Distributism, the State...

... and a long awaited for announcement!

... and a long awaited for opportunity!

Anarchism is a fools errand. It is all too unfortunate, then, that there happen to be so many fools running errands. One may understand (albeit with a smirk) how the unbeliever or Protestant could believe in a stateless society. But I find it rather strange when running across distributists who would envision a stateless society, or even the "night watchman" notion reminiscent to the likes of Utopians who apparently can't distinguish between liberty and license. How a distributist, advocating a political economy that best reflects the entirety of Catholic Social Teaching, can advocate such notion of the central government is truly remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that I believe it to be an impossibility, or at least a most horrific inconsistency.

As I stated earlier, the anti-State mentality may very well fit into the non-Christian or even Protestant scheme of things. In fact, it would be quite natural for them to maintain such a position concerning the State. I say as much because it would be in no way inconsistent with their concepts of autonomy, be it radical individualism or ecclesiological relativism. 

Take the Protestant. He maintains both the notion of radical individualism (we see this most clearly in regards to hermeneutics) and ecclesiological autonomy. Left to himself and contractual religious bodies that have no hermeneutical authority or ecclesiastical jurisdiction over him without his consent, he is an island of sorts. The religious assembly he chooses to attend holds very little sway over his faith and practice, unless he willingly gives is assent. Otherwise, to the religious assembly next door we go! One sect's heresy is another sect's orthodoxy, and the origin of ecclesial (as well as civil) authority comes from the individual's personal consent. 

In much the same way, Distributists who ignore the Church's teaching concerning the origin of civil authority and proper role and functions of the State are playing pick-and-choose with the Magisterium. These folks have assumed the kind of autonomy that causes them to believe that they have the right to overlook or under-emphasize portions of Catholic Social Teaching that either bumps heads with Chesterbelloc and Co. or goes beyond select portions of encyclicals that cover details already dealt with, explicitly or implicitly, in Rerum Novarum. I mean, it is a given that distributists have a special love for the Magna Carta of Catholic Social Teaching. But what about Diuturnum, Graves de Communi Re, Immortale Dei, or even Sapientiae Christianae? Well, unfortunately, these are tough sells. 

Why not stick with Diuturnum, as this was the encyclical first mentioned in the above list. Not so ironically it deals with the origin of civil power. Pope Leo XIII lays out here a number of functions the state is responsible for, or at least has a hand in. Among these are public safety (1); to reign, to rule, and to decree justice (9); to govern the wills of individuals so as to make one will out of many and to impel them rightly and orderly to the common good (11); and to study the welfare of the people (26). To say that this description of the state, as taken from bits and pieces of Diuturnum, is a far cry from the kind of stateless society advocated by certain distributists would be as daring as declaring that Thomas Woods doesn't believe the Church has jurisdiction or competence in the realm of economics.

One could very well delve into other encyclicals which lay out still more functions and responsibilities of the state, but the list is rather extensive. This is especially true once we get to Blessed Pope John XXIII. A cursory glance of Mater et Magistra or Pacem in Terris would leave the reader curious as to whether the Church has more in common with culturally conservative, populist democrats than their culturally conservative republican counterparts. 

When push comes to shove, distributist are not bound in time to the writings of the early distributists or confined to the text of Rerum Novarum. It is their duty, as faithful Catholics wishing to embrace and live out the entirety of Catholic Social Teaching, to toss aside such anti-Catholic concepts as a stateless society or "night watchman" state, refusing to run errands for the fools any longer.


Anonymous,  Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 10:51:00 AM CDT  

Perhaps you could qualify this a little more. You put "Acton Institute" in the labels section, implying that it was an attack on the neoliberalism of that institution.

Perhaps Acton could be criticized for its embrace of the notion of the "commercial society," or its failure to criticize the institutions of state finance capitalism (or, what should be called our corporatist system).

But Acton has done an outstanding job of compelling religious thinkers to take seriously the claims of Hayek and the other Austrians concerning the limited competency of the state and demerits of central banking. Acton has also done a great job of highlighting the virtues of a society with a limited state.

Acton aside, a distributist can and should hold, based on plain experience, that the modern administrative welfare/warfare state is a cancer on society. The state should be radically scaled back or decentralized. This does not mean one need adopt a strictly libertarian or anarchist view of the state that places strict philosophical boundaries on its activity.

Yet, the state's abysmal failure to "subsidize" the munera of the other members of society, and instead crowd them out and thwart their proper sphere of moral action has been catastrophic to Western society.

Distributists should continue to rail against an aggressive state, even if it means we use its coercive power to achieve distributist ends. Distributism is an important antidote to today's economic and political climate because it is the only philosophy that proposes true freedom as opposed to the servile state that capitalism breeds. That is its biggest selling point, so distributists should not be eager to start defending the state's role simply because we are not libertarians.

While the Austrians may not be the full diet, they are certainly good medicine.

Anonymous,  Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 11:36:00 AM CDT  

I have come to the conclusion that there can be no justice in any state which is not Confessional and Catholic.

The state is a non-negotiable, since absolute autonomy for a human being is an unreality and a nonsense.

Experience shows, furthermore, that it is always confessional (currently secularist/atheist in Australia) and therefore as a Catholic, I would prefer the state to be Catholic.

Unless I am mistaken, the relevant encyclicals assume that the state *ought* to be Catholic.

E. C. Rhodes Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 12:17:00 PM CDT  

I too am a little confused as to the target of this attack.

The article implicitly assumes that those of us who aren't Catholics are not, and cannot be Distributists. Even when we acknowledge the origins of Distributism in the Social Teaching of the Church (as I do in my blog post about being a Distributist. http://thefridayjoker.blogspot.com/2008/10/what-is-distributism.html)

Perhaps the article is an expression of concern about the apparent friendliness between some Distributists and others, such as Kevin Carson, who advocate a stateless society. I confess at this point to having read and appreciated much of Carson's work both in terms of his books and blog posts, even though I am not an anarchist (or, even a minarchist for that matter).

Perhaps the intended targets of this post are Catholic-Distributists who have become confused as to the fact that Distributism does not condemn the state per se, in which case, I hope that it resolves their confusion on this matter. I believe that Chesterton described the idea that you can have a society which is neither governed by rulers nor by rules as 'bosh'.

I would like to point out (perhaps with a smirk) that Distributism is beginning to spread beyond its Catholic origins, as is witnessed by this article on an Australian humanist website (http://www.hsnsw.asn.au/Distributism.html). Even Protestants and unbelievers are advocating it, and I, personally, believe that this is a good thing. Maybe it even brings the possibility of the Distributive State closer to realisation.

Finally, and with this I will end my little rant, I, even though I have been an Evangelical for twenty years (having converted from functional atheism), have yet to meet any of these anarcho-Protestants (I don't even know many minarchists), perhaps their numbers are greater on your side of the pond.

P.S. Thank you for your (mostly) excellent articles and defences of Distributism against its critics.

E. C. Rhodes Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 12:29:00 PM CDT  

Having listened to the YouTube broadcast (which I should perhaps have listened to before posting my comment above), I would like to wish the Paleocrat well in spreading the message of Distributism to an even wider audience with his new weekly radio show.

John Médaille Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 3:39:00 PM CDT  

Anon, you are correct that the "virtue" of the Acton institute is that they have compelled religious thinkers to take seriously atheist, enlightenment, and individualist thinkers like Mises. The vice is that they do not permit any critique of these thinkers and that they accept as gospel what is at best dubious social thought.

It is not enough just to be "against" big government; one must also be against what causes big government. And the cause of big gov't is vast accumulations of wealth, which then capture the state to turn it to their advantage. This is indeed the theme of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Hence, the Acton Institute wills the ends, but not the means; they are usually nothing more than apologists for the corporate state.

This is why the actual practice of Hayek's ideas have led not to less gov't, but more. See http://distributism.blogspot.com/2007/09/hayeks-super-highway.html
Both Mises and Marx promise a "withering away of the state," but both deliver states of gargantuan power, cost, and oppression.

Now, you and I can debate this topic as much as you like, but I am not really the one you have to contend with. There is another thinker who denied outright the possibility of reconciling Austrian economics and Christianity. And that thinker was Ludwig von Mises himself. Ludwig it was that proclaimed the opposition between the two. See http://distributism.blogspot.com/2008/11/can-mises-be-baptized_09.html

Indeed, Mises claimed that if his axioms of action were true, then God could not exist. I happen to agree with Mises on this point: you must choose between God and the axioms. I have made my choice, and the Acton Institute has made theirs. Not that they would outright deny God (that would be counter-productive to their purposes), but they refuse the question that Mises posed.

Which returns us to your original claim and leads to this question: "Which of us is really taking Mises seriously? The Distributist Review or the Acton Institute?

John Médaille Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 3:48:00 PM CDT  

Friday J, I agree with you: Distributism is something often presented as purely "Catholic" rather than something for which Catholics can take legitimate pride for having pioneered. But truth is truth, and works whether you are Catholic or not.

I am reminded of the Niels Bohr, the great physicist, who kept a horseshoe above his office door for luck. His colleagues were scandalized. "Surely you do not believe such superstitious nonsense!" they said.

"Of course not," Bohr replied.

"Then why," they would ask, "do you keep the horseshoe there?"

"Because," he said, "I've heard it works whether you believe in it or not."

Distributism works, whether you are a believer or no.

Jeremiah Bannister Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 3:59:00 PM CDT  


I am very well aware of what Acton does. My priest, Father Robert Sirico, is the president of the Institute. While there are certainly areas of agreement, I have little interest in bringing the Austrian School to religious thinkers. I would exchange Hayek, Rothbard, and Mises for Pesch, Penty, and Chesterbelloc any day of the week.


They most certainly held that states ought to be Catholic. But this shouldn't lead us to believe that it can only happen given the preconditions of being confessional Catholic states. Would these states be consistently applying their espoused worldview? No. But this is both possible and common.

The Friendly Joker:

By no means was I meaning to imply that Protestants cannot be distributists. The real object of my criticism are those Catholic distributists advocating a system that differs very little from various forms of anarchism, and that differs quite a bit from the description of the State, including its necessity, functions, origin of authority, and breadth of its jurisdiction. In short, it is an admonishment to my fellow Catholic distributists to more fully (or consistently) embrace what the Church has said in regards to the State.

Anonymous,  Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 9:16:00 AM CDT  

John and Jeremiah,

Thanks for your comments. I'd love to post my real name, but my employment position forbids me to do so.

I think we probably agree, except for a few particulars. I'm not saying we should adopt the Austrians whole hog, but that Hayek's critique of state planning and manipulation of the economy (not necessarily his economic prescriptions) should be kept very handy in the distributist medicine cabinet. I suspect Wilhelm Roepke, another Austrian profiled by Dermot Quinn in the most recent American Conservative, would agree. Hayek's three volume "Law, Legislation, and Liberty" is also a fantastic defense of the common law.

In other words, it is not an all or nothing approach. One can recognize what is useful in these thinkers while not adopting everything they say. Like you, I am very skeptical of Mises, but I think his critique of central banking is pretty compelling, and should be taken very seriously. Events are proving him prescient.

Citing Mises dictum about whether his philosophy is compatible with Christian social thought is simply not an argument. Yes it should give distributists pause, but at the end of the day, the issue is whether or not his ideas are actually true. One can be mistaken about the implications of one's own ideas. This is especially true when we are talking about religion, and Catholicism in particular. As Chesterton said, there are few that actually reject Catholicism itself, but many who reject what they believe Catholicism to be.

I'm sure you're frustrated by the dismissive way in which distributism is dismissed by Acton and the Mises people, but that does not mean we have the right to ignore the Austrians, or anyone else who has something compelling to say about our economic situation, like the Polanyi brothers. Truth is the measure.

I, too, would rather (and do) drink from the stream of Pesch, Schumacher, Roepke, and Belloc any day. But I get the sense that this debate has become a hardened tribal battle, and that the promising revival of the distributist movement will get bogged down by Catholic integralism and factional warfare where we start questioning the goodness of each other's motives. (One comment box involving Jeff Tucker seemed to do just that).

I agree with John that we should be critical of those things that cause the expansion of government like the accumulation of wealth. As I said in my prior post, Belloc's Servile State gets it right. It may be that the ideas of some Austrians even fuel that expansion, but that does not allow us to simply discount everything these thinkers have said.

John Paul II reportedly read the Austrians and found them particularly interesting.

This is an important discussion and I wish Paleocrat and the Distributist Review much success. I've been trying to advance distributism over the years, and would be happy to extend our conversation. Let me know in the combox if you'd like to pursue this further and I'll contact you.


Anonymous,  Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 9:30:00 AM CDT  

Exactly what place do gross caricatures such as "The Protestant" have on a blog intended to introduce and commend distributism to the widest possible audience?

Jeremiah Bannister Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 11:04:00 PM CDT  

While I do not believe it to be a gross caricature, I do understand why Protestants would take offense. I also noticed that I failed to place "Catholic" before "distributists" in the fourth sentence. The fact that this is directed specifically at Catholic distributists (an in-house debate of sorts) could have been, and it should have been, made much clearer in the language.

For the record: I believe that one may be a distributist and not a Catholic. It would be tough reading the early literature, as Chesterbelloc and Co. weren't all too friendly towards Protestantism. Even more so with recent literature (particularly IHS Press) where authors are more than blatant about what they believe to be the connection between Protestantism, the death of the old system, and the advent of Capitalism. Still, I do not deny the notion that one can be both a Protestant and a distributist.

Benderville Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 12:10:00 AM CDT  

Even if the reference to Protestant anarchism isn't a gross caricature, it is still, within this post, an inadequately founded generalization.

In any case, it seems to be an unnecessary polemical tactic. A red herring designed to get Catholics to agree with you solely because of a sense of shared identity in opposition to a generalization, rather than because of a compelling argument.

Incidentally, one need not be anarcho-capitalist in order to espouse large portions of Austrian-school capitalism. An extremely small state is still a state.

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