In an earlier post, “Neoconservatism and Conceptual Clarity,” I discussed the first part of Artur Rosman’s interview with Patrick Deneen over at Ethika Politika. Today the second part of that interview was published. In it, Deneen has some strong words for those Catholics (and other Christians) — such as those associated with the Acton Institute — who denounce the possibility of a third way beyond capitalism and socialism/communism. (On the matter of “third ways,” see my earlier post here.) Here is a sample of Deneen’s thoughts concerning this line of thinking as it is applied to Distributism:
What distributism involves above all is the effort to order an economic order that promotes the widespread ownership of productive property in order to support the families, communities, and the liberty of each. Notice that this is not “socialist,” since its core commitment is private property. But notice that it’s not the fairy-book version of Ayn Rand’s “capitalism,” since the State is necessarily involved in setting certain kinds of policies to promote certain kinds of outcomes. But that’s no different than things are today—and have always been since the rise of the modern State (See [Karl] Polayni: political powers established the purportedly autonomous Market). Those who would throw up the specter of communism when a Distributist suggests the need for the State to set policies that steer the economy thereby reveal how much they are actually like the communists they claim to abhor: both end up imagining a utopia of a Stateless economy. Ayn Rand and Marxists both fantasize about the “withering away of the State,” one because of a society of perfectly expressed self-interest that gives rise to spontaneous order, and the other, a society in which self-interest is overcome, making the state finally superfluous at the end of history. Baloney.
The stateless, or near-stateless, society remains the ostensible end game for radical libertarians, but in the interim they, along with more moderate economic liberals, remain advocates for an economy where all — or nearly all — government intervention is prohibited. The problem is that no such “free market” has ever existed and so the libertarian vision, propped up as it often is by the heterodox theorizing of the so-called “Austrian School” of economics, rests not on reality but rather an imaginative construct where distracting variables are omitted and empirical falsification is rejected a priori. This is the utopia libertarians hold up over-and-against third-way approaches which are oriented by Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and principles of natural justice. For the libertarian, Distributism shoots itself in the foot by being painfully aware of destructive and negative tendencies caused by human sinfulness — sinfulness which needs the exercise of prudent government authority to check. Yet what is the libertarian alternative? An anarchic marketplace where public authority is severely restricted to enforcing contracts and preventing fraud, and even on the latter point there are libertarians who believe that the market itself, not a court of law, should serve as the necessary “corrective.” How many people, I wonder, need to be dispossessed of their wages, savings, and property before the market “corrects” the injustice?
Let us not forget the irony embedded in free-market apologetics against third-way proposals like Distributism. Such folks often — perhaps invariably — decry the existence of “crony capitalism,” i.e. the marriage of state and commercial interests, and yet repeatedly point to the capitalist system as it exists today as a “proof” for their claims that “unfettered markets” work better than alternative schemas. However, if these free markets have never existed, how can the “unfree market” assist economic liberals in illustrating their points? What the liberals often want their audiences to believe is that if a semi-free market is able to deliver X results, then an even freeer market will deliver X + 1 (or better) results. That doesn’t follow, at least not until one is able to demonstrate that apparent lack of freedom in the market was retarding gains rather than serving as a necessary (though not sufficient) cause of those gains.
Of course there is nothing about Distributism which leads to a heavy-handed regulatory state with centralized power concentrated in the hands of those who may have no personal investment in the marketplaces and communities they oversee. Distributism does not ordain command planning, nor does it propose that the current administrative system we experience here in the United States (to say nothing of other parts of the world) is in any sense optimal. In fact, if libertarians and Distributists share any common cause, it’s on the point that contemporary government authority is disordered in terms of where a bulk of the power lies. Where Distributists and libertarians must part ways, however, is with respect to the operation of the principle of subsidiarity. For a libertarian, subsidiarity effectively means, “No government ever.” For a Distributist and other students of CST, subsidiarity prudently means starting small and working outward from there. A water-rights dispute in Kalamazoo, Michigan should be handled by a local court or board, not an administrative agency in Washington, D.C. National defense — a collective good if there ever was one — would probably not be best served if left in the hands of individual states or municipalities. In the great coming U.S./Canada Syrup War, the good citizens of Indiana and Illinois won’t be comforted by the Upper Peninsula’s deployment of a five-man shotgun-bearing border guard.
Invoking the name of Distributism over-and-against various forms of economic liberalism is not enough. As I have written about before, Distributism — along with other proposals rooted in CST — remains woefully under-theorized. Wouldn’t it be nice if Catholic economists, social scientists, historians, lawyers, and other relevant professionals invested their time and energy into putting flesh on the bones of CST and working toward its practical application rather than taking cover under pernicious ideologies which have been condemned by numerous Popes since the 19th Century? As much as I hate to admit it, until our resources are pooled toward taking CST seriously, there won’t be much change to the status quo. There is, after all, little funding available for authentically Catholic think tanks; those funds are captured by institutes and individuals who have an incentive to uphold the moneyed interests at the expense of not only the Church’s social magisterium, but the common good and the welfare of millions of souls.