Thursday, March 3, 2005

MH - Distributism, Part II

Last week, you'll recall, we started our discussion of Distributism by looking over the political landscape, and finding that for many of us, both the Republicans and the Democrats fall short of what we really desire in a political party.

To start with, if you did your homework assignment, you've already checked out this website, an overview on Distributism. According to the site, Distributism can be defined as "an economic system in which private property, (especially the 'means of production'), is well distributed, in which as many people as possible are actual owners." Already that should put the lie to socialism or communism as acceptable economic models, for in both of those systems the emphasis is on ownership by the State; private ownership, in fact, undermines the authority of the State by allowing even a small amount of independence to creep into one's life.

So what about capitalism? It's probably no surprise to regular readers of this site that its owners tend to fall on the conservative side of the fence (actually, I was once accused, in print, of being a right-wing demagogue, but it's not the worst thing I've been called). Therefore, as a conservative, it seems to me that a greater case must be made as to why capitalism, as personified by Corporate America, is teetering on the edge of moral bankruptcy.

In doing this, my purpose here isn't to write an entire series defining Distributism and what it means. There are a lot of good websites out there already that have done a far better job of that than I could do. What I really want to do is call your attention to this concept, and point out why we have to begin to change the way we think about our how capitalism fits into the Catholic social teaching. And I'm not talking about the liberal policies that many pass off as teachings of the Church. The best way to do this is to look at some of the great social teaching documents of the Church, and for that I prefer to go straight to the Popes themselves.

In one of my first essays, I used the text of Pope John Paul II's encyclical “Laborem Exercens (On Human Work)” to demolish the assumptions of a particularly idiotic Human Resources document that had been sent to me. Now, let's take a look at the encyclical that was the basis for much of JPII's thought on the subject: the epic "Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor)," written in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. Far from being outdated, this encyclical rings true to life in so many areas, even today.

Leo begins by dispensing, as we did a moment ago, with socialism:

4. To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man's envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are, moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.

5. [...] Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.
Lest one think that the Holy Father is roundly endorsing capitalism, however, let's go on. The following excerpts outline the Pope's idea of a truly just economic system, including the right to organize in a union, the right to a fair and just wage, and the proper treatment of employees. As you read through this list, make a mental note as to how Corporate America stacks up; maybe there won't be a quiz next week, but we are taking notes...

3. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolaged and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.

10. Is it just that the fruit of a man's own sweat and labor should be possessed and enjoyed by any one else? As effects follow their cause, so it is just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor.

16. We affirm without hesitation that all the striving of men will be in vain if they leave out the Church.

20. The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character [...] to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers - that is truly shameful and inhuman. Again justice demands that, in dealing with the working man, religion and the good of his soul must be kept in mind. Hence, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings [...] that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one's profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine.

45. Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.

46. We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.

49. The most important of all are workingmen's unions, for these virtually include all the rest. History attests what excellent results were brought about by the artificers' guilds of olden times. They were the means of affording not only many advantages to the workmen, but in no small degree of promoting the advancement of art, as numerous monuments remain to bear witness. Such unions should be suited to the requirements of this our age - an age of wider education, of different habits, and of far more numerous requirements in daily life.

60. Prejudice, it is true, is mighty, and so is the greed of money; but if the sense of what is just and rightful be not deliverately stifled, their fellow citizens are sure to be won over ot a kindly feeling towrds men whom they see to be in earnest as regards their work and who prefer so unmistalably right dealing to mere lucre, and the sacredness of duty to every other consideration.

In 1991, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical Centesimus Annus - a look back on Leo's encyclical, and a commentary on the present state of labor. Contrary to what some conservative commentators said, this encyclical is not an unequivical attack on capitalism, nor is it an endorsement of Marxism. Rather, what JPII does is restate Leo's concerns, with an eye to what modern capitalism has become. It is a pointed critique of capitalism's shortcomings, and a warning of what they portend for society as a whole:

35. The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well. When a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied. But profitability is not the only indicator of a firm's condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people — who make up the firm's most valuable asset — to be humiliated and their dignity offended. Besides being morally inadmissible, this will eventually have negative repercussions on the firm's economic efficiency. In fact, the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society. Profit is a regulator of the life of a business, but it is not the only one; other human and moral factors must also be considered which, in the long term, are at least equally important for the life of a business.

36. A given culture reveals its overall understanding of life through the choices it makes in production and consumption. It is here that the phenomenon of consumerism arises. In singling out new needs and new means to meet them, one must be guided by a comprehensive picture of man which respects all the dimensions of his being and which subordinates his material and instinctive dimensions to his interior and spiritual ones. If, on the contrary, a direct appeal is made to his instincts — while ignoring in various ways the reality of the person as intelligent and free — then consumer attitudes and life-styles can be created which are objectively improper and often damaging to his physical and spiritual health. Of itself, an economic system does not possess criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality. Thus a great deal of educational and cultural work is urgently needed, including the education of consumers in the responsible use of their power of choice, the formation of a strong sense of responsibility among producers and among people in the mass media in particular, as well as the necessary intervention by public authorities


It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards "having" rather than "being", and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.

39. All of this can be summed up by repeating once more that economic freedom is only one element of human freedom. When it becomes autonomous, when man is seen more as a producer or consumer of goods than as a subject who produces and consumes in order to live, then economic freedom loses its necessary relationship to the human person and ends up by alienating and oppressing him.

41. The historical experience of the West, for its part, shows that even if the Marxist analysis and its foundation of alienation are false, nevertheless alienation — and the loss of the authentic meaning of life — is a reality in Western societies too. This happens in consumerism, when people are ensnared in a web of false and superficial gratifications rather than being helped to experience their personhood in an authentic and concrete way. Alienation is found also in work, when it is organized so as to ensure maximum returns and profits with no concern whether the worker, through his own labour, grows or diminishes as a person, either through increased sharing in a genuinely supportive community or through increased isolation in a maze of relationships marked by destructive competitiveness and estrangement, in which he is considered only a means and not an end.


Exploitation, at least in the forms analyzed and described by Karl Marx, has been overcome in Western society. Alienation, however, has not been overcome as it exists in various forms of exploitation, when people use one another, and when they seek an ever more refined satisfaction of their individual and secondary needs, while ignoring the principal and authentic needs which ought to regulate the manner of satisfying the other ones too. A person who is concerned solely or primarily with possessing and enjoying, who is no longer able to control his instincts and passions, or to subordinate them by obedience to the truth, cannot be free: obedience to the truth about God and man is the first condition of freedom, making it possible for a person to order his needs and desires and to choose the means of satisfying them according to a correct scale of values, so that the ownership of things may become an occasion of growth for him. This growth can be hindered as a result of manipulation by the means of mass communication, which impose fashions and trends of opinion through carefully orchestrated repetition, without it being possible to subject to critical scrutiny the premises on which these fashions and trends are based.

42. Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society?


The answer is obviously complex. If by "capitalism" is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a "business economy", "market economy" or simply "free economy". But if by "capitalism" is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

43. The obligation to earn one's bread by the sweat of one's brow also presumes the right to do so. A society in which this right is systematically denied, in which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment, cannot be justified from an ethical point of view, nor can that society attain social peace. Just as the person fully realizes himself in the free gift of self, so too ownership morally justifies itself in the creation, at the proper time and in the proper way, of opportunities for work and human growth for all.

That's a lot to digest at one time. In order to gather the entire feel for these documents, your reading assignment for next week (should you choose to accept it) is to look at Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus and to review what I previously exerpted from Laborem Exercens, to read not just the excerpts I've provided but to look at them in the context of the entire documents.

Next time, we'll take a look at how Chesterton felt about capitalism, and how well Corporate America measures up to these standards.

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