My recent Distributist Review article, “Is a Free Market a Good Thing?“, generated a number of comments, both appreciative and otherwise. For some reason I did not receive notification in my e-mail inbox of the last group of comments until the comment period was closed, and thus did not reply to any of them. But I did not mean to ignore them, so instead of asking the site administrator to reopen the comments, I decided to write another article and respond at more length.

And first, thanks to all those who gave generous praise to the article. In answer to a couple questions which accompanied these appreciative comments, first by Ann DeJak, No, I have not written anything specifically on hedge funds. I would simply suggest that all types of investments have to be evaluated on their overall role in promoting the economic common good, not simply on whether some sort of a market can be established in which financial instruments can be bought and sold to the satisfaction of participants.

Then, Maryland Bill asked, how can we move to a more just system without perpetrating other evils? This a certainly a good question, and other distributists have devoted much space to writing about community based agriculture, local cooperatives, farmers markets and the like, as a means toward effecting a more distributist economy and society. Eventually such tentative efforts could be strengthened by favorable legislation, but Bill is right—we must make sure we know what we are doing so that our efforts to establish a just economy do not produce unintended bad effects.

Pat suggests that I am “conflating the system we have now and a free market,” and that if only we had the latter, we would be fine. But it was specifically in opposition to such an idea that I wrote my article. A perfectly free market has never existed and our present economy is not a free market, but the approximations made toward such a state of affairs have produced neither economic justice nor often even real prosperity, and many, those who suffer from economic oppression, do not even obtain the freedom which is supposed to be the benefit of such an entirely free market.

In my article I quote Pope Pius XI, “This accumulation of power…is a natural result of unrestrained free competition.” This truth which the Pope enunciated highlights an ironic fact: that to produce and maintain a situation in which there is unrestrained free competition would require a strong authority to enforce something like anti-trust laws. Otherwise, economic power would again become consolidated, the free market (except as a meaningless legal form) would vanish and economic oppression occur. But even if, by some continuing miracle, we could prevent economic concentration from taking place, I deny that the resulting situation would be desirable. And this was the main point of my article.

Lastly we come to Mr. Tucker. He asks concerning the guilds I spoke of, “Would they be public? In that case, this would require totalitarian control of society. Or would they be private? In this case, you might consider why this model doesn’t prevail in the world of human choice.” Well, in fact they fit into neither category exactly, for the Catholic approach to society does not make the neat distinction that the liberal mind does into public versus private. The medieval guilds, for example, were certainly not state institutions, but they performed important public functions and the city governments stood ready to aid them if necessary.

But, alas, Mr. Tucker envisions “totalitarian control of society” if these guilds are public and even darkly hints at “gulags and mass death” if the ideas of social theorists such as myself are ever implemented. I am sure, however, that he is aware that guilds once flourished in medieval Europe and that it is nonsense to call that society totalitarian—unless, of course, one regards the hegemony of the Catholic Church over medieval culture as totalitarian. If Mr. Tucker does, then he and I have a much deeper quarrel than over the nature of guilds.

Then what of his comment that if the guilds were “private… [I] might consider why this model doesn’t prevail in the world of human choice”? What a strange thing to say. Is there any other aspect of human life in which we expect good order to arise spontaneously? May I justly condemn Catholic sexual morality, for example, on the grounds that “this model doesn’t prevail in the world of human choice”? Indeed, this naive suggestion on his part highlights one of the fundamental disagreements between us. It is not a disagreement concerning economics primarily, but concerning social authority and the state, and ultimately concerning human nature. The place of the state and of law as expounded in Catholic tradition and by the Church’s Magisterium is simply not the same as that upheld by the Austrian Libertarian tradition. To complain about “totalitarian control of society” or “gulags and mass death” at any mention of guilds certainly does not characterize one who is trying to conform his thinking to Catholic tradition.

 

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