The Economics of the Heart: Distributism from the Roots Up

G.K. Chesterton was instrumental in my youthful rediscovery of my Catholic faith, but I did not encounter his ideas on economics (which I was warned were silly, impractical, and a mere distraction from his fiction and social commentary) until later. Around the same time, my dearly loved sister married a young man who had been trained at the Acton Institute, a bastion of free-market philosophy. So, my introduction to “Catholic economics” was a two-pronged education whose precepts were frequently in conflict with one another. I would absorb some truism from Chesterton and Belloc that rang in my soul with resounding truthfulness which I would eagerly share with my loving brother-in-law, who patiently explained why this truth was wrong, or at least wrong-headed, or true in the books but not in the market… and his explanations sounded true as well.
I thus realized that the relationship between the Gospel and economic theory and reality was complex or muddled, to say the least. And I wondered how it could be that the Gospel taught one thing, but markets worked in contradictory ways that proved the Gospel just couldn’t be lived practically in the balance sheet – and furthermore, that this staggering contradiction was accepted by nearly every good Catholic I knew. Their mild equanimity towards the inherent contradiction of the Gospel and economics was shocking, given that most of them would have brooked no paradox between the Bible and say, the Sexual Revolution.Distributists are either confused with communists or socialists, as Dorothy Day presciently noted (“Feed the poor and you’re called a saint. Ask why they are poor, and you’re called a communist,” was her ironic observation) or dismissed out of hand as utopian whose ideas will lead down the same blood-bathed road of those ideologies. Most Catholics, I discovered, would rather live with the contradiction.

I furthermore discovered that adherents of distributism had their own explanation for the contradiction: their intellectual opponents were so consumed with greed that they could not recognize the sinfulness of free market capitalism. I was disinclined to think that this could be true. Most of the proponents of capitalism I knew were generous, gave profusely to charity with their checkbooks and with their time.  They supported soup kitchens, funded Third-World business initiatives, volunteered time at crisis pregnancy centers, and organized disaster relief.  I am still inclined to discount greed, but I will fault an inability of those who realized the discrepancy between the Gospel and economics to explain themselves better. 

This is not been entirely unwarranted, because the problem is staggeringly complex and chaotic, and is an inheritance of a problem that has been insoluble since the Reformation. I am grateful to Brad Gregory for pointing out where the problem lies in his essay on “Manufacturing the Goods Life” in his pivotal book The Unintended Reformation (Belknap/Harvard, Cambridge, MA, 2012, pp. 235-297). To paraphrase, Reformation theology posited that faith in Christ, not the life of virtue, was all that was necessary for salvation, causing Catholic and Protestant merchants alike to throw off with relief concerns of practicing generosity and working for the common good and avoiding greed and avarice in their business practices just as the international market economy exploded:
“…the market and inherited Christian morality were increasingly divorced, which removed the ethical restraints inhibiting the eventual formation of a full-blown capitalist and consumerist society…. Antagonists between Christian moral communities liberated market practices from traditional Christian morality and produced a market society.” (p. 272)
Gregory blames the Venetian merchants and the Flemish Protestants for jettisoning morality in favor of removing restraints on the piling of riches. The Protestants of the time firmly believed that cultivating the life of virtue was a serious way of taking away the work of Christ. No more talk of working out your salvation with fear and trembling, as St. Paul said to the Philippians, but merely standing firm in faith in Christ, putting aside all vain works. So, when building up a market, one need not --- should not --- have any concern about acting virtuous. That was all vanity and the traditions of men. And their counterparts the Catholic Venetian merchants (who should have known better) were only too ready to act like atheists as Machiavelli recommended. From this dubious ecumenical partnership blossomed forth the foundations of the modern economy and the international market, and soon even Christians who wanted to shun greed found that they could not do so but were forced to play the same game everyone else was playing: the game of the market, governed by the laws of economics, not the laws of God.

Additionally, the doctrinal crisis of the Reformation meant that the best and brightest minds in Catholic theology were now preoccupied with the crucial needs of apologetics and abandoned the thorny problems of economics, so that Catholic thinking on economics was marooned in the fourteenth century, until Pope Leo XIII called for Catholics to revisit the area in his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, with additional pontiffs publishing periodic anniversary iterations of that encyclical that essentially wrote, “What he said.”

Each time, the pope told the laity that while capitalism had brought about good in terms of wealth – and while communism had a correct critique of its defects – the outlook of both philosophies was fundamentally flawed, in that they saw economic activity in a moral vacuum. Capitalism conceived of economics as a machine artificially apart from the considerations of man whose ways were not our ways and whose concerns were not our concerns. We were to take the role of the clockmaker God and allow the market to do as it wished with our populations, and to marvel at its creation of wealth.
But both free market capitalism and its reaction, communism, assume that life consists only of the material, and this is the false assumption the popes rightly attacked. And the market is not a machine that stands apart from humanity but is made up of human choices.

If human choices today make a market that is unjust, who unfairly piles wealth in the hands of a few and plants envy in the hearts of the many, can we change that market? Not by government programs or government disincentives but by changing our own hearts regarding money, and teaching our children to do likewise?


Popular Posts