Many moons ago I wrote a brief critique of “the crony capitalist claim” being promoted by the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg. My main point wasn’t that “crony capitalism” (defined either narrowly or broadly) doesn’t exist, but that the concept is often used by pro-capitalist apologists to conveniently dodge criticisms of capitalism per se. Gregg — and others — like to maintain that the problems with our present economic ordo stem from “cronyism” not “capitalism”; if only the government got out of the business of trying to regulate the market directly or indirectly, we’d all be better off. In fact, Gregg is back promoting this line of thought in Crisis this month. Here’s an excerpt:
I know little about Alan Jacobs other than the fact he teaches, writes a number of books that draw glowing reviews from evangelicals, and has a blog. Oh, and he also pens pieces for The American Conservative, such as his ongoing “Dialogue on Democracy” series which officially jumped the rails today when the topic of distributism came up. Here’s an excerpt:
In the past month The Distributist Review has published two pieces which, inter alia, take aim at the incomplete (if not inept) pro-life platform of the Republican Party: Arturo Ortiz’s “Towards a Pro-Life and Pro-Family Economy” and John Medaille’s “Pro-Life or Anti-Abortion?” (I previously discussed Medaille’s article here.) Unfortunately, neither offer up equally excoriating remarks for the Democratic Party despite the fact it continues to lead the political charge in America for wider access to abortions. Consider this passage from Ortiz’s article:
While most Republican candidates tend to be nominally pro-life, their platform has little to offer that is truly pro-life and pro-family. Influenced by the principles that promote radical individualism and low wage dependence, the Republican Platform makes it difficult, if not altogether impossible, for expectant mothers to support their children post birth. Even if abortion is made illegal, if Roe v. Wade is overturned (both of which would be good things), an economic philosophy that makes abortions desirable and resolves to have charity provide for those who take the courageous decision to keep their children, is hardly pro-life.
How do the Democrats fare any better here? Although the average Democrat is more likely to support entitlement programs and transfer payments than the average Republican, the Democratic Party is by no means anti-capitalist nor anti-individualist. Moreover, Ortiz’s low view of the role charity can and ought to play in assisting “those who take the courageous decision [“right decision”?] to keep their children” betrays a lack of knowledge of what the Church’s social magisterium actually teaches. In a first-best world, local charities, with the cooperation of Church and state, ought to be providing assistance to those in need, including single pregnant women who cannot afford to properly care for themselves and their unborn child. While it is true that we have to face the second-best reality that charities alone are likely not enough to provide all of the support these women and their children require, looking to a large, centralized, and bureaucratic distributional scheme is not necessarily the answer either.
Granted, neither Ortiz nor Medaille come right and proclaim that the Democratic Party is the answer, but there appears to be an underlying implication in both articles that attacking poverty through entitlement programs and transfer payments will reduce abortion rates in the United States. The empirical evidence for such claims is thin at best, and it is far from clear that the Democrats, should they take the reins of governance in Washington in November, will deviate from its pro-abortionist platform. While no distributist worth his salt should cast anything other than a scornful glance toward the Republicans, it does not follow that the Democrats — or, for that matter, the modern administrative state — will set things straight. In fact, there is good reason to believe they will simply make matters worse.
Fr. Gregory Jensen, an Orthodox priest who has been recruited into the Acton Institute’s side project of manufacturing a pro-capitalist social teaching for the Christian East, opined earlier this month that shifts in retail praxis during this “holiday season” away from the supersized “Black Friday” model (e.g., stores opening up on Thanksgiving) was due to the “moral cues of shoppers.” According to Jensen, shoppers wishing to do wholesome things have helped reshape the behavior of retailers by shaming them into dialing-down their formerly aggressive marketing campaigns for “Black Friday”-exclusive deals and keeping their doors closed so that their employees can spend Thanksgiving (an atrocious holiday) with their families. This alleged shift “is critical for helping us understand the moral goodness of the market economy,” or so says Jensen. Here are a few more of his words:
Eastern Orthodox writer Clark Carlton, whose podcast Faith and Philosophy runs on Ancient Faith Radio, broadcasted some critical remarks on capitalism last month. It’s an interesting listen (or read—a transcript is available as well) despite its brevity. As Carlton points out, capitalism did not usher in the era of private property; that concept existed long ago. But more importantly, capitalism is not about “free markets.” Without money manipulation, biased tax schemes, and tilted regulation, contemporary capitalism could not survive. While these observations are all well and good, Carlton is a bit vague about what should replace capitalism. Here is his conclusion:
The only real alternative to capitalism is something along the lines of what Jefferson envisioned. This is similar to the vision of the Catholic distributivists, such as Belloc and Chesterton, and to the third way of the Protestant economist Wilhelm Röpke. The foundation of such a system is widespread property ownership and decentralized government.
There problem here is that some of Carlton’ does not address the contingent of Christians (including Eastern Orthodox) aligned with thank-tanks like the Acton Institute who promote the idea that the only way you can achieve widespread ownership and decentralization is through the adoption of libertarian economic policies. Such ideologues posit that what Carlton is critiquing isn’t “real capitalism” but rather “crony capitalism”—a disease which can be cured through massive deregulation, tax cuts, and widespread privatization of all goods and services. These libertarian Christians would likely argue that implementing the Jeffersonian, distributist, or ordoliberal visions would result in illicit confiscatory policies that would do more economic harm than good, and so the real task at hand should be clearing government out of the economy altogether in order to let the market breathe freely, regardless of the result.
Of course, the Actonites and their allies have no proof that all will be fine and well if their policy preferences become the law of the land. The rest their conclusions on a theoretical framework derived from the heterodox “Austrian School” of economics, one which—by their own admission—has never been fully put into practice. Although serious-minded “Austrians” dismiss utopianism, they have not been able to demonstrate thus far that their economic approach will yield better social outcomes than either the “crony capitalism” they claim to detest or some alternative approach. At best they have made a plausible case that free-market policies work better than centralized, command-planned policies, but even that conclusion has been met with serious criticism over the decades (criticism which many Austrians prefer to ignore rather than answer).
It’s not clear how much Carlton agrees or disagrees with Acton’s economic orientation. His critique of capitalism also serves as a broad critique of taxation and regulation as well. Does Carlton deny that taxes and regulation serve some useful purpose in society? Does he believe it is appropriate—and moral—for local municipalities to regulate businesses in accordance with longstanding customs and social norms? If Carlton’s desire is to see an economic system put into place which is compatible with the Eastern Orthodox faith, then surely he must agree that the economy must be seen as subservient to the common good, one which finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ Jesus alone.
Note: This is a slightly revised version of a post which appeared on the old Opus Publicum web-log on January 20, 2014. As I have had numerous requests to re-post old pieces, I am trying to do better about fetching them from the archives. Your patience is appreciated.
Keith Michael Estrada, writing over at Patheos, has more than a few words to say in defense of socialism from a Catholic perspective. Although Estrda is right to criticize those who would use the Church’s social magisterium to baptize capitalism, his attempted presentation of what Catholicism “actually teaches” regarding socialism leaves something to be desired. The most elemental error Estrada makes is failing to offer concrete examples of “socialisms” which have not been condemned by the Catholic Church. Instead, Estrada repeatedly suggests that not “all socialism” contradicts the magisterium. But what kind of “socialism” is that? Clearly the principles of private property and subsidiarity do not support a state-centered system where heavy expropriation, command-planned redistribution, and centralization are the norm. And while there are other models of socialism available which are more localized and communal, Estrada fails to discuss them . . . at all. Call that the “meta” problem with Estrada’s article. There are a couple of others worth noting as well.
When I decided to return to the Roman Catholic Church in 2011 I considered myself to be a “weak libertarian.” That is, I supported economic policies such as deregulation, low taxes, and the dismantling of international trade and investment barriers, but had no time for the “hedonistic” wing of “the cause.” For instance, although I believed then—as I believe now—that certain social policies, such as the so-called “War on Drugs,” were ineffective and wasteful, I did not think it was prudent to legalize drugs across the board. Between 2011-12 my thinking on “things economic” began to change, mainly due to pressure from online acquaintances to take the Church’s social magisterium seriously. It was not possible to read the canon of social encyclicals and think that they could be squared with the tenets of economic liberalism. I found it disconcerting how Catholic neoliberals/libertarians felt they were entitled to read Catholic social teaching with a hermeneutic of selectivity while blasting other Catholics who play pick-and-choose with the Church’s teachings on matters such as marriage, contraception, and sexuality. Although it is true that the Church does not present a ready-made plan for how societies ought to organize their economies, it is clear that there are principles in place which no state has the right to derogate from. I did not believe I could be a consistent and orthodox Catholic while ignoring those principles and supporting policies which in fact contradicted them.
The Distributist Review (DR) is back after a two-year hiatus with a new piece by Daniel Schwindt, “While We Were Out.” In it, Schwindt offers a quick survey of where distributism “is at” and findins hope for distributism’s future in Pope Francis’s pontificate. That’s far from certain, however. As I have noted elsewhere, one of the central problems with Francis’s socio-economic instruction is that it rends to lack refinement and is often buried under needless rhetoric. Moreover, due to the Pope’s penchant for issuing wobbly statements on various points of doctrine, his critics—including Catholics—feel quite at ease ignoring what he has to say on Catholic social teaching. This is not to say that there aren’t important passages in documents such as Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si; it’s just that they aren’t always easy to tease out. Even so, Schwindt is optimistic about the prospects for distributism under this pontificate. I pray that he’s right.
Distributism needs a shot in the arm. More than that, it needs to be more firmly tethered to the Church’s social magisterium than it has been in recent years. This means looking not only to classic social encyclicals like Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, but the magisterial documents issued by Pius VI, Blessed Pius IX, and St. Pius X as well. Catholic social teaching must be read holistically, not selectively like the liberals enjoy doing. Distributism could also use some theoretical refinement. Hopefully the return of the DR proves to be a gateway toward that end.