Capitalist-Socialist-Distributist Conference

Dear friends,

On April 4th, Thomas Storck, Dr. Charles Clark, and Michael Novak participated in the conference “Catholicism and Economics,” a presentation and debate featuring three economic systems: capitalism, socialism, and distributism. They were tasked with presenting their positions, discussing their viability, and relating them to Catholic Social Teaching.

The conference commenced with a luncheon provided by the host and sponsor of the event, the Nassau Community College Center for Catholic Studies. Many familiar faces were in attendance including Tim Ehlen, Director of Building Catholic Communities, Fr. Ian Boyd and Dr. Dermot Quinn from The Chesterton Review, as well as author and Taki’s Mag contributor, Mr. James Kalb. John Médaille, Bill Powell, Ryan Grant, Jeremiah Bannister, our speaker Thomas Storck, and yours truly represented The Society for Distributism. Literature was available for sale by the Campus bookstore, including Thomas Storck’s “The Catholic Milieu” (Christendom Press) and Belloc’s “Economics for Helen” (IHS Press). Both virtually sold out by the time lunch was over.

180 people registered, but due to intense weather conditions in New York, we estimated somewhere in the vicinity of 120-130 arrived at the event. The numbers were impressive and we were delighted to see a full house. We must thank Dr. Joseph Varacalli, President of the Center for Catholic Studies, for the opportunity to not only debate Mr. Novak and Dr. Clark, but to expose the public to Distributism. This conference successfully exceeded our expectations and we owe Dr. Joseph Varacalli all our deepest thanks for inviting us to take part in it.

Dr. Joseph Varacalli was also kind enough to arrange a table for us to use throughout the conference. We mounted a colorful display with hundreds of our pamphlets (including a promo sheet for Distributist Review Press), our brochure, and a mailing list sign up sheet. Our readers may be excited to know dozens joined our mailing list and we barely had any material left once the event was over.

Attendees varied from layman to academic, so we couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to dig in and introduce Distributism to a large group of people who probably have never heard of it.

Following the initial tributes for Avery Cardinal Dulles, Msgr. Wrenn, and Fr. Neuhaus, the debate started with a half hour presentation by the three participants. Dr. Clark was the first to commence. Some of our readers are probably familiar with Dr. Charles Clark, who penned the Foreword to the IHS Press edition of Amintore Fanfani’s Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism. Dr. Clark is a Professor of Economics at St. John’s University. He opened up with the Democratic Socialist argument by offering a phenomenal attack on capitalism from a practical lens. Clark chastised capitalism for failing to provide workers with a family wage, for its profit seeking at the expense of labor, outsourced manufacturing, and debt enslavement. Clark did an excellent job and in one poignant part of his tit for tat with Michael Novak regarding our financial economy, Clark reminded us of John Médaille’s famous article, “Buy it up! Break it up! Fund it right!” where John argued for a government buyout of our financial institutions, so they could be broken into small businesses, and end the havoc wrought by corporations riding on the coattails of the public. My only critique of Dr. Clark’s presentation is that while he struck the first blow against the capitalist position, we didn’t entirely know how advocates of socialism planned to solve the problems capitalism wrought. From what we gathered, his argument highlighted an expected heightened role of the central government in our economic and social affairs, distant from Marxism and probably likened to a moderate Christian Socialist position.

I believe I share the same frustrations as my colleagues when I say I was very disappointed with Michael Novak’s presentation. Mr. Novak made no attempt to either define his position or to relate capitalism with Catholicism at all. Neither did he give any mention about our current crisis. He began by contrasting capitalism’s departure from a society in favor of stability and poverty relief to societies paving the way for wealth creation as a solution to massive poverty. In an attempt to minimize distributism, Mr. Novak claimed capitalism exemplified the widest distribution of goods and property, by oddly pointing to the Homestead Act. The Homestead Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, allowed Americans within the 13 colonies to claim stakes of undeveloped land outside its borders. The Homestead Act was not only the antithesis of capitalism and a victory for government, but also a devastating exploitation of the Native American nations, which were driven off their lands by military forces.

Perhaps Novak’s harshest distinction between the three economic systems came in the form of an ethnocentric jab against Europeans. Comparing the United States to Europe, Mr. Novak claimed Europeans simply drank coffee in cafes and contrasted this with American ingenuity. Europeans enjoyed life, while Americans were the true innovators of the world. Considering Europe is arguably responsible for the bulk of our architecture, arts, sciences, education, and history, I found the comment rather strange.

In another baffling moment, Mr. Novak claimed trade unions were a staple of capitalism and not an association rallied against the abuses resulting from it!

Thomas Storck presented a precise definition of Distributism, its practicality as an economic model, and correspondence to Catholic Social Theory. Mr. Storck brilliantly began by focusing on the purpose of economic activity within the realities of our human use and need. Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas Storck said, “…the appetite of natural riches is not infinite, because according to a set measure they satisfy nature; but the appetite of artificial riches is infinite, because it serves inordinate concupiscence…” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 2, a. 1 ad 3) Mr. Storck went on to define capitalism by separating it from its flat definition and repeating the definition offered by Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which described capitalism as the separation of ownership and work. Thomas Storck argued that recognizing this friction between ownership and production in a capitalist state, Distributism dispensed with this problem by making ownership and work one and the same. Thomas Storck also argued for capitalism’s clash with productive property and illustrated this particular point by stressing how laws such as eminent domain, capitalism’s obsession with money to the detriment of the human person, lack of innovation, and creation of artificial needs are in actuality enemies of true progress. Once Mr. Storck concluded his portion of the presentation period, we took a break, and I was quite pleased to see a line of people waiting to speak with him.

When Michael Novak took the opportunity to ask our speaker a set of questions, I was surprised to hear him openly state his sympathies with Distributism. Arguably, the question he posed to Mr. Storck regarding the feasibility of health care in a Distributist State might have appeared to him to be the Achilles Heel against the Distributist platform. But to his surprise, Mr. Storck proposed a solution. His favored the restoration of occupational groups (or creation of co-ops) within a Distributist State to operate, regulate, develop, and research in the medical -or any- large scale field. It was a sharp reply for those who have never heard of Distributism before or those unconvinced of its viability in large-scale markets. Mr. Storck concluded his answer by stating that guilds and cooperatives exemplify the limitless potential for the decentralization of large entities through the use of smaller firms as practiced by the automotive industry today.

Following the exchanges, Franciscan University’s Dr. Stephen Krason offered a fifteen-minute talk on Heinrich Pesch and Solidarism. Dr. Krason delivered a passionate lecture and we commend him for it given Solidarism’s brief allotted time. My only objection to his talk came from his perception of the masses as uninterested in working for themselves and preferring to work for others. While self-employment always comes with an elevated risk, employment today is a comparable risk. The problem as I see it, isn’t the lack of desire on the part of most people to own, the problem is the red tape. After all, I am sure Dr. Krason would agree with Pope Pius XI that man works best on that which is his own.

We lament time made it impossible for a “Question and Answer” period between the speakers and the audience. That said, we are grateful to the Center for Catholic Studies for all the time and work they invested in the debate, as well as the meticulous and considerate manner this conference was managed from the onset. Under Dr. Varacalli’s leadership this Center is proving to offer some of the finest events I have ever attended. When Dr. Varacalli asked us to participate I knew it would be successful and all of us jumped right in.

Special thanks must be given to Thomas Storck for his intelligence, gracious support, activist spirit, and the incredible precedent he has bestowed on all of us.

Also, we must thank fellow distributist Jeremiah Bannister for the fantastic photographs.

I know our readers are interested if a transcript, audio or video recording of this event will be available. Yes, the event was recorded. However, please bear with us as we are praying and hoping this recording will be accessible for all of you through our website. I will keep everyone informed through our email list when and if this becomes available.


Kevin Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 6:47:00 AM CDT  

Rich, it was a pleasure to meet you at the conference. I guess I can't complain that your review of it has a partisan tone, since this is the Distributist Review after all. But I would like to make a couple of comments.

I think it is incorrect to say that Mr. Novak didn't define his position. I came away with a pretty clear idea of what values he thought were unique to capitalism, mainly a focus on ingenuity and novel enterprise. On the other hand, I haven't the faintest clue what Dr. Clark was advocating. What one likes to hear at a debate is a balance between defense and offense, since that helps clarify the source of disagreement. Unfortunately it seemed that Dr. Clark was all offense (attacking Capitalism, as you mention) and Mr. Novak was all defense, praising capitalism without mentioning any of the obvious criticisms of distributism or socialism. Mr. Storck struck the right balance in that sense, and that is to his credit.

I would further criticize both Mr. Novak and Dr. Clark by saying that I don't think either of them delivered the bill of goods they sold. By that I mean Dr. Clark's position, or what I could guess of it, seemed not to be socialism, and Mr. Novak's position wasn't quite a pure capitalism either. I'm as confused as you are about his mention of the Homestead Act.

Finally I'll offer an alternative interpretation of Mr. Novak's remarks about Europe being a good place to sit in a cafe and drink coffee. I don't think it was an ethnocentric jab at all. What I heard him say is that he didn't want to be understood as tearing down Europe. It's common to hear criticisms of Europe from people like myself who want to point out the negative affects of moving towards socialism. Novak's primary concern in the debate seemed to be to point out the good things about capitalism while taking a conciliatory tone towards those who disagree. I almost suspect he was trying to imitate the style of Pope Benedict which has been called "affirmative orthodoxy" -- highlighting the values that one thinks are important without actually articulating an attack on ideas that are contrary to it. I think what Novak was trying to say was: "Look, just because I am defending capitalism doesn't mean I am going to say 'America great, Europe dumb'. Europe is different from America in many ways, and there are lots of great things about Europe. Europe is a great place to visit, to sit in a cafe and drink coffee, etc etc."


JimB Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 8:20:00 AM CDT  

Thank you to all involved in organizing this and for this report.

As one who used to organize events in a previous life, I know how much “behind the scenes” work goes into putting something like this together – especially the “thousand little details” which participants never see or know about (and rightfully so).

I look forward to seeing the recording if/when it becomes available.

Jan Baker Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 7:59:00 PM CDT  

I'm so sorry I missed it! Ditto on the cry for the tape!

Coops would serve for a number of the ills that plague us today, and yet one cannot find a single book on sale that defines te term and collects examples of the many applications, not in English anyway! My bank is a coop, a credit union.

S.Sagar,  Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 8:39:00 AM CDT  

Typical Novak. The man is worthless. He has put the GOP over God and has been paid in full. When he went to Rome to gush about how the Iraq war was a just one under the Catholic tradition, he was squashed by the Vatican and rightfully so. There but for the grace of God went Father Neuhaus and George Wiegel.

Gen X Revert Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 6:09:00 PM CDT  

I enjoyed the conference even though I was unable to stay for the entire day. I wish I had met some of you, the presentation on Distributism was excellent and the man sitting next to me, who owned a business, had never heard of it and was very impressed. God Bless!

Tom Laney Friday, April 17, 2009 at 8:09:00 AM CDT  

Never met Novak. However, Msgr. George Higgins who I knew & respected greatly as Chair of the UAWs Public Review Board, reported that Michael was a "...royal pain in the ass" during his work on the Bishop's Economic Letter in '86.

Mike has done a good job if living up to that.

Great work on this debate Richard and all. I sure hope we can get a transcript of it!

Kevin Saturday, April 18, 2009 at 11:27:00 PM CDT  

Jan, have you heard of The Guild State by GRS Taylor? I'm not completely certain what you mean by co-op, but I have seen co-op and guild used in similar contexts. Whatever the case may be, I heartily recommend this book. It is very well written and argued - I blew through it in a couple of nights (which would say a lot if you knew me ;).

Athanasius Sunday, April 19, 2009 at 9:42:00 AM CDT  

Nevertheless, we're all frustrated that Novak didn't put up a fight really, or not much of one. It seemed as if he treated the thing like a joke. It would have been nice to have a strong defense of capitalism so that the debate might have been closer to truth. What do you make Kevin of the bit about Basque terrorism? It seemed like he was taking a swing at a certian Basque co-operative without mentioning their name [Mondragon].

Race Mathews Sunday, April 19, 2009 at 3:03:00 PM CDT  

Thanks for the very lucid and informative conference report, and congratulations to all those who contributed to what from far off Australia looks like having been a considerable success. Coincidently, I was one of the organising group for a gathering on another topic yesterday that drew much the same pattern of response - round 160 acceptances of whom 140 who actually showed up and took part. What counts at this stage is less numbers than bringing people with related views together so that the points on which they agree or differ can be clarified and a solid basis for moving ahead identified. A quote from Mondragon's Arizmeniarrieta seems apposite - 'We build the road as we travel'. Meanwhile, I'm looking forward eagerly to whatever record of the actual proceedings ultimately can be made available

Joey G. Monday, April 20, 2009 at 9:18:00 AM CDT  

First of all, my congratulations to the Distributist camp for what I witnessed as a successful "win" in the debate and a great showing overall.

I think we should be careful about ad hominem attacks upon Mr. Novak, who probably has the best intentions.

However, I agree with those who have observed that he didn't really bring the fight. I would also (in contrast to Kevin) agree with Mr. Aleman that Mr. Novak's comments did seem to have an ethnocentristic sort of tone.

The example about Europe's pace of life is a perfect case-in-point of a fallacy Mr. Novak committed several times: he made arguments by a comparative example, or a fortiori, but never defined (or even attempted to define) what the objective goods under consideration really are. Thus, a life of constant progress and inventiveness is "better" than simply enjoying a time-honored latte - nevermind that what is progressed toward or invented might be pornography or another society-destroying "good." Thus, also, the fact that the light in India and Tailand can now be seen from space was seen as an unqualified "success" - nevermind that some of those lights are sweatshops or slum tenements. And I won't even bother discussing the "life story" fable of Anne and Betsy, one of whom died poor having "enjoyed life" and the other having an estate to pass on for being a wiser consumer (an example so rife with fallacies it's hard to begin enumerating them).

Mr. Storck's was the strongest presentation far and away, and I had with me a fellow who does not sympathize with Distributist ideas but admitted this assessment nonetheless. Kudos on a job well-done, and I look forward to future engagements!

Theodosius M. Monday, May 4, 2009 at 12:26:00 PM CDT  

Please demonstrate distributist principles by distributing far and wide audio and video of the above mentioned debate. Your LeoMcNabbian friend, Theodosius.

Elect Dale Ahlquist!

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