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Wisconsin Supreme Court Candidate Says Calls For Recusal Promise Are Attacks On His Religious Beliefs

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports on the controversy surrounding 2005- 2006 law school blog posts of a state appeals court judge Brian Hagedorn who is a candidate for the state Supreme Court in the upcoming April 2 election in Wisconsin.  As reported in an earlier Journal-Sentinel article, the posts sharply criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling overturning anti-sodomy laws. saying they could lead to the legalization of bestiality. Hagedorn also attacked Planned Parenthood as an organization that was more devoted “to killing babies than to helping women.” Critics have called for Hagedorn to promise to recuse himself in cases involving same-sex relationships and Planned Parenthood. In a radio interview, Hagedorn, an evangelical Christian, says that the criticism of his posts and calls for recusal are attacks on his religious beliefs.

You can learn more about this issue here.

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Suite Challenges School’s Restrictions On Bible Distribution

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

Suit was filed this week in a Pennsylvania federal district court challenging regulations and policies of the Mechanicsburg Area School District that limit student members of a school’s Bible Club from distributing Bibles to classmates during lunch time hours. School policy allows non-school materials to be distributed only on public sidewalks outside the building and only for 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after school, except as otherwise permitted by the principal.  The complaint (full text) in Christians In Action Club v. Mechanicsburg Area School District, (MD PA, filed 1/30/2019) challenges these as “overbroad and unconstitutional time and place restrictions that impose a complete ban on literature distribution during the school day.” The suit alleges that these restrictions violate students’ free speech and free exercise rights both on their face and as applied. Cumberland Sentinel reports on the lawsuit.

You can learn more about this issue here.

Capitalists Against the Free Market

This article is part of my posts on the economic system of distributism.  This is from practicaldistributism.blogspot.com which you can find here:

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If you listen to the apologists of capitalism, there is one thing they consistently argue for when they rail against things like socialism or even distributism; the Free Market. They say that they believe that the Market should determine what products and services succeed and fail without artificial support or suppression from the government. Customers should be free to decide what products and services they want to buy and it is up to the producers and service providers to convince consumers to choose theirs instead of others. It is interesting to note those cases where they not only fail to support this idea, but actively work against it.

In order for consumers to be able to make a decision that truly represents the action of a free market, the consumer must have the right to know certain things about the products and service providers between which they are choosing. For example, it has generally been recognized that consumers have the right to know the ingredients of food. This is not just for reasons of health, but for other reasons as well. Vegetarians and vegans have the right as consumers to know whether or not the food they are purchasing contains meat or other animal products. This allows them to make a truly free market choice. Consumers also have the right to know who makes a product because, if they think the producer is unscrupulous, they need to have the ability to choose a competitor’s product. If they are prevented from doing this by allowing the producer to be hidden, then the consumer is prevented from making a free market decision they actively want to make.
An important aspect of this consumer choice is that the consumer’s reason does not have to be deemed “reasonable” by others. If you choose not to buy from a particular provider because they support things which you oppose on moral grounds, it doesn’t matter if those things you oppose have nothing to do with the product in question. In a truly free market, you would have the right to refuse to do business with any provider for whatever reason you want. In a truly free market, the consumer would have the right to know what he needs to know to make a truly free decision, and providers should therefore be required to provide this information and prevented from taking steps to hide it. It is the burden of providers to convince consumers to purchase their products and to do so in an open and honest way. If they fail to convince, then their failure is a result of the “invisible hand” of the free market.
In my state, Washington, there was a movement to require the labeling of products containing GMO ingredients. There are various reasons why people are making their free economic choice to not purchase products with patented genetically modified organisms, and these people were asking that their right to make that free market decision be honored by requiring that products containing these ingredients be labeled so that consumers would know what they are buying. What is truly interesting in regard to this article are the arguments I heard made by avowed capitalists against this. The capitalist pundits almost uniformly opposed the legislation on various grounds. The two main arguments made by these capitalists involved the impact to prices and the irrationality of those who opposed GMO products.

They claimed that the cost of changing the labeling would be prohibitively high and the cost of food would skyrocket as a result. There are two points which easily disprove this claim. First, companies change their labels quite frequently when it serves their purpose. They change pictures and rearrange things, they add special sections about offers. If these label changes don’t cause prices to skyrocket, then requiring the labels for future packages to indicate the presence of GMO ingredients won’t either. Second, the requirement has been made in several other countries and their prices didn’t skyrocket. Those who pointed this out were often treated with disdain by these capitalists.

The argument that those who oppose GMO products were doing so irrationally was typically in the form of saying they didn’t understand the science behind the GMO process. However, that isn’t a valid reason to oppose consumer information because the burden is on the producer to convince them to want to buy their products. If a group of consumers decides they would never purchase those products, that is still a free market decision even if the reasons for their choice are incorrect. We should expect avowed capitalists to support the right of consumers to make that decision even if they disagree with the decision itself.

While supporters of the legislation did voice their reasons for not wanting to choose GMO products, their argument about the legislation itself was essentially that they wanted the right to make their free market decision, and they couldn’t effectively do so if these ingredients were allowed to be hidden from them in the marketplace.
Since we know that the labeling requirement would not actually cause prices to skyrocket, what then is the real reason to refuse to indicate that a product contains GMO ingredients? An obvious answer is the loss of sales. In a free market with informed consumers, some of them will freely choose, for whatever reason, not to purchase products that contain GMO ingredients. In terms of free market capitalist economics, that is not only they way things work, but the way they should work. For a producer to refuse or oppose labeling that would inform the consumer about these ingredients is nothing less than deliberately working against free market values; hiding information you know the consumers want in order to effectively trick them into purchasing a product you know they don’t want. This is duplicitous at best.
Why then did so many capitalist who claim to advocate the free market vociferously oppose consumers being allowed to make informed free market decisions? They didn’t even seem to realize that they were opposing a position that essentially said, “let the free market decide the fate of GMO products in the marketplace.” In essence, they were opposing the free market itself.

An Economics of Justice & Charity

This article is part of my posts on the economic system of distributism.  This is from practicaldistributism.blogspot.com which you can find here:

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The Church has always concerned itself with issues of justice in society, and popes have taught extensively on the topic since the late 1800s. Unfortunately, many Catholics in our day are not aware of this teaching, or only consider it in regard to things like helping the poor. Helping the poor is a very important aspect of it, but the scope of the Church’s teaching on matters of social justice go much further. Any aspect of social life which involves questions of ethics or morality fall within the scope of this teaching. Thomas Storck’snew book, An Economics of Justice & Charity, is a guide that shows how the Church’s teaching is very clear, has never changed, and definitely applies to areas of social life like economics.
In this new book published by Angelico Press, readers of Practical Distributism and The Distributist Review will encounter some ground already covered by Mr. Storck. However, he has expanded this coverage and included more material for consideration. Especially important for the Catholic reader, and others who wish to understand the Church’s teaching on social justice, are the sections covering claims, sometimes made by Catholics, that the Church’s teaching has somehow changed since the Second Vatican Council, particularly with the encyclical of St. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus. Quoting those who claim that the Church’s teaching has changed, or that the Church has now wholeheartedly endorsed capitalism, Mr. Storck handily refutes those claims.
Another topic of interest to our readers is that of usury. On this topic, Mr. Storck clearly shows that, while the Church’s position on certain financial considerations may seem to indicate a change of teaching, the Church still condemns usury today as she always has. Through his examination of these financial considerations, Mr. Storck shows that the Church always sides with justice and maintains her teaching clear and unchanged without presenting an impossible burden for those of us who live in a world with a financial system that stands opposed to her teaching. However, he also points out that there are different financial options available to us. If we sincerely believe our Faith and strive to live by the teachings Christ has passed down to us through His Church, we need to choose options which are most consistent with those teachings whenever possible.
I wholeheartedly recommend An Economics of Justice & Charity. Consider this book for your own library and for those with whom you would like to share this important aspect of the Church’s teaching. Changing society is a slow and gradual process that must begin with getting people to consider alternatives to the status quo. This book can be a valuable tool in that most important work. Consider heading over to the Angelico Press web site to order a copy.

Interference With Child Custody or Kidnapping? High Court Sorts It Out.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recently handed down a ruling in the matter of Pennsylvania v. Tex Xavier Ortiz, 45 WAP 2017, that addresses and clarifies whether the criminal offense of interference with the custody of children, committed by a biological parent, can serve as an underlying felony for the crime of kidnapping a minor.

In a related custody matter to Ortiz, the maternal grandmother of the father’s (Ortiz) daughter, was awarded primary custody of his daughter as Ortiz failed to appear at the custody hearing. Per the order granting her primary custody, the grandmother attempted to exercise her custodial rights over the daughter, but could not locate her. After an investigation, it was found that Ortiz had his daughter and made efforts to conceal his whereabouts. The daughter was eventually found and returned to the grandmother, and Ortiz was arrested.

Ortiz was charged and convicted of interference with the custody of children (ICC) (pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S. Section 2904(a) and (c)) as well as kidnapping a minor (pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S. Section 2901(a.1)(2)). Ortiz appealed and argued that the ICC cannot serve as an underlying felony for the kidnapping of a minor when committed by a biological parent. Pennsylvania Superior Court agreed with him, and the commonwealth was granted an allowance of appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The court first observed that the kidnapping-of-a-minor statute has two required elements: the unlawful removal of a child a substantial distance away without the consent of the person responsible for the supervision of the child, and one of the four enumerated states of intent as described in Section 2901(a.1)(1) – (4) (i.e: (1) to hold for ransom or reward, or as a shield or hostage; to facilitate commission of any felony or flight thereafter; to inflict bodily injury on or to terrorize the victim or another; and, to interfere with the performance by public officials of any governmental or political function.). Next, the court discussed the ICC, which prohibits “the taking of a minor ‘from the custody of its parent, guardian or other lawful custodian, when the actor has no privilege to do so.’” The two statutes clearly closely track one another and significantly overlap.

The court then turned its focus on Section 2901(a.1)(2) where kidnapping of a minor requires an intention to commit a felony or flee with the child and looked at how that related to the ICC. The court observed that applying the ICC to Section 2901(a.1)(2) resulted in unworkable circular logic. Specifically, the court opined that “it is logically problematic to assert that father unlawfully removed the child pursuant to the kidnapping statute with the intent to make it easier to unlawfully remove the child as contemplated by the ICC statute … stated otherwise, the act of taking does not, sensibly, facilitate the act of taking.”

To discern a proper understanding of how to interpret these statutes together, the court looked to the Model Penal Code, from which both statutes at issue herein are derived. Pursuant the commentary to the Model Penal Code, kidnapping protects against physical danger, while the ICC serves only to maintain parental custody of children against unlawful interference, which does not necessarily touch upon any of the four statutory states of intent in the kidnapping statute listed above. Furthermore, someone who commits kidnapping typically has malevolent intent toward the child, while, by contrast, violating the ICC, although unlawful, is committed by someone who typically is favorably disposed to the child. The ICC, therefore, operates as a lesser included offense to kidnapping to allow for punishment of the act of unlawfully taking a child contrary to a custody order, which is less severe than standard kidnapping in that it does not meet the states of intent mentioned above.

Based on the above, the court ruled that a conviction under the ICC cannot form the underlying felony for a kidnapping charge under Section 2901(a.1)(2). The court found that the authors of the Model Penal Code “having assiduously explained that kidnapping requires more than interference with the custody of a child by a parent—did not intend for such interference to be reintroduced into the calculus under the rubric of a predicate felony.”

Finally, the court rejected the commonwealth’s argument that a defendant may be prosecuted under all available provisions under 42 Pa.C.S. Section 9303 because the kidnapping statute and the ICC do not cover the same underlying conduct.

In sum, a finding that a biological parent committed the crime of interfering with a custody order under 18 Pa.C.S. Section 2904(a) and (c) cannot also serve as an underlying felony for a charge and conviction for kidnapping a minor.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on December 20, 2018 and can be found here.

Self-sufficiency and economic freedom

This article is part of my posts on the economic system of distributism.  This is from practicaldistributism.blogspot.com which you can find here:

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Hilaire Belloc’s Essay on the Restoration of Property is a remarkably well-written book.  Put aside the question of whether Belloc is right or wrong about any of his contentions: the book is thoroughly lucid.  It’s also organic—you really can’t dip into it at random, you need to get ahold of the ideas as a whole.  This feature of the book, I think, leads to confusion among critics.  Well, there’s also the fact that despite its lucidity, the book covers far more territory than it could exhaustively treat, so there are some ideas that aren’t fully fleshed out.  One of those ideas, at least in my experience, is economic freedom.  It’s one of the central notions of the book, and one of the most fundamental principles upon which Distributism stands, and I’ve had a difficult time coming to grips with it.

It seems to me others have, too, including some prominent opponents of Distributism.  In particular, there seems to be a tendency to conflate economic freedom and self-sufficience.  This has serious consequences.

As I say, the book is an organic whole, so I can’t just pick up ‘economic freedom’ on its own.  I need to back up a little.  Belloc begins with the Production of Wealth.  This is, as he puts it, the transformation of man’s environment from a state that is less useful to a state that is more useful.  ‘Wealth,’ here, doesn’t mean large sacks of cash (at least, not generally).  It means all the things we need to have in order to live conformably to our nature: things like food and drink and clothes and shelter.

The transformation of our environment—the Production of Wealth—occurs only through the use of the Means of Production:

The wealth can only come into existence through the manipulating of natural forces by certain instruments; and there must also be an existing store of food and clothing and housing and the rest of it [e.g. clothing and fuel: or, in other words, wealth] so that human beings may carry on during the process of production.  These stores of wealth, these instruments and these natural forces are the Means of Production.

Note that last sentence carefully.  The means of production include such things as food and clothing, tools (“certain instruments”), and the natural forces with which we work.  It follows immediately that “whoever controls the means of production controls the supply of wealth.”  It also follows immediately that if the family does not control the means of production, then it will not be economically free.  That is: economic freedom requires control over the means of production.  Without control over the means of production, you are economically dependent upon others.  If you are economically free, you are not economically dependent upon others.  But of course this all comes in degrees.  To attain ideal economic freedom, one must attain full control over all the means of production required for the production of the sorts of wealth called for by one’s life.

Now, a quick review of that last paragraph brings to light why it’s so easy to confuse economic freedom with self-sufficiency.  But hold on to that for a minute.  First, we need to get clear on this notion of ideal economic freedom.  It’s not what you think.

The ideal, Belloc says, is inhuman.  In other words, do not read Belloc’s use of the term ‘ideal’ as meaning “a goal to be strived for even though we are sure to fall short,” or as “that which would be most appropriate for us, should we, per impossibile, attain it.”  That is definitely not the way to take it.  He uses the term in the sense of being an idealization, which is to say, a falsification.  Man is a social animal.  He is not made for the kind of isolation implied in such an ideal.  Again—and this can’t be stressed enough—ideal economic freedom is not a desideratum.  It must come with limitations.

So Belloc posits two restraints upon economic freedom.  First, there is the Difference of Occupation: some will mainly raise grain, some will mainly mill grain, some will mainly make millstones, some will mainly fix grain planting equipment, etc.  Second, there is the Principle of Unity, namely, the State, which helps maintain justice and order internally, and helps arrange for defense against aggression from without.  The resulting dually-limited economic freedom “satisfies the nature of man.”  So these limitations are not unfortunate constraints that bar our way to Utopia.  There is no Utopia—the “ideal” is eschewed from the outset as not proper to our nature.

What is to be pursued is not an inhuman ideal, but rather the wide distribution of control over the means of production, which is to say, private property.  And the family must control the means of production, or else it will not be economically free.  One can, of course, reject economic freedom as a goal (and Belloc deals with some arguments intended to do that).  But if one accepts economic freedom as a goal, then it is hard to see how Belloc’s conclusions to this point can be gainsaid.

At any rate, my task for today is not to argue in defense of economic freedom.  It is, rather, to clarify the relation between economic freedom and self-sufficiency.  I’ll take an old article from Thomas Woods as an example of the confusion of those two notions, and of its consequences for understanding Distributism.  But let’s start with the distinction.

I doubt there’s an authoritative account of exactly what self-sufficiency is, so let’s just make it easy on ourselves and go straight to Wikipedia.

Self-sufficiency (also called self-containment) is the state of not requiring any aid, support, or interaction for survival; it is a type of personal or collective autonomy…  Self-sufficiency is a type of sustainable living in which nothing is consumed other than what is produced by the self-sufficient individuals.

Obviously there’s an ideal form of self-sufficiency, just as there’s an ideal form of economic freedom, and I suspect that the ideal of self-sufficiency is equally unattainable and undesirable.  So self-sufficiency comes in degrees like economic freedom.  But are they the same thing?

If so, then any increase in the one is an increase in the other, and the having of a large amount of the one entails the having a large amount of the other (and vice versa).  But that’s not how the relationship between the two really works.

Imagine a person who buys a small farm on the outskirts of a major city.  The value of the property is, say, one million dollars.  The farmer desires to be self-sufficient.  He wants to raise all of his food and fiber and fuel.  So he manages, over the course of some years, to grow large amounts of cotton and wool (and, correspondingly, mutton and lamb and even some sheep’s milk), along with maintaining a wood lot for firewood and a large garden, together with a laying flock and fruit trees and brambles and so forth.  The farm allows the farmer to become remarkably self-sufficient.

Does that mean the farmer is remarkably economically free?  Well, no, not necessarily.  Suppose the farmer, in addition to his farm work, holds a fulltime job as a high school science teacher.  His extreme degree of self-sufficiency is a pretty good thing, because the mortgage payment on the farm eats up virtually his whole income.  If he should lose his job, he would within a very short time lose his farm.  The truth is that he does not own the means of production, and hence he is not economically free.  (Objection: he’s not really self-sufficient, because his farm depends upon inputs from outside the system: namely, money.  Reply: first, even if it were granted that he’s not perfectly self-sufficient, nevertheless, if the term ‘self-sufficient’ has any meaning at all, it can be applied to this person.  For comparison, just think of the high school science teacher who produces none of his own food, fuel, fiber, etc.  That person is not at all self-sufficient, but the farmer teacher is far more self-sufficient.  But second, the objection equivocates on self-sufficiency, essentially by conflating self-sufficiency with economic freedom, or in other words it begs the question here.  That it doesn’t justifiably do so can be shown by considering the distinction between economic freedom and self-sufficiency from the opposite direction…a task to which I now turn.)

Looking at the question from the opposite direction, we can easily imagine someone who has inherited a large plumbing firm, and is able to live on the income from that firm, but who does exactly zero productive labor.  Economically free, but not at all self-sufficient.

In short, self-sufficiency and economic freedom are quite distinct.  That’s not to say they’re wholly disconnected.  Other things equal, the more self-sufficient you are, the more economically free you are.  (I do not think the entailment runs in the other direction, as the latter example above shows.)  But the point is that if you don’t carefully distinguish between the two concepts, you’ll start making mistakes about them.  Now I turn, as promised, to Woods.  Forgive the long quotation: I need it all here so you can see what I mean about making mistakes.  Note the way that economic freedom and self-sufficiency—together with in/dependence and security (I’ll put the terms in bold in order to obnoxiously belabor the point)—get mixed together in what follows:

For Belloc, then, the great advantage of distributism is that it gives the household a significant measure of independence. A new introduction to his Essay on the Restoration of Property describes his view of “economic freedom” as something that “comes from the possession of sufficient productive property, such that a man need not depend upon his employer for a wage, but has rather to depend upon himself and his land, craft, tools, and trade for his sustenance.”  Belloc acknowledges in passing that of course anyone selling to others is in some way dependenton those others, thereby conceding that risk and uncertainty are unavoidable aspects of life rather than unique to a system of economic freedom. If the price and quality of his goods do not remain sufficiently competitive, he is surely bound to lose business. However, Belloc points out, the family can nevertheless live on its own, even if buyers refuse to purchase its surplus goods. They can live on what they themselves produce. At heart, then, Belloc’s promise of security amounts to the distributist family’s ability in the last resort to retreat altogether from the division of labor and live in a condition of self-sufficiency.

I take it I don’t need to spend too much time pointing out that Woods is attributing to Belloc the ideal version of economic freedom, rather than the desirable or real one that Belloc actually defends.  If Belloc’s “promise of security” comes down to saying, hey, at least you can live altogether in isolation—which is to say, in an undesirable and unnatural state—then it’s not much of a promise.

I would have thought the point was obvious enough: if I’m entirely dependent on my employer for all my wealth, then I am not economically free.  At any moment, my employer could elect to end my employment.  If, on the other hand, I own the means of production (not simply a farm, but a plumbing business or a bakery or a law office) then while of course I am “dependent” on my customers or clients (just exactly as my employer is dependent upon his customers or clients—there’s no difference there), I am not alsodependent on my employer.  A whole layer of dependence has been removed.  In no case am I wholly secure in this world: just for one example, a terrible economic crash can hurt an independent plumber just as badly as it can hurt an employee of a large plumbing firm.  (Although I suspect that even here there is nuance.  An employee of a suffering plumbing firm may simply be let go, and wind up with no income at all.  [Leaving aside unemployment benefits or what have you, which of course Belloc is strongly opposed to.]  But an independent plumber, while his business may be seriously cut back, will likely retain some income, through doing a few jobs here and there.  Leave this aside.)  Notice that economic freedom as such has absolutely nothing to do with retreating to the hills and becoming wholly self-sufficient.  It has to do with owning the means of production!  Now to see how this confusion continues to undermine Woods’s attempts to deal with Belloc, let me continue the long quotation:

Yet the advantages of the division of labor are so clear that relatively few people have found Belloc’s proposal attractive enough to have actually attempted to adopt it. Practically anyone in the United States today who possesses the requisite knowledge and modest capital can acquire farmland and chase after the kind of self-sufficiency Belloc advocated. Producing their own necessities and in possession of the means of production, so to speak, such a family would be utterly independent of employers or anyone else. They would probably also enjoy a standard of living so depressed and intolerable as to throw the rationality of the entire enterprise into question. This certain outcome probably accounts for why the overwhelming majority of people choose to take their chances within the division of labor, balancing the risks from which this earthly life is never entirely secure against the unparalleled wealth and comfort they can enjoy by not retreating into semi-autarky.

So the upshot, says Woods, is: people don’t want “economic freedom”!  It’s miserable.

But is this at all reasonable?  Take the second sentence in the above quotation: “Practically anyone in the US today who possesses the requisite knowledge and modest capital can acquire farmland and chase after the kind of self-sufficiency that Belloc advocated.”  We’ve already seen that Belloc does not advocate that kind of self-sufficiency.  But note how confused Woods is regarding what economic freedom really requires.  What kind of modest capital does Woods think is required to own one’s own farmland and the tools required to farm it self-sufficiently?  You’re not economically free, as we saw above, if the bank owns your farm.  Woods is casually tossing out the idea that “practically anyone” could go ahead and become “economically free” by buying a farm and successfully living off it, because he’s confusing self-sufficiency with economic freedom.  (Ignore the fact that Woods seems to underestimate—egregiously underestimate—the amount of knowledge that would be required to become self-sufficient anyway.)

Worse, once again, the “utter independence” that Woods talks about is entirely inconsistent with Belloc’s actual desires.  It would be unnatural.  It’s not the way for humans to live.  It’s no good.

Of course, the notion that Belloc is somehow against the division of labor is clearly false, too.  As we saw above, Difference of Occupation is one of the two principal limitations on ideal economic freedom.  It’s part of the natural human way.  It’s not an evil to be shunned, but a good to be preserved.

Last, there’s a kind of strange confusion in the whole construction of the case.  Woods sets the thing up by imagining a bad situation for the Distributist family—one wherein a family can’t sell any of its goods, and hence retreats to its own devices.  Then he compares that to a good outcome in a capitalist economy.  Namely, one from which we can view the “self-sufficient” family’s lifestyle as depressed and intolerable.  So, not from the standpoint of an unemployed mill worker who is at the end of his rope, unemployment benefits over, no jobs in sight, no idea what to do next.  But from the standpoint of the happy-go-lucky, fully employed, financially flush, free person.  But if we’re comparing a failure of the Distributist economy—one where the family in question literally can’t find anyone to trade with!—then shouldn’t we compare it to a failure of the capitalist economy?  That is, to that unemployed mill worker?  What would one prefer?  To be the unemployed mill worker, wholly dependent for his sustenance on an employer who no longer needs him, and so has turned him out?  Or to be the self-sufficient though lonely and isolated and indeed impoverished farm family that nevertheless has plenty to eat, has a place to sleep, and has them securely?  I’d have to go with the latter.

But my point, again, isn’t to try to argue for the desirability of Bellocian economic freedom, simply to try to explain how it differs from self-sufficiency.  Both are good, understood properly, but they’re not the same thing.

Is Private Property an Evil?

This article is part of my posts on the economic system of distributism.  This is from practicaldistributism.blogspot.com which you can find here:

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Roque Dalton, the Salvadoran Marxist poet and journalist (died 1975), wrote a poem, called in Spanish “Acta,” rendered in English as “Act,” which is a powerful indictment of economic injustice. The poem runs in part (as translated by Jack Hirschman):

In the name of those washing others’ clothes
(and cleansing others’ filth from the whiteness)
In the name of those living on others’ land
(the houses and factories and shops
streets, cities and towns
rivers lakes volcanoes and mountains
always belong to others
and that’s why the cops and the guards are there
guarding them against us)
In the name of those who have nothing but
hunger exploitation disease
a thirst for justice and water
persecutions and condemnations
loneliness abandonment oppression and death
I accuse private property
of depriving us of everything.

It is easy to understand why someone contemplating the immense discrepancy between the mansions of the rich and the hovels of the poor would consider private property itself as at the root of these injustices. “Capital,” as Pope Pius XI wrote, “was long able to appropriate to itself excessive advantages. It claimed all the products and profits and left to the laborer the barest minimum necessary to repair his strength and to ensure the continuation of his class” (Quadragesimo Anno, no. 54). And such an unjust distribution of wealth persists in many places in the world – or even grows worse. In the United States, where a relatively more fair distribution of wealth and income was achieved in the 1950s and 60s, since the late 70s the percentage of income obtained by the richest 10% or even 1% has increased dramatically. As the same pontiff wrote, “not every kind of distribution of wealth and property among men is such that it can satisfactorily, still less adequately, attain the end intended by God…” (ibid., no. 57).

If the institution of private property exists for a purpose, “the end intended by God,” then unjust concentrations of property on the part of the rich violate justice, harm the common good, distort the political process, and, in truth, are a powerful near occasion of sin to the wealthy themselves. But what remedy should we seek for this situation? To abolish private property? To “accuse private property of depriving us of everything”? That would be a bit like arguing that since some people have too many clothes and others not enough, we should abolish the private possession of clothing. No, there is a better way.

Distributists seek a more equitable distribution of property, not, as some of our critics appear to think, an absolutely equal distribution, which is neither desirable nor attainable. But a relatively more equal distribution, one that helps rather than hinders the purposes of property. For surely the purpose of private property is to facilitate the orderly fulfillment of the economic needs of the human race, not the amassing of wealth beyond anyone’s reasonable needs. Private property must be subordinate to the common good of society, and our laws ought to favor the division of property and its acquisition by the poor.

Some of the ways that a more fair distribution of property could be achieved were sketched by Hilaire Belloc in his 1936 book, The Restoration of Property, and depending on circumstances, these methods are still valid. Another method important today is to equalize the economic power between those who wash others’ clothes and cook others’ meals and collect others’ garbage, on the one hand, and on the other, those who control or hire them, those Pope Leo XIII characterized as “the party which holds the power because it holds the wealth; which has in its grasp all labor and all trade; which manipulates for its own benefit and its own purposes all the sources of supply, and which is powerfully represented in the councils of the State itself” (Rerum Novarum, no. 47).

Defenders of the economic status quo like to imagine that economic outcomes, such as vastly unequal distributions of wealth and income, are simply dictates of the so-called laws of economics. But this is not the case. It is not primarily such economic laws that have given some people control of wealth and labor and trade. Economic laws, which are reflections of certain more or less constant tendencies or proclivities of human beings, are real, certainly, but they always operate within a legal and a cultural framework, they are subject to manipulation by those who hold power, and rarely are they the most important factor at play in any given economic result. Those who wash clothes and clean hotel rooms generally work hard, but their hard work does not bring them riches, even after a lifetime of working. Why? Because they hold no economic power. Those who have economic power, their employers, essentially hold all the cards in determining wages. They are “the party which holds the power because it holds the wealth [and]…which manipulates for its own benefit and its own purposes all the sources of supply….” Pope Leo was well aware that power was one of the chief determinants of economic outcomes. That is why labor organization is such an important means for achieving something like equity in economic bargaining power as a means toward achieving a more just distribution of property, and why Leo lamented, at the beginning of Rerum Novarum, the destruction of the “ancient workmen’s Guilds” (no. 3). The claim that labor distorts market processes misses the point, because any market always operates under some rules. Rules against force and fraud, for example, are no more natural or less arbitrary than are rules giving a voice to organized labor. The economy is not a self-existent entity that serves its own ends in isolation. It is part of the social order and must be subjected to the common good of the social order.

While the injustices that all too often are associated with private property are real and are to be deplored and eliminated, the remedy is not to abolish private ownership. If private property were abolished “the working man himself would be among the first to suffer” wrote Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (no. 4). It is not private property that is the enemy of justice or of the common good. It is the inequitable distribution of that property. Against such a distribution Catholic social doctrine proposes remedies, and distributists seek means to make these remedies more specific and to apply them to current conditions.

Of course, this is not to say that absolutely everything must be privately owned. Pope Pius XI justified state ownership in the following words. “For it is rightly contended that certain forms of property must be reserved to the State, since they carry with them an opportunity of domination too great to be left to private individuals without injury to the community at large” (Quadragesimo Anno, no. 114). Even more to the point is ownership by cooperative groups, such as worker-owned companies. In the Middle Ages most manorial farmland was cooperatively worked and was not the individual property of its cultivator. In fact, there have been many different systems of private property. To quote Pius XI once more:

History proves that the right of ownership, like other elements of social life, is not absolutely rigid, and this doctrine We Ourselves have given utterance to on a previous occasion in the following terms: “How varied are the forms which the right of property has assumed! First, a primitive form in use among untutored and backward peoples, which still exists in certain localities even in our own day; then, that of the patriarchal age; later came various tyrannical types (We use the word in its classical meaning); finally the feudal and monarchic systems down to the varieties of more recent times.” (ibid., no. 49)

Let us not confuse Enlightenment notions of absolute ownership, such as can be found in John Locke, with Catholic teaching on private property. The seventh commandment is not a bulwark for the Lockean social order.

No one, no Catholic especially, should be unmoved by the cry against injustice that Roque Dalton makes. But let us not jettison what is good in order to guard against the abuse of that good. Private ownership, yes; injustice, no. Let that be our motto and cry against oppression.

You can find this article here.

Selling Out: The Perils of Capitalist Small Business

This article is part of my posts on the economic system of distributism.  This is from practicaldistributism.blogspot.com which you can find here:

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Not too long ago it was announced that Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina, which had been a craft brewery, was being sold to Anheuser-Busch, the gigantic beer corporation. The founders of Wicked Weed announced optimistically that

Partnering with Anheuser-Busch means great distribution opportunities, more resources, and connections to other breweries…. More opportunities for Wicked Weed means bringing craft beer to more people….

It is of course hardly uncommon for a small business in the United States to be bought out by a large corporation. If a small business has a successful or unique product, it seems to some that its natural destiny is to be absorbed by some existing large company, and that this is somehow according to the laws of nature. But although it is very understandable why in a capitalist economy small owners would want to sell out to a big firm, this is a sad effect of capitalism, not some natural law.

As is so often the case with an Internet article, the comments that readers posted illustrate some interesting facets of popular thinking. And in this case they also bring to light some of the difficulties that naturally adhere to small business in a capitalist economy. (Comments have disappeared from the website, but are paraphrased as originally posted.)

In the first place, one of the commenters noted that craft beers are made by people concerned more for the product than for profits. In contrast to this, however, others not only defended the Wicked Weed owners, but defended the principle that selling out to a large company was simply what should be expected. One reader stated that it sounds as if the owners believed in the American dream. Why are people upset about that, he asked. Maybe because they’re too lazy to think of something themselves and market it.

Still other commenters offered other kinds of defenses of the founders of Wicked Weed. One noted that the owners deserve to obtain financial security, and along the same lines, someone pointed out that for most people the goal of having a business is selling out to a larger company after years of back breaking 80 hour weeks. And still another stated the undoubted fact that it’s difficult to resist when a major company offers to buy you out and make you very very rich.

Now what are some things a distributist can say in reply? First of all, the commenter who spoke of craft brewers as people who cared more for their product than for profits showed a correct understanding of what mankind’s economic motivations should be. Although profit rightly understood is a necessity for a business of any size, nevertheless brewers, bakers, and other craftsmen ought to have more interest in their product and their craft than simply viewing it as a means to make money. The money or profit should, in a sense, be a by-product of their work, not its goal. A passage from Hilaire Belloc that I’ve quoted elsewhere more than once expresses this very well.

But wealth obtained indirectly as profit out of other men’s work, or by process of exchange, becomes a thing abstracted from the process of production. As the interest of a man in things diminishes, his interest in abstract wealth – money – increases. The man who makes a table or grows a crop makes the success of the crop or the table a test of excellence. The intermediary who buys and sells the crop or the table is not concerned with the goodness of table or crop, but with the profit he makes between their purchase and sale. In a productive society the superiority of the things produced is the measure of success: in a Commercial society the amount of wealth accumulated by the dealer is the measure of success. [1]

One suspects that the owners of Anheuser-Busch, that is, the stockholders, don’t care over much about product quality provided that the accustomed revenues continue. For them it is not a passion to provide good beer, but merely a smart investment, perhaps recommended by their broker as an up and coming stock. The difference in outlook between a craftsman, enthusiastic about his product, and a stockholder perusing brokerage house statements illustrates this immense difference very well.

Let us go on to the other readers who posted comments. The reader who defended selling out to Anheuser-Busch on the grounds that this was a fulfillment of the American dream is a good example of someone who has completely absorbed the capitalist understanding of economic activity. For him economics is not about supplying the needs of mankind with a good product while at the same time earning a sufficient income for oneself and one’s family. Instead economic activity is about becoming rich. The product takes second place, indeed, at times the product becomes totally irrelevant, as in the case of someone who makes a fortune by various kinds of financial manipulations entirely devoid of any connection with a real product.

But the other defenders of the Wicked Weed founders have a point. Financial security as well as relief from 80 hour weeks are both legitimate and reasonable desires and goals. Unfortunately under capitalism selling out to a larger entity that probably will have little intrinsic interest in your product is often the only way to achieve such security and relief. But with distributism this is not so. If we accept the basic view of distributism that the economy exists because God has created human beings so that we need external goods and have the capacity to provide them for ourselves, we can begin to grasp that there is something wrong with an economic system in which insecurity, especially for the little guy, is inherent, and which in turn leads to back breaking 80 hour workweeks.

Brewers are meant to supply a real need for the human race, good beer. Of course they must also earn enough profit that they can support themselves and their families. But there is no reason why supplying our need for beer must necessitate either insecurity or 80 hour workweeks. The brewers in any particular locale are not by nature enemies of each other, not even rivals, rather they are cooperators in supplying a need. The medieval distributist urban economy perfected the institution of the craft guilds so that those working in the same trade to supply a public need, such as beer or bread, would cooperate in fulfilling that need. The guilds sought by their regulations and by fostering an atmosphere of spiritual and fraternal unity to prevent any one producer from seeking a larger market share than he reasonably needed or trying to put his brother craftsman out of business. Therefore none would labor under such fear of financial insecurity that he would be impelled to work 80 hour weeks. The guilds, of course, did limit the number of brewers according to the reasonable needs of a locality. They did regulate and restrain competition. But they did this in the interest both of themselves and the public. The brewers needed a reasonable guarantee of stable work, the public a sufficient supply of good beer at a fair price. The guilds aimed to accomplish both, by institutionalizing the natural, God-given equilibrium between human needs and the human capacity to supply those needs.

Now the common capitalist response to this is to claim that, whatever ill effects excessive competition might have, in the long run it guarantees better beer to the consumer. Only when brewers fiercely compete and the better ones win out, will the public be assured of good beer. But does experience support such a notion? It is free competition that has led to behemoths like Anheuser-Busch and to the corporate beer which it purveys. I readily grant that guilds are not free of temptations to abuse their status, to settle into a mediocre routine, but, due to the Fall of our first parents, there is no human institution which is free of the possibility of corruption. If a guild becomes corrupt that is because of the unfortunate corruption of fallen human nature, it is not due to anything lacking in the guild principle itself.

If beer drinkers think that it is craft brewers who offer good tasting beer, and that it is the corporate breweries who offer something less than that, then the question is how to preserve the small brewers without subjecting their owners to 80 hour workweeks and a constant fear of going out of business. The guild system of distributism does exactly that, while the unrestricted competition of capitalism subjects small brewers to the same forces that led to the consolidation of breweries in the first place. If mankind’s economic activity is meant both to supply our genuine needs and provide a means of supporting ourselves in a reasonable and human manner, then distributism offers a way of doing that, while capitalism does not. If our dream is to become rich, then we have misunderstood both the purpose of economic activity and why we are placed on the earth in the first place. It is not to become rich but rather to live well so that we can attain to a better life afterwards.

Notes:
1: An Essay on the Nature of Contemporary England (New York :  Sheed & Ward, 1937), p. 67.

You can find the original publication on Practical Distributism here.

Subsidiarity vs. Single Payer

This article is part of my posts on the economic system of distributism.  This is from practicaldistributism.blogspot.com which you can find here:

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In his article, “Subsidiarity and the Single Payer,” Jack Quirk argues that a Single Payer system for health care services is consistent with the principles of subsidiarity and Catholic Social Teaching. He concludes his article by stating that the “principle of subsidiarity cannot legitimately be used to argue against a single-payer healthcare system. … Those who argue against it will need to avail themselves of something outside of Catholic social teaching for support.” His argument seems to depend on two points which I think are incorrect. The first is that the question of subsidiarity “does not turn on jurisdiction, but on competence. Subsidiarity is not federalism.” The second is the fact that some health care services are very expensive, and the fact that health insurers in the United States lack the power to contain those costs, means that the highest level of government has the right and responsibility, according to the principles of subsidiarity, to step in to assist paying for all health care services. This response is an explanation of why I believe he is wrong on both points.
When Mr. Quirk says subsidiarity does not “turn on competence,” it isn’t clear if he means the term in the sense of “ability.” However, it is clear that he is proposing competence as opposed to jurisdiction, and he seems to equate jurisdiction with federalism in his article. Subsidiarity is based on human nature and the natural and moral laws. This is what determines who has the natural role for given responsibilities, and those who have a role have a natural jurisdiction, which we could also call competence, to fulfill it. Following the principles of subsidiarity, we understand that the higher orders of society have the function and responsibility to provide assistance (subsidium) to the lower orders when needed. This is why the state has no right to usurp a parent’s role in educating children, but does have the right to assist (but not to compel) parents with the education of their children. The Church teaches that “it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.” [1] One can use subsidiarity to determine what roles are proper to the different levels of society. In other words, competence in the sense sense of Catholic Social Teaching is not incompatible with jurisdiction, and we can discuss jurisdiction and authority without resorting to, or resulting in, federalism.
The initiative, freedom and responsibility
of lower orders of society must not be supplanted.
“Subsidiarity, understood in the positive sense as economic, institutional or juridical assistance offered to lesser social entities, entails a corresponding series of negative implications that require the State to refrain from anything that would de facto restrict the existential space of the smaller essential cells of society. Their initiative, freedom and responsibility must not be supplanted.” [2] Just because a condition is common across the country does not make it the responsibility of the federal government. If the assistance can be rendered community by community by more local social institutions or governments, then the federal government would be violating the principle of subsidiarity if it took over the role of rendering that assistance. The federal government could only justify stepping in where those more local institutions didn’t already exist or lacked the resources to address the issue. “In light of the principle of subsidiarity, however, this institutional substitution must not continue any longer than is absolutely necessary, since justification for such intervention is found only in the exceptional nature of the situation.” [3] In other words, part of that assistance would be to help establish the more local institution and help it to arrange acquiring the necessary resources on its own so that the assistance being given will become unnecessary. In addition, the principle of subsidiarity means that the federal government cannot step in where the more local institutions exist and have the ability to deal with the issue at the local level.

Many people assume that only the federal government can afford to adequately assist those in need. This is simply not true. If the taxes to provide this assistance were collected by the state rather than the federal government, then the state could render the assistance. If they were collected by county government rather than the state, then counties could render the assistance. If the principle of subsidiarity were really being applied, then the tax structure would be distributed so that higher levels of government would not need to step in except where the need went beyond the more local governments.

In regard to the supposed inability of health insurers to contain the costs of health care, in what way does this justify implementing a single payer system? It is arguable that the payment structure imposed by those insurers (and the government) have contributed to the overall increase of costs. Insurance companies make money from people paying premiums. Therefore, it is beneficial for them if the costs of even relatively inexpensive health services remain high enough to make the overwhelming majority of people rely on insurance to pay for all health care.

An absent or insufficient recognition of 
private initiative – in economic matters also – and the failure to recognize its public function, contribute to the undermining of the principle of subsidiarity …” [4]
Our current model of providing and paying for health care is not the only possible one. To take just one example, subscription based medical providers have proven to make general and preventive care very affordable for the average family. For poor families who cannot afford the subscription, the costs are low enough that religious and other more local organizations or government can render the assistance of paying for their subscriptions. If we implemented this type of system as a standard, medical insurance would only be needed for emergencies and long term conditions and for particularly expensive procedures. This would lower the overall costs of insurance making it more affordable for families and making local institutions more capable of assisting those who cannot afford insurance. Subscription based medical services is only one of many ways that the means of acquiring health care services and lowering their costs could be addressed.
Single Payer is proposed as a permanent solution established at the highest level of government to render assistance that could be rendered by more local social institutions and governments if we only had the will to give those more local institutions and governments the ability to perform their roles. It is not limited to assisting with only those health care costs which are prohibitively high or only those people who cannot afford other means to pay for health care. In the name of “assistance” it usurps the responsibilities of the family and more local institutions and absorbs their natural roles into the highest level of government. It might be true that assistance from the federal government will be needed during the process of implementing better access to health care and transitioning the role of government support to more local levels. However, as a permanently instituted system, Single Payer is clearly a violation of the principle of subsidiarity and Catholic Social Teaching.

Continued in Part 2
Notes:
[1] USCCB/LEV, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 2011 [Kindle edition], Section 186
[2] Ibid. Emphasis in the original
[3] USCCB/LEV, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 2011 [Kindle edition], Section 187
[4] Ibid.

You can find the original publications here.

Distributism and Capitalism: Some contrasting features

This article is part of my posts on the economic system of distributism.  This is from practicaldistributism.blogspot.com which you can find here:

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G. K. Chesterton’s younger brother, Cecil, gave what is probably the most succinct definition of distributism, or rather of a distributist in an article he wrote in 1917.

A Distributist is a man who desires that the means of production should, generally speaking, remain private property, but that their ownership should be so distributed that the determining mass of families – ideally every family – should have an efficient share therein. That is Distributism, and nothing else is Distributism. … Distributism is quite as possible in an industrial or commercial as in an agrarian community. …[1]

This is an excellent definition of the formal economic arrangements of distributism, and moreover it points out the fact that distributism does not require that everyone become a farmer and that it will not hinder the progress of technology, as our critics sometimes assert. But while this definition highlights the structural aspect of well- distributed property ownership, which is the heart of distributism, there is more to distributism than that. For if distributism were simply a rearrangement of who owns what, but to be carried on in the same spirit with which capitalism is carried on, then eventually it would lead to the same economic and social ills that capitalism has produced. Rather, distributism requires a very different approach to mankind’s economic activity, an approach that is focused on providing for our legitimate needs but not on inflaming our fallen appetites for more and more consumer goods.

Capitalism, as Pope Pius XI characterized it in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, #100, is the separation of ownership from work. In other words, in a capitalist economy some people own the means of production and hire others to work for them. Now, strictly speaking, as Pius XI points out, there need not be anything unjust about such an arrangement, provided that a just wage is paid and the other stipulations of justice are observed. But in actual practice capitalism has rarely if ever observed the demands of justice. And it is not hard to understand why. An owner of capital has at least three strong temptations to exploit the economic process by turning it away from service to the common good toward merely his own enrichment.

First, since he is not directly the producer of a product, not himself a maker, he tends not to be focused on quality products out of pride of workmanship, but rather on producing by means of his workforce something that will sell. Attention to quality is governed by considerations of expenses versus profits, and even by consideration of possible product liability costs versus profits. In the most extreme form of capitalism, the corporation, most shareholders, although legally owners of the firm, have absolutely nothing to do with what it makes or sells, and hence are interested merely in their dividends or in rising share prices. And in one step even further removed, mutual funds, owners often do not even know what companies their funds invest in, and such investments are often short-term and change rapidly. It is true that in some old-fashioned capitalist enterprises the owner is involved in the business and may have some pride of craftsmanship. But as long as the owner is actively involved in the business, then there is still a distributist element in the firm, however small.

Secondly, because he is chiefly and directly interested in sales, not production of a quality product, if something will sell, that is pretty much the only question he considers. By means of advertising capitalists engage in persuasion to convince people to buy their products. In cases of authentic need, people know they need something and will go to seek it. If they are hungry, they will buy food, if they want something to read, they will buy a book. But advertising attempts to convince people that they need things they had no previous idea they needed. It directly stimulates people’s acquisitive appetites, and thus helps create a society preoccupied with consumer goods.

The third temptation which capitalist enterprise puts before an owner is to withhold justice from his workers. Workers are always a negative item in a capitalist balance sheet, and hence a strong temptation to reduce labor costs by holding down wages, laying off workers, moving jobs overseas, or even replacing the workforce with robots, if that is possible. For a capitalist all these choices can seem entirely rational. And they are all rational according to the logic of capitalism. But they all miss the point with regard to the logic of man’s economic activity, which is not about making unlimited profits for those who happen to hold economic power. If all workers could be replaced by robots, the workers might legitimately ask, Hey what about us? How are we supposed to obtain what’s necessary for us and our families if we are replaced by robots? How are we even supposed to buy what you yourself produce in your factories? But the actual trajectory of capitalism has too often seen workers replaced by machines, laid off, or underpaid, so that they cannot procure what they and their families need.

With distributism, however, while certainly social and economic difficulties would exist, the pathologies fostered by capitalism would be eliminated or at least reduced. A small business owner generally takes pride in his work and his customer service, and sees his craft or trade as more than merely a means of moneymaking. He usually derives from his work more than merely an economic return, for, as John Paul II pointed out in his first social encyclical, Laborem Exercens, the “various actions belonging to the work process…must all serve to realize [the worker’s] humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity” (#6).

In addition, a distributist economy would not be complete without guilds or occupational groups, whose purpose is to orient economic activity toward fulfilling human needs rather than toward selling products of dubious quality or usefulness. And lastly, the employer\employee divide would be largely done away with under distributism. Larger enterprises would be run as worker cooperatives, and so decisions about automation or new equipment which could potentially replace workers would be made with more than an eye on profits alone. Certainly technological development would continue, but we should note that technology can take more than one direction. When capitalists make the decisions and directly or indirectly determine what kinds of technological research is done, then new inventions will often be of the kind which increase profits by making workers unnecessary. But in a distributist society research will focus on other ways to reduce costs or increase efficiency without necessarily reducing the need for workers – who, after all, will now themselves be the owners.

Because of this altered focus of the economic system, and of the society as a whole, many things that are taken for granted in a capitalist system would hardly exist under distributism. A short time ago I pointed out here why this would be the case with unemployment, certainly one of the perennial scourges of capitalism. In the next part of this article I will take up the subject of business cycles, and show how in a distributist economy their presence and importance would be considerably lessened.

There are many supposed facts of economic life that any student of economics, or even any observer of political and economic news, is familiar with, matters such as unemployment, corporate mergers and acquisitions, labor relations, business cycles, and so on. I call these supposed facts, not because they do not exist, but because their existence is contingent upon man-made economic arrangements, such as laws and tax structures or even cultural norms. Contrary to the impression one takes from writings both of professional economists as well as from journalists, these things and events are not natural and necessary facts like the changing of the seasons or the daily rising of the sun. They need not exist, certainly at least not to the extent that they do in a capitalist economy. Let us take one of the items from the above list, business cycles, and consider it more carefully.

What are business cycles? “A business cycle is a swing in total national output, income, and employment, usually lasting for a period of 2 to 10 years, marked by widespread expansion or contraction in most sectors of the economy,” is how the economist Paul Samuelson defines business cycles in his macroeconomics textbook.[2] Although everyone living in a capitalist economy is familiar with such cycles, or their effects, one might wonder why, apart from the special and external factors I will note below, such cycles exist. Consumer demand for necessary and reasonable goods normally will not fluctuate much – demand for food, clothing, housing, books and the like. Nor will the size of the workforce, and hence of the economy’s ability to provide consumer goods, usually experience short-term major decreases or increases. Thus there is no reason to expect the two most important factors in moving an economy, demand and the ability to supply that demand, to change significantly in a short period of time. Of course, external factors, such as famines, natural disasters, wars, migrations, and so on can cause a sudden and large increase or decrease in either demand or the capacity to supply that demand. As such, a distributist economy will be as subject to such external dislocations as is a capitalist economy. They are simply an inescapable part of life on this earth. But there are other factors which are peculiar to capitalism which have caused probably the majority of business cycles, at least the majority of those which have occurred in recent decades.

Capitalism is fueled by an imperative of production for the sake of sales, regardless of consumers’ needs or of their spontaneous desires for the goods or services in question. As such, it always rests upon foundations which are liable to be shaken. Distributism, on the other hand, rests upon the solid foundation of human nature and its natural needs and reasonable desires. But capitalist demand, which is usually artificially stimulated by advertising, is necessarily fickle or fragile. The artificial desire for larger and larger houses or cars, for example, tends to drive up prices of those goods, and can lead to so-called bubbles in which prices rise exponentially. Eventually these bubbles will burst. Such extreme up and down movements of prices can cause numerous related economic dislocations, such as panics or depressions, which are simply instances of severe business cycles.

History is marked by bubbles in which speculative prices were driven up far beyond their intrinsic value…. Speculative bubbles always produce crashes and sometimes lead to economic panics.[3]

In addition, although criminal greed is a characteristic of postlapsarian mankind in general, it is capitalism that has institutionalized such greed, and even praised and rewarded it. So, for example, exploitative or risky financial practices by banks are not always illegal, and even when illegal, those engaging in such practices often go unpunished or lightly punished because of the overall climate of opinion in a capitalist society, which tends to take a benign view of economic misdeeds. In the Middle Ages in Europe usurers were popularly regarded as among the most heinous of sinners, and this popular judgment was based on the teachings of society’s intellectual elite, theologians, canon lawyers, philosophers and so on. The popular climate of opinion in contemporary America, on the other hand, reserves whatever moral animus it still has for other types of misdeeds, and too often among Christians believers it is only sins against the 6th or 9th commandments which are seen as really worthy of condemnation. All this is the result of the pervasive commercial mentality which affects most Americans.

The point of all this is that the natural end of mankind’s economic activity is to supply our necessary and reasonable need for external goods and services. This is why God has given us the capacity to engage in economic activity. Given the fallen state of mankind, however, it is usually necessary to erect laws and institutions to guide our conduct toward its intended end. This distributism seeks to do in the economic realm. Capitalism, on the other hand, not only has done away with the safeguards against economic misdeeds which the Catholic civilization of an earlier age set up, but suffers from an inherent tendency toward economic exploitation and dislocation. And the commercial cultural climate which capitalism has produced fails to understand that any other way of carrying on economic activity is possible or feasible. But this is not the case. Catholics, in particular, who have a developed critique of economic conduct available in the Church’s social teaching, have an especially grave responsibility to form their thinking according to this teaching. Capitalism is not inevitable. There are other real possibilities. It is chiefly a matter of our having the will to bring about the changes that are necessary in our economic activity. But it can be done.

Notes:
1: Shaw and My Neighbour’s Chimney,” The New Witness, May 3, 1917, p. 13.

2: Macroeconomics, 16th ed., 1998, p. 125.

3: Ibid., p. 177.

You can find the original publications here and here.

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