Ethika Politika (EP) houses articles by Distributist Tom Storck, “illiberal Catholic” Patrick Deneen, and a host of other Catholic writers who take the Church’s social magisterium seriously. It is also one of two outlets for Dylan Pahman, an ex-Calvinist convert to Orthodoxy whose other forum is the Acton Institute. How Pahman fits within EP’s vision remains something of a mystery. That fact is not nearly as mystifying, however, as Pahman’s recent article on “Scapegoats of Christian Social Thought.” Purporting to criticize the reductio ad Hitlerum (though Pahman doesn’t use that term) as deployed by “socially-conscious Christians,” it’s difficult to not read Pahman as criticizing only a certain type (or certain types — if socialists are brought into the mix) of “socially-conscious Christians,” namely those who oppose free-market capitalism. This is made clear enough with Pahman’s intentional swipe at Distributism — a swipe he refuses to take at his fellow free-marketeers who routinely castigate their opponents as “statists” (quasi-fascists):
Proponents of various “third way” systems, such as distributism, often have a similar problem, except they have two Hitlers: capitalism and socialism. Thank goodness they, however, are not like those who advocate such sinful systems, and if only somewhere in the world people would give their ideas a try, they would see it for the saintly system of social salvation that it is. Forget Benthamite calculus, all society needs are the right Chestertonian tweaks to make it the nearest embodiment of the kingdom to come.
Yes, that is Distributism in a nutshell: a longing for some mythical fantasyland that takes no account of empirical reality. Queer it is that Pahman would launch such a charge at Distributism when his own free-market ideals, predicated as they are on theories which have been rarely tested and, by their own lights, immune from empirical falsification, remain normatively attractive only to the extent that they have never been put into practice. If all the (Western) world has succumbed to “crony capitalism” — a claim repeated ad nauseam by Pahman’s fellow Actonites — then clearly “free markets,” i.e., markets “unimpeded” by taxation, government regulation, antitrust oversight, trade barriers, etc. cannot themselves be credited with delivering today’s economic bounties (unevenly distributed though they may be). While Distributism remains under-theorized and in desperate need of more thinking-through at the pragmatic level, Distributists can still take comfort at the end of the day that they are not at risk of confusing God with “the market.”
Following his swipe at Distributism, Pahman goes into exhortation mode, calling on his fellow “socially-conscious Christians” to “get [their] hands dirty in the mire of material reality.” So, which “socially-conscious Christians” aren’t doing this? Is Acton getting its “hands dirty in the mire of material reality” when it pumps its blog full of free-market bromides while linking to various Chicken-Little pieces that claim every new regulatory measure is a gross encroachment upon freedom and that Distributists are just wicked, vile “statists” in thin disguises? (For an example of the Acton Power Blog linking to such tripe, see “Wright’s Shallow Anti-Distributism.”) I don’t doubt that Pahman thinks he is “getting his hands dirty” when he edits Acton’s ideologically lopsided publication, The Journal of Markets and Morality [sic]. I would have thought getting one’s hands dirty means productively practicing what one preaches. What has Pahman or most of his fellow Actonites ever done except churn out propaganda and host conferences that preach to the choir?
Still, I must agree with Pahman that those of us who take Catholic Social Thought seriously need to “get our hands dirty” more often. How we do that remains something of an open question. At the same time, however, with so much misinformation and caricature being let loose within and beyond the Catholic Church today, it is also incumbent upon us to combat it at every step of the way. That does not mean, contrary to Pahman’s claims, that we are turning our opponents into “Hitlers.” But sadly some of our opponents have chosen the way of dissent over faithful submission to the magisterium; can we just ignore that? Can the Church ignore it? Now is not the time for disarmament, and one has to wonder if Pahman’s call for lowering the guns isn’t motivated by one-sided partisanship.