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The Process of Subsidiarity

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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Many critics of distributism claim that what we want to achieve would require the expansion of state power and that we really want an all powerful state. What we actually advocate is the decentralization of government power. We want to distribute the various powers of government as close to the local level as can be practically achieved. This is because we promote the principle known as “subsidiarity.” Subsidiarity states that,

“A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view of the common good.”                                      – Pope St. John Paul II

That sounds great, but how would it work?

Subsidiarity goes beyond the typical “states’ rights” argument put forward by the political conservatives of the United States of America. While some in the USA who argue for states’ rights might regard it as a necessary first step to further decentralization of government authority, others voice a “let the states decide” attitude which seems to indicate that their only real objection to certain government laws is the fact that it is the federal government imposing them. Their statements suggest that the same laws would be fine if imposed at the state level without any further decentralization of authority. Listening to some of their arguments seems to give the impression that they don’t really recognize that the centralization of power, even to the state government, makes government less democratic. The more power gets centralized, the more undemocratic the government becomes. They only seem to be concerned when the exercise of power crosses the line from state to federal authority. In reality, however, it is only at the local level that the average citizen really has a voice. Therefore, the more localized the authority, the more democratic the society.

The sad truth is that so many of us have become too accustomed to the idea that the higher levels of government is where problems really get solved. We pay more attention to state and federal elections than to local ones precisely because the authority which naturally belongs at the local level has been usurped by state and federal governments. “I will write my congressman,” and “I’ll take this all the way to the Supreme Court” became the reaction, and the reality, of how we view the political process. While we in the USA believe ourselves to be a bastion of democracy, we have allowed (and assisted) the gradual stripping of our democratic voice. This has gone beyond the making of our laws and the defending of our rights, but even to how we assist those in need. As a society, we have gotten to the point that we automatically look to higher and higher levels of government to resolve even local issues. It is sad, but it seems that most people believe that the higher the level of government, the broader its scope of authority.

Distributism, on the other hand, argues that the higher the level of government, the narrower its scope of authority. The question is how this can be applied in a practical and workable way. While there may be variations in application due to cultural differences in different regions, a basic outline can be presented as a starting point. The foundation of this outline is to understand the “orders of society” and their relationship to each other.

The “lowest” order of society is the family, not because it is the least important but because it is the most. It is the very foundation of society. Above that are religious, occupational and social groups which are free institutions for the mutual support and benefit of their members. The remaining “orders of society” would refer to the different levels of government starting with the local community and moving up from there, each fulfilling only those functions that, by their nature, cannot be fulfilled by the level immediately below it. From the distributist perspective, local issues should be handled as locally as possible. Even if an issue exists across a larger region, each locality should be left to direct how to handle it within its jurisdictional boundary to the greatest extent possible, even if assistance is needed from higher levels of society. This is a fundamental concept to understand about subsidiarity.

When an issue arises that needs to be addressed, the level of society where that issue arises is the natural point where the issue should be addressed. In cases where it cannot be addressed there, the members of that level would petition the next higher level of the orders of society for assistance. Therefore, if a family is in financial need and needs immediate assistance, they should naturally turn to those societal organizations like church, work association (guild) or other social organizations for assistance. If a particular vocation needs a school to provide training in the skills it needs, it should first look to the members of that vocational guild. If it cannot provide for itself, it can look to other guilds of the same vocation, or even discuss combining resources with other guilds to establish schools to meet their combined needs.

It is only if these first attempts cannot resolve the issue that governmental bodies should get involved, and then only by petition of the immediate lower level. If, for example, a lot of families in the community needed assistance and churches and other local associations found themselves unable to adequately provide that assistance, they could raise the issue to the city or to related organizations in other areas. If a city was not able to address an issue, it could ask nearby cities for assistance or raise the issue to the county. In this way, each level of society would render assistance based on the need asserted by the level immediately below it, and that assistance would not usurp any functions of the lower orders of society even if the higher order needs to coordinate the activities of the lower orders due to the nature of the situation at hand, like a natural disaster.

This process keeps as much authority as possible at the local level and, by doing so, preserves the ability of citizens to effectively curtail the usurpation of authority by higher levels of government. Because the greatest level of influence is the most local level, and because the individual citizen’s vote has its greatest influence at the most local level, this process preserves the greatest level of democracy for all.

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Distributism vs. Globalism

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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There has been a tendency over the last several decades toward globalism. This goes beyond the so-called “global economy,” with its free trade deals favoring international banks and corporations. This trend has resulted in the formation of international bureaucracies imposing standards, if not laws, on otherwise sovereign states. While there was always some resistance to this tendency, it has nevertheless progressed to the point that there is now a growing movement of outright rejection. What was initially presented as a path toward peace and harmony is increasingly viewed by common citizens as a growing threat to their freedom and way of life. What is the position of distributism in relation to the idea of globalism?

Globalism is the idea of those who believe they should help direct the development of social, cultural, technological, or economic networks around the world through political influence, and who desire the establishment of international political bodies to govern on an international level. The idea is that, by having multiple people of various cultural and economic backgrounds come together to discuss issues, problems can be resolved effectively and peacefully. Since the resolutions of these bodies can only be effective if they are actually binding, these organizations have to acquire legally recognized legislative authority. This is gladly accepted by the promoters of these organizations who seem to assume that those who run these international legislatures will always see things the same way they do. They hardly ever seem to consider what happens if they don’t. They also don’t seem to care if the policies and laws they desire to establish are actually wanted by the people who will end up being subject to them.

The problem with placing such a wide-ranging authority in the hands of a political body with no political or cultural attachment to the people is that people from different countries have different cultures and customs. They are rightfully proud of them and reject efforts by “those who know better” to toss them aside in the wake of the globalist view of how things should be. They want their own way of doing business, of farming and manufacture, of protecting public health and the environment, of securing civil liberties, of running their schools, of deciding what should be taught in those schools and of deciding how to integrate immigrants into their society. They do not want people who do not share their views of culture and custom to make such decisions for them, and this is precisely what the globalists want to do.

The globalists “negotiate” a one-size-fits-all agreement which actually only appeals to those whose views have a majority representation in the international political organization. In other words, only the globalists really get to decide. This was a significant part of the movement in Great Britain to leave the European Union. The European Union started as a “common market” to work together to help the economies of the separate European countries. It has evolved into an international authority with its own flag, its own anthem, and its legislature makes laws that override the national and local laws of its member states. Even when the decisions of globalist organizations are not legislatively binding, their existence creates a great political pressure for states to comply even if the citizens of the state oppose them. For example, the United Nations not only told Ireland, a sovereign state, that it should change its abortion laws. The politicians in Ireland’s government, led by the U.N. instead of their own people, put it up for a vote. It was resoundingly defeated because the people of Ireland don’t want it. The United Nations even told the Catholic Church to change its religious doctrines according to its view of “child welfare.” There have been cases where globalist organizations have used economic pressure, like denying aide, to try and coerce countries to adopt unwanted policies. By moving the decision-making power further and further away from the people, the political process ultimately becomes less democratic as individual voices become less able to influence decisions that impact their daily lives.

Distributists, on the other hand, would not only promote a country’s sovereign right to direct its own affairs, we also promote that right for political regions and local communities within a country in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity.

“A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view of the common good.”

This view provides a foundation for people to preserve their culture and customs and to direct their own lives, and does so while still making room for national assistance when and where needed. It is not an “isolationist” position. It is a view that does not exclude the idea of international cooperation in addressing wider issues, but it does not include relinquishing of sovereignty to permanent international organizations as part of the process.

The world is filled with various cultures and customs, and the people from those cultures who share those customs either love them or will change them on their own. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of life and of doing things. The purveyors of globalism, even if they don’t start out to do so, ultimately trample on the rights of the people they claim to be helping. The people who say we should “celebrate diversity” are the ones who end up trying to force everyone to be the same. The people who shout the loudest about tolerance end up being the most intolerant of all. They believe they are going to do good, but they end up establishing the very kind of repressive government they claim to hate, using the very tactics they villify. In the end, even though they want peace, they will cause rebellion because the people they claim to be helping will resent them for being oppressive overlords.

Futures Markets and the Absurdity of Capitalism

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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Capitalism is often celebrated by its supporters as the only economic system that can really deliver the goods, the only way of arranging our economic activity that has or that can lift mankind out of its supposedly otherwise inevitable poverty. And it is the case, one must admit, that capitalism does act as a remarkable spur to the manufacture of stuff, all kinds of stuff, sometimes useful, but just as equally useless or even harmful – anything, in fact, that the producer thinks can be marketed. But production of goods, even useless goods, is not the hallmark of capitalism. Rather capitalism, understood as the separation of ownership and work, has as its unique attribute not production, but selling, even, as we are about to see, selling of things that really do not exist.

The human race has always grown or otherwise gathered food, and there has probably always existed some kinds of exchange. But the growing or obtaining of food and the exchange of one desired object for another was always seen as a subordinate part of the life of the human race. Obtaining food was for the sake of living, exchange was for the sake of living better. But with capitalism this common-sense relationship of means and ends is very often perverted. Now all production is for the sake of exchange, social life becomes subordinated to the processes of production and exchange, and they in turn become subordinated to more exotic economic practices. This is because the capitalist imperative is always more sales, more profit, more speculative ways of making money, without any inherent limit or even a notion of what all this activity is for, except for the enrichment of those who own or control the economic processes. Capitalism as the separation of ownership from work creates a class of individuals who are removed from the production of useful objects and who regard the objects produced as primarily commodities to be sold, rather than useful goods to be consumed. Hence the imperative for more sales, ever increasing profits and market share, regardless of demand, because there is no natural limit, no end for which one is striving and with which, when obtained, one is satisfied. Let us look at the interesting example of the futures market in grain and see what we can learn from it as to the nature of the capitalist approach to organizing an economy.

In his book, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, William Cronon discusses among other topics how the grain trade gave rise to the futures’ market in agricultural products. This account shows the absurdity of economic activity divorced from any rational end, and eventually even from a real product, the purposeless kind of economics fostered by capitalism. As long as something makes money for those who own or control it, capitalism cares nothing for whether the activity actually contributes anything toward meeting mankind’s real needs for goods and services.

Originally, as has generally been the case with mankind, grain grown on the prairies of Illinois and neighboring states was a means of feeding the farmer, his family and his near neighbors. But as it became an item to be shipped and sold, and eventually turned into a commodity future at the Chicago Board of Trade, we can see the transformation of a human and natural object into the abstraction of a commodity, something regarded as merely a means of profit.

A certain amount of grain trading and shipping existed from the early 19th century using water transportation. But this was slow and awkward and did not reach every place. Before there could be a transformation in the understanding of grain, there had to be a more efficient means of transportation. This was provided by the railroads, which were built mostly to facilitate the capitalist imperative to totally commercialize every aspect of life. If people had thought of grain as primarily a food to be consumed pretty much where it was grown, then the huge railroad network of the Mid-West would probably never have come into existence, since the existing modest means of transportation would have sufficed. Thus to extend and fully implement the capitalist transformation of wheat from a food into a commodity, the railway system first had to exist. The building of the railroad network transformed not only food exchange, but the environment, both natural and cultural of the region and the nation. Capitalism, then, both building upon and transforming the human vice of greed, powerfully shaped the entire culture and violently captured such pre-capitalist aspects of society as food production and local exchange and bent them to its purposes.

The existence of the railroad network enabled farmers to conceive of themselves not as growers of food for consumption but as producers of a commodity. Grain was shipped via the railroads to Chicago where it was held in large grain elevators for eventual shipment to the East coast. Originally the ownership of any particular sack of grain was retained by the farmer who harvested it. But naturally sacks of grain differed from each other significantly in quality. The storage of these sacks in grain elevators created a problem: “elevator operators began objecting to keeping small quantities of different owners’ grain in separate bins that were only partially filled…. To avoid that…, they sought to mix grain in common bins.” To do this required some system of grain standardization or grading. After such a system was created it became possible for the elevator owners to contract for sale of a certain quantity of a certain grade of wheat, with no reference to any particular sack of wheat actually existing anywhere. But because of the ever-changing price of grain, sellers and buyers soon realized that they could essentially bet against the future price by contracting in the present for sale or purchase of a definite quantity of grain at some future date, hoping that the price would increase or decrease to their benefit by the time of the actual sale. Ultimately this created the final absurdity:

…futures contracts [which] were essentially interchangeable and could be bought and sold quite independently of the physical grain… Moreover, the seller…did not necessarily even have to deliver grain on the day it fell due. As long as the buyer was willing, the two could settle their transaction by simply exchanging the difference between the grain’s contracted price and its market price when the contract expired. [They] could complete their transaction without any grain ever changing hands…. The futures market was a market not in grain but in the price of grain…one bought and sold not wheat or corn or oats but the prices of those goods as they would exist at a future time. Speculators made and lost money by selling each other legally binding forecasts of how much grain prices would rise or fall.

Grain went from being a means for feeding the population of farmers and others who lived nearby, to being centrally stored in bins in Chicago and shipped throughout the Northeast United States and into Canada, into being merely a symbol, but nevertheless a symbol that enabled speculators to engage in exchange. The contracts themselves have become a commodity to be bought and sold, but the contracts now have no necessary connection with any object of real economic value.

Despite its claim to be the only economic system that can produce sufficient goods to satisfy mankind’s needs, capitalism is really not interested in production at all, except as that can serve sales. It is interested in moneymaking, to be sure, but moneymaking by nearly any means that one can concoct. It might seem obvious, for example, that the financial sector would be a modest adjunct of the more primary economic activities of production or even exchange, sometimes necessary, often helpful, but always subordinate. But frequently someone can make more money by a merger or buyout, which often results in a decrease in real economic activity, than by actual production.

It should be obvious that mankind’s economic activity exists to serve our need for external goods and services. Thus economic activity must always be subordinate to the genuine needs and interests of humanity. But when economic activity is seen as basically a means of getting rich by almost any method, it is apt to become entirely divorced from meeting our real economic needs. The economy becomes essentially a private playground for those with enough skill or money to manipulate it in their favor. Pope Pius XI wrote with regard to such types of economic manipulation, “A stern insistence on the moral law, enforced with vigor by civil authority, could have dispelled or perhaps averted these enormous evils” (Quadragesimo Anno, no. 133). But this is too rarely the case in a capitalist, commercial society, where indeed as Karl Polanyi noted, “society itself becomes an `adjunct’ of the market.”

You can learn more about this issue here.

Distributism and Large-Scale Industry

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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Thomas Storck’s recent article about the antagonistic relationship between owners and workers prevalent in capitalist enterprises included the following statement. “The activity of the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain proves that there is no reason why large-scale and highly technical industrial operations cannot be worker owned.” This sentence prompted a reader to respond with a request.

“Please provide a follow up article showing how this system works for Mondragon, their profit, employee take home, growth, etc…”

This response to that request will address two things. I will first provide the information requested, then I will address the case of Mondragon and how it does, and does not, relate to distributism.

Mondragon started as a technical college, founded by Father José María Arizmendiarrieta in 1943. Its first cooperative was established with 5 workers making paraffin heaters in 1955. Today, Mondragon is a cooperative federation comprised of over 250 companies and 74,000 workers operating in the finance, industrial, retail and knowledge sectors. Mondragon’s sales in 2014 were €10,985 million (US $12.48 billion). They put €145 million (US $164 million)  in research and invested €345 million (US $392 million). They have 15 technology centers, 1,676 researchers and have filed 479 patent families.

I don’t have specific information on employee take-home, but each company agrees to set its own wage ratio within an agreed upon range of 3:1 to 9:1. The average is 5:1, meaning that the highest paid person in a given company typically makes no more than five times what the lowest paid person in the same company does. The result of this is that the workers doing non-management jobs at Mondragon typically make 13% more than similar local jobs outside of its structure. Most workers make well above the minimum wage since they are employed in jobs requiring high levels of skill and technical training, Mondragon’s managers do earn less than those outside of its structure, but this is because they agree that Mondragon’s model is better than the typical corporate model.

Only 103 of Mondragon’s 260 companies are cooperatives. This in itself does not make it incompatible with distributism. I don’t have any details about the other 157 companies, like whether they are small, independently owned businesses. The ideal of distributism is that everyone own the capital used to earn his living, but we accept that this ideal may never be fully achieved. Some people may just prefer prefer to be employees, or may have to work as employees for some time before they can become owners. Distributism does not require that every shop be a worker owned cooperative, but those that are not would tend to be small local shops, and I don’t know the extent to which this is the case for those Mondragon companies that are not cooperatives.

The original cooperative established with five members back in 1955 grew to become Fagor Electrodomestics, the largest company in Mondragon’s federation. The Fagor brand is currently present in 100 countries, employs more than 12,000 people in 17 countries and operates 16 factories in 3 continents. Due to mismanagement, it had to declare bankruptcy in October 2013. The economic articles from capitalist pundits seemed to hardly contain their glee at what they perceived as the fall of the greatest example that methods other than their own could work. The Economist declared that “one of the group’s key principles—of solidarity among its 110 constituent co-ops—has found its limit.” Actually, what had reached its limit was the federation’s willingness to extend another loan to prop up Fagor when it had no plans which would resolve its problems.

Before crowing so loudly, capitalist economists should have waited to see the reality of this commitment and how it compares to what happens when the typical capitalist enterprise goes bankrupt. The reality of Mondragon’s commitment to worker solidarity is revealed by what the federation actually did regarding the workers of Fagor. Mondragon’s social mutual, Lagun Aro, proposed a 1.5% raise in contributions from all members at the next General Assembly so it could provide needed unemployment benefits to displaced Fagor worker-owners. They received 80 percent of their salary while Mondragon identified new positions for these workers. Compare this to the layoffs we’ve all seen reported when large capitalist employers go bankrupt or have to restructure to avoid bankruptcy.

This clearly shows the dynamic vibrancy and resilience of the cooperative model even when operating with large-scale, multi-national, highly technical industrial operations. This is why various cooperative organizations, the p2p economic movement and distributists all can validly point to Mondragon as an example of how well the cooperative model truly works.

When it comes to distributism, however, my opinion is that we need to be more carefully nuanced when using Mondragon as an example. It has grown to a size and scale of operation beyond that which distributists actually promote and which goes against the preference for local or even regional economics to the international model touted today. We are not in any way against international trade, but individual corporations employing thousands in multiple countries seems to me to go against our economic model, and Fagor is an example of why. The description of how Mondragon handled the bankruptcy of Fagor should not be taken as a claim that it wasn’t an issue for the federation. The mismanagement of Fagor not only impacted its thousands of employees, but the entire Mondragon organization. The fact that it was able to come up with a solution that maintained its commitment to worker solidarity does not mean that this was an easy solution or that it did not put significant strain on the people or the finances of Mondragon as a whole.

In the past, Fagor might have been held by some to be the shining example of Mondragon’s success because it was the largest company with the most employees, but that is looking at the organization from a strictly capitalist perspective. What happened in the wake of Fagor’s bankruptcy shows that the many smaller cooperatives and the overall commitment to worker solidarity are the mark of Mondragon’s success. They helped to support Fagor with the loans it received before the final straw that resulted in its bankruptcy. They supported the workers displaced when Fagor failed. Democratically based worker solidarity is at the very heart of the cooperative movement, and also at the very heart of the guild structure distributists promote.

It is clear that the cooperative model works and this is why distributists propose this model for large scale operations, particularly those which only make sense at a more regional rather than local level. Of course, cooperatives also work at a local level and we promote that as well. 

I hope this article fulfills the request of our reader.

You can learn more about this issue here.

The Planned Dependent Community

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

“”Walmart didn’t kill the once-vibrant cluster of shops next to a railroad and a creek in the faded old coal town of Kimball, W. Va. — the disappearance of the mines had pretty well taken care of that already. But now that Walmart’s leaving, too, as one of 154 U.S. stores the company closed in January, the town might be snuffed out for good.”

This quote is from a Washington Post article on the circumstances some small towns were facing when Walmart recently decided to close 269 stores and lay off more than 16,000 employees. This prompted one reader of ours to ask how we can reach these types of communities. How can we present the idea of distributism to the people living in these situations as solution to their economic problems?”

You can learn more about this issue here.

Owners vs. Workers: An Eternal Law of Nature?

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

“A few years ago (November 2, 2013) The Economist magazine, that reliable organ of neo-liberalism that makes few bones about its idolization of material growth as the summum bonum of human existence and its consequent dismissal of anything, such as family life or cultural traditions, that might get in the way of such material growth, ran some articles about labor’s diminishing share of national income.

Over the past 30 years, the workers’ take from the [economic] pie has shrunk across the globe. In America, their wages used to make up almost 70% of GDP; now the figure is 64%, according to the OECD. Some of the biggest declines have been egalitarian societies such as Norway (where labour’s share has fallen from 64% in 1980 to 55% now) and Sweden (down from 74% in 1980 to 65% now). A drop has also occurred in many emerging markets, particularly in Asia.

Even these figures of 70% to 65% for the U.S. are misleading, for as the magazine notes in another article in the same issue, “among wage-earners the rich have done vastly better than the rest; the share of income earned by the top 1% of workers has increased since the 1990s even as the overall labour share has fallen.” So that, “the share of national income going to the bottom 99% of workers has fallen from 60% before the 1980s to 50%.” That is to say, the workers whose job title is CEO are gobbling up not just more money but a greater percentage of it.

All this is bad, opines The Economist, it’s politically dangerous “and it is producing a lot of predictably polarised debate.” Perhaps The Economist is concerned that such instability might derail the engine of wealth redistribution for the rich that doubtless is working well for so many of its readers. So what’s the cause and what can be done? The Economist calmly discusses certain explanations that have been offered – the “weakness of unions” for example – and rejects them, and suggests that “the likeliest culprit is technology” although “[s]ome economists also emphasize the role of globalization….” As for the remedy, well, let’s be sure that we “strengthen workers without ham-stringing firms. Growth, rather than employment protection is the priority.” Of course, “education and training” – that’s needed too. And don’t forget, a “cut in corporate tax rates” and “pension reform” [read: privatizing pensions and turning them over to the good people on Wall St.] and “more privatisation” generally. To its credit, The Economist does note that “income from capital…is often more heavily taxed” than labor income, and suggests that this difference be narrowed.

So here you have it, the world according to The Economist. What can a distributist say in response? In the first place, the fact that since about 1980 it’s been precisely the kind of neo-liberal policies which this magazine generally champions that have suspiciously coincided with the decline in labor’s share of income – this is never so much as suggested as a possible cause. Lower the corporate tax rate, lower taxes on the rich – these are still the neo-liberal catchwords and constitute nearly the entire economic program of many American politicians, despite the fact that doing so has produced exactly this kind of income inequality and been in part responsible for numerous broader social problems. Apparently it’s all because the rates haven’t been lowered enough. Eliminate corporate taxes, make the rich pay the same percentage of their income in taxation as the middle class – the flat tax – and, according to them, voilà, all our problems will be solved.

While no distributist I have ever heard of favors perfect equality of income or wealth, it is a fact that too great disparities of either not only lead to social problems, but are probable signs of injustice. The best way of eliminating such disparities is not via government transfer payments, necessary as those sometimes are, but through better access to well-paying jobs and the possibility of ownership of productive property.

Actually, for a distributist these two points, good jobs and property ownership, are not two separate issues, but the same thing – or at least should be. The defining note of capitalism is that some people will own the means of production and will hire others to work for them. (See Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, no. 100.) Even if such a division can in theory be just, a distributist wants to ask, Why must this be so? Why must there be this divide between owners and workers? Why cannot workers and owners be the same persons, either individually or collectively?

Under the capitalist model labor is always an expense for the owner. Even if an owner has the best of intentions to pay just wages (and one can wonder how often this is the case), there is always subtle pressure to reduce labor costs. Especially in an economic downturn, this is often considered the obvious thing to do. But consider an alternative model. A firm that is owned cooperatively by its workers will naturally face the same difficulties in a recession that other firms face. But instead of looking upon its workers as a expense to be lessened, the workers are themselves the owners, the ones who will decide the fate of the company, which is also the fate of themselves, their families, their children’s futures, and their communities. Whatever hard choices such a firm must make will be made with an entirely different set of priorities from a firm in which workers are simply an expense to be eliminated as much as possible.

There is no eternal law written in the nature of things that mandates the structural opposition of owners and workers. There is absolutely no reason why policies cannot be devised to promote widely dispersed ownership of productive property. It is doubtless true that not everyone is capable of managing even a small business well, but surely everyone is capable of being part of a cooperatively-owned enterprise. Today’s laws often favor concentrations of ownership in corporate hands. But there is no reason why these laws cannot be changed to promote producer-owned cooperatives and other types of small businesses. The activity of the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain proves that there is no reason why large-scale and highly technical industrial operations cannot be worker owned. Can an economy in which cooperatives and small businesses predominate be achieved overnight? Certainly not, but over time there is no reason why such an economy cannot be created. The obstacles to distributism are neither theoretical nor practical – they rather consist in the stubborn conservatism of those afraid to risk any change or, even worse, in the vested opposition of those who stand to lose their opportunities to exploit both their employees and their customers for their own gain. These are the chief reasons why more progress has never been made toward an economically just society.

There is no better way of ending than by quoting Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, “The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many people as possible to become owners” (no. 46).”

You can learn more about this issue here.

Catholic Social Teaching and Conventional Economics

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

Anyone who has spent much time trying to promote Catholic social teaching has probably met with a response something like this. “What you say is very fine and certainly evidence of good will.  But, you see, most of what you are asking for is simply impossible. Society would break down.  For there are economic laws which it is as foolish to try to circumvent as those of gravity.  We certainly ought to try to eliminate poverty and all that.  But this can only be done if we obey the laws of economics.  If you study economics a bit, you’ll soon see why you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

And it is easy to understand why economists or those who have studied economics say this.  For mainstream economics does teach a simple yet powerful approach to all of the multifarious questions arising from man’s relations of producing, buying and selling, lending and borrowing, and so on.  Everyone wants to maximize his welfare, the desire to produce and sell can be matched against the desire to buy and consume since there are market forces which balance these two exactly, and even if they do not always result in what Christians would call justice, to interfere in their workings is to bring about (ultimately) inefficiency, waste and poverty.

According to this conception, then, economic activity works more or less according to a few simple principles, which can be applied over and over again with great sophistication to analyze a wide variety of behavior.  And to try to escape from the inexorable working of these economic principles is to court disaster.  For example, one might think that some workers are underpaid, and that this problem could be easily solved by passing a law requiring that all workers be paid a minimum wage.  But, no, that would result only in more unemployment.  It may be a shame that some get paid so little, but there is nothing that can be directly done about it.  Certainly passing minimum wage laws is the last thing we would want to do.

Economics, therefore, describes what will happen if you do a certain thing.  It is a predictive science, able to tell you that if you do A, B will result.  It is thus reduced to something like mechanics, a sort of mechanics of human behavior.  This approach is well illustrated by Milton Friedman in his famous 1953 essay, “The Methodology of Positive Economics.”

I venture the judgment, however, that currently in the Western world, and especially in the United States, differences about economic policy among disinterested citizens derive predominantly from different predictions about the economic consequences of taking action – differences that in principle can be eliminated by the progress of positive economics – rather than from fundamental differences in basic values…. An obvious and not unimportant example is minimum-wage legislation.  Underneath the welter of arguments offered for and against such legislation there is an underlying consensus on the objective of achieving a “living wage” for all, to use the ambiguous phrase so common in such discussions.  The difference of opinion is largely grounded on an implicit or explicit difference in predictions about the efficacy of this particular means in furthering the agreed-on end.  Proponents believe (predict) that legal minimum wages diminish poverty by raising the wages of those receiving less than the minimum wage as well as of some receiving more than the minimum wage without any counterbalancing increase in the number of people entirely unemployed or employed less advantageously than they otherwise would be.  Opponents believe (predict) that legal minimum wages increase poverty by increasing the number of people who are unemployed or employed less advantageously and that this more than offsets any favorable effect on the wages of those who remain employed.

According to this conception of economics, economists must chiefly engage in manipulating graphs, mathematical formulas and the like to predict the results of actions.  Things either happen or they do not. Though it may be more difficult to discover what will happen because of the multiplicity of variables, in principle there is no more room for discussion then if it were a matter of asking what happens when we drop a ball of a certain height and weight or project something with a certain force against some obstacle.

Friedman’s discussion of the minimum wage that I just cited is a good entry point to begin to unravel such economic dogmas.  It is easy to understand the logic behind Friedman’s argument.  Like most arguments in the economic tradition descending from Adam Smith, the notion that “minimum wages increase poverty by increasing the number of people who are unemployed or employed less advantageously” by increasing employers’ costs has an obvious plausibility.  But yet one may question it on several grounds.  Aside from the fact that there is little recognition here that in something as complicated as human affairs it is unlikely that one can pronounce once and for all about something such as the minimum wage, more importantly there is an assumption of a certain legal structure which is simply accepted as given.  For whatever side of this question mainstream “positive economics” may eventually take, such a judgment presupposes a specific legal and social framework.  The distribution of income and economic power that mainstream economics apparently accepts as a given depends more on human law and custom than on any immutable laws of economics.  What I mean can be illustrated by the well-known story of the Antigonish cooperatives in Nova Scotia in the 1930s, as recounted in B. B. Fowler’s 1947 book, The Co-operative Challenge.

But the most forlorn picture lay in northeastern Nova Scotia and the island of Cape Breton.  Along the coast lived the fishermen.  Their catch of fish and lobsters was handled by local dealers who in many cases kept the fishermen in a state of peonage.  While Maine fishermen were getting about fifteen cents a pound for lobsters, the Nova Scotian fishermen were receiving as little as two cents a pound.  All other prices were scaled down in the same ratio.  For everything they bought, however, from their scanty food purchases to nets and lines, they paid top prices, with the result that they were invariably bowed down with a load of debts.  Appalling poverty, illiteracy, poor health and the worst possible housing conditions existed throughout this section.

After priests from St. Francis Xavier College had begun to educate the fishermen and others in the philosophy of cooperatives, a

few lobster fishermen got together and made up a crate of lobsters which they shipped express to a commission agent in Boston.  When the mail brought a check the group sat around, afraid to open it.  So much depended upon that check; upon its size rested their hopes for better prices and better living. Probably there had never been a more momentous moment in all their lives than that moment when one of the boys finally opened the envelope and took out the check.  After all shipping charges and commissions had been paid, there remained fifteen cents a pound for their shipment.

The point of this story is that the distribution of income follows the distribution of economic power, which in turn depends in large part upon the legal and social structure.  Doubtless one could have found economists who would have said that the penury of the fishermen while they were at the mercy of the middlemen of their province simply reflected the inevitable laws of economics and that the price they received for their lobsters faithfully reflected the economic contribution they made and therefore the two cents per pound was simply the equilibrium toward which they were forced as if “by an invisible hand.”  But this obviously was not the case.  Rather, it faithfully reflected certain economic and legal arrangements and structures, which, as it turns out, could be changed.

This same argument can be made about the question of minimum wages.  As long as the employer/employee relationship, the essential note of capitalism,[1] is the common method by which labor is engaged, then the desire of employers to reduce costs can and probably sometimes will conflict with their ability to hire more workers at a statutory minimum wage.  But this reflects not unchanging laws of economics drawn from the nature of reality or human society, but rather certain legal, social and cultural arrangements which are by no means immutable.

The unequal power of employer and employees, especially of unorganized employees, our societal ideals which deny that there is any just or reasonable amount of profits with which an employer or firm should be satisfied, our general incorporation and limited liability laws – all these create a situation where Friedman’s dilemma, or rather the dilemma he sets up for society, has some plausibility.  But how if some or all of these legal and cultural norms were changed?  How if, as in the case of the Antigonish fishermen, the framework in which these economic transactions occur were changed?  For example, how if employees themselves became owners, as so often recommended by the Popes?[2]

These types of considerations should lead us to see that perhaps the framework that conventional economics presupposes is not the only possible framework.  That is, with a different legal system, different cultural and societal norms, different personal goals and expectations, many of the so-called laws of economics would appear not as universal laws of human behavior, but as limited by place and time, as taking for granted certain institutions, incentives and motives which are far from being universal principles of human society or action.

My thesis is that Catholic social principles will often seem at odds with economic facts as long as we accept mainstream neoclassical economics as descriptive of how the world actually operates.  But as soon as we begin to question orthodox economics, then all this can be looked at in a new light.  And there are in fact many reasons to suppose that orthodox economics is not descriptive of how the real world operates.  Let us look at a few more examples.

The notion that economics can be based on market forces, such as a more or less constant tendency toward equilibrium, etc. seems to depend on the prior notion that people are motivated primarily by economic motives, that is, by the desire to buy cheap and sell dear, to increase their material wealth as much as possible.  But it seems to me that history, as well as our own experience, tells us that reality is much more complex.  Often people or firms do not strive to maximize their profits or income, as even such conventional economists as Laurence Miners and Kathryn Nantz, associates of the late Paul Samuelson in preparing introductory economics texts, admitted in their 2001 Study Guide to accompany Samuelson’s textbook.  Sometimes this is because it is too irksome to do so, other times because people prefer leisure to increased wealth and are content with simply a sufficiency.  Sometimes habit and custom dictate a standard with which people are satisfied. They may shop in the same store even though it is more expensive because they are accustomed to do so.  To say, as Samuelson might, that this is an example of imperfect competition because the two stores differ in some way, is to try to prove too much, because then everything becomes a matter of economics.  Certainly people are always motivated by a desire for their happiness, but to say that this human striving for happiness is always an example of economic behavior and ought to be analyzed according to economic criteria, would be to make economics, rather than ethics, the architectonic science of human behavior.

One example of the way that habit often makes us satisfied with customary gain is mentioned by Max Weber in his classic work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Until about the middle of the past [i.e. nineteenth] century, the life of a putter-out was, at least in many of the branches of the Continental textile industry, what we should to-day consider very comfortable.  We may imagine its routine somewhat as follows:  The peasants came with their cloth, often…principally or entirely made from raw material which the peasant himself had produced, to the town in which the putter-out lived, and after a careful, often official, appraisal of the quality, received the customary price for it. The putter-out’s customers, for markets any appreciable distance away, were middlemen, who also came to him, generally not yet following samples, but seeking traditional qualities, and bought from his warehouse, or, long before delivery, placed orders which were probably in turn passed on to the peasants.  Personal canvassing of customers took place, if at all, only at long intervals.  Otherwise correspondence sufficed, though the sending of samples slowly gained ground. The number of business hours was very moderate, perhaps five to six a day, sometimes considerably less; in the rush season, where there was one, more.  Earnings were moderate; enough to lead a respectable life and in good times to put away a little.  On the whole, relations among competitors were relatively good, with a large degree of agreement on the fundamentals of business.  A long daily visit to the tavern, with often plenty to drink, and a congenial circle of friends, made life comfortable and leisurely.

It would seem that the constant desire to maximize income or output simply does not exist without a cultural imperative to that effect.

Another area in which we may question the descriptive nature of conventional economics concerns the role of market forces in allocating income.  The allocation of economic rewards does not always come about because of market forces, rather, whoever holds economic power generally receives more economic rewards, as in the conspicuous example of CEO compensation.  The remarkable fact about CEO compensation in the United States in recent years is that certain CEOs have received large compensation packages even though the companies they headed were losing money or going into bankruptcy.  Why then did they receive these salaries and benefits?  Because of market forces?  Hardly.  It was because they were able to appoint their cronies to the compensation committees of their boards of directors.  Their salaries and other compensation were almost entirely insulated from the market forces of supply and demand for executives.  Let us look at a few specifics.

As described in The Washington Post, April 22, 2003, while Apple Computer’s “shareholders’ return declined by 34 percent” CEO Steve Jobs received $78 million, and while Lucent’s “shareholder return declined by more than 75 percent” Pat Russo received $38 million (Carlson 2003:C1).  Even more striking is the case of Disney’s Michael Eisner.  Eisner, “after he failed to clear his bonus hurdle two years running, his board lowered the performance bar, and then…he finally cleared it.  An Olympian effort worth $5 million”

An April 2003 article in Fortune magazine explained another method by which much CEO compensation is hidden from shareholders, the legal owners of the corporation.  Delta Air Line’s CEO, Lee Mullin, after the company lost $1.3 billion and laid off thousands of workers, in response to criticism, grandly announced that he was going to give up 25% of his salary and other compensation.  But what he did not mention was his pension plan.

You see, Mullin has been employed by the airline for only five years and eight months.  But a special pension plan that Delta’s board created for top executives has credited him…with another 22 years of service.  Thanks to those phantom years, the 60-year-old CEO could walk away from the airline today and be entitled to receive a payout of about $ 1 million a year, starting at age 65, for the rest of his life.  And if the airline goes bankrupt, no problem:  Special Delta-funded trusts protect the pensions of Mullin and 32 fellow executives from creditors.

(This by the way while Delta’s workers’ pensions were being cut.) This same article details many more examples of CEO’s receiving exorbitant pensions while their companies went bankrupt, lost stockholder value or cut workers’ pensions.  And the article goes on to ask the reasonable question:

So why, you may wonder, aren’t investors up in arms over these jaw-dropping retirement giveaways?  The answer is that hardly anybody knows about them.  The complex details surrounding executive pensions are typically buried deep within a company’s SEC filings, far removed from the salaries, bonuses, and stock options that dominate the headlines.

Both the example of Disney’s Michael Eisner, whose board kindly made it easier for him to get (I will not say “earn”) an extra $5 million, and the fact that boards hide the details of CEO retirement so that shareholders will have trouble finding out about them, illustrate my point:  Market forces are not the only or even the most powerful forces operating in the economy, and moreover market forces always work within a legal, socio-cultural and technological framework.  It is a CEO’s cronies on the compensation committee of the board of directors that determine his compensation, not impersonal market forces.  If we changed the law so that CEO salaries were decided by a free vote of the stockholders, not many of them would get these huge salaries and retirement packages, especially when their companies were failing and stockholders were losing the value of their investments.

This principle of the importance of non-market factors is true throughout the economy.  Without labor unions workers received low pay and had poor working conditions and benefits.  Unions helped them to achieve gains in all these areas.  This was because it helped to give the workers power to offset that of their bosses, not because the law of supply and demand had been changed.

All of these instances of economic behavior presuppose certain norms, generally both cultural and legal.  Without limited liability laws, for example, corporations could not exist, at least in their present form.  Without patent, trademark and copyright laws, the provision of inventions and other kinds of intellectual property would doubtless be very different.  Moreover, the kind and degree of taxation, technology, the physical infrastructure – all these affect to a great degree the workings of the economy.

Markets and market forces, then, are always embedded in social, legal and cultural systems.  Economic forces, such as the equilibrium of supply and demand, are certainly real, but seldom if ever the most important forces operating in an economy.  Thus the objection to Catholic social teaching based on the notion that it violates the assured findings of economic science is not valid.  Rather, economic outcomes depend on power, cultural and legal institutions, and other factors.  Since laws and institutions can be changed, there is in fact ample room in economics for a consideration of ethics.  Thus those who seek to promote Catholic social doctrine should acquaint themselves with those economic schools, chiefly the German historical school and the institutionalists, whose conception of the economy recognizes that it does not operate like clockwork, but is chiefly determined by who holds economic power, which in turn is chiefly determined by law and custom.  Clarence Ayres wrote with regard to institutionalism in a discussion in 1957 in The American Economic Review:

…the object of dissent is the conception of the market as the guiding mechanism of the economy or, more broadly, the conception of the economy as organized and guided by the market.  It simply is not true that scarce resources are allocated among alternative uses by the market.  The real determinant of whatever allocation occurs in any society is the organizational structure of that society – in short, its institutions.  At most, the market only gives effect to prevailing institutions.  By focusing attention on the market mechanism, economists have ignored the real allocational mechanism.

As soon as one considers this, its truth should be obvious:  the human desire for happiness certainly very often includes the desire to maximize material gain and minimize loss, but this desire is channeled through existing customs and institutions, and to a great extent even shaped by them.  So that a conception of “economic man” which isolates him and posits certain things about him which are then universalized, is erroneous.

Similar criticisms were made by the German historical school.  As described in the well-known reference source, The New Palgrave: a Dictionary of Economics, this school of thought faulted the

classical school’s deductive method…as being too abstract [and] puts the emphasis on the inductive method.  Historians point out that economic development is unique, so there can be no `natural laws’ in economics…. Instead of searching for generally applicable laws, the historical school therefore tried to describe the particulars of each era, society and economy.

Since the human institutions within which economic activity occur undoubtedly vary widely over time and place, and to some extent, even the human desire for gain takes on different forms according to custom, it would seem rational to include such historical factors in economic analysis, and further, that any economic analysis that omits or downplays them is not dealing with the real world.  Conventional neo-classical economics, however, largely does just that.  If its defenders regard it as the only acceptable scientific form of economics, we must point out to them that any economic science that strives more for mathematical precision and consistency than conformity with the real world has deeply misunderstood its task. Thus there is a simple way out of the intellectual trap that is set for Catholic social teaching.  We do not have to abandon our intellectual rigor or scientific orientation.  Rather we can retort that it is our critics who are unscientific.  But above all we should begin to bring the insights of heterodox economics into the debates over social doctrine.  Without them, the critics of Catholic social teaching will always claim that they alone understand economics.  For to attempt to defend Catholic social teaching while explicitly or implicitly accepting conventional neo-classical economics is not only to allow one’s adversaries to set the terms of the debate, but it is to adhere to an economic methodology which distorts facts and attempts to compress reality into a straitjacket.

Notes:

[1] This way of characterizing capitalism comes from the encyclical of Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (1931).  Pius speaks of “that economic system in which were provided by different people the capital and labor jointly needed for production” (no. 100, Paulist translation).

[2] Those papal documents which recommend widespread property ownership include Rerum Novarum, nos. 4, 10, 26, 35; Quadragesimo Anno, nos. 59-62, 65; Mater et Magistra, nos. 85-89, 91-93, 111-115; Laborem Exercens, no. 14. ”

You can learn more about this issue here.

Students’ Broken Moral Compasses

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in The Atlantic which, I thought, was pretty insightful.  Be edified.

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A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?

The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.

This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.

I was satisfied that students were clearly thinking about tough issues, but unsettled by their lack of experience considering their own values. “Do you think you should discuss morality and ethics more often in school?” I asked the class. The vast majority of heads nodded in agreement. Engaging in this type of discourse, it seemed, was a mostly foreign concept for the kids.

Widespread adoption of the Common Core standards—despite resistance by some states—arguably continues the legacy of the No Child Left Behind Act. The 2002 law charged all public schools to achieve 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014, meaning that all students were expected to be on grade level. This unrealistic target forced schools to track and measure the academic achievement of all students, a goal lauded by most, but one that ultimately elevated standardized testing and severely narrowed curricula. Quantifying academic gains remains at the forefront of school-improvement efforts to the detriment of other worthwhile purposes of schooling.

As my students seemed to crave more meaningful discussions and instruction relating to character, morality, and ethics, it struck me how invisible these issues have become in many schools. By omission, are U.S. schools teaching their students that character, morality, and ethics aren’t important in becoming productive, successful citizens?

For many American students who have attended a public school at some point since 2002, standardized-test preparation and narrowly defined academic success has been the unstated, but de facto, purpose of their schooling experience. And while school mission statements often reveal a goal of preparing students for a mix of lifelong success, citizenship, college, and careers, the reality is that addressing content standards and test preparation continues to dominate countless schools’s operations and focus.

In 2014, an annual end-of-year kindergarten show in New York was canceled so students could focus on college-and-career readiness. Test-prep rallies have become increasingly commonplace, especially at the elementary level. And according to a 2015 Council of the Great City Schools study, eighth-graders spend an average of 25.3 hours a year taking standardized tests. In Kentucky, where I teach, high schools are under pressure to produce students who are ready for college, defined as simply reaching benchmark scores in reading, English, and math on the ACT.

Talking with my students about ethics and gauging their response served as a wakeup call for me to consider my own role as an educator and just how low character development, ethics, and helping students develop a moral identity have fallen with regard to debate over what schools should teach. The founders of this country, Jessica Lahey wrote in The Atlantic, would “likely be horrified by the loss of this goal, as they all cite character education as the way to create an educated and virtuous citizenry.” According to Gallup polling, Lahey added, 90 percent of adults support the teaching in public schools of honesty, acceptance of others, and moral courage, among other character traits. What adults hope occurs in schools, however, is in sharp contrast to observations provided by teens themselves.

The 2012 Josephson Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth reveals a pressing need to integrate elements of character education into the country’s public-school curriculums. According to the study, 57 percent of teens stated that successful people do what they have to do to win, even if it involves cheating. Twenty-four percent believe it is okay to threaten or hit someone when angry. Thirty-one percent believe physical violence is a big problem in their schools. Fifty-two percent reported cheating at least once on an exam. Forty-nine percent of students reported being bullied or harassed in a manner that seriously upset them.

In the recently released Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, Michelle Borba claims narcissism is on the rise, especially in the Western world, as more teens concur with the statement: “I am an extraordinary person.” If empathy is crucial to developing a moral identity, then this trend should be troubling to parents and educators who hope that students foster the ability to see the world through others’s eyes.

My own observations support the data. I’m frequently unnerved by the behaviors I see in classrooms and hallways every day, from physical and verbal bullying, to stereotyping, to students leaving trash strewn all over the outdoor cafeteria courtyard.

“Teaching character education in schools is actually unavoidable … [E]verything the school chooses to do or not do in terms of curriculum choices” influences the culture of a school and the character of its students, Steve Ellenwood, the director of Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility (CCSR), wrote in an email. His words resonated with me. During my 12 years in education, I can’t recall a single meeting in which the discussion of student character and ethics was elevated to anything close to the level of importance of academics within school curricula.

Groups like the CCSR and the Josephson Institute of Ethics’ Character Counts! initiative strive to enhance existing school programs and curricula to address these issues, proof that efforts do exist to transform schools into places where character education is elevated within traditional curricula. But Ellenwood laments that many educators “blithely accept that schools must be value-neutral,” adding that there is legal precedent for teaching about religions (and not imposing any set of beliefs), character, and ethics. And divisive national politics have left many educators with difficult choices about addressing certain issues, especially those who teach immigrant students who are actively afraid of their fates if Donald Trump wins the election.

A reluctance to teach about religions and value systems is coinciding with a steady decline of teen involvement in formal religious activity over the past 50 years, according to research led by San Diego State Professor Jean Twenge. And while attending church is only one way young people may begin to establish a moral identity, schools don’t seem to be picking up the slack. There’s undoubtedly a fear about what specific ethical beliefs and character traits schools might teach, but one answer might be to expose students to tough issues in the context of academic work—not imposing values, but simply exploring them.

At a recent convening of 15 teacher-leaders from around the country at the Center for Teaching Quality in Carrboro, North Carolina, I spoke to some colleagues about the balance between teaching academic content and striving to develop students’ moral identities. Leticia Skae-Jackson, an English teacher in Nashville, Tennessee, and Nick Tutolo, a math teacher in Pittsburgh, both commented that many teachers are overwhelmed by the pressure and time demands in covering academic standards. Focusing on character and ethics, they said, is seen as an additional demand.

Nonetheless, Tutolo engages his math students at the beginning of the school year by focusing on questions of what it means to be a conscientious person and citizen while also considering how his class could address community needs. His seventh-grade class focused on the issue of food deserts in Pittsburgh and began a campaign to build hydroponic window farms. While learning about ratios and scaling—skills outlined in the Common Core math standards—students began working to design and distribute the contraptions to residents in need, a project that will continue this fall as Tutolo “loops” up to teach eighth grade.

William Anderson, a high-school teacher in Denver, takes a similar approach to Tutolo, but told me that “most teachers haven’t been trained to design instruction that blends academic content with an exploration of character and ethics.” He emphasized that schools should promote this approach to develop well-rounded students. Addressing academic skills and challenging students to consider ethics and character should not, he argued, be mutually exclusive.

When I reflect upon my own education, two classes stand out with regard to finding the balance between imparting academic skills and developing my own moral identity. My high-school biology teacher Phil Browne challenged us to think about the consequences of our consumer choices and individual actions as they related to ecosystems and the environment in a way that challenged us to think about ourselves as ethical actors.

A couple years later, I signed up for a freshman seminar in college titled “Education and Social Inequality” at Middlebury College in Vermont. I remember being moved by Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities and his moral outrage at dilapidated, underfunded, and understaffed schools in impoverished areas; early on in the course, I struggled to articulate my thoughts during essay assignments. My professor, Peggy Nelson, would sit quietly during seminars, watching us squirm in our seats while we grappled with big ideas such as personal responsibility, systemic injustice, and racism.

Entering my 13th year in the classroom this fall, I hope to continue striving to capture the dynamic that Browne, Nelson, Tutolo, Skae-Jackson, Anderson, and other skilled educators have achieved by blending academic instruction with the essential charge of developing students as people. It’s time for critical reflection about values our schools transmit to children by omission in our curriculum of the essential human challenges of character development, morality, and ethics. Far too often, “we’re sacrificing the humanity of students for potential academic and intellectual gain,” Anderson said.

By Paul Barnwell and originally published in The Atlantic on July 25, 2016 and can be seen here.

Assimilate! How Modern Liberalism Is Destroying Individuality

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in National Review which, I thought, was pretty insightful.  Be edified.

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Progressives claim to celebrate diversity, but demand that everyone fit their mold.
I was once called a “cracker” by a member of the Nation of Islam. It was in the mid-1980s and I was driving through Washington, D.C., in the kind of neighborhood that conservatives call dangerous and liberals call “transitioning.” I saw a member of the Nation of Islam, bow tie and all, on the corner hawking copies of The Final Call, the NOI’s newspaper. I rolled down the window and asked for a copy. That’s when he hit me with it: “F*ck off, cracker.”
I thought of this gentleman fondly when I was reading the new book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish scholar Ryszard Legutko. The book is an intense read that argues that liberal democracies are succumbing to a utopian ideal where individuality and eccentricity might eventually be banned. As liberals push us towards a monoculture where there is no dissent, no gender, and no conflict, the unique and the great will eventually cease to exist. No more offbeat weirdoes, eccentric crazies, or cults. No more Nation of Islam there to call me a cracker. No more of the self-made and inspired figures of the past: Duke Ellington, Hunter Thompson, Annie Leibowitz.
Legutko’s thesis is that liberal democracies have something in common with communism: the sense that time is inexorably moving towards a kind of human utopia, and that progressive bureaucrats must make sure it succeeds. Legutko first observed this after the fall of communism. Thinking that communist bureaucrats would have difficulty adjusting to Western democracy, he was surprised when the former Marxists smoothly adapted — indeed, thrived — in a system of liberal democracy. It was the hard-core anti-communists who couldn’t quite fit into the new system. They were unable to untether themselves from their faith, culture, and traditions.
Both communism and liberal democracy call for people to become New Men by jettisoning their old faith, customs, arts, literature, and traditions. Thus a Polish anti-communist goes from being told by communists that he has to abandon his old concepts of faith and family to become a member of the larger State, only to come to America after the fall of the Berlin Wall and be told he has to forego those same beliefs for the sake of the sexual revolution and the bureaucratic welfare state. Both systems believe that societies are moving towards a certain ideal state, and to stand against that is to violate not just the law but human happiness itself. Legutko compares the two: “Societies — as the supporters of the two regimes are never tired of repeating — are not only changing and developing according to a linear pattern but also improving, and the most convincing evidence of the improvement, they add, is the rise of communism and liberal democracy. And even if a society does not become better at each stage and in each place, it should continue improving given the inherent human desire to which both regimes claim those found the most satisfactory response.”
Legutko argues that, of course, there are huge differences between communism and liberal democracy — liberal democracy is obviously a system that allows for greater freedom. He appreciates that in a free society people are able to enjoy the arts, books, and pop culture that they want. Our medical system is superior. We don’t suffer from famines. Yet Legutko argues that with so much freedom has come a kind of flattening of taste and the hard work of creating original art.
We’ve witnessed the a slow and steady debasement of our politics and popular culture — see, for example, those “man on the street” interviews where Americans can’t name who won the Revolutionary War. Enter the unelected bureaucrats who appoint themselves to steer the ship; in other words, we’re liberals and we’re here to help. Inspired by the idea that to be against them is to be “on the wrong side of history,” both communism and contemporary liberalism demand absolute submission to the progressive plan. All resistance, no matter how grounded in genuine belief or natural law, must be quashed.
Thus in America came the monochromatic washing of a country that once could boast not only crazies like Scientologists and Louis Farrakhan, but creative and unusual icons like Norman Mailer, Georgia O’Keefe, Baptists, Hindus, dry counties, John Courtney Murray, Christian bakers, orthodox Jews, accents, and punk rockers. The eccentric and the oddball, as well as the truly great, are increasingly less able to thrive. As Legutko observes, we have a monoculture filled with people whose “loutish manners and coarse language did not have their origin in communism, but, as many found astonishing, in the patterns, or rather anti-patterns that developed in Western liberal democracies.” The revolution didn’t devour its children; progressive-minded bureaucrats did.
By Mark Judge and originally published on August 11, 2016 and can be seen here.

 

Mammon Ascendant

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in First Things which, I thought, was pretty insightful.  It is by one of my favorite theologians/philosophers, David Bently Hart (see here), and regards the relationship between capitalism and Christianity, and takes a view with which I tend to agree.  Be edified.

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So, there I was, pondering, with an old familiar feeling of perplexity (about which more anon), certain reactions to my reaction to various reactions to the pope’s last encyclical, when it occurred to me that the one thing on which ­Hegelians of every stripe—right or left, theological or materialist, contemplative or activist—are undoubtedly correct is that the logic of history is not the logic of individuals, or of parties, or of states. It is not ideology, that is to say, that determines the course of cultural evolution, but the dialectic of history, which (even if it is not materialist) can never float free of material conditions. Hence Hegel’s famous “master-slave dialectic”: that process by which the material economy of ancient society slowly but inevitably inverted the order of knowledge and power upon which that society rested. History—its meaning, its irony—reveals itself only by way of a ­continuous pragmatic labor, an engagement between spirit and matter; and the final issue of that labor becomes manifest not in the abstractions we profess but in the culture we create.

Take, for instance, American political history of the last thirty-five years. One of the great political masterstrokes of the late twentieth century was Ronald Reagan’s successful creation of a coalition between cultural “conservatives” and fiscal “conservatives,” one that seemed to a great many at the time and for a long while thereafter not only a stable alliance, but a natural association. All at once, Wall Street Journal–reading mandarins began caring about abortion, “family values,” and even school prayer; pro-life Christians and Jews became genuine partisans of supply-side economics, reduced marginal tax rates, and expansive free-trade agreements; and both sides shared just enough traditional American traits (sincere patriotism unburdened by the disenchantments of postwar Europe, genial optimism, the language of self-reliance, pioneer myths, small-town ideals, and so forth) to overcome whatever regional and cultural differences might otherwise have separated them. It was an invincible political force.

But, again, it is culture—not politics—that pronounces the final historical verdict on our transitory ideologies and grand social projects and high ideals. The coalition that Reagan wrought has largely collapsed, and has done so as the result not of external hostile forces, but under the weight of its own contradictions. It has been said often enough that in the long aftermath of the 1960s, it became evident that the “right” had won the economic argument over culture and the “left” the moral argument. At least, I have heard one of my friends say it often enough (usually in a slurred voice and under fairly dim lighting: free markets and free love, corporatism and hedonism, low taxes and high times, Ben and Jerry’s, Whole Foods, Bill Gates . . .).

And, of course, it is true. The social revolution of the late 1960s was a marvelous impasto of cultural, political, social, and moral gestures, many of them more spasmodic than deliberate, and most of them only accidentally associated with one another. The most licentiously self-indulgent hedonism dallied for a gay flirtatious season with the grimly severe moralism of Trotskyite or Maoist rhetoric; the revolution was proclaimed by cossetted children of the middle class who imagined the socialist utopia as an interminable revel of psychedelic drugs, casual copulation, and ever shorter skirts; Madison Avenue was relentlessly denounced by its most servile victims. (And, oh, how I sigh with genuine nostalgia for the idiot happiness of those days.)

But, once the mists had cleared and the lava lamps had dimmed, things began sorting themselves out very rapidly. The economic radicalism faded, but the new social mores persisted, and grew in power, and became the common social grammar. A once very fashionably idealist generation found the adventure of revolution far less exhilarating than the venture of capital; it continued to cling to the old new Bohemianism (which, after all, always sold very well), but realized that endless self-indulgence requires the sort of resources that only canny investment can secure. Apple Records began as a collectivist idyll but a few bats of the eyelashes later was a tightly controlled distribution firm with security cameras at the gate; George Harrison soon learned that it was easier to find time for Krishna and room for organic farming on the sprawling grounds of an English manor house; Haight-Ashbury tie-dye ­mutated into Silicon Valley office casual; the homiletics of public property yielded to the legalese of the public offering; cannabis was just the new Chivas. All that now remained of economic debate were procedural details: the relative preponderance of development and regulation, the shifting balance of power between business sectors and state agencies, and so on.

In another sense, however, the notion that two opposed ideologies divided the spoils of the culture between them is deeply false. In truth, no political faction won or lost, because none was involved in the process at all except as one of the forces employed (and then perhaps discarded) by a deeper power. What in fact won the day was a single historical dynamism, a single indivisible cultural philosophy. That its political expressions had been distributed among different parties was a purely incidental matter of process, an especially exquisite example of “the cunning of history,” which effectively hid the true form of what everyone really wanted behind the spectacle of superficial antagonisms. Or rather, I should say: not superficial, but certainly futile. The struggle over “values” was quite real on both sides, as far as personal commitments were concerned. But, once again, the reasons for which individuals act are not the reasons by which history unfolds.

All right. Perhaps I am not as much of a German idealist as all that. But I do believe that the relation between material conditions and moral concepts is never accidental, and that cultural logic invariably discovers the real harmonies and balances and accords that our fleeting intellectual paradigms generally cannot. As late modern persons, we live in a society whose highest values—in every sphere: moral, religious, economic, domestic, cultural, and so on—can loosely be described as “libertarian.” We understand freedom principally as an ­individual’s sovereign liberty of deliberative and acquisitive choice, and we understand individual desires (so long as they fall within certain minimal legal constraints) either as rights or at least as protected by rights. And we are increasingly disposed to see almost every restriction placed upon the pursuit of those desires as an unreasonable imposition. Our natural economic philosophy, then, is of course “neoliberal” (or, as it is also called in America, “neoconservative”) while our natural moral philosophy is voluntarist, individualist, and hedonist (in a not necessarily opprobrious sense). Not only is there no contradiction here; there is an essential unity.

And, in this sense, talk of history’s dialectic is not only pardonable, but probably necessary. The story of how, over a far longer period than thirty-five years, we arrived where we are has been told often before: on the side of ideas, the rise of late scholastic voluntarism, the emergence not only of epistemological nominalism but even of nominalist accounts of the good, theologies that subordinated all divine attributes to the supreme attribute of absolute sovereignty and that increasingly conceived of sovereignty as something like pure spontaneity of will, then the eventual migration of this idea of sovereign freedom from theology to anthropology, as well as the rise of mechanistic metaphysics (and so on); on the side of material circumstance, the rise of the absolute state, the creation of denatured ecclesial establishments, the rise of early market institutions, the growth of an enfranchised merchant class, the rise of the power of large capital in the age of industrialization, the inevitable emergence of consumerism (and so on); and, between the two sides, a dynamic, fluctuating, oscillating, but ultimately inexorable dialectical process. It is an absorbing tale, but it has gone through so many editions by now that even the effort of declining to repeat it is tedious.

Even so, just at the moment I feel as if somehow I have to remark this essential, indissoluble concomitance between the logic of late modern secularity and that of late modern capitalism. It all has to do, I suppose, with those reactions to my reaction to those reactions I mentioned above, and with that old familiar perplexity they occasioned in me. At least I feel I want to confess, if nothing else, the limits of my imagination on one vexing point. Simply said, I have never been able to understand those (almost exclusively American) souls who expend such energy both on lamenting the late modern collapse of so many of the moral accords and cultural values and religious aspirations of the past and also on vigorously promoting the very system of material and social practices that made that collapse inevitable.

The history of capitalism and the history of secularism are not two accidentally contemporaneous tales, after all; they are the same story told from different vantages. Any dominant material economy is complicit with, and in fact demands, a particular anthropology, ethics, and social vision. And a late capitalist culture, being intrinsically a consumerist economy, of necessity promotes a voluntarist understanding of individual freedom and a purely negative understanding of social and political liberty. The entire system depends not merely on supplying needs and satisfying natural longings, but on the ceaseless invention of ever newer desires, ever more choices. It is also a system inevitably corrosive of as many prohibitions of desire and inhibitions of the will as possible, and therefore of all those customs and institutions—religious, cultural, social—that tend to restrain or even forbid so many acquisitive longings and individual choices.

This is what Marx genuinely admired about capitalism: its power to dissolve all the immemorial associations of family, tradition, faith, and affinity, the irresistible dynamism of its dissolution of ancient values, its (to borrow a loathsome phrase) “gales of creative destruction.” The secular world—our world, our age—is one from which as many mediating and subsidiary powers have been purged as possible, precisely to make room for the adventures of the will. It is a reality in which all social, political, and economic associations have been reduced to a bare tension between the individual and the state, each of which secures the other against the intrusions and encroachments of other claims to authority, other demands upon desire, other narratives of the human. Secularization is simply developed capitalism in its ineluctable cultural manifestation.

Mind you, part of the difficulty of convincing American Christians of this lies in the generous vagueness with which we have come to use the word “capitalism” in recent decades. For many, the term means nothing more than a free market in goods, or the right to produce and trade, or buying and selling as such. In that sense, every culture in recorded history would have been “capitalist” in some degree. And for many, then, it also seems natural to think that all free trade and all systems of market exchange are of a piece, and that to defend the dignity of production and trade in every sphere, it is necessary also to defend the globalized market and the immense power of current corporate entities—or, conversely, to think that any serious and sustained criticism of the immorality, environmental devastation, exploitation of desperate labor markets, or political mischief for which such entities might often justly be arraigned is necessarily an assault on every honest entrepreneur who tries to build a business, create some jobs, or produce something useful or delightful to sell.

But, in long historical perspective, the capitalist epoch of market economies has so far been one of, at most, a few centuries. At least, in the narrower acceptation of the term generally agreed on by economic historians, capitalism is what Proudhon in 1861 identified as a system—at once economic and social—in which, as a general rule, the source of income does not belong at all to those who make it operative by their labor. If that is too vague, we can say it is the set of economic conventions that succeeded those of the “mercantilism” of the previous era, with its tariff regimes and nationalist policies of trade regulation, and that took shape in the age of industrialization. Historically, this meant a shift in economic eminence from the merchant class—purveyors of goods contracted from and produced by independent artisanal labor or subsidiary estates or small local markets—to the capitalist investor who is at once producer and seller of goods, and who is able to generate immense capital at the secondary level of investment speculation: a purely financial market where wealth is generated and enjoyed by those who produce nothing except an incessant circulation of investment and divestment.

Along with this came a new labor system: the end of most of the contractual power of free skilled labor, the death of the artisanal guilds, and the genesis of a mass wage system; one, that is, in which labor became a commodity, different markets could compete against one another for the cheapest, most desperate laborers, and (as the old Marxist plaint has it) both the means of production and the fruit of labor belonged not to the workers but only to the investors. Hence the accusation of early generations of socialists, like William Morris and John Ruskin, that capitalism was to be eschewed not because it was a free-market system, but because it destroyed the true freedom of the market economies that had begun to appear at the end of the Middle Ages, and concentrated all real economic and contractual liberty in the hands of a very few.

This is a system that not only allows for, but positively depends upon, immense concentrations of private capital and private dispositive use of that capital, as unencumbered by fiscal regulation as possible. It also obviously allows for the exploitation of material and human resources on an unprecedentedly massive scale, one that even governments cannot rival. And it is a system that inevitably eventuates not only in economic, but cultural, “consumerism,” because it can continue to create wealth sufficient to sustain the investment system only by a social habit of consumption extravagantly in excess of mere natural need or even (arguably) natural want. Thus it must dedicate itself not only to fulfilling desire, but to fabricating new desires, prompted by fashion, or by seductive appeals to what 1 John calls “the lust of the eyes”—the high art of which we call “advertising.”

Now, without question, capitalism works. It is magnificently efficient at generating enormous wealth, and increasing the wealth of society at large—if not necessarily of all individuals or classes—and adjusting to the supersession of one form of commercial production by another. But this is practically a tautology. That is its entire purpose, and it is no great surprise that over time it should have evolved ever more refined and comprehensive means for achieving it. It generates immense returns for the few, which sometimes redound to the benefit of the many, but which often do not; it can create and enrich or destroy and impoverish, as prudence warrants; it can encourage liberty and equity or abet tyranny and injustice, as necessity dictates. It has no natural attachment to the institutions of democratic or liberal freedom; China has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that endless consumer choices can comfortably coexist with a near total absence of civil liberties. Capitalism has no moral nature at all. The good it yields is not benevolence; the evil is not malice. It is a system that cannot be abused, but only practiced with greater or lesser efficiency. It admits of no other criterion by which to judge its consequences.

This last point, moreover, needs to be particularly stressed, at least in America, where many of capitalism’s apologists are eager (perhaps commendably) to believe that our market system is not only conducive of large social benefits, but possessed of deep structural virtues. This belief often leads them both to exaggerate those benefits and to ignore the damages, or to explain them away (like good Marxists preaching the socialist eschaton) as transient evils that will be redeemed by a final general beatitude (“rising tide” . . . “all boats” . . . “supply-side” . . . “trickle down” . . . “Walmart may destroy small businesses and force the formerly well-employed into inferior jobs, but, hey, think of the joy that all those cheap—if occasionally toxic—Chinese goods produced by ruthlessly exploited laborers will provide the lower middle class in its ceaseless fiscal decline!”). But, given the sheer magnitude of capitalism’s ability to alter material, social, economic, and cultural reality, to cherish even the faintest illusions regarding some kind of inherent goodness in the system is to risk more than mere complacency.

Yes, venture capital built Manhattan—its shining cloud-capped towers, its millions of jobs, its inexhaustible bagels—but the cost of a world where Manhattans are built has to be reckoned in more than capital. And one does not even need to travel any great distance to assess some of the gravest of them. One need go no farther than the carboniferous tectonic collision zones of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky to find a land where a once poor but propertied people were reduced to helotry on land they used to own by predatory mineral rights’ purchases, and then forced into dangerous and badly remunerated labor that destroyed their health, and then kept generation upon generation in servile dependency on an industry that shears the crests off mountains, chokes river valleys with slurry and chemical toxins, and subverts local politics. And what one must remember is that all that devastation was not the result of one of capitalism’s failures, but of one of its most conspicuous successes. All the investors realized returns on their initial expenditures many thousands of times over. Those who win at the game can win everything and more, while those who lose—who more often than we care to acknowledge lose everything and forever—are simply part of the cost of doing business.

None of which is to deny that capital investment can achieve goods that governments usually cannot. While it is certainly not the case that, say, the world’s rising mean life span or the increase in third-world literacy are straightforwardly consequences of globalization, it certainly is the case that global investment and trade have created resources that have made rapid medical progress, improvements in nutrition, and distribution of goods and services—by private firms, charities, governments, and international humanitarian organizations—possible in ways that less fluid commercial systems never could have done. There are regions of sub-Saharan Africa currently enjoying the kind of economic development that once seemed impossible because certain governments and businesses (such as numerous small technology firms) have set aside generations of post-colonial prejudice and finally begun building businesses there.

On the other hand, untold tens of thousands of Africans have died as a result of large Western pharmaceutical firms, concerned for their market share and their proprietary rights, exerting fiscal and government pressure to deny access to affordable antiretroviral drugs manufactured in Thailand and elsewhere. The market gives life; the market murders. It creates cities; it poisons oceans. And throughout the third world, as well as in less fortunate districts of the developed world, the price of industrialization remains (as ever) environmental damage of a sort that cannot be remedied in centuries, along with all its attendant human suffering. The World Health Organization, on very judiciously gathered data, estimates that roughly 12.6 million persons die each year as a result of environmental degradation, particularly pollution from industrial waste products. This being so, it seems only decent to wonder whether a thriving market system might be run on more humane principles—which is to say, on principles alien to capitalism as it has always existed.

Perhaps, though, I am allowing myself to drift away from my original point. Even if it were not so—even if fully developed capitalism, per impossibile, operated without any destruction of ecologies, communities, and lives—it would still carry moral costs that would render it ultimately antagonistic to any but an essentially secularized culture. At least, it could not coexist indefinitely with a culture informed by genuine Christian conviction. Even the fact of the system’s necessary reliance on immense private wealth makes it a moral problem from the vantage of the Gospel, for the simple reason that the New Testament treats such wealth not merely as a spiritual danger, and not merely as a blessing that should not be misused, but as an intrinsic evil. I know there are plentiful interpretations of Christianity that claim otherwise, and many of them have been profoundly influential of American understandings of the faith. Calvin’s scriptural commentaries, for instance, treat almost all of the New Testament’s more consequential moral teachings—Christ’s advice to the rich young ruler, his exhortations to spiritual perfection, and so on—as exercises in instructive irony, meant to demonstrate the impossibility of righteousness through works. Calvin even remarks that having some money in the bank is one of the signs of election. But that is offensive nonsense. The real text of the New Testament, uncolored by theological fancy, is utterly perspicuous and relentlessly insistent on this matter. Christ’s concern for the ptōchoi—the abjectly destitute—is more or less exclusive of any other social class.

What he says about the rich youth selling all his possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor, and about the indisposition of camels trying to pass through needles’ eyes, is only the beginning. In the Sermon on the Plain’s list of beatitudes and woes, he not only tells the poor that the kingdom belongs to them, but explicitly tells the rich that, having had their pleasures in this world, they shall have none in the world to come. He condemns those who buy up properties and create large estates for themselves. You cannot serve both God and mammon. Do not store up treasure on earth, in earthly vessels, for where your treasure is, there your heart will also be. The apostolic Church in Jerusalem adopted an absolute communism of goods. Paul constantly condemns pleonektia, which is often translated as “excessive greed” or even “thievery,” but which really means no more than an acquisitive desire for more than one needs. He instructs the Corinthian Christians to donate all their profits to the relief of the poor in other church assemblies. James says that God’s elect are the poor of this world; the rich he condemns as oppressors and revilers of the divine name, who should howl in terror at the judgment that is coming upon them, because the rust of their treasure shall eat their flesh like fire on the last day. And on and on. This is so persistent, pervasive, and unqualified a theme of the New Testament that the genius with which Christians down the centuries have succeeded in not seeing it, or in explaining it away, or in pretending that it does not mean what it unquestionably means may be among the greatest marvels of the faith.

But, again, even if it were not so—even if there is a way of possessing wealth purely as a blameless stewardship of God’s bounty, or if the system could function as well in a society with more equitably distributed capital, or what have you—the problem with which I began remains. As a cultural reality, late capitalism is not merely a regulatory regime for markets, but also a positive system of values, necessarily at odds with other orders of desire, especially those that seek to limit acquisition or inhibit expressions of the will. We may think we are free to believe as we wish because that is what our totalitarian libertarianism or consumerist collectivism chiefly needs us to think. But, while our ancestors inhabited a world full of gods or saints, ours is one in which they have all been chased away by advertising, into the hidden world of personal devotion or private fixation. Public life is a realm of pure elective spontaneity, in every sphere, and that power of choice must be ceaselessly directed toward an interminable diversity of consumer goods, and encouraged to expand into ever more regions of fiscal, moral, and spiritual life. We are shaped by what we desire, and what we desire is shaped by the material culture that surrounds us, and by the ideologies and imaginative possibilities that it embodies and sustains.

This is not to say that believing Christians, Jews, and other retrograde types cannot live peacefully amid the heaven-scaling towers and abyss-plumbing indulgences of late modernity. Believers of every kind are strangers and sojourners in this life, and should not seek to build enduring cities in this world. Still, all of us must make our livings, and seek to provide for others, and that means buying and selling, hiring and being hired, seeking justice and enduring injustice. That is the business of life, and conducted well, it can bring about many good things. And who knows? Perhaps it is possible to reimagine a real market economy on a more truly human and humane scale, of the sort envisaged by E. F. Schumacher or various other religious “economists of the small.” After all, the exchange of goods, the common commerce of everyday life, the community that exists wherever one person trades one “gift” for another—all of these are natural goods, part of the corporal grammar of community, and can usually in some way exhibit a generosity more original and more ultimate than any calculus of greed or selfish appetite. But, beyond that, the claim that capitalist culture and Christianity are compatible—indeed, that they are not ultimately inimical to one another—seems to me not only self-evidently false, but quaintly (and perhaps perilously) deluded.

David Bentley Hart is a fellow of the Notre Dame Institute of Advanced Studies. His most recent book is A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays.

Originally published in First Things in June 2016 and can be seen here.

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