John C. Wright, a sci-fi novelist, has come out swinging against Distributism — or, more accurately, a certain caricature of G.K. Chesterton’s presentation of Distributism — over at his private web-log here. (Not surprisingly Joe Carter over at the Acton Power Blog has highlighted the piece.) Wright begins by highlighting two things: (1) He has studied economics “for many a year” (how many he doesn’t say, and what brand of economics is not disclosed); and (2) Chesterton’s pronouncements on Distributism are vague. With respect to the first point, it comes across as a lame attempt to assert intellectual superiority without actually going through the effort of demonstrating as much. In fact, nothing in Wright’s post shows that he has any more sophistication with economics than someone who has scanned a neoliberal tract which states, mantra-like, that the wealthy create wealth; that they deliver unprecedented value to society at large; and that any thought that the wealthy, as a class, would cooperate to maintain their position at the expense of other classes in society is absurd on its face. All of those claims are, of course, contestable. While Chesterton’s prose, hyperbolic and reactionary though it could be at times, doesn’t rise to the level of a social-scientific case against unfettered capitalism, it does marshall a powerful moral case against the miseries and degradation Chesterton witnessed first hand in early 20th C. England. Chesterton may be no economist, but it doesn’t appear as if Wright is much of one either.
After taking his jabs at Chesterton’s prose and restating shopworn claims about the virtues of capitalism, Wright quickly takes the opportunity to raise the specter of statism (though, thankfully, he avoids that overused term) by equating Distributism with plunder. But who is doing the plundering and what mechanism is being applied? Chesterton never hung his hat on one (that I know of), and really Wright has no basis to say that Distributism is a “plundering” socio-economic order unless he buys into the myth that private property is sacrosanct and in no way ought to serve the common good. Actually, I suspect that is exactly what Wright believes given the following claims that he makes:
[L]et us see them [the rich] as free men, as God intended, who own no man and are owned by none, and better themselves only by bettering others, giving wages, not alms, bringing products to market when and where and as each grateful customer demands.
. . . .
Let us, above all, as Christian men, have a system that avoids and eschews and condemns the poisonous, European and malignant envy and class-hatred Chesterton guzzles like grog in such passages as I quote above. Let us condemn the barfing and roaring drunks and berserkers of envy, that bitterest of the deadly sins.
. . . .
It is not ‘capitalism’ or ‘freedomism’ or any other ‘ism’. It is the natural condition of man once placed in a culture and civilization where private property is protected alike from government plunder or theft by brigands, where titles to goods and reality are clear and undisputed, and men have and exercise the right to alien themselves of their titles in exchange for others of like value as they shall mutually agree, without fear of fraud or deceit.
The opening line of the third paragraph quoted above is telling. For only after man is placed into the unnatural — or, one might say, unjust — “culture and civilization where private property is protected” in what appears to be an absolute manner does man reach what Wright believes is his “natural condition.” But of course, if absolute protections for property rights, divorced from the common good, are unnatural insofar as is violates tenets of justice and right order, then no man living in such a state could ever be said to be in a “natural condition”; he would, rather, be incentivized to live out his life in a most unjust and unnatural manner ruled by the laws of inordinate production and mindless consumption. This is not the proper state of affairs as contemplated in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, St. Pius X’s Fin Dalla Prima Nostra, or Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno. In fact, Wright’s Lockean vision of society is thoroughly at odds with not just Chesterton’s writings, but the Catholic Church’s social magisterium as a whole. Perhaps Wright didn’t get the memo when he boarded the Barque of St. Peter in 2008.
Attacking Chesterton’s high-octane exhortations to take down Distributism is like attacking Oliver Wendall Holmes’s occasional impressionism to take down Legal Realism. Both “schools” have received considerable refinement over the decades; the upsetting of one figure, no matter how representative, does not bring down the field; and in the case of both Chesterton and Holmes they were pioneers whose own limitations and variety of interests limited their respective contributions. (Holmes, for instance, probably never thought of himself as even founding a new legal sub-discipline.) If Wright were actually serious about engaging with and critiquing Distributism, he might have bothered to pick up the anthology Beyond Capitalism and Socialism: A New Statement of an Old Ideal or IHS Press’s two volumes of Distributist Perspectives. And then of course there is also the work of John Medaille — The Vocation of Business and Toward a Truly Free Market — to contend with, along with towering critiques of the liberal-economic worldview Wright appears to espouse such as John D. Mueller’s Redeeming Economics.
Whenever a critique of Distributism appears on the horizon, I am just as anxious to read it as I am disappointed after doing so. While there is a lot of work to be done with respect to putting meat on the bones of Distributist teachings, those principles are not easily disposed of with a wave of the econo-logic wand. Wright’s liberalism clouds him to the moral truths embedded in Chesterton’s Distributist writings and his unquestioned self-assurance, coupled with no small amount of myopia, prevents him from fully confronting the principles Distributism as a whole sets forth.