Come, Let Us Reason Together

We sometimes think of authors as as persons working in lonely isolation to produce a manuscript, but in fact no work worthy of note is produced this way. A book—a good book—is actually a conversation. First of all, it is a conversation with other authors in the same field. Presumably, the author is familiar with their works; he draws on some and critiques others in presenting his own ideas. But a book is also a conversation with its audience. The author has some idea of who they are and of how to address them. Until recently, the conversation with colleagues took place both before and after publication, but the conversation with the audience could take place only after publication. The internet changes that. A work can be circulated while it is still in progress, and comment and critiques can be gathered from both colleagues and the general public alike, and the text revised before publication, rather than merely excused or defended afterwards.

I think this is a better way to write a book. Publishers may be leery of this method, since the wide availability prior to publication may mean lower sales. I suspect the opposite is true. Those who contribute to the work will be more likely to buy the final product, not less so. Or at least, that is my hope. I am beginning a new book. I think it is a book that is needed right now. Its working title is The Political Economy o f Distributism. I believe the need for this book arises from a very sad fact: Distributists, of all those who seek reform of the current system, are the one's least likely to be conversant with economic theory. And it has been this way almost from the beginning. Neither Chesterton nor Belloc had any great interest in economic theory for its own sake; they were interested in restoring the lost rights of the working man and the lost position of the family. Belloc did write a text, Economics for Helen, but even the title indicated his general disinterest in the topic. “Helen” was taken to be a curious student, and all that she, or anyone else, needed to know of economics could be taught in a very short space. And while that is true in a certain sense, it is also inadequate; a serious theory needs serious work. Too often, we have left the hard work to our opponents. This is not to deny that some great economists have contributed to Distributist theory, but it is to admit that there are fewer than we would like, and we have often ignored even their great works.

Distributists need to be equipped with a good grasp of economic theory so that they can engage their critics on their own terms. Alas, we have a tendency, I think, to merely reject their questions out of hand, without giving them an adequate answer, one that the critic can grasp. This is especially unfortunate, since I believe that Distributism is a superior economic theory, able to stand against the best critiques that the neoclassicals, the Austrians, the Keynesians, the Socialists, and anybody else can offer. A further problem is that the lack of economic sophistication is that it leaves us ill-equipped to talk with others in allied movements, movements like Mutualism, Georgism, agrarianism, Schumacher's theories, etc. Indeed, it seems to me that we have difficulty telling our friends from our enemies, and have often (for example) swallowed the worst parts of Austrian theories while rejecting the best.

This subject deserves a vast tome. I will not be writing that tome; I will leave that task to better minds than mine. What I would like to write is a relatively short book (150-175 pages) to give the non-specialist a solid grasp of some basic principles. The very simple “meta-message” of this book will be that without an account of Distributive Justice, no description or an economy can be complete; there will be gaps in the science and hence flaws in the prescriptions. These are precisely the gaps that Distributism is meant to fill, and the flaws that it is meant to correct.

I am going to post the book a chapter at a time, as a write it, and as I hear from our loyal readers, I will re-write it. But the first think to get right in a book is to get the scope right. That is, it ought to cover the right subjects. So I start with the table of contents, here offered for your critical examination. It will be noticed right off that there is a lot left out. That is, of course, by design. There is nothing on money and monetary theory, a subject requiring tomes of its own. There is nothing on development, trade, outsourcing, etc., topics that certainly need to be addressed today. And if the consensus is that at least some of these topics need to be included, I will include even at the risk of making the book longer than I would like. But in any case, I would greatly appreciate your comments, pro or con, good or bad. I would like to know where the text is clear, and where it is obscure; where the theory hangs together, and where it seems to fall apart. Mostly, I would like us to use our collective talents to reason together and produce a useful text. I thank, in advance, all who will advance this project.

  1. Introduction

    1. Economics and Political Economy

    2. The Failure of the Distributists

  2. Does Capitalism Work?

    1. What is Capitalism?

    2. Something is Working, But is it Capitalism?

    3. The Keynesian Divide

    4. Hayek's Super-highway

    5. The Law of Unintended Consequences

    6. Why Capitalism Fails

  3. Economics as a Science

    1. The “Normative-Positive” Debate

    2. The Physical and Humane Sciences

    3. Science and the Moral Law

  4. The Purpose of an Economy

    1. What it Must do.

    2. What it ought to do

    3. What is Must not do

    4. The Economic Questions

    5. Economic Equilibrium

  5. Equilibrium

    1. Definition

    2. Supply and Demand

    3. Economic Equilibrium

    4. Non-economic Equilibrium

    5. The Just Wage and Economic Equilibrium

  6. Justice: Distributive and Corrective

    1. Aristotle's Justice

    2. The Enlightenment's search for Economic Laws

    3. The Elimination of Distributive Justice

    4. Equity and Equilibrium

  7. Power, Property, and Equity

    1. J. B. Clark and Marginal Productivity

    2. A Smithian Critique of Clark

    3. Property and Power

  8. Economic Efficiency

    1. Prices and Value-Theory

    2. Externalities

    3. Economic Rent

  9. Taxation

    1. Flat” and “Fair”?

    2. Adam Smith's Principles of Taxation

    3. The Common Good and the Commonwealth

    4. What Should we Tax?

    5. Taxes and User Fees

    6. The Role of Government

    7. Can the Federal Budget be Cut?

  10. Government Regulation

    1. Aristotle's Principle of Regulation

    2. Information and Regulation

  11. The Triumphs of Distrbutism

    1. The “Land to the Tiller” Program (Taiwan)

    2. Mondragon (Spain)

    3. The Cooperative Economy of Emila-Romagna (Italty)

    4. ESOPs (United States)

    5. Micro-credit (Bangladesh, World-wide)

  12. The Way Forward

    1. The Political Problem

    2. The Cultural Problem

    3. The Current Opportunities


Kate Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 7:01:00 PM CDT  

A new book--Whoo-hoo!

Hey, I know this really good proofreader. She charges reasonable rates....

Malcolm Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 7:22:00 PM CDT  

Sounds like a great idea! Go for it.

Laurie Petch Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 9:46:00 PM CDT  


This sounds wonderful. I'm no economist, but would you also include Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS) as another example of the triumph of distributism? They seem to be quite well spread and have been described as a 'usury-free form of money'.


Laurie Petch Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 9:46:00 PM CDT  


This sounds wonderful. I'm no economist, but would you also include Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS) as another example of the triumph of distributism? They seem to be quite well spread and have been described as a 'usury-free form of money'.


Unknown Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 10:48:00 PM CDT  

Sounds great - I look forward to reading it (and I might even purchase the hardcopy after reading the blog version - the experience of having it in hand is so much better!)

William Peaden Wednesday, May 28, 2008 at 3:27:00 AM CDT  

This sounds most excellent, I look forward to seeing the First Draft copies and the final product. Not that I to want to ask you do more work, but the problem of Usury is one of the primary difficulties not only of the modern economy, but of Catholic economics in particular. A critique of it would certainly be useful, even if it falls into a defence of a certain amount of Interest on loans say, because money in no longer a pure medium of exchange, but a commodity itself. Additionally, you seem to have the chapter heading 'Economic Equilibrium' twice.

If only we could drink beer (or wine), in a pub, over the internet…

John Médaille Wednesday, May 28, 2008 at 9:31:00 AM CDT  

@Kate, you're the "go to" gal.

@Laurie, I am not familiar with LETS. Would you like to write up something to introduce it to our readers?

@William, Indeed, the problem of usury must be faced squarely. Funds dedicated to usury compete with funds available for investment. Interest is justified as a participation in profit, and where there is no profit, there can be no interest. Which reminds me, I have to have something about the difference between investment and speculation; the former adds to the wealth of society, the latter is just an exchange of gains and losses between the gamblers, with no net gain to society. It is that social evil which Ghandi called "wealth without work."

@to all, thank you for your comments; I am looking forward to this project.


papabear Wednesday, May 28, 2008 at 5:48:00 PM CDT  

Dr. Médaille,

Have you talked to Dr. Rupert Ederer about your project?

I need to see if Fr. Pesch offers a definition of economics in his massive works. (Surely he must.) In 1.1 will you discuss the difference between 'economics' and 'politics' and how modern notions of both might differ from the Aristotelian notions?

Also, would you be discussing the Aristotelian and Thomistic arguments for autarky as being, at the minimum, ideal for the attainment of the common good? (This would also lay the foundation for the future discussion of trade.)

It would seem to me that one would also need to touch upon the finitude of natural resources and natural limits, just as Schumacher and Kirkpatrick Sale have done, with respect to both autarky and a principle of economic activity.

(The limits to natural resources should be a given for economics and would also provide a normative basis for our co-operating with natural cycles of replenishment, etc.)

Aristotle's discussion of the limits to the size of a community might be important as well.

Aquinas Dad Thursday, May 29, 2008 at 9:26:00 AM CDT  

I look forward to reading it. As a theologian that works on economic theology, please feel free to, uh, let me red advanced drafts?


John Médaille Thursday, May 29, 2008 at 10:59:00 AM CDT  

@Papabear. My work is rooted in Aristotle and Aquinas, although hardly confined to those sources. As far as autarky goes, I think that needs some qualification. Man naturally lives by exchange, which poses a problem for autarky. Aristotle was thinking primarily about defense, since the polis was a step up from--and a response to--Greek tribalism. Defense of the city was primary, and for defense one must not be dependent on potential rivals for food and other necessities (Smith makes these the exceptions to free trade.) I take "autarky" in the sense that one must be able to produce enough to pay for what one consumes, which condemns the American economy as it presently is.

Size and scale is certainly an issue. However, things naturally work to a natural scale, and when they don't, when they become gargantuan, you will almost always discover a system of subsidies and sanctions that allow for such a scale. For example, the modern city subsidizes the growth of suburbs by "free" roads and other services, without which the suburb could not exist. Gargantuan corporations are only possible because of limited liability, which relieves the owners of the normal hazards of owning any resource.

John Médaille Thursday, May 29, 2008 at 11:00:00 AM CDT  

@Aquinas Dad, all the drafts will be published on this site, and then everyone can make their comments.

A. L. Brackett Friday, May 30, 2008 at 1:33:00 PM CDT  

I might like a more extensive critique of Marx, but I am sure it is sprinkled throughout.
There are certainly a number of areas I am looking forward to critiquing.

John Médaille Friday, May 30, 2008 at 5:15:00 PM CDT  

@TPOLG, While a critique of Marxism is always a lot of fun, I wonder if the subject is not now a dead letter. The objections most Distributists are likely to meet will most likely come from Austrians, neoclassicists, Keynesians, and the like. These, alas, are not dead letters. My hope is that the book will provide them with ammunition for these discussions.

Jesse Tuesday, June 3, 2008 at 6:59:00 PM CDT  

John, will there be any mention of the U.S. Constitution in your section "The Role of Government", or in any other section?

Anonymous,  Tuesday, July 22, 2008 at 11:38:00 AM CDT  

Hi John,

On this: "For example, the modern city subsidizes the growth of suburbs by "free" roads and other services, without which the suburb could not exist."

There is another way to look at it. Big cities depend upon workers to populate all of those skyscrapers during the workday. The cost of even the smallest apartment in a major city is huge when compared to the wage typically earned. Thus, the suburbs subsidize the cities by allowing workers to live at a lower expense so they require a lower wage for subsistence.

Meanwhile, with roads being paid for with taxes on gas, and many who live in large cities not even owning cars; suburbanites pay for the roads. Likewise, suburbanites pay taxes in the city in which they work, thus paying for public services (like education) that they and their families are ineligible to use.

So it isn't the cities that subsidize the suburbs; but the suburbs that subsidize the cities.

You can also see this in terms of taxes and payments related to federal programs. Suburban communities tend to be net donors to the tax system while cities are net recipients of tax dollars.

Looking at your overall logic on this, as it is the cities that are huge, it stands to reason that they can only exist on their present scale through massive subsidy. And, in fact, that is what we see.

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