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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.

 

About the author: Thomas Storck

 

Thomas Storck is the author of Foundations of a Catholic Political Order, The Catholic Milieu, and Christendom and the West. His work has appeared in various publications including Homiletic and Pastoral Review and the book, Beyond Capitalism and Socialism. Mr. Storck is a former contributing editor of New Oxford Review and Caelum et Terra and serves on the editorial board of The Chesterton Review.An archive of Mr. Storck's writings can be found at www.thomasstorck.org.

 

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15 Comments

  1. This is a question that’s a bit off a topic, but one I keep asking myself.

    Let’s pretend that the distributist principles have been adopted by America when the Great Depression began. Assuming the world continues on its course that it already has in our lifetime, more or less, would America have its same military fighting capabilities it had during WW2, throughout the Cold War, and our modern wars/incursions/interventions (Somalia, Kuwait, Afganistan, etc.)? Will those abilities be stronger? Weaker?

    Since Distributism is based on Catholic Social Teaching I guess I’ll ask this, lets say that Catholicism takes America by storm and advances to the core of its government, would we have fought those same wars the way we did last century? How differently, if it is so, would we have fought?

    Just something a lurker like myself wants to ask.

  2. Guilds and other forms of labor and craft organization have interested me for a while now, both in my ‘formal’ capacity as a medievalist and as tools for thinking about alternative economic and political settings. Regarding the latter, my primary concern with guild systems is this: in the medieval and early-modern experience, guilds tended to become dominated by the wealthiest members. They also tended to work to exclude outsiders, particularly rural ‘upstarts’ who were aiming for some measure of upward mobility. Now, given the relative weakness of coercive institutions in the pre-modern world, what guilds wanted and what they got was of course different. Relatively open markets seem to have prevailed anyway, with craftsmen and traders working both within and without the guild structure. In other words, a mixture of a guild-centric vision and a market-centric vision.

    My question then is two-fold: how could we limit or harness the negative aspects of guilds (or for that matter unions or worker control)? And how would guilds interact with non-guild craftsmen or entrepreneurs? As a market anarchist with distributivist sympathies, I think that the medieval guild experience (and similar institutions in the worlds of medieval Islam, so far considerably less studied) is a very useful one for envisioning a more just and broadly prosperous world. That said, guilds- especially guilds with some sort of state backing- have historical problems that must be addressed.

  3. Thank you, Mr. Storck, for your response. A couple of points.

    You say: “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.”

    I’m not exactly sure which “approximations” you are referring to.

    It is impossible to extrapolate the social implications of a genuinely free market from the continuously and intensely controlled markets of any state since the Industrial Revolution.

    In the U.S., even during the Gilded Age, which many describe as a “laissez-faire” economic period, the state was deeply involved in building the basic legal and physical structures of our centralized economy (railroads, corporate “personhood”, etc.). The “Reform Era” of the early twentieth century merely served to cartelize production and distribution of goods and services among the ancestors of our current plutocracy. All reforms since have only deepened the hold of the oligopolies on our lives.

    Nothing even remotely resembling a free market.

    A free market is a market without coercion, whether state or extra-legal. And yes, as a rule, I favor free markets over coercively-controlled markets.

    Having said that, I do take issue with your contention that my position is “if only we had [a free market], we would be fine.” In more than one place, I acknowledge the need for limits on individuals’ behavior, whether market-related or not.

    I stated: ”Communities could decide what standards of regulation were appropriate to their situation, which would likely result in more regulation than in a “one size fits all” regulatory regime.”

    Not exactly a full-throated recommendation of a bare-knuckles, unbridled free market.

    My point was, and is, that the term “free market” has a very specific and narrow meaning, and that using it in the context of our modern state-capitalist system perpetuates a myth that give life to the current (false) “left-right” political/economic dichotomy.

  4. I enjoyed that article of yours greatly Thomas. There are a couple of quibbles I have however.

    Before I mention them I should say that I’m no ‘Austrian’ or what you yanks call libertarians. I’m a distributist and a traditionalist and any ‘anti-state’ tendencies I’ve picked up owe far more to the likes of Schumacher or Chesterton or Burke or various other traditional ‘decentralists’ than they do Mises or for that matter Locke.

    My main quibble is over your suggestion that the ‘free market’ produces oligopoly and basically what we distributists call ‘Capitalism’. I agree that the term ‘free market’ is vague but I’ve come to see a lot of reality in the economic history and analysis of Kevin Carson(though not his anarchism and it must be noted others, like Ralph Borsodi, Marx or Leopold Kohr point in this direction in various ways.) and the argument that that the ‘free market’ leads to market concentration seems to carry with it the implication that the state was not a foundational and certainly not an ever- necessary and extensive partner for capitalism and corporate-capitalism. I think Carson’s position is correct, and borne out by the evidence; the state created capitalism and corporate-capitalism and maintains them to this day. Much of its vaunted efficiencies, like all these economies scales that corporate-capitalists and libertarians alike delight in, are simply the product of extensive, ever-increasing(one day to a point where they can no longer be sustained-then comes the reckoning!) state intervention.

    To overlook this reality, in my opinion, is not just to deny ourselves an excellent argument that can wipe the smirks off the faces of both arrogant libertarians, and others who pine for ‘free markets’ and yet see them as only slightly different versions of current corporate-capitalism, as well as those who do rejoice in the current system, and yet think it is ‘naturally’ efficient. It is also to deny ourselves the best understanding of the real context and efficiency of distributist, agrarian and decentralised alternatives to corporate-capitalism.

    Take supermarkets, super-stores and large retail chains. Not only are there often moral and social arguments against Wal-Mart and its ilk, the truth is, if Carson et al are correct, that they’re not ‘naturally’, without massive state intervention, more efficient than more localised, responsible operations in many vital ways.

    That is not to say I’m defending the ‘free market’. I agree with you about the vagueness of this phrase and of the errors of taking liberal ideas of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ as ends and ultimate principles. However this does lead me to my second quibble. That is that accepting all I’ve said and your fine points I still think that decentralism(or want of a better word), though I certainly do not mean by this libertarianism or the so called ‘free market’ but something like Schumacher’s ideas, should be a guiding means or instrument This should not be an over-the-top decentralism and certainly not an individualism, it should respect intermediate associations, subsidiarity and the real, necessary degree of centralised authority and unity a society must have. But it would be a good deal more decentralised than our current society. We shouldn’t loose sight of this. The balance is hard but distributism shouldn’t be like social democracy any more than it should be a ‘free market’ libertarianism or this state-capitalism we currently have. It is a genuinely distinct path, the truly traditional, truly decentralised and truly Christian path.

    Anyway, thanks for the two good articles.

    Peace.

  5. Here are some replies to responses so far.

    First, itryto fight. I find this a strange question that you raise. If distributism is a more just and sane way of managing our economy, then we have to try to move toward it – one can hardly judge the health of our economy by how well it contributes to our military power! You list all kinds of wars, just and unjust. It would have been better for the world if the U.S. hadn’t had the power to wage unjust wars, e.g., the second Iraq war to name no more. But if at the back of your mind you’re concerned with whether distributism could provide the same technological level as capitalism has – as I’ve said elsewhere, the question of economic organization and technology are separate. Any level of technology is compatible with distributism. I’m happy to discuss technology in the appropriate place, but large industrial concerns could well be a part of distributism. Witness the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain.

    Jonathan, I readily admit the faults of the guilds in practice. Faults in human conduct are part of our experience since the Fall of our first parents. Human contrivance cannot eliminate such faults and abuses, only try to guard against them. In the distributist model as I have sketched it, there would be no non-guild craftsmen, membership in one’s guild would be required to exercise a particular line of work or at least to sell one’s product publicly. Would some guilds tend to become cartels? Doubtless. But as I said, no matter what human arrangements we make, there is always the possibility of abuses because of original sin.

    Pat, I apologize if I misrepresented your opinion. It strikes me that the kind of market which you’re willing to call a “free market” not only has never existed but never could. It seems to me, however, that as we’ve approached more closely to such a market, the kinds of abuses I spoke of became more and more apparent. Actually, the very fact that it is probably impossible to establish the kind of market you’ve spoken of shows the importance of economic power in determining and controlling markets. A free market – in your terms – would simply end up being dominated by whoever was most powerful.

    Wessexman, yes the state did have a very important role in establishing capitalism in many ways, by, e.g., extending effective trading areas via uniform weights, currency, etc., by its legal system. Most of this I’ve pointed out in various places. The state will always favor one or the other type of economic arrangement, it’s inescapable. The laws, for example, must either favor distributed property or concentrated property, owners or workers, etc. It’s a more or less conscious decision to make laws which contribute toward certain economic results. I’m definitely not against decentralized political authority. Here in the U.S., however, often people will make an argument against federal control of something, but will want to allow corporations freedom to operate wherever they want. If corporations are allowed to be large and operate anywhere in the country, then only the federal government can possibly regulate them. If we could return to the early 19th century notion of corporations, before the Supreme Court decided they were “persons,” then states could regulate them and even limit their term of existence.

    Today corporations very often can control local governments – they are more powerful and have more money than local governments! If one wants decentralized government, fine, but then allow these governments to break up large corporations so they can then be regulated by local governments.

  6. well written and common sensed as always…will repost at my humble cyber abode…

  7. “But, alas, Mr. Tucker envisions “totalitarian control of society”

    and therin is the biggest problem for Libertarians-they unite under a “govt keep out” slogan, but have no other mechanisms to deal with the fallen nature of man, sin and hence, sinful acts of wealth accumulation, hudge/gudge,etc.
    Somehow, naturally, we all shed opprression and unite ourselves to free societies, each striving on our own to macke an income….they offer no solution to the fallne nature and mans bent toward evil and self gratification……what is to stop that? the “hidden hand” of the market. what is to stop the control of the market and the hidden hand? well, apparently, nothing…and hiddne hand, a bit freemasonic, no?

  8. “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.”

    therin too is the problem, for the Fide for these liberals is a “Sunday-in-Church-only” thing. and somehow, the Christian then is supposed to be trusted to behave like one, absent the Church and morals. Integral Catholicism as enunciated by John Sharpe is preferable to the liberalism and anarchy Mr. Tucker ascribes to…

  9. Mr. Storck,

    Concerning the quibble that distributism doesn’t prevail in the arena of human choice, I would respond: but it does.

    If you are a professional man, chances are you are in a guild-like setting. Engineers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, accountants and architects are required to be licensed by the states in which they work. After that, they maintain their licensure by pursuing something like “continuing education,” which is typically administered by professional societies.

    Are the guilds perfect? Far from it. Do the regulations they impose become overly onerous? Yes. Do they stifle innovation? Yes, in some respects. But…having said that, there’s a reason why members of professions earn the money they do and enjoy the job security they do, compared to people without similar “guild” protections.

    Is it fair that guilded professionals earn so much while common laborers earn very little? I would be willing to give it a fresh look and suggest perhaps weakening professional guilds while strengthening laborers.

    But the point is that it does happen in the world of choice, and it actually works pretty well, especially if you are in the guild.

  10. @Mr. Storck – thanks for your further response. I think we’re on the same page in a lot of areas. I totally agree that a 100% free market has never existed and is probably not practically possible. I further agree that the concentration of corporate power should not be countered by more concentration of federal power, but only by the distribution of power to the local community level. However, I bristle at equating anything in our current system with the term “free market.” This is because the term is so misused in everyday economic discourse. The statist right throws the term out to promote being allowed to exploit individuals and despoil our Earth (while retaining the myriad state-granted anti-free market protections and subsidies they enjoy). The statist left buys into the same definition, using it as a strawman in order to promote their own dream of power through technocratic social engineering. When voices that promote alternative economic systems use the term in the same context, it further ingrains the misunderstanding. If we want to call state-enforced oligopoly a “free market,” then we’ll need another term for non-coercive transactions between individuals.

    In any case, it’s not that I believe that soulless adherence to a theoretical free market model is the be-all and end-all of society (although, IMHO, maximizing options for non-destructive, voluntary, mutually-beneficial exchanges between individuals is a preferable state of affairs). It’s just that I believe no relevant debate can take place without an accurate definition of terms.

  11. Mr. Campbell, thank you for your kind words. Ben, yes, guilds can do undesirable things. But I don’t understand why some people – I don’t mean you – expect the guilds to be perfect before they will approve of them, but approve of or accept other human institutions despite many and sometimes greater flaws.

  12. I agree entirely with your points in the reply Thomas. I say break up corporations. I think this should be pursued first by removing corporate personhood and privileges, reigning in corporate welfare(which my ‘Carsonite’ position makes me think is all that keeps corporate-capitalism a float.) and establish various pro-distributist property rights and incorporation schemes. Only with what, if anything, was left of corporate-capitalism would I advise a more interventionist strategy. Where I differ is on having time for much short of this. Trusting the feds in the current system won’t work, it has rarely worked in the past. It has only slightly changed the system from a neoliberal to a more corporatist or consensus based position between big gov’t, big business and big labour, while further centralising the system. Obviously the neoliberal position is just as bad. We should be careful of giving much ground to either side though.

    I think though the ‘Carsonite'(to coin a term.) must recognised for the quite radical position it is. Even Fox News commentators attack ‘crony capitalism’ and corporate-welfare. Such attacks are commonplace on the right as well as the left. The ‘Carsonite’ position doesn’t just say that the state supports some corporations, it doesn’t even just say it helps to make corporate-capitalism somewhat more centralised than it otherwise would be. No, it says that basically all large corporations and businesses and many, many medium-sized ones would not exist without constant, increasing state support. It says most long supply chains and so called economies of scale that the capitalists rave about are only the product of chronic, state intervention. The ‘Carsonite’ position is radical, it not just another attack on corporate-welfare and it is more than likely correct.It also shows us that, without going in for any of the nonsense of the libertarians, the best thing we can do is role back the state. Not because it holds back corporations or because they are separate from it as so called ‘free marketeers’ would have us believe. No, but because corporate-capitalism, and indeed before that a lot of capitalism, was always the product of the state and reliant on it. Again I’m not saying this because I’m some sort of libertarian. I’m a Anglo-Catholic, borderline Eastern Orthodox, traditionalist. I’m quite attached to more localism, but so was Bonald and certainly so was Burke. My political views are something of a cross between Bonald and Chesterton. Government should not be too decentralised and too feeble, but in the current climate it can’t be trusted to do much until the rug has been pulled out from beneath corporate-capitalism.

  13. Wessexman,

    It’s true, as I’ve tried to point out, that any legal order favors some kind of economic and social order. Laws cannot be neutral, nor should they be.

    When I write I know I tend to think in terms of ideal situations, and that almost always such ideal situations and recommendations need to be tempered by considering the actually existing reality. But unless we have some vision or notion of the ideal, we won’t have any idea of how or in what direction to work to remake the actuality. So my task, if I understand it rightly, is to sketch the ideal more than to suggest how this might be implemented in view of the tremendous evils, injustices, etc. which prevail today. Both types of approach are necessary certainly, but usually, I think, one person will do better at one task than at another. And my interests and talents, such as they are, seem better suited to proposing and sketching the good in itself. Not that I’m unwilling to suggest practical means when possible, only that that’s not my focus.

    You say you are a “traditionalist.” I know that that term can mean many things, but one of the reasons I don’t consider or call myself a conservative or traditionalist is that I want to champion a positive program, not just seem to be stuck in the present or past. Not that I despise the past, far from it. But the past as such is not what we should be championing. Rather insofar as the past embodied principles, institutions and practices which were good and healthy we can and should point to that embodiment as a model and to show that the things we favor are possible in the real world. But I don’t advocate the past as such, but Catholic principles and ideals and their application and adaptation to the world of today.

  14. A traditionalist these days isn’t much of a conservative, because there isn’t that much left to conserve. I understand the point about just reviving the past though, but I tend to agree with Rene Guenon’s definition of Tradition as the reverberations of the eternal, or revelation, within time, rather than being mere custom.

    I have a contented pessimism about actually achieving much for the foreseeable future, but I do agree with you about ideals. That is why I say lets tear down the corporations, rather than try and regulate them or slowing role them back. Regulation won’t work in the current climate, corporate-capitalism is simply too intertwined with the state, you leave it breathing space and it will very likely spring back to life unless we deal them a death-blow.

  15. I can’t help but think of Undset’s, Kristin Lavransdatter, as an historically accurate (though nonetheless fictional) example of guilds, in cooperation with the Church, working in daily life to help solve conflicts: moral, practical and political (not in the modern sense of politics).
    More principled clarity from Mr. Stork!