More on Poverty and Economics
Can seeking Lady Poverty correctly balance our shared economic interests so that it is possible to make a living without losing your soul? I don’t know, but I can begin with my own heart and my own choices and govern the market of my family and the economy of my home.
This made me recognize that Rerum Novarum, whose critique of the free market and capitalism was reiterated by Paul VI in Quatressigmo Annum and John Paul II’s Centissium Annum (both titles refer to the original and were issued on the anniversary of Leo’s encyclical) was in actuality a call to the laity, amplified by the Second Vatican Council, to start thinking about this area again and try to bring economic activity under the leadership of the Gospel again. Each time a pope spoke about economics, he essentially would end by saying, “I’m only a member of the clergy: you lay people have to figure this out.”
It was the new convert Chesterton who took up the gauntlet thrown down by Leo XIII, and together with Hilaire Belloc sketched out a new economic construct they christened distributism. Distributism is a half-constructed tantalizing philosophy, considered unworkable by the learned economist and the seasoned businessman, sniffed at by the socialist as too trusting of evil property, snickered at by the libertarian as the product of papal interference. Yet those who have tried it and made it work on the small scale through cooperatives and independent business speak of it with affection, and try to add to the drawing, to render and shade its outlines a bit more. Often distributism is only a matter for thinkers and activists: it was another mother, a businesswoman, who suggested to me that the proper place to work on developing the philosophy that may or may not be someday still called distributism is the home. Teach your children to consider economic activity first in the light of their own soul, then the soul of their relatives and families, and scale outward accordingly as you go. This is the challenge I have gladly taken up.
Furthermore, Brad Gregory’s work helped me see a surprising connection: according to him, Catholic economic theory was marooned in the sixteenth century with the advent of the Reformation, when society was still mostly agrarian. When Chesterton and Belloc and their fellow thinkers began to tackle economics, they began instinctively to tackle it by discussing farms and small business and craftsmen and advocating that large landowners “distribute” productive land back to the small farmer and small business owner in order to combat the monopoly-creating tendencies in capitalism. Given that the Industrial Revolution had passed, and the Information Age was just around the corner, critics of distributism jeered proponents as being … marooned in the agrarian economy of the sixteenth century. This helped me see that, Ent-like and disregarding of centuries, the Catholic Church was merely picking up where She had left off. Distributism was not an idealist yearning for an earlier age: it was a continuity.
The main quibble with distributism (which I agree needs a new name), is the question, “Who would implement it? What government or market oligarchy would have the power to push it through?” The answer to the question, “Who will implement this?” is, I now realize, “You and I.”
For certainly, if enough people wanted to limit their incomes to only what they could live upon, that would indeed change the market. If enough people care for the destitute out of service of Christ, markets and even government programs would align to their wishes. For as we are told, the market is only that: wishes. If we were to all wish together, who knows what might happen? We may create a system of checks and balances that allows for growth and goodness and checks tyranny and selfishness. But it all depends on our conversion of heart.
Have we indeed delegated away too much? Having created the market economy, have we delegated away the very sense of our own free will in this regard? How much more peril now faces us with the tyranny of technology, which similarly jeers at our free will, intimating that it is a behemoth too great to be tamed by the hand of any man?
We need to regain an awareness of the power of God to change the world with all the faith of a David. We must live as though the Gospel were true, as if Christ mattered. We must be able to do business this way, considering Him as the master off on a journey who will require an account of all our doings when He returns. One thing I am convinced of is that culture recovery cannot happen without an embrace of poverty. It is the grounded virtue, the one that must be run into the ground to stabilize the entire circuit of virtue. Why?
It is usually overlooked how vital weakness is to Christianity, particularly when it comes to economics. Human nature tends to value strength. Catholicism, as in all things, affirms this natural impulse but also challenges it. Christ did not come as the Superman but as a servant. He came not as all powerful but as a dependent fetus, dependent upon a human being for His nourishment and care. The casting down of princes from thrones prophesied in our Lady’s Magnificat has been accomplished on the archetypal as well as the spiritual level by the incarnation. We will, none of us, ever be the same again.
Poverty should be the mark of the follower of Christ and reverence for the poor because He chose poverty. How this will work in the age of the laity will need more minds and decisions than mine, yet it is crucial.
So, what must we do? Well, we must act as though we have morals, though the rules of the game dictate otherwise, because souls are at stake: our souls. The gladiator games were not halted because some gladiators were baptized Christians who slew their foes just as competently, or with greater dispatch than any others. It stopped by gladiators becoming Christian and refusing to play by the rules, and getting killed for their obstinacy, and spectators realizing that it wasn’t so fun to watch this any longer. It was too human.
It must be possible to live the Gospel. That is what makes me think that there must be a way to remake our economic system so that the Gospel may enter in to it. It must be possible to live the Gospel, as sinful and fallen as we are. If even a remnant can live out the calling of Lady Poverty, would that be enough to right the balance? We cannot expect that all will follow Christ, nor that all who do will embrace Lady Poverty. But even if a tenth of a tenth do it, that may be enough.
I believe only two percent of the population needs to be doing something before it becomes common in society. A good distillation of culture is small groups may be all we need. When a tiny sliver are doing it well with intensity, a larger among of people may be doing it badly but at least attempting, and beyond that lie many who may never do it but who will accept the principle of the thing, and others who do it without knowing why it needs to be done, but doing it for other motives. And so, a society is changed.
So, if enough of us sought after Lady Poverty, that might be enough.
Although this recommendation might seem revolutionary and extreme, it is a true revolution – a turning of the wheel – in the sense of returning to the past, returning to the medieval realization that the accumulation of wealth could be catastrophic for the soul, both your soul and the soul of others. This is one part of cultural recovery which is an idea so old that it looks new, but that with reflection, anyone can see is at least as new as St. Francis. In reality, it is as old as the Gospels. It is the part of the Gospels that our age has never gotten quite right or rightly understood. I can begin to try to get it right.