On Distributism and the Futility of Third Ways

Tuesday, November 9, 2010 \AM\.\Tue\.

The search for an economic and political “third way” has haunted intellectuals for over a hundred years in the Western nations. Many forget that fascism was at one time considered a viable “third way” between liberal capitalism and communism, preserving for the most part private ownership of the means of production for profit but subjecting it to near total control and regulation by the state. Many other models would follow, from the local and anarchistic to the national and statist, appearing under many different names.

I too was caught up in the desperate search for a “third way”, as are many Catholics who eventually find their way to Distributism. But it became quite obvious to me that what people who actually defined themselves as libertarians and capitalists were promoting and defending really wasn’t what I had always thought it was, nor was it anything I could possibly find objectionable.

Read the rest of this entry »


What Is This Wicked Capitalism?

Thursday, October 21, 2010 \PM\.\Thu\.

One of the difficulties that comes in discussing the many “isms” that populate the landscape of political discussion is that very often people use the same words without mean the same things, or indeed without having any clearly defined idea of what they do mean. While this is the case with nearly any ism (socialism, liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, etc.) I’d like to address in this case the way in which opponents (particularly Christian opponents) of “capitalism” tend to address the object of their condemnation. This is in some ways a beautifully typical example of a Christian opponent of capitalism attempting to describe what it is he is condemning:

We must remember the capitalistic system we live in also is a materialistic ideology which runs contrary to the Christian faith, and it is a system which is used to create rival, and equally erroneous, forms of liberation theology. It is as atheistic as Marxism. It is founded upon a sin, greed. It promises utopia, telling us that if we allow capitalist systems to exist without regulation, everyone, including the poor, will end up being saved. The whole “if we allow the rich to be rich, they will give jobs to the poor” is just as much a failed ideology as Marxist collectivism.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat muddled set of statements, but I think we can draw out of it the following statements which the author, and many other self described critics of capitalism (in particular from a religious perspective) believe to be true:
-Capitalism is a system or ideology much as Communism is.
-Capitalism is based on greed or takes greed to be a virtue.
-Capitalism is a materialistic or atheistic philosophy/system.
-Capitalism could be summed up as the idea that “if we allow the rich to be rich, they will give jobs to the poor”
-Capitalism promises utopia if “capitalist systems” are allowed to exist without regulation.

While one approach to this is simply to throw out the term “capitalism” entirely, what I’d like to do is accept that claim that we live in a “capitalist” system and that this system is roughly what libertarians/conservatives advocate, and proceed to address the claims made about “capitalism” in that context.
Read the rest of this entry »


Europe Vs. America

Friday, October 8, 2010 \AM\.\Fri\.

Brad DeLong recently compared the economic performance of communist countries with their capitalist neighbors and found, surprise surprise, that capitalism works a lot better than communism:

DeLong comments:

Eschewing markets robs you of between 80% and 90% of your potential economic productivity.

DeLong’s argument is persuasive, but it also seems a bit dated. Outside of a few English departments pretty much everyone recognizes that communism was a flop. Heck, even Fidel Castro admits that it doesn’t work. Today the pressing question is not America vs. the Soviet Union but America vs. the European Union, i.e. the relatively free market system of the United States vs. the relatively more social democratic system of many European countries.

Here is some recent OCED data on median income by country, from the mid 2000S

Read the rest of this entry »



Joseph Galambos and Intellectual Property

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 \PM\.\Wed\.

A few years back I read a fascinating book on the history of libertarianism in America called Radicals for Capitalism. Of the many colorful characters in the book, one of my favorites was Joseph Galambos, an astrophysicist-turned-libertarian-guru who took a very stringent view of intellectual property rights. Galambos’ students were forbidden even to mention or paraphrase his ideas with anyone who hadn’t paid for his lecture course (which may help explain why you’ve never heard of him before). One libertarian in the book gives the following humorous account of how a conversation with a Galambosian might go:

“There are five legitimate functions of government,” said the Galambosian.
“No kidding. What are they?”
“I am not at liberty to say. The theory was originated by Andy Galambos and it is his primary property.”
“If the rest of us were free to discuss his ideas,” said the Galambosian, “there is no question in my mind that Galambosianism would spread throughout the whole world like wildfire.”

Wikipedia reports that:

Since his father’s name was Joseph Andrew Galambos, Galambos changed his name from Joseph Andrew Galambos, Jr., to Andrew Joseph Galambos, so that he wouldn’t infringe on his father’s property right in the name Joseph Andrew Galambos.

Galambos also dropped a nickel into a fund box every time he said the word “Liberty,” as a royalty to the descendants of Thomas Paine, who invented the term.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Galambos was kind of nuts. Yet his views are little more than the logical workings out of the idea that intellectual property is a matter of moral right.

Read the rest of this entry »


Science and Technology in World History

Monday, July 5, 2010 \PM\.\Mon\.

Technological history is a unique point of view that always caught my eye.  David Deming of the American Thinker gives us a brief synopsis of his latest contribution in this genre.  Keep in mind how integral Christianity was to the recovery of Europe after the barbarian invasions and the safekeeping of knowledge by the monastic system that allowed Europe to recover and blossom into what we now call Western Civilization:

Both Greece and Rome made significant contributions to Western Civilization.  Greek knowledge was ascendant in philosophy, physics, chemistry, medicine, and mathematics for nearly two thousand years.  The Romans did not have the Greek temperament for philosophy and science, but they had a genius for law and civil administration.  The Romans were also great engineers and builders.  They invented concrete, perfected the arch, and constructed roads and bridges that remain in use today.  But neither the Greeks nor the Romans had much appreciation for technology.  As documented in my book, Science and Technology in World History, Vol. 2, the technological society that transformed the world was conceived by Europeans during the Middle Ages.

Greeks and Romans were notorious in their disdain for technology.  Aristotle noted that to be engaged in the mechanical arts was “illiberal and irksome.”  Seneca infamously characterized invention as something fit only for “the meanest slaves.”  The Roman Emperor Vespasian rejected technological innovation for fear it would lead to unemployment.

Greek and Roman economies were built on slavery.  Strabo described the slave market at Delos as capable of handling the sale of 10,000 slaves a day.  With an abundant supply of manual labor, the Romans had little incentive to develop artificial or mechanical power sources. Technical occupations such as blacksmithing came to be associated with the lower classes.

Read the rest of this entry »


Is the Means of Production an Obsolete Idea?

Sunday, May 9, 2010 \PM\.\Sun\.

The “means of production” (which may be defined, roughly, as consisting of capital goods minus human and financial capital), is a central concept in Marxism, as well as in other ideologies such as Distributism. The problems of capitalism, according to both Marxists and Distributists, arise from the fact that ownership of the means of production is concentrated in the hands of the few. Marxists propose to remedy these problems by having the means of production be collectively owned. Distributists want to retain private ownership, but to break the means of production up (where practicable) into smaller parts so that everyone will have a piece (if you wanted to describe the difference between the Marxist and Distributist solutions here, it would be that Distributists want everyone to own part of the means of production, whereas Marxists want everyone to be part owner of all of it).

Where a society’s economy is based primarily on agriculture or manufacture, thinking in terms of the means of production makes some sense. In an agricultural economy wealth is based primarily on ownership of land, and in a manufacturing economy ownership of things like factories and machinery plays an analogous role. In a modern service-based economy, by contrast, wealth is based largely on human capital (the possession of knowledge and skills). As Pope John Paul II notes in Centesimus Annus, “[i]n our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources.”

Read the rest of this entry »


The Real Antidote to Big Government

Sunday, January 31, 2010 \PM\.\Sun\.

In the third installment of my proposal for a libertarian-distributist alliance, I explore why libertarians ought to be open to distributist ideas. An excerpt:

Chief among the reasons to support a greater distribution of property is the simple truth that the maximum sphere of individual liberty is not to be found in an individualist utopia, but a strong localism that provides individuals in a moral and efficient way that which they would otherwise turn to a powerful state or crime syndicate to provide.





Aristotle & Distributism: Part II

Tuesday, September 8, 2009 \PM\.\Tue\.

(Part I may be read here. Some of the discussion may be followed on my blog. Note: the presentation of this essay on this blog may differ somewhat from the outline I set forth in the introduction in Part I. The critique of communism/welfare-statism will be published tomorrow.)

In an academic culture that is often characterized by historicist and relativist viewpoints, the notion that Aristotle may have had anything relevant to say about modern economic systems seems a little strange to us. While it must be admitted that we cannot expect the ancient versions of capitalism and communism to be identical to their modern counterparts, we can nonetheless differentiate the historically-shaped form from what is arguably the timeless content. Moreover, by way of critique of the two dominant economic paradigms (for in the final instance, welfare-statism/Social Democracy incorporates the worst features of both), we can arrive at a more clear vision of the Distributist alternative.

Though it ought to become obvious through the critique of communism, it bears stating up front that the Aristotelian critique of capitalism is not an attack on private property. Difficult as it may be for some readers, the notion that the essence of capitalism is the possession and use of private property is a fallacy bequeathed to us not only by certain capitalist ideologists, but by many (though not all) communists and assorted “anti-capitalists” as well.

A definition of capitalism that accords well with Aristotle’s critique is an economy in which production for exchange is predominant, as opposed to production for immediate use/consumption. Though it is modern technology since the Industrial Revolution that actually allows such an economy to come into being, the pre-industrial tendencies towards this type of economy have been in existence since the dawn of civilization, and reached a pinnacle in the great civilizations of antiquity, including the ancient Greece in which Aristotle lived and wrote.

Read the rest of this entry »


Educational Egalitarianism

Thursday, August 20, 2009 \PM\.\Thu\.

Darwin Catholic’s post about the educational system and the possible benefits of promoting a myth of equality got me thinking about the essential differences between liberals and at least the kind of conservative I think I am becoming.

That is, a kind of conservative that is opposed to excessively concentrated wealth in private hands, for the following reasons: 1) it can easily lead to concentrated political power that is less accountable, 2) in the midst of poverty – even if one wishes to argue that it is not a cause of poverty – it inspires class envy and hatred, 3) it has the potential to be terribly and sinfully wasted on frivolities instead of charity and/or social investment.

Read the rest of this entry »


Exclusive Sneak Peek of Caritas in Veritate

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 \AM\.\Wed\.

Caritas in Veritate

[Updates at the bottom of this posting.]

The much anticipated new encyclical that Pope Benedict XVI recently signed, his third, on June 29th titled Caritas in Veritate, or Charity in Truth, will be released soon by Ignatius Press (the English version) on July  6th or 7th of 2009 A.D.  In searching for information regarding this encyclical I found bits and pieces here and there but nothing exhaustive or concise that came close to satisfying my curiosity.  So I’ve gathered all of my information and have presented it the best way possible in this posting.  With tongue in cheek I labeled this preview of Caritas in Veritate as an ‘Exclusive Sneak Peek’*.

Caritas in Veritate will be a social encyclical examining some of the social changes that have occurred since Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, particularly globalization.  The encyclical will have Pope Benedict XVI articulating the need to bolster humanism that brings together the social and economic development of humans and to reduce the disproportionate gap between poor and rich.  One other major theme of this encyclical will be that of global justice.

Read the rest of this entry »



It’s Not Really About Markets

Monday, June 22, 2009 \AM\.\Mon\.

What do many communists and many advocates of laissez-faire capitalism share in common? Both claim that their ideologies have never been given a fair shake, both claim that their ideologies are based upon immutable laws of either historical progress or human behavior, both reject ‘real world’ examples that supposedly show the error of their views, and both believe that only their ideological visions will lead to a future worth living in.

Read the rest of this entry »


Capitalism — When People Sell Things I Don’t Like

Monday, June 15, 2009 \AM\.\Mon\.

With the garden currently shooting up, I’ve found myself again disposed to read gardening and food related books. I finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma last week, and aside from a few gripes in regards to Michael Pollan’s understanding of economics, I enjoyed it quite a bit. On the last run by the library, I picked up a copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. The idea of moving out onto acreage and growing much of one’s own food is something that I find interesting. I enjoy gardening, I enjoy cooking gourmet food, and I think there’s a cultural and psychological value to remaining in touch with the way that humans have gained food for themselves in past centuries.

However, Kingsolver is far more passionate (and less balanced) in her jeremiads against “industrial food” than Pollan, and more prone to denunciations of what “capitalism” has done to our food culture. Indeed, so much so as to crystallize for me a trend among those who denounce “capitalism” and its impact on Western Culture. Kingsolver had just reached the crescendo of a complaint in regards to large seed companies peddling hybrids and genetically modified strains, when she turned to the subject of heirloom vegetable varieties, and her joy at paging through lengthy seed catalogs full of heirloom seeds.

…Heirloom seeds are of little interest to capitalism if they can’t be patented or owned. They have, however, earned a cult following among people who grow or buy and eat them. Gardeners collect them like family jewels, and Whole Foods Market can’t refrain from poetry in its advertisement of heirlooms….

So you see, when large agribusiness firms sell farmers seeds for field corn which are genetically modified to repel pests,
that’s capitalism. But when catalog and internet businesses build a thriving niche selling heirloom vegetable seeds, and Whole Foods ad men wax poetical over $7/lb tomatoes, that’s… Well, it certainly can’t be capitalism, can it? Not if it’s good.

Read the rest of this entry »


Capitalism, A Beneficial Exchange

Thursday, April 30, 2009 \AM\.\Thu\.

Blogger Sam Rocha wrote a post the other day titled, “A Brief Defense of ‘Capitalism'”. However, Rocha’s attempt is, I think, somewhat hampered by the fact that he by his own description does not think much of capitalism.

For the most part we (by “we” I mean those of us on the left, yes I will own up to being something of a leftist, whatever that means) like to say that all capitalism, and its governing libertarian sentiment, desires is for there to be no limit at how much one can take for one’s self. It is a creed of the indulgent and the rich. Greed, selfishness, isolationism, sterile individualism and other nasty things, are what we enjoy making capitalism out to be.

With such an opener, what might wonder what it is that Rocha then finds to praise in capitalism. What he find is, I think, not at all unique to capitalism narrowly defined, but it is something which those of us in the West are much attached to:

If we can cut-out the name calling, I think we can find a powerful meaning within capitalist sentiment. Namely, the much-abused, taboo, and rejected idea of the individual, the person-singular. I think that if we take notions of private property and negative freedom (“freedom from”) inherent in capitalist sentiment, and ponder what they mean, we will find that we all value such things privately….

Here is my defense: Capitalism, as it is believed in benevolently, reminds us of our radical existence as images of God with a potency to as we wish within the vast sea of possibility. What we need next is the ability to control ourselves with the prudence, grace, and love of our Creator in this stormy sea of freedom. But we should never be too quick to accept external-control over our bodies, minds, and hearts. We need to be free. And perfect freedom is not the raw, brute force of libertarianism, to be sure. At the same time, it also is that imposing force.

I don’t find what Rocha finds to praise unappealing, but at the same time I think that there is something more to be found in capitalism as described by Adam Smith and others which even many of those who frequently condemn capitalism would find it in themselves to admire if they could look past their preconceptions and see Smith-ian capitalism for what it is.

Read the rest of this entry »


Freedom vs. Choice

Wednesday, April 15, 2009 \PM\.\Wed\.

It’s fashionable at the moment to write conservatism’s epitaph. Such epitaph writing is not my project here, but there is a sort of inherent tension in the recent history of conservatism which I would like to examine briefly.

For the last hundred years and more, conservatives have often found themselves arguing against those in the political and economic spheres who believe that we can achieve a great improvement in society by instituting some sort of centrally controlled state economy. Socialism, communism and fascism all attempted, in different ways, to create new and better societies through assigning people roles and resources rather than allowing their allocation to occur through a decentralized system of millions of individual decisions taking place independently every day.

Perhaps this is the great modern temptation. People looked at the incredibly intricate (sometimes seemingly orderless) organization of society resulting from custom and the summed decisions of millions of individuals and thought, “Now we have the ability to plan all this instead and do it better!” Various sorts of ideologues tried to impose various sorts of new order on society, and conservatives dragged their feet and tried to keep things as they were, allowing people to make their own decision as they saw best whenever possible.

Read the rest of this entry »


Capitalism is 3rd World’s Safety Net

Monday, March 16, 2009 \PM\.\Mon\.

While Americans weather layoffs and watch their 401ks dwindle, the developing nations in which many of our products originate are being hit even harder by the global downturn. Many of these developing nations have virtually no social safety net, and job loss can be crippling. However, as jobs manufacturing good to be sold to the West dry up, many are turning to the “informal economy” the open air markets, street vendors, and in-home manufacturers which make up more than half the economy in countries ranging from India and Mexico to much of sub-Saharan Africa.

The informal economy consists of cash and in-kind transactions and its practitioners do not pay taxes, hold licenses, or obey regulations. Pay is simply however much money is made, and there are no benefits. Because informal businessmen pay no taxes and work on a cash only basis (they seldom capitalize through loans, nor do they put savings into banks) economists have generally seen them as a drag on the economy. But as export-based jobs dry up, it provides a fallback safety net for many workers:

pilaporn_jaksuratUntil late December, Pilaporn Jaksurat, 33, was working full-time on a cotton spinning machine in a textile mill in Bangkok. She made about $7 a day and her benefits included bonuses of $30 a month for good attendance and a severance package worth about $800.

Then she was laid off when her factory, which sells fabric to clothing manufacturers in Europe, said it had to cut costs to cope with the global economic crisis.

Read the rest of this entry »


Regulation & Credit Card Companies

Monday, November 24, 2008 \AM\.\Mon\.

My wife was going through the mail yesterday and noticed that the contract terms for two of our credit cards were changing.

Read the rest of this entry »


Lead Us Into Temptation: American Materialism

Tuesday, November 18, 2008 \AM\.\Tue\.

To speak of American “materialism” is…both an understatement and a misstatement. The material goods that historically have been the symbols which elsewhere separated men from one another have become, under American conditions, symbols which hold men together. From the moment of our rising in the morning, the breakfast food we eat, the coffee we drink, the automobile we drive to work–all these and nearly all the things we consume become thin, but not negligible, bonds with thousands of other Americans. — Daniel J. Boorstin

What’s wrong with American culture? This question has become prominent in Christian circles as the moral course of the United States becomes more and more frightening. The answer, in one respect, lies in the materialism of the American people. This is not materialism, in the philosophical sense, where all that exists is matter and one denies the existence of God — though that sort of materialism easily establishes this second sort. This materialism is the fruit of avarice and greed. It’s a common mentality — we’re all guilty of it — that we don’t really care about things per se; we know who we are without our possessions. Our sense of self is not bound to the material world. Of all the so-called “-isms” of our time, none has ever been more misunderstood, more criticized, and more relevant than materialism. Who but fools and the occasional nutty libertarian rise to its defense? It’s safe to say that while materialism may not be the most shallow of all the “-isms” plaguing the world, it certainly is among those that have triumphed.

Read the rest of this entry »