An extreme form of this was undoubtedly in the Soviet Union, where government officials would set detailed quotas for factory production, and generally manage the entire economy in the most minute manner. As everyone knows, this was productive of much inefficiency and waste, but the fact that the Soviets engaged in economic regulation in a poor way does not negate the necessity of some kind of regulation. In the Middle Ages this regulation was performed by the guilds, private associations yet with public responsibilities, and whose rules would be enforced, when necessary, by the municipal authorities. While the guilds gradually died out or became impotent beginning in the sixteenth century, in the nineteenth century, when Catholics looked about for some way of addressing the growing injustices brought about by capitalism, they spontaneously turned to the medieval model as a guide. Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum recommended and described in some detail organizations very similar to guilds,[ii] and Pius XI, in Quadragesimo Anno and especially Divini Redemptoris, explicitly called for a revival of guilds, adapted to modern conditions and modern technology.[iii]
 
What would the functions of these guilds be? Msgr. John A. Ryan, one of the greatest of the Church's twentieth-century theologians on the Church's social doctrine described them as follows:
The occupational group [guild] might be empowered by law to fix wages, interest, dividends, and prices, to determine working conditions, to adjust industrial disputes, and to carry on whatever economic planning was thought feasible. All the groups in the several concerns of an industry could be federated into a national council for the whole industry. There could also be a federation of all the industries of the nation. The occupational groups, whether local or national, would enjoy power and authority over industrial matters coming within their competence. This would be genuine self-government in industry.
 
Of course, the occupational groups would not be entirely independent of the government. No economic group, whether of capitalists or laborers, or of both in combination, can be trusted with unlimited power to fix their own profits and remuneration. While allowing to the occupational groups the largest measure of reasonable freedom in the management of their own affairs, the State, says Pius XI, should perform the tasks which belong to it and which it alone can effectively accomplish, namely, those of "directing, watching, stimulating, and restraining, as circumstances suggest or necessity demands...."[iv]
The guild-principle recognizes that those engaged in the same trade or profession are not rivals or enemies, each seeking as much market share as possible, hoping in fact to put the others out of business.    In the Middle Ages practitioners of the same trade or profession saw themselves as engaged in a cooperative project to provide the public with a needed good at a just price, all the while, of course, expecting that they themselves would receive a reasonable remuneration for their work. The guilds thus were more than economic institutions. They were true fraternities and celebrated the feasts of their patron saints and sponsored masses for deceased members and their families. They aspired to cultivate a spirit of harmony, cooperation and charity among practitioners of the same trade and to foster an attitude of justice toward others, such as suppliers of raw material or the consuming public.
   
Although the role of guilds in distributist theory is often overlooked, in fact Chesterton, and especially Belloc, were quite clear this point. Belloc wrote, for example,
The safeguarding of the small unit, the seedlings of re-afforestation, the delicate experiments in the reconstruction of property, must take the form of the Guild: not the unprotected guild arising spontaneously (for that would soon be killed by the predatory capitalism around it) but of the Guild chartered and established by positive law.[v]
The guild or occupational group has always been a key element in a Catholic approach to the economy, as it clear from its place in both distributist and solidarist theories.
 
I have already mentioned Pius XI's insistence that a Christian attitude must accompany any reform of institutions. What we must strive for, along with the concrete institutional and legal changes which distributism calls for, is an attitude toward riches which differs from that existing in the modern world.
We can, therefore, lay down as the first principle of mediaeval economics that there was a limit to money-making imposed by the purpose for which the money was made. Each worker had to keep in front of himself the aim of his life and consider the acquiring of money as a means only to an end, which at one and the same time justified and limited him. When, therefore, sufficiency had been obtained there could be no reason for continuing further efforts at getting rich,...except in order to help others....[vi]
It is difficult to stress too much how the modern world, in some places more than others to be sure, has departed from its Christian past in its attitude toward economic activity.[vii] As the economic historian, Richard Tawney, wrote,
The idea that there is some mysterious difference between making munitions of war and firing them, between building schools and teaching in them when built, between providing food and providing health, which makes it at once inevitable and laudable that the former should be carried on with a single eye to pecuniary gain, while the latter are conducted by professional men who expect to be paid for service but who neither watch for windfalls nor raise their fees merely because there are more sick to be cured, more children to be taught, or more enemies to be resisted, is an illusion only less astonishing than that the leaders of industry should welcome the insult as an honor and wear their humiliation as a kind of halo. The work of making boots or building a house is in itself no more degrading than that of curing the sick or teaching the ignorant. It is as necessary and therefore as honorable.... It should be at least equally free from the vulgar subordination of moral standards to financial interests.[viii]
 It should be clear from this that the creation of a distributist economy is not the work of a moment. It would require vast changes, yet at the same time, every small step toward such a state of affairs can be helpful. It is not necessary to wait until we have everything in place. We must do what we can right now.
 
Part 3 can be found here.
Notes:
i: See Pius XI's explicit statement that "free competition ...cannot be an adequate controlling principle in economic affairs." Quadragesimo Anno, no. 88. 

ii: See nos. 48-61.
 
iii: For papal statements, see especially Quadragesimo Anno, nos. 81-87 and Divini Redemptoris, nos. 32, 37, 53-54.
 
iv: Distributive Justice (New York : Macmillan, 3rd ed., 1942), pp. 340-41.  
 
v: The Restoration of Property, p. 136 emphasis author's. See also pp. 35, 75, 136-140.  
 
vi: Bede Jarrett, Social Theories of the Middle Ages (Westminster, Md. : Newman, 1942), pp. 157-158. 
 
vii: This is not to mention the attitude of Holy Scripture toward riches and moneymaking. Most notable is St. Paul's warning in I Timothy 6:8-10. "...if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall in temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs." But see also, Proverbs 23:4; Micah 6:12a; Matthew 19:24; Luke 1:53b, James 5:1-3a.
 
viii: The Acquisitive Society (New York : Harcourt, Brace & World, [1920] 1948), p. 96.

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