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.
Coming to that conclusion was not easy. Since graduating law school in 2007, I had come under the influence of the “Law & Economics” (L&E) movement and eventually started to explore the heterodox “Austrian School” of economics. Having studied, taught, and written about the history of airline regulation (domestic and international), I had little enthusiasm for centralized administrative agencies or heavy-handed economic interventionism. As my interests expanded to matters of global trade and investment, I grew skeptical of protectionist policies such as antidumping rules, subsidies, and quotas. Economic efficiency, not justice, was the highest “value” for me when it came to studying and writing about the law. It felt like safe ground to stand on. While I was under no illusion that economics is a “hard science,” there was a rigor to it which I found lacking in competing theoretical and philosophical approaches to the law. I still believe that is true to a certain extent. An economic analysis of, say, antitrust rules is always going to be more intellectually fruitful than a literary or feminist one.
After parting company with L&E several years ago, I had high hopes that I could find an authentically Catholic approach to economics (or what was historically called “political economy”) which was both firmly grounded in the Church’s magisterium and theoretically rich. So far that hope has not been met, or at least not fully. Whether people want to admit this or not, Catholic social teaching remains grossly undertheorized and practically impotent. As enthused as I am for movements such as distributism and solidarism, I cannot ignore that distributism in particular is clouded with romanticism. Moreover, because so many distributists have never studied economics seriously, they tend to be sitting ducks for neoliberals/libertarians who can offer more theoretically rich counterarguments. This is not to say that those counterarguments are “better.” Many often rest on a series of assumptions which should immediately be called into question. The problem is that many distributists don’t know how to do this and so they swap-in indignation for honest intellectual engagement, which doesn’t help anything or anyone.
In my own limited experience of arguing with distributists (typically I just try to support them and ignore the problem areas), I have been scoffed at and scorned for daring to suggest that they put a bit of time into studying neoclassical price theory, the history of monetary and trade policy, or welfare economics. These “discussions” have left me with the sour impression that some (though hardly all) distributists suffer from a silly inferiority complex where the very idea of engaging with economics is anathema because the distributists themselves simply don’t know it. And so instead they retreat to the early days of distributism, to the clever rhetoric of Chesterton or the thunderous criticisms of Belloc, and ignore the fact that a distributist economy needs concrete policy prescriptions in place before it can become something more than a far-fetched ideal. After all, even weak-hearted economic liberals can still plausibly claim that while capitalism has many serious flaws, it is at least capable of delivering better socio-economic results than an economic system which appears to be drawn from The Lord of the Rings.
None of this is to say that distributism, or its supports, should be dismissed. I remain adamant that faithful Catholics should go back and read the works of early distributists to better educate themselves on the movement’s core principles before engaging in the messy work of figuring out how to put them into operation in a credible way. A great deal of work still needs to be done to erase the myths (or outright lies) which have sprung up around distributism due to the unrelenting, and often charitable, criticism levied against it by economic liberals. Thankfully there is a newer generation of Catholics who appear to be committed to that project, though it still has a long way to go, particularly in the face of well-funded think-tanks such as the Acton Institute. Only then will distributism have a real future and a chance to win ground-level support from the faithful.