Home / Economics / What’s Wrong with Distributism: A Response


Recently, in the Intercollegiate Review online, Mr. David Deavel published two articles, the first entitled “What’s Right with Distributism,” and the second, “What’s Wrong with Distributism.”

As an editor of The Distributist Review and indeed, one of the distributists whom Dr. Deavel mentions, I am replying to him here, not as an official reply on behalf of the Review, but simply as a private response of someone who has perhaps been as involved as any other in the contemporary revival of Distributism.

Dr. Deavel’s first article is a sort of praise of distributism, or at least of some aspects of it, and he instances four areas of agreement with distributists. First, “distributists are right to emphasize the place of morality and ethics in economics and our working lives,” next, distributists “object to the concentration of power that is so endemic in modern Western economies,” thirdly, distributists “are right that a wider distribution of wealth is essential to a healthier society,” and finally, “distributists believe, and rightly, that too much of the modern welfare state hinders the moral and social development of the human person.”

It is in his second article, however, that Dr. Deavel gives his fuller—and critical—assessment of Distributism. He begins the substance of this article by claiming that “Distributists tend to deny that economics is a real mode of knowledge in any sense. They scoff at the notion that there might be predictive laws of economic behavior, such as supply and demand.” Now while I do not necessarily blame Deavel for making statements such as “distributists tend to say this or that,” nevertheless this kind of statement can be misleading unless he provides references to a particular distributist writer, since it gives the impression that such an opinion is widely held among distributists. Speaking for myself, I have explicitly and more than once acknowledged the existence of economic laws and specifically the laws of supply and demand. I have only pointed out that such laws necessarily function within a particular cultural and legal matrix. This can easily be seen simply by observing differences in the way capitalism operates in the United States as compared with how it operates in Japan, Germany or Italy. Supply and demand are indeed constant factors in economic life, but they are not absolute factors which operate independently from everything else, nor are they necessarily always the most important factor in any given economic outcome. In addition to the legal and cultural context, the exercise of power is a fact of economic life which at times is of greater importance than the principle of supply and demand. It was not supply and demand that rewarded inefficient corporate CEOs with big bonuses and pensions while their companies were descending into bankruptcy, but the CEOs’ ability to control appointments to the compensation committees of their boards of directors. The CEOs were able to take advantage of legal and corporate rules to appoint the very people who awarded them huge bonuses and pensions. Indeed, Dr. Deavel’s frequent mention of crony capitalism indicates that he is aware that power can and often does play a role in determining economic outcomes. But if this is so, it calls into question Deavel’s criticism of distributists for our skepticism of the textbook presentation of how economies actually function. These texts present the economy as for the most part a mechanism working automatically, so that if a particular input is made, we can predict and expect a particular output. On the basis of such an understanding of economics one would predict that incompetent CEOs would be fired. Instead in many instances they were rewarded. Dr. Deavel would probably acknowledge this, but argue that this is because of the widespread cronyism in our economy, and that if only we had a truly free market, or something approximating it, we would not have these distortions of the supposedly infallible mechanical laws of economics. But in the last forty years the U.S. economy has become more, not less of a free market, and cronyism has flourished in such an atmosphere. This is only to be expected, for a free market, by its absence of regulation and oversight, allows and facilitates the very concentration of economic power that in the end gives rise to crony capitalism and other abuses.

Next Dr. Deavel propounds a thesis much beloved by certain free-market proponents, especially supporters of Austrian economics. This thesis is that the essentials of the free-market position were contained in the writings of a group of 16th and 17th-century Spanish scholastic theologians. “Distributists also tend to dismiss free market arguments as products of the secular Enlightenment, unaware that they were in fact developed not just by Christians, but by priests.” Well, I am not unaware of this claim, but it is true that I do not accept it. In support of his view Deavel mentions a work by Alejandro Chafuen, Faith and Liberty: the Economic Thought of the Late Scholastics, which is a reissue or revision of an earlier title by Chafuen, Christians for Freedom: Late-Scholastic Economics (Ignatius Press, 1986) with an introduction by Michael Novak. This earlier book I have myself read, and while obviously there is no room for a review of that work here, I can make a brief comment on it. The book is curious in that one can see a progressive difference in the statements made about free markets by Novak, Chafuen and by the scholastic writers themselves. In the first place, Novak, who apparently had not read widely in the scholastic authors under discussion, tends to view them as uncritical supporters of the free market. Chafuen, who had read them, is a bit more tempered in his claims. Then lastly the authors themselves. Here, since Chafuen provides numerous extended quotations, one can see even less of a free-market attitude. But even if it were the case that these writers held the proto-libertarian ideas sometimes attributed to them, they would still be merely a group of private theologians, whose opinions count for nothing whenever they are opposed to the papal social magisterium. (For a good discussion of the claims made about the Spanish late scholastics, see Peter Chojnowski’s article, “Corporation Christendom: the True School of Salamanca.”)

Then Dr. Deavel takes up the papal social encyclicals. Here he is on even shakier ground. First of all when he says that distributists “tend to treat papal encyclicals as if every word in them were infallible”—again, what distributist said that? I have pointed out that papal social teaching needs to be regarded just like every other instance of the ordinary magisterium. Sometimes the ordinary magisterium is ordinary and universal, and when it is, then its teaching is as binding as that of the extraordinary magisterium, as the First Vatican Council taught. So on certain points where a series of popes have taught the same thing over and over, such as the just wage, the insufficiency of free competition as the ruling principle of an economy, the institution of private property and its limitations—on such matters one can discern that the magisterium is both ordinary and universal, and thus infallible. But any reader of these encyclicals can see that the many statements in them fall into different categories, ranging from infallible statements to simple suggestions.

However, Dr. Deavel attempts to do more than point out that not everything in these documents is infallible. Sadly, he pretty much attempts to explain them away. For example, he quotes Leo XIII, “If I were to pronounce on any single matter of a prevailing economic problem I should be interfering with the freedom of men to work out their own affairs,” and then Pius XI to the effect that “economics and moral science each employs its own principles in its own sphere” and that in “matters of technique” the Church has nothing to teach. One would never suspect from Deavel’s selective quotations that both Leo and Pius taught that employers were obliged in justice to pay a living wage whenever possible, that Pius denied that free competition was a correct principle to direct an economy, and indeed that the very passage from Pius XI which Deavel quotes is part of a justification for why it is “Our right and Our duty to deal authoritatively with social and economic problems” (Quadragesimo Anno §41). It is true that the Pontiff limits that authority to questions “that have a bearing on moral conduct.” But this limitation of his teaching authority to the moral realm does not mean what many American apologists for the free market seem to think that it means or should mean or would like it to mean. For in this same encyclical Pius denounces the classical liberal idea of the state and teaches that “the civil power is more than the mere guardian of law and order” (§25), sanctions state limitations on property ownership (§49), asserts that “the wage paid to the workingman should be sufficient for the support of himself and his family” (§71), teaches that “the proper ordering of economic affairs cannot be left to the free play of rugged competition” (§88), an idea which he says originated “as from a polluted spring,” and remarks that the economic ideas of the more moderate socialists “often strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers” (§113). Nor are Deavel’s quotations from Centesimus Annus to the point either, for all the key tenets of Catholic social doctrine were repeated and reaffirmed by John Paul II in that often misunderstood and sometimes dishonestly quoted encyclical. Although space prevents me from offering an extended treatment of any of the encyclicals here, on Centesimus, I refer interested readers to this article of mine which discusses it at length and the false claims often made about it: What Does Centesimus Annus Really Teach?

Dr. Deavel next asserts that “Distributist confusions go beyond the Church and extend into their ideas about the state. Complain as they will of the evils of crony capitalism…distributist solutions in fact amount to crony capitalism on a massive, societal scale. What else were medieval guilds but a system by which certain producers used the government to restrict their competition?” Well, indeed, what were the guilds, those institutions whose demise Leo XIII lamented or whose revival Pius XI and Pius XII so strongly advocated? Were they really such nefarious entities as Deavel believes? In fact the guilds did not represent crony capitalism at all, though of course they could and sometimes did develop abuses, just as every other institution peopled by fallen human beings, including the Church, can and does. Crony capitalism is the manipulation of capitalism engaged in for one’s own enrichment or the enrichment of one’s friends. The regulations that the guilds imposed were designed to provide a steady supply of goods and services to the public at a fair price, and at the same time allow each workmen enough business so that he could provide decently for himself and his family. The constant free-market catchword is competition, regardless of how many businesses fail and how much economic or social turmoil results. The medievals understood that economic activity is meant to serve our larger social life, and that as a result its goals are logically subordinate to the overall goals of humanity, including, above all, our attainment of eternal life. To those who long for the “creative destruction” of capitalism such an arrangement no doubt seems quaint, even old-fashioned, but anyone who realizes that our use of external goods in this world is meant to serve our cultural, intellectual, family and spiritual life, not supplant or distort it, will recognize in the medieval situation, as did Pius XI, “a social order which, though by no means perfect in every respect, corresponded nevertheless in a certain measure to right reason according to the needs and conditions of the times” (Quadragesimo Anno §97).

Deavel’s indictment of guilds is part of his larger attack on what he calls the distributists’ “secret lust for big government.” Very correctly he argues that distributism is not libertarian. Indeed, were it so, I would not be a distributist. I do not hesitate to say that political authority is something natural and good, as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas held, and that the state has a proper role in economic activity, as the papal encyclicals teach. But this does not mean that distributists desire an oppressive, centralizing state. Deavel attempts to paint distributists as statists by bringing up extraneous matters, such as Belloc’s and Chesterton’s qualified and temporary support for Mussolini. Since anyone is free to call himself a distributist, I cannot vouch for the views of every single one, but the central distributist movement as represented by The Distributist Review has no interest in fascist economic theory, whatever anyone in the very different historical situation of the 1920s may have thought or said. Distributism as an economic concept stands or falls on what the leading distributist thinkers of both past and present said about it, not about other matters with no relevance to today.

Next, in the section entitled, Are You a Price Slave?, Deavel asserts a number of varying things which revolve around the fact that the economy necessarily involves the cooperation of many different persons. Of course this is true, and Deavel knows that distributists know this too. In his first article he had mentioned the Spanish Basque Mondragon cooperatives and the cooperatives of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, both of which are rightly seen by distributists as an example of successful Distributisism in the context of an industrialized economy. One can hardly claim that capitalism alone depends upon cooperation. Distributist use of the term “wage slave” is meant to highlight the fact that such employees are economically entirely dependent upon their employers, and if they lose their jobs, have nothing to fall back upon. Capitalism can hardly claim a monopoly on economic cooperation, for some type of cooperation is necessary in any economy, no matter how organized. In fact, with Distributism, such cooperation is more likely to be unforced than either in capitalism or any kind of totalitarian economy.

Lastly, Deavel suggests that, in fact, many of the good things distributists advocate are “already available in a free market system. You are free to shop only at small businesses, and get your produce straight from family farms… If enough people make those choices, that will help support an ample, thriving sector of independent farms and businesses….” This is true as far as it goes—we can and should choose to patronize such establishments whenever possible. So is Dr. Deavel therefore right that distributists should simply limit their goal to persuading people to frequent farmers markets and small shops, all within the context of free-market capitalism? I do not think so. In the first place, the economic and even political power of corporations is so vast in comparison with the local producers he mentions that any fundamental change in the economy is very unlikely. In fact, should small businesses and farmers ever become so numerous that they threaten the corporate dominance of the economy, one can be certain that corporations will take effective steps to limit or destroy such local producers and suppliers.

More fundamentally, though, those who recognize that economic activity is an integral part of the social order cannot be content with the arrangement that Deavel suggests. Just as any person of good will ought to be disturbed by indications of family pathology in society, no matter how well his own family is doing, so one can hardly look at the economy as someone else’s problem, so long as one has ready access to farmers markets and boutique shops. Just as the health of families is an important factor in our general social or cultural health, so is it with the economy. The economy is more than merely about exchange of goods or services; its operations affect how we live, affect the livelihood of individuals and families, and contribute toward the shaping of our culture. Even those who attempt to limit their buying to small shops and farmers markets are affected by the corporate-controlled economy. How could it be otherwise? We are parts of a whole and the social order necessarily has an effect on everyone and on our common culture. The economy ought to be everyone’s concern, but everyone’s concern as a moral matter, as an important part of our concern for the common good. To quote from Pius XI once more, the economy is supposed to be built on moral principles so that “particular economic aims, whether of society as a body or of individuals, will be intimately linked with the universal teleological order, and as a consequence we shall be led by progressive stages to the final end of all, God Himself, our highest and lasting good” (Quadragesimo Anno §43). Dr. Deavel’s suggestion is of a piece with his free-market orientation, an orientation which at bottom prescinds from a recognition that there is a common good, a shared concern that demands the attention and care of every citizen – just as it affects the moral and even physical health of every citizen.

As far as one can judge based on his biographical note, Dr. Deavel is a sincere Catholic dedicated to serving the Church. Part of the education of future priests has been entrusted to him, and I am sure he takes this weighty responsibility seriously. Therefore, it is especially saddening to see his failure to see the forest in his preoccupation with the trees. The glaring fact is that the free-market capitalist economy, as a real historical thing existing in the world, has been the engine of a society whose ideals are at odds with those of Christian society. Instead of looking around to see if there might be some Catholic theologian somewhere whose teachings might have some sort of kinship with free-market ideologues, instead of parsing the papal social encyclicals so as to restrict as much as possible their teaching authority, I would hope that Dr. Deavel would simply open his eyes and look—at both the past and the present. Catholic societies were not those that embraced the ideals championed by Enlightenment economists, and in the 19th century Catholic thinkers were among the first who turned to the medieval thinkers, especially St. Thomas, not in order to justify the laissez-faire of their liberal contemporaries, but to find an alternative to their free-market doctrines in Catholic tradition. We cannot compartmentalize our minds so that, while seeking to uphold the Church’s teaching on most points, as no doubt Dr. Deavel does, at the same time accommodate ourselves to a doctrine, to an entire system of social life, that is fundamentally at odds with Catholic teaching and tradition. One can only hope that deeper reflection on the part of Dr. Deavel will produce a change of mind—indeed, a change of heart—so that he will realize that Catholic teaching and tradition extend not merely to how an individual lives, but to how whole societies and whole civilizations live, and that he will recognize in the statements of popes, even when they do not exercise their infallible authority, the authentic mind of the Church on social questions, and see in their vision of a Christian society the genuine Apostolic tradition. The fragmented society which has been bequeathed to us by the Liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries can hardly commend itself to any Catholic who thinks long and much on the social expression of the Faith, and I appeal to Mr. Deavel to allow his Catholic sensibilities to permeate all of his thinking, and to make his own the words and sentiments of the sovereign pontiffs as they expound the law and teachings of Jesus Christ for the social order.


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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  1. What about the anticreationist bias in great parts of the present day movement?

  2. “What about the anticreationist bias in great parts of the present day movement?”

    Mr. Lundahl, could you explain what you mean please?
    I’m not sure what anti-creationist means in the context of distributism.

  3. Dr. Storck,
    I’m surprised you didn’t draw a connection between the rhetoric Dr. Deavel uses to justify a free market in which a Distributist niche can coexist, the rhetoric used to justify abortion. Their structure is basically the same: that having abortion legal, or having a free market, is the “neutral” decision that allows people to live their lives as they choose, and forcing our views of abortion, or how a market should be truly free, on the wider populace is unjust. Of course, in both cases the arguments fail precisely because to have abortion legal or the economy structured this way at all is fundamentally unjust and the neutrality is a sham.
    It seems to me that, Dr. Deavel indeed being a sincere Catholic as you say, he should be disturbed by the potentially wide-ranging implications of his argument. And so it’s not merely an issue of prescinding the common good but of potentially allowing anything that people could conceivably want the right to do.
    Nitpick aside, this was a nice article. Thank you for taking the time to critique Dr. Deavel’s original piece.

  4. Nick,

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree, there is much similarity between market freedom and sexual
    freedom, including, as you nicely point out, the
    personal freedom to choose virtue – but in both
    cases this presumes two falsehoods: 1, that morality
    is purely a matter of personal individual choice, and 2, that an evil moral situation has no bad effects on others, including on those who are committed to living according to the law of God, but especially on those who are uncommitted or are weak in their commitment to truth.

    Thank you for highlighting this.

  5. Dr. Storck,

    I enjoy your writings and find them to be a fountain of great knowledge and insight. I was wondering if you are familiar with an essay written by a Rodney Blackhirst entitled “Capitalism, Tradition, and Traditionalism”? If you have the time, I would really appreciate your feedback on this particular piece. Gratitude.

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  7. Cassiodorus,

    No, I haven’t read the piece by Blackhirst. I see that it’s available on the web. I’ll take a look and post something here. But not till tomorrow or maybe even Friday.

  8. Cassiodorus,

    I took a look at this article, though I admit I did not read every word. I can agree, I think, entirely with its critique of capitalism. But I can not agree with the standpoint of its critique, namely,”Traditionalism,” i.e., (as I understand it) a sort of synthesis of practical wisdom gleaned from
    various religions and spiritual traditions. This approach is not one that a Catholic can take. of course this does not mean that there isn’t considerable practical wisdom and insights in such
    traditions, just that there is no firm foundation,
    either philosophically or theologically there.

  9. Alas, I fear that we must soon add Libertarianism/anarcho-capitalism to the refrain of things that are part of the heresy of Americanism. Just as the followers of Americanism believe the morals and ethics of the Church must be separated from the state they now also believe that economics are likewise above or beyond ethics.

  10. Hi Dr. Storck,

    Thank you for taking a look. I came to the Catholic faith (and by entension, Chesterton and distributism) by way of the Traditionalist or Perennialist “school”- it was interesting to me to come across a solid critique of capitalism that didn’t come from more well known distributist circles. The Traditionalism that you identified is actually something of an expansion of what the Catholic tradition refers to as the “Perennial Philosophy”. The most well known exponents of this “school” were the Catholics Rene Guenon and (for a short time) Frithjof Schuon.

  11. Cassiodorus,

    I’m a little bit familiar with the Traditionalism you’re speaking of here, and with its “perennial philosophy.” But is this really the same thing as Catholics mean by “perennial philosophy,” i.e., the philosophical tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas? It was my impression that it meant something
    different, something more inclusive (e.g., Plato and even Indian philosophies) but I may be wrong.

  12. Dr. Storck,

    You’re right, it’s not the same thing. But, there is a relationship. The “Perennial Philosophy” that the Traditionalist school refers to is most well known in a popular work of the same title by Aldous Huxley. The “mystical universalism” that Huxley presents in this book has adherents that cover a wide range of belief and practice. The more liberal understanding of this non-Catholic “Perennialism” is largely connected with the New Age and Theosophy (and Huxley himself), but the more conservative faction, the “Traditionalists” , though committed to a plurality of true faiths, deny syncretism and the notion that the Perennial Philosophy is some kind of “super religion”, that is higher and separate from Revelation. Not surprisingly, most traditional Christians reject the compatibility of the Perennial Philosophy (in this sense) and Christianity, but, I think their penetrating critiques of modernism and the depth of their metaphysical writings is significant.

    Turns out, that the distributist, EF Schumacher, was largely influenced by the ideas of the Traditionalists- I think one can see their influence in “Small Is Beautiful” and definitely in “Guide for the Perplexed”.

  13. Hans-Georg Lundahl

    Perennial philosophy in the sense of moral such is both Plato and Aristotle and Hebrews and Pagans and Catholics to follow up.

    Essentially it is popular morality in each tradition. Where these agree, and not on other points, complemented with Catholic Revelation.

    Guénon’s thing is more like esoteric teachings “behind” all openly different teachings. He apostasised to Sufism.

  14. Cassiodorus,

    Thanks. I was aware of the Huxley title though I have not read it. As to Schumacher, I’d have to
    reread Small is Beautiful with an eye for that (I guess his chapter on Buddhist economics might be an
    example), but I have dipped into Guide for the Perplexed and, yes, I thought there was much of it
    there – and that made me a bit suspicious of Schumacher, I must admit.

    But as to people who are “committed to a plurality of true faiths” even if they “deny syncretism” – that
    doesn’t seem like a possible stance for a Catholic.

  15. Dr. Storck,

    I think that chapter from “Small is Beautiful” definitely expresses those influences. I’ve had something of a “hot-n-cold” relationship with Perennialism myself (especially since I’ve invested myself in Catholic thought.) Nevertheless, I think one of the best overviews (if interested) of the Traditionalist position with regards to Christianity can be found in the essay “Perennial Philosophy and Christianity” by James Cutsinger.

    Vincit Omnia Veritas

  16. Cassiodorus,

    I will take a look.

  17. Hans-Georg Lundahl

    There cannot be a plurality of completely true faiths. There is just an impossibility of all traditions being completely wrong, unless you are an atheist.

    All non-Catholic religions are more or less false, but apart from the common negative of being non-Catholic, they do not share the same falsehoods.

    The natural maw can be reconstructed from agreements between the traditions, which position has most of them, or when certain opposite positions seem equal, usually in the golden mean. And as in each position identic to or at least allowing as a genial surprise the Catholic position.

  18. Hans-Georg Lundahl

    Oh, even an impossibility of any single tradition being in all instances completely wrong. They are poisoned sweets and poisoned food, but no poison would be swallowed unless there was sweets and food mixed in it – by any great number of men.

  19. Hans-Georg Lundahl

    Buddhism is for instance wrong about mental health and about metaphysics, but fairly correct about economics. Protestantism is often horribly wrong about economics but gets basic metaphysics and quite a lot of Christology too correct – which Buddhism does not. On mental health issues Protestantism would have opposite faults to the Buddhist ones.

  20. This is probably not the appropriate forum for this discussion, but…. I think “Perennialism” is certainly off-putting to most people who are serious about their faith. After all, if there is more than one true faith, then this would, logically speaking, make all religions “relatively” true. That certainly poses a problem right out of the gate.

    Nevertheless, the Perennialist school sees a transcendent unity “in the center”, or in God himself. This is essentially an esoteric doctrine, about the encounter with the Divine- not a sentimental nor merely ethical ecumenism. The Perennial Philosophy states that every manifested being has its cause in a higher level of reality, and ultimately with the highest reality-God. “All traditional doctrines, (so this narrative goes), even the belief of shamanistic religions, are in agreement that the universe is ordered in just such levels of existence. All traditional societies are based upon the reality of unseen and transcendent realms that lay above, but which at the same time are reflected in it and determine it.”

    Although it is essentially a spiritual perspective, it has no agenda to prove the rightness of one religious form over another. The claim, again, is that there is a transcendent unity that can be realized from within– there is not a separate “third realm” above and beyond any particular tradition. The formless can only be found in form.

    Ultimately, the main problem here, I think, is that it inverts the relationship between mysticism “pure metaphysics” and theology/revelation. Still, to those who recoil from these claims, I think a Perennialist would say, “I understand, peace be with you. Only God knows best.”

  21. Hans-Georg Lundahl

    I think “Perennialism” is certainly off-putting to most people who are serious about their faith.

    That of Guenon, yes, that of St Paul, St Thomas Aquinas, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, C S Lewis, no.

    After all, if there is more than one true faith, then this would, logically speaking, make all religions “relatively” true.

    All false religions are partly true religions. Poisoned sweets of poisoned food, but not poison without either sweets of food.

    a Perennialist would say, “I understand, peace be with you. Only God knows best.”

    Guenon’s perennialism would.

    This is essentially an esoteric doctrine, about the encounter with the Divine

    Natural law is not about “the encounter with the divine” since that is rather supernatural revelation.

    The Perennial Philosophy states that every manifested being has its cause in a higher level of reality, and ultimately with the highest reality-God.

    This metaphysical claim goes beyond Natural Law. Or Plato. Yes, we do have our roots in what Plato called the “world of ideas” and so has everything else. From St John we know this “world of ideas” is eternally a Person called the Word or the Son, and in time – 5199 years after creating creatures participating in his ideas – got Himself born in Bethlehem. He was born on a December 25 (probably) and eight days later circumcised after Moses’ law and named Jesus. He founded one Church, not three thousand different religions.

    “All traditional doctrines, (so this narrative goes), even the belief of shamanistic religions, are in agreement that the universe is ordered in just such levels of existence. All traditional societies are based upon the reality of unseen and transcendent realms that lay above, but which at the same time are reflected in it and determine it.”

    That is true, it is not a bunch (except as compared to atheism) and one can add an item:

    Most if not all traditional doctrines are aware of conflicts with other traditions and are therefore exclusivist.

    Hindoos accepted Alexander’s Greeks as kshatriyas – warrior caste – because of military valour, but nevertheless considered them impure as having other doctrines and cultic practises than those of Hindoos.

    Although it is essentially a spiritual perspective, it has no agenda to prove the rightness of one religious form over another.

    That is where Guenon’s Perennialism is not perennial.

  22. I know very little of the specifics of distributism… Deuval’s article claims it includes an inclination toward big government, and you do not deny that distributism goes beyond the libertarian ideal of government enforcing contracts but nothing more. How far does it go? Setting prices and wages I have heard, but what about banning the selling of something, or requiring that it be sold? banning the buying of some product or requiring certain people, or every person, to buy it? Barring anyone not part of the guild from taking part in industry? Outlining how services may be provided, how products must be made? What sort of enforcement would be appropriate for various offenses against guild rule?
    I realize this may vary among distributists. Just looking for a representative response.

  23. Dear Question,

    You’ll find some of the answers you’re looking for in other writings on this website. But I’ll address at least some of them now. In general the
    guilds would do the economic regulation now engaged in (at least in the U.S.) by the federal government.
    Guilds would indeed prohibit non-members from undertaking a certain kind of trade (as was done in
    the Middle Ages), and would usually set product quality standards. Guild management would be democratic, by all members. “Banning the buying of some product” – that is sometimes done even under our liberal capitalism. Pornography used to be illegal, atom bombs cannot be bought and sold freely, etc.

    In the Middle Ages guild members who violated guild regulations were fined. I suppose in extreme cases
    one might be expelled from the guild, but that would be for each guild to determine, and the regulations would not necessarily be the same in each case.

  24. Hans-Georg Lundahl

    “Setting prices and wages I have heard,”

    Was done by Diocletian, and not revoked by his Christian successors Constantine or Theodosius or Justinian. Decretum Maximus exists on some stone tablets still extant in Greece, a bit like Hammurapi’s law in ancient Babylon.

    It has been criticised for discouraging trade. Precisely: it encourages local self reliance.

    “but what about banning the selling of something, or requiring that it be sold?”

    Banning the selling of bad products is done even today. Fortunately. Even the selling of under price products. In Paris you can buy legal Tour-Eiffel statuettes for a couple of Euros, and if African or other street sellers try to sell Tour-Eiffel statuettes made in Hong Kong cheaper, this is being punished by the police.

    As for requiring someone to buy a product, that is done by academic institutions today. It is not Distributism but a real Big Government sinner like school compulsion (or compulsory vaccination of children) that extends such requirements to everyone.

    “Barring anyone not part of the guild from taking part in industry?”

    In each locality with City Privileges there was usually a guild for each kind of product – a bakers guild for bread and stuff made in ovens, an in-keepers’ guild for people serving guests eating and drinking at their house, a cobblers guild for shoes …

    Now, each guild of artisans, of makers rather than traders, was open only to population of the City. Internally it regulated procedures allowed and disallowed (can shoes have slits in front for decoration or is that being stingy with the leather?) wages and working hours (none should get more profit than colleagues by underpaying or overworking his journeymen or apprentices, even number of such could be regulated), prices for each quality (what shall a baker charge for wheat bread, what for rye bread, what shall a brewer charge for strong beer with cloves and what for weak beer with hops …).

    Each guild also served for electing its representatives to town hall – AND, here is the thing – each guild had a contract with the town regulating the terms of monopoly on product, so that if town hall – i e the rest of the guilds – found one guild was abusing its privileges, then it could be deprived of its monopoly and a non-guild master could be allowed to open shop and compete with guild masters.

    “In the Middle Ages guild members who violated guild regulations were fined. I suppose in extreme cases one might be expelled from the guild,”

    A clear fraud like mixing gypsum into the wheat flour (at a time when wheat is expensive) would mean you were expelled. You could be fined for cussing or for not attending the funeral of another guild member.

    Obviously Jewish goldsmiths were not allowed in Christian guilds, since they could not pray at a Requiem Mass (and Christians could not pray in a Minyan). I do not know if they had parallel guilds or were guild-free masters in such towns as had Jews (could perhaps have checked if I had been in Carpentras, the major Papal ghetto town outside Avignon – it had Christian Churches, and the main one, St Suffren, a side porch for Jewish converts – but I left that area in 2009).

  25. Cassiodorus,

    I read the Cutsinger article. I cannot agree with him. Essentially it seems to be a kind of Gnosticism which is not compatible with being the Catholic faith. Of course, this is not to say that other religious traditions don’t have hold of parts of the truth because of man’s natural knowledge of God and perhaps even from the original revelation given to Adam or (as in Islam) from bits and pieces taken from both Judaism and the Church – therefore such
    other religions and spiritual traditions are not
    a true revelation nor do they have salvific power.
    Genuine revelation was made to the Jews, of course, but in preparation for the fullness of revelation made in Christ to the Church.

    St. Paul’s discourse in Athens recorded in Acts 17 seems to me a good example of how Catholics should regard truths grasped by those outside the Church or outside any form of Christianity or Christian influence.

    You might be interested in an article of mine, “Man
    and Religion in the Third Millennium” on Ethika Politika.

  26. Dr. Storck,

    Thank you very much for pointing me to your article, “Man and Religion in the Third Millennium.” I found it compelling. The section that dealt with the connection between Protestantism and the negative impact on women’s place in society was particularly interesting to me.

    As to the larger theme of the article, proceeding from “There are only two religions in the world”, I find myself conflicted. Before I comment, let me first state that I am neither an expert in Catholic doctrine nor in the tenets of the Perennialist school. I am just a humble learner and a genuine seeker . As I understand it, you explain that one of the defining elements of the “Abrahamic” religions is “the concreteness of the revelation”. I have no issues with that. But, on account of that particularity, can we, in fact, conclude that the “pagan religions” are somehow less authentic (that is, sent from Heaven)? I think that a Perennialist would say that the specificity of the Abrahamic revelations are simply a characteristic feature of the monotheistic “spiritual universe”. And as such, the argument for the preeminence of Abrahamic revelation amounts to a kind of question begging, a logic that is colored and embedded in said Tradition. Is the Divinely inspired greatness of Catholic medieval art somehow less likely to have come from God because the artist didn’t sign his name? In fact, many people argue the exact opposite- the fact that sacred art is usually anonymous is evidence that it is from God. Doesn’t it make perfect sense that those spiritual traditions that are based on a personal transcendent Creator would feature a very specific message? But, we wouldn’t necessarily expect to find that in those traditions where their conceptions of the Divine are more impersonal, or perhaps we should say “transpersonal.” Therefore, I’m not sure that the “concreteness” of Abrahamic revelation is evidence of their greater validity.

    You had commented that the Perennialist viewpoint
    seems like a kind gnosticism to you. I totally understand why one might think that. After all, there is certainly no doubt that the Perennialist bases his position on a foundation of gnosis, but this doesn’t mean that we should conflate this with the dualistic mythologies of heretical gnosticism. Moreover, “to claim that all gnosis is false because of gnosticism amounts to saying, by analogy, that all prophets are false because there are false prophets” Gnosis simply refers to spiritual knowledge. I suspect that many would object to gnosis on the charge of pride, but one might ask, “What are we to make of the person who knows better than others that knowledge is of no importance?”

  27. I have not read the section of Abrahamic religions.

    I can answer like this: Abrahamic or Pagan, the divine is always very concrete.

    The sayings of “Delphic Apollo” (speaking through what amounts to a voodoo medium) are well known, some of them at least. So are their effects on the lives of people who were stupid enough to believe it. Socrates drinking hemlock was lucky compared to some others. I did read some Greek tragedy at University.

    The sayings of God are also known. When someone believes them and acts accordingly he avoids the disasters foretold.

    That is the “fine line” between diabolic and divine.

    Saying that “knowledge is of no importance” is a very subtle pride. It is synonym to the blasphemy that “victory and defeat are the same”, something which a poor charioteer of prince Arjuna told him before a battle against his fleshly first cousins. And the charioteer not only supposedly had the great misfortune to say that, he also had the misfortune to be considered a god after his death and burial pyre. Hindoos still worship one of the sadder figures from the Mahabharata war under the name of Krishna. (Of course the evil cousin who had humiliated Arjuna’s wife was hardly a very nice figure either).

  28. Cassiodorus,

    I appreciate your continuing comments. My article which you generously read was directed at a slightly different point, and in fact I wasn’t thinking of Perennialists when I wrote it. But I think that the argument does apply to some extent to their position. If some particular historical person (truly or falsely) claims to communicate divine revelation, we have necessarily some way of evaluating whether his claims are true or not. When something is simply there, a tradition in simply place, as it were, how can we evaluate whether it really came from God or not? Moreover, it’s hard to see that any of the pagan religions are really making truth claims about their theology. They seem to be spiritual paths with a rich literature clothed in myth that illustrates their spiritual path, but doesn’t even claim a divine revelation to justify it.

    However, that is not my major objection to Perennialism. That objection is simply that if one has a common sense (correspondence) view of truth, contradictory statements about God or things divine cannot all be true. Either the Catholic Faith is true or it isn’t. If it isn’t, if it’s merely one of the ways that the unknowable divine reality reveals him/her/itself, then I don’t see why it’s particularly important. You may know what Flannery O’Connor said when someone said that the Eucharist was only a symbol, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” All the monotheistic religions have understood themselves as being in possession of revealed truth, so we would have to deny that their most important spokesmen really understood their own faiths – or that they were secretly Perennialists who veiled their doctrine from the ignorant masses.

    When I spoke about Gnosticism, what I meant was that if a Catholic adhered to Perennialism, he would be like a gnostic who thought he and his kind had the only real insight into religion and the poor, ignorant believers who actually took Catholic doctrine seriously as something true were sort of like little children who were to be humored and their childlike (or maybe childish) faith not to be disturbed. Aside from the fact that I don’t like this supercilious attitude (which I am not accusing you of) it makes nonsense of the truth claims of the Faith.

    Moreover, why would (on the Perennialist) view something like the Catholic Faith even have arisen?
    Why weren’t the various paganisms sufficient? And by what right did anyone leave his (apparently
    entirely acceptable) pagan tradition to become a Catholic? And is conversion from one tradition to another ok on the Perennialist view? So if I like the idea of having more than one woman I’ll become a Moslem, etc.?

  29. Hans-Georg Lundahl

    it’s hard to see that any of the pagan religions are really making truth claims about their theology.

    Depends and especially which level of theology you talk about.

    But however much you take Pagan histories at face value (insofar as they are for one thing accessible to human eyes when awake according to what is claimed and for another thing not flatly contradicting the History we know to be true), they do not support the Pagan theologies as Genesis, Exodus and Gospels support the Christian one.

    Christ ascended bodily before His disciples. He had proven for forty days His resurrection was real. Pagans simply have no such thing.

    Even for somewhat lesser things, like the Exodus, the Psalmist could claim “non fecit taliter in omnibus nationibus” – “he did not work thusly in all of the nations”, and could certainly support that claim in front of Pagans taking their own histories with total seriousness, even without being sceptic about them (except where they are in conflict with Holy History or with simple epistomology).

    That said, the Natural Law and a few things in basic metaphysics are common between Pagans and Christians. So are a few themes of History, like the Global flood (which only some, typically very sophisticated, Paganisms reduce to a more local one: Atlantis story – unless that is another flood rather than a localised version of Noah’s – or Nile floodings for Egypt, a flooded city after Krishna’s death for Hindoos and perhaps similar things for China).

  30. Distributionism is not the only economic system that can successfully accommodate the economic encyclicals and teaching of the Church. And, in fact, as an economic model, it is poorly formed. It speaks almost entirely of distribution of capital and speaks almost nothing about natural regulation of price or wage, the complexities of many decision-makers, or incentives of those who make economic decisions for others.

    Distributionism’s focus on unequal distribution speaks nothing about the change of who has the capital over time (yes, this is fluid) and why.

    Not only does who owns the capital change over time but the amount of capital changes. We now live in a world where you can buy a computer for 69 hours of labor at minimum wage and download quality free autocad software, design some cool stuff, 3d print it for next to nothing at a growing list of places (including some UPS stores), and distribute it. Or you can spend $1200 and buy a low-end 3d printer. The pie got bigger and one’s access to capital got smaller not because of distributionism but because of technology. Same for book publishing. A 26 year old women self-published enough $1 books to make her a millionaire.

    Distributionist does not explain why this happened or how to make more of it happen. And this is why it is but a mediocre economic theory.

  31. Matt,

    I fail to see how any of the points you bring up would argue against a distributist organization of an economy. Technology allows us to do things we
    couldn’t do before – ok, sometimes those things are
    beneficial, sometimes not. Technology can be owned or produced or controlled in many different ways. Distributism is not anti-technology, although many distributists (including myself) don’t think that just because a new device makes a process simpler or easier or cheaper it is necessarily beneficial for mankind.

    Nor does distributism pretend to be a complete economic theory. It is a means of organizing an economy, not a theoretical account of economic activity, such as the various schools of economics.

    BTW, it’s distributism, not distributionism.

  32. Hans-Georg Lundahl

    Same for book publishing. A 26 year old women self-published enough $1 books to make her a millionaire.

    Obviously the better possibilities for self-publishing are with the distributist ideal.

    IT is hardly a distributist ideal that a man shall be writing for a publisher he despises for years, because that publisher refuses half his articles, until he regains his freedom only by insulting the publisher after gaining sufficient money to self-publish (case of Chesterton in relation to the Cadbury Press and later own Chesterton’s Weekly).

    It speaks almost entirely of distribution of capital and speaks almost nothing about natural regulation of price or wage,

    It says that if capital is too poorly distributed, the natural regulation of price or wage (which is not its ideal btw) is put out of play by the overhwelmingly greater power of certain players than others.

    the complexities of many decision-makers,

    Yes, it says their decisions would be less complex and therefore better with less concentration of cpaital.

    or incentives of those who make economic decisions for others.

    It rather gives incentives (or would if applied) to let each make his own economic decisions.

    many distributists (including myself) don’t think that just because a new device makes a process simpler or easier or cheaper it is necessarily beneficial for mankind.

    Let us put it like this: if it is simpler and cheaper for one to produce for all of his town, his country or his continent, that makes it harder for most people in that business to make a living within that business.

    Applied to exactly just one business, it is deleterious for that and beneficial for everyone doing some other business. But applied to business after business it is deleterious to the masses. It neither produces more nor less per acre in terms of food or clothing, but makes many men superfluous for the necessary productions.

    If you look at the actual businesses that are being made in absence of earlier agriculture and handicrafts to occupy men, I am less stricken by arts (though some get sometimes strikingly ugly) than by Securitas watchmen, Orion personnel management, shrinks, you name it …

  33. Dr. Storck,

    I am grateful for your thoughtful and measured response. The subject of the relationship between Perennialism and the Christian Tradition is of great interest to me. I would direct anyone who finds this topic compelling to one of the seminal Traditionalist texts, “The Transcendent Unity of Religions” by the metaphysician, Frithjof Schuon.

    Best Regards

  34. Cassiodorus,

    But isn’t the Frithjof Schuon book you recommend squarely in the Perennialist camp? Are you supposing that it is compatible with Catholic faith? I’m adding this comment chiefly because I do not want to see readers misled by reading a book that promotes what seems to me a theory that is not acceptable to orthodox Catholicism, but is an esoteric approach to religion in which our normal understanding of Catholicism (or of any religion) is just an outward (exoteric) system for those who are not truly enlightened.

  35. Dr.Storck,

    It is true that I’m not entirely convinced that they are incompatible, nevertheless, I understand your concern. Since this subject can easily be misconstrued, I decided to suggest a “source material” rather than attempting (what would probably prove to be) an inadequate and fumbling explanation of a topic that (I think) needs more treatment than a short blog post.

  36. Hans-Georg Lundahl

    En mars 1935, Schuon retourne à Mostaghanem où le khalifah Adda Bentounes a succédé au Sheikh défunt. Pour répondre aux vœux du Sheikh El-Alawî, celui-ci nomme Schuon moqaddem (« représentant ») à l’issue d’une longue et édifiante khalwah (retraite). Cette fonction lui confère la possibilité de transmettre l’initiation et le « rattachement » à l’Ordre.

    Christian or Moslem?

  37. Thomas Storck, thank you for your response, I would have replied sooner, but the notification was lost in my inbox.

    These guilds seem an awful lot like trade unions in non right-to-work states, with a similar problem: what is to prevent them from blocking access to training and jobs for those who are not brilliant or connected to those in the guild? Who enforces the no-non-guild-member rule?
    I guess my questions boil down to: how are guilds, whose democratic processes would still be subject to the iron law of oligarchy and survival instincts, better than the current system of government, which, from your response, seems to be doing all the same things?

    Thank you again.

  38. Hans-Georg Lundahl

    how are guilds, whose democratic processes would still be subject to the iron law of oligarchy and survival instincts, better than the current system of government, which, from your response, seems to be doing all the same things?

    Is oligarchy an iron law? Are survival instincts everything that matters in human action? We being Christians think not.

    These guilds seem an awful lot like trade unions in non right-to-work states,

    Major difference: in trade unions, employees band together to get the most out of the employers. In guilds employers band together to stop each one among them from getting the most out of employees or customers to the detriment of the other small employers.

    what is to prevent them from blocking access to training and jobs for those who are not brilliant or connected to those in the guild?

    Every master of a guild was obliged to hire as journeymen (from age 14 to master or to death – some became employers in their turn, some rested employees) only those who had made an apprenticeship (age 7-14, both artscraft and education like reading, writing and useful maths and above all Christian faith). He must be recognised as a journeyman by the guild, and that started with an apprenticeship and then the master gave him a test before the other guild masters of the town.

    It was the town that made or did not make for each trade a monopoly for the guild.

    Who enforces the no-non-guild-member rule?

    The town for each guild that has such a contract.

    It may be added that towns were run by councils and mayors voted with guilds like voting districts. Belloc voted in the Brewers’ Guild of London … centuries after it had lost most of its other functions.

    And before you ask “but what about the companies that are much bigger than a town’s finances”, well the point of guilds was to avoid that for most kinds of business. And that is the point of distributism too.


  39. Dear Question,

    I think there are primarily two reasons why what we might call economic regulation is better done by guilds than by government. The first is that a guild, as those actually involved in the trade or industry, understand it better than others. You’re familiar, I’m sure, with OSHA. Well, OSHA has been criticized at times for having insufficient understanding of the actual work processes and imposing unrealistic rules to promote safety. In a capitalist economy something like OSHA is necessary. But with guilds the same people whose health or life is at stake would actually make such workplace safety rules. They would presumably know what the real hazards were and not create unrealistic or artificial standards.

    Secondly, it is true that fallen mankind has selfish appetites such as greed or a lust for power. Government officials can develop a desire to regulate and control everything. This is unhealthy and can even lead to tyranny. But the alternative of leaving everything to market forces is not satisfactory either. Thus the guild solution. Guilds are not perfect – no human organization since Adam works perfectly or always avoids the sorts of evils you mention. Thus the old adage, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, Who will watch over [guard] the guardians?

    Guilds, however, would need to have the backing of government as a last resort. In the Middle Ages this was usually the local government. As much as possible this would be desirable still today, and if we had a more localized economy than we do now, it would probably be feasible too.