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.

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Do Americans Work Too Much?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010 \AM\.\Tue\.

I’m in the middle of reading Thomas Geoghegan’s Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life. The book is part travelogue, part prosecutors brief against American-style capitalism and in favor of European-style social democracy. It’s a very enjoyable read. Many of Geoghegan’s arguments are backwards or loopy (his claim, for example, that the reason Americans have plastic surgery is to avoid being laid off gets more points for creativity than for persuasiveness). But Geoghegan is a good writer and comes across as a really likable guy, and many of the point he makes warrant at least further reflection.

Geoghegan’s main argument in favor of Europe has to do with work/life balance. Yes, Americans tend to be richer than Europeans. But they also tend to work a lot less.:

# 1 Australia: 1,814 hours
# 2 Japan: 1,801 hours
# 3 United States: 1,792 hours
# 4 Canada: 1,718 hours
# 5 United Kingdom: 1,673 hours
# 6 Italy: 1,591 hours
# 7 Sweden: 1,564 hours
# 8 France: 1,453 hours
# 9 Norway: 1,337 hours

That’s not the whole story, of course.*

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Ropke Gets it Right

Wednesday, August 18, 2010 \PM\.\Wed\.

“The questionable things of this world come to grief on their nature, the good ones on their own excesses. Conservative respect for the past and its preservation are indispensable conditions of a sound society, but to cling exclusively to tradition, history, and established customs is an exaggeration leading to intolerable rigidity.  The liberal predilection for movement and progress is an equally indispensable counterweight, but if it sets no limits and recognizes nothing as lasting and worth preserving, it ends in disintegration and destruction.  The rights of the community are no less imperative than those of the individual, but exaggeration of the rights of the community in the form of collectivism is just as dangerous as exaggerated individualism and its extreme form, anarchism.  Ownership ends up in plutocracy, authority in bondage and despotism, democracy in arbitrariness and demagogy.  Whatever political tendencies or currents we choose as examples, it will be found that they always sow the seed of their own destruction when they lose their sense of proportion and overstep their limits. In this field, suicide is the normal cause of death.”

From A Humane Economy, p.90

In one paragraph, this man has encapsulated everything I believe.


The Problem of Profit

Friday, February 26, 2010 \AM\.\Fri\.

Bill Maher penned an article (“Health Care Problem Isn’t Socialism, It’s Capitalism“) a number of months ago that arguably captured an essential problem in American culture: the commodification of every aspect of our society. This is to say nothing about the merits of the current proposals of health care reform, but the increasing philosophical materialism and reductionism permeating through the American social fabric. The logic of this distorted view reduces material goods to dispensable goods that are only valuable insofar as subjective value is placed on that good. This unbridled consumerism has even led to human life being reduced to a dispensable good contingent on the subjective value placed extrinsically by society, or in certain situations, by another individual (the obvious examples being abortion and euthanasia). It is from this perspective, particularly, that one might argue that Maher’s article is spot on. Read the rest of this entry »


The Culture of Death: The Fruit of False Intellectual Ideals

Friday, January 22, 2010 \PM\.\Fri\.

In his encyclical Aeterni Patris, Pope Leo XIII sought to advance the restoration of Christian philosophy against the modern trends of secular philosophy, emerging from Enlightenment rationalism. The critique of modern intellectual errors and the way in which such false thinking manifests itself in the world has deeply shaded my personal reflection on the tragedy of legal abortion.

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Quote of the Day: Hayek on Individualism

Tuesday, January 12, 2010 \PM\.\Tue\.

From “Individualism: True and False” (1946)

…[T]he state, the embodiment of deliberately organized and consciously directly power, ought to be only a small part of the much richer organism which we call “society,” and that the former ought to provide merely a framework within which free (and therefore not “consciously directed”) collaboration of men has the maximum scope.

This entails certain corollaries on which true individualism once more stands in sharp opposition to the false individualism of the rationalistic type. The first is that the deliberately organized state on the one side, and the individual on the other, far from being regarded as the only realities, while all the intermediate formations and associations are to be deliberately suppressed, as was the aim of the French Revolution, the noncompulsory conventions of social intercourse are considered as essential factors in preserving the orderly working of human society. The second is that the individual, in participating in the social processes, must be ready and willing to adjust himself to changes and to submit to conventions which are not the result of intelligent design, whose justification in the particular instance may not be recognizable, and which to him often appear unintelligible and irrational. Read the rest of this entry »


Pope Benedict Warns Against Marxist Liberation Theology

Monday, December 7, 2009 \PM\.\Mon\.

As he has on other occasions, Pope Benedict last Saturday cautioned a group of Brazilian bishops about the dangers of Marxist Liberation Theology and the grave consequences for ecclesiastical communities which embrace it.   The Pope noted that it has been 25 years since the issuance of Libertatis Nuntius which highlighted the dangers of theologians uncritically using Marxist theses and methodologies.

Father Z has some pertinent commentary here.

I have always found it bleakly amusing that some Catholics on the Left have been attracted to an ideology which martyred so many Christians in the last century.  Here is the text of Libertatis Nuntius:

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Difference and Equality

Thursday, December 3, 2009 \AM\.\Thu\.

Individualism is one of those terms which a great many people use in a great many different ways, so it has been with interest that I’ve been reading Individualism and Economic Order by F. A. Hayek. The book is a collection of essays dealing the individualism, its definition and its place in the economic order.

From the first essay, “Individualism: True and False” comes an interesting thought:

Here I may perhaps mention that only because men are in fact unequal can we treat them equally. If all men were completely equal in their gifts and inclinations, we should have to treat them differently in order to achieve any sort of social organization. Fortunately, they are not equal; and it is only owing to this that the differentiation of functions needs not be determined by the arbitrary decision of some organizing will but that, after creating formal equality of the rules applying in the same manner to all, we can leave each individual to find his own level.

There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal. While the first is the condition of a free society, the second means, as De Tocqueville described it, “a new form of servitude.”
(Individualism and the Economic Order p. 14-15)

This strikes me as touching on the sense in which classical liberals in the tradition of Burke and Smith can still be considered “conservative” in the old sense of the term. Although Burke is commonly accepted by those who argue that classical liberalism is not “truly conservative” as being conservative in his outlook because of his reaction to the French Revolution, he was (like Smith) Whig, though they were Old Whigs, not True Whigs or Country Whigs. Prior to the French Revolution, Burke had been generally supportive of the cause of the colonists in the American Revolution.

Taking Hayek’s point, classical liberals in the tradition of Burke and Smith do not reject the necessary hierarchy of society. Nor do they embrace sudden, transformative social change. As such, they can certainly be seen as conservative. However, they do seek sufficient freedom within society to allow people to “find their own level”, believing that there is a natural hierarchy of ability which will thus result in an ordered society, and a more desirable one than one in which hierarchy comes strictly from birth and rank.

In this sense, the freedom of a classical liberal society creates social order, and a more stable one than the sort that an ancien regime conservatism maintains. Indeed, arguably, at this point in history, it is only this Whig-ish conservatism which is commonly found within society. Ancien regime conservatism has virtually died out.

Entirely different are notions of politics or the human person in which it is held which all people are truly and fully equal — in ability and inclination as well as in human dignity. Such systems would indeed seem to lead quickly to a most undesirable oppression.


Chutes, Ladders, & Progressivism

Monday, September 21, 2009 \PM\.\Mon\.

I came across this comment a while back, and I think it summarizes the experience of many of my fellow law and MBA classmates (all of whom are recent graduates or current students):

I don’t know how it was elsewhere, but the game my friends and I were sold had breezy constant ladders and shallow painless chutes. Now the ladders are falling apart or growing queues, and the chutes have proved to be sudden and devastating.

Now, on the one hand, it’s almost never rational to expect wonderful career opportunities to be awaiting one at every turn. And the graduates he’s talking about – people with sparkling resumes from the most prestigious undergrad and graduate schools – are hardly Dickens-level sympathetic protagonists. On the other hand, endless career opportunities are what many grad school admission offices are selling. And for many students and recent graduates of these institutions, six figures in debt with rapidly eroding job prospects,  the recession has been a rather traumatic experience.  This is certain to have a number of consequences, but I’ve been idly speculating that twenty to thirty years down the line, when they will be in a position to influence public policy, these individuals are likely to be more sympathetic than they might otherwise to redistributive policies. And, as it turns out, there is actually a recent academic study from the National Bureau of Economic Research that supports this idea. Here is the abstract:

Do generations growing up during recessions have different socio-economic beliefs than generations growing up in good times? We study the relationship between recessions and beliefs by matching macroeconomic shocks during early adulthood with self-reported answers from the General Social Survey. Using time and regional variations in macroeconomic conditions to identify the effect of recessions on beliefs, we show that individuals growing up during recessions tend to believe that success in life depends more on luck than on effort, support more government redistribution, but are less confident in public institutions.  Moreover, we find that recessions have a long-lasting effect on individuals’ beliefs.

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