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Distributism vs. Capitalism

A number of my thoughtful, Christian friends have become (or nearly become) distributists as we have moved through college and into life. This is a sort of “third way” economic model advocated decades ago by G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc, somewhat between capitalism and socialism but not yet mercantilism or the sort of gunked-up interventionist economy America has now. (I never thought I’d write sentences so laden with five-dollar terms—forgive me.) Distributism is regularly assumed and held forth on the excellent internet pages of Front Porch Republic. So I’ve had good reason to consider this philosophy, though it’s not yet persuaded me. The new academic journal Anamnesis recently came out with several papers discussing distributism. The first, by distributism’s current admiral John Medaille, neatly and persuasively outlines the philosophy. Thomas Woods responds in two pieces. I found “What’s wrong with Distributism” a good counterpart. The most persuasive critique of the free market I’ve read so far is “The Unfreedom of the Free Market,” by William T. Cavanaugh. My biggest criticism of it is simple: After roundly and wisely critiquing the free market, he departs from markets for his solution. So this is not really an argument against the free market as it is an argument that the free market  is not the be-all, end-all of existence. That should be obvious to anyone who reads this blog. Cavanaugh basically says that the free market is not enough to ensure wise and productive citizens. It needs a wider support structure (i.e., the church) to teach people moral truths such as “paying Rosa 33 cents a day may make your product cheaper, but you’re essentially enslaving her.” All of this I agree with. But it doesn’t mean we abandon the free market. It means a free market cannot function in a void, and Christ fills that void in the way he fills all. This is an important point for Christians who would be capitalists, because often the crazy Libertarian crowd acts like the market determines morality: “Hey, if people want to sell sex, let ‘em! They’re consenting adults!” I think this gives the free market a bad name among Christians. What we instead need to realize is that markets are, well, markets. The economy is one sphere of action, one slice of the pie of life. It is the best way we have for reducing the state’s power and the will to power. But it, like everything else, collapses without a spine inside. That doesn’t mean it’s bad—your stomach muscles aren’t bad because they can’t stand on their own, either. I’m about to discuss distributism with my book club this Saturday, as we discuss some Father Brown mysteries we’ve read this month. I’ll report back with what the ladies think. In the meantime, I’d appreciate your thoughts, as well.