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The Liberty to Value Common Goods: A Review of The Political Economy of Distributism

Jon D. Schaff at Front Porch Republic

Recently on this site Zephram Foster ably narrated his journey from doctrinaire libertarian to a more modest, communally minded libertarianism. Foster seems to have kept his dedication to limited government while recognizing that certain philosophical underpinnings to a thoroughgoing libertarianism leave him cold. In particular, libertarianism’s often crude individualism clashes with Foster’s professed Christianity.

Zephram Foster is not alone in this journey. One suspects that many have taken the road from some kind of libertarianism or small-government Reaganism to a more nuanced view of the role of government. One needn’t go so far as denouncing “zombie Reaganism” or rejecting a “dead consensus” to think that maybe what we need in the twenty-first century is something besides “cut taxes,” “we have too much regulation,” and “you can spend your money better than the government can.” Whatever is true about those statements—and there is truth in them—it is clear that rhetorically, and likely in actual policy, people are less interested in what government cannot do. One needn’t become an old-school New England Puritan or a Social Gospel progressive to think that in a day of obviously decaying social fabric maybe government, even the federal government, should have some role to play in mending our fraying polity.

For example, perhaps there is some alternative economic vision beyond the options of bureaucratic welfare statism (or even outright socialism) and unfettered capitalism. One of these options that is popular on the Porch but often neglected elsewhere is that of distributism. This economic theory, tied to but not dependent on Catholic Social Thought, holds that the ideal economic state is when the ownership of property, particularly productive property, is distributed (thus the moniker “distributism”) as broadly, as democratically, as possible. To put it succinctly, a distributist state is one of maximum entrepreneurship, where it is easy for individuals to own their own business and work for themselves. This, say the distributists, is the mark of a truly free economy (thus the title of John Médaille’s fine work on distributism, Toward a Truly Free Market).

The knock against the distributists is that their economic theory is unrealistic. Folks accuse distributists of having a fanciful notion of how economies work, joking that the only example of actual distributism anyone can come up with is Tolkien’s Shire. If the only example that describes your economics is a fantasy land filled with hobbits, perhaps your economic theory is lacking. While I think this criticism is unfair, I must admit there is some justice to it. I have described distributism as being as much a literary theory as a practical economic model.

Enter Alexander William Salter and his splendid recent book The Political Economy of Distributism: Property, Liberty and the Common Good. It must be said that distributism’s main proponents historically have been of a more literary and theological bent, such as Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and various popes. Salter brings to the table the perspective of a hardnosed, academic economist. Associate Professor of Economics at Texas Tech University, Salter is clearly well-versed in the language and techniques of academic economics. Salter makes it clear from the beginning that he is not himself a pure distributist (he seems to be coming from the Austrian free-market school of economics) nor is he part of the Catholic tradition that has so influenced distributists (he identifies himself as Orthodox). These facts, however, do not detract from Salter’s description and analysis of distributism; indeed, they render his approach particularly valuable. You could say that Salter comes to his subject as a friendly critic, a kind of distributism-curious fellow traveler.

Salter early on makes a useful distinction between economics and political economics. By economics Salter means the neutral academic study regarding how incentives influence our economic lives and how various policies might influence those incentives. Economics as an academic field does not make normative judgments; it merely attempts to describe likely outcomes based on certain policy incentives. Political economics, however, takes into account many variables that academic economics does not. If academic economics is about maximizing economic efficiency and wealth, political economics is about achieving a good society, of which providing material wealth to citizens is only one of many goods. At some point the pursuit of wealth may come at the expense of higher goods such as equality and liberty. The political economist must consider all these goods as he ponders public policy. Salter’s claim is that distributism is not an economic theory per se but, rather, a theory of political economics. What Salter provides is the academic economist’s take on the virtues and vices of distributism as an economic theory.

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