Ha Jolly Ha

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Part IIA: The Problems with Capitalism

"Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition." Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum

"Comforts that were rare among our forefathers are now multiplied in factories and handed out wholesale; and indeed, nobody nowadays, so long as he is content to go without air, space, quiet, decency and good manners, need be without anything whatever that he wants; or at least a reasonably cheap imitation of it." -Chesteron
, Commonwealth, 1933

Unbridled Competition

The capitalist freemarket thrives on unbridled competition. This is problematic for several reasons. First, it weakens local economy and correspondingly local community. The rootedness and stability of local community depend upon the strength of the local economy. We must remember, the spiritual value of strong local community is more important than material prosperity, though they often go hand in hand.Perhaps it is more efficient and less costly, at least under our present system, to supply American grocers with apples from China. But such a process effaces the personal relationship between the local farmer and the local grocer, which is more important than cheap produce. [Coincidentally, local produce is healthier, simply because it's local, but also because
it is fresher and not denuded of nutrients by irradiation.]

Medieval guilds provide a helpful example of a more balanced system. For each trade, guilds only permitted a limited number of businesses in their city and they also regulated prices. For example, suppose a city had 200 families. The baker's guild would decide how many bakers could earn a reasonable living in their city. Perhaps they might decide 15 bakers would be enough. Once fifteen bakeries were established, they would permit no more bakeries in the city. They also set a uniform price for bread and regulated the quality. This still allowed a certain degree of competition - an industrious baker could bake more loaves and a courteous, responsible baker could attract more customers. However, that kind of competition rewards virtue, rather than avarice.

Secondly, unbridled competition presupposes an errouneous notion of private property, placing no limits on its acquisition or use. According to St. Thomas, man cannot own property in an absolute sense. It is right that men "procure" and "dispense" goods, but in determining their use, "man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need." In other words, the possession of wealth does not authorize you to spend it as you will. Your standard of living should correspond to your role in society, but not necessarily to your income. For example, a certain dignity and splendor befits those public figures vested with great authority and weighty responsibility. However, the profession of actor, athlete, or (gasp) CEO do not merit the same dignity and splendor as that of a judge or a teacher. People often assume that, as long as they tithe, their hard work entitles them to a certain decadence, but the Thomistic account for justice indicates a different standard. In a general sense, one pursues the common good by pursuing the good of the family. Yet, the good of the family does not directly require a cruise or a yacht or a third house, and perhaps we have no right to such luxuries, whilst the less fortunate suffer. [Note, St. Thomas raises this question in the section of the Summa concerning Justice.]

More to come...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Part I: In Defense of Distributism

Although a wealth of principles and guidelines may be found in the social teaching of the magisterium of the Church, Catholic opinion concerning the realm of economic and social order remains murky and disparate, even among those of traditional mindset. This is grievously unfortunate.

It is the work of Christianity to establish the reign of Christ on earth, thereby bringing as many souls as possible to salvation. While the perfect and eternal establishment of that kingdom awaits the return of Christ the King at the end of time, it begins with our toils here and now. Lest we labor in vain, it is essential that we possess a clear understanding of our purpose.

The general foundation of Catholic culture appears obvious - the truths of Christianity must govern and inform every aspect of life. Religion cannot comprise merely one facet of your life, trotted out and observed on Sundays and special occasions. On the contrary, it must provide the underlying purpose for all of your actions, implicitly if not explicitly ordering them to their final End. Determining what that means in particular circumstances requires prodigious amounts of prudence.

As I mentioned in an earlier post on docility, St. Thomas says that "in matters of prudence man stands in very great need of being taught by others, especially by old folk who have acquired a sane understanding of the ends in practical matters." Now, the principles of distributism were developed, advocated and explained by men renowned within the Church for their knowledge and understanding of the Faith and its traditions. For this reason, we should consider their writings with an open mind and a measured regard.

First, let me dispel a few common myths.

Distributists advocate the violent overthrow of the capitalist system.
While distributists recognize many flaws in the capitalist system, any sane distributist also recognizes that Rome was not rebuilt in a day and that any radical changes would be both impractical and imprudent. Under Catholic just war theory, the latter considerations rule out violent overthrow as a moral option.

Distributists want the government to seize all land and distribute it equally among the citizenship.
The term distributism is somewhat misleading, particularly in this post-20th century world, which warily rejects any hint of the communism that so nearly destroyed it. Relax, distributism never advocates government seizure and allocation of property. In fact, in its proposed organization, capitalism resembles communism more than distributism does. The two former systems centralize the means of production in the hands of a few. In capitalism, the few wealthy; in communism, the few government officials. In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII pointed to the benefits of having productive property widely distributed among the citizenry of a society. When Hilaire Belloc coined the word distributism, he merely sought a succint means of expressing that model.

Social teaching is not infallible. The Popes are not trained economists, therefore they cannot speak authoritatively on this matter. Furthermore, the social teachings of the Church are usually practical suggestions concerning a particular time period and its problems, therefore they quickly become obsolete and we need not study or observe any but the most recent.
Perhaps ignorance of this magnitude is uncommon, but I have encountered serious Catholics who hold this notion, so I address it just in case. In the first place, economics involves deliberate (i.e. reasoned) human actions, therefore it definitively falls within the realm of ethics and under the teaching authority of the Church. It does not matter whether the Pope is a trained economist or not; in matters of faith and morals, he can and should speak, and we should listen.

Secondly, although social teachings frequently address contemporary problems, they dictate universal principles rather than particular, practical suggestions. For example: "Every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own."(Rerum Novarum, sec. 6) That is a general statement regarding human nature and human relations. Here is another one: "And on this very account - that man alone among the animal creation is endowed with reason - it must be within his right to possess things not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living things do, but to have and to hold them in stable and permanent possession; he must have not only things that perish in the use, but those also which, though they have been reduced into use, continue for further use in after time."(Rerum Novarum, sec. 6) Universal principles are eternal and unchanging, always relevant. The Church's teaching does not evolve; it grows in richness and clarity. Thus, we can learn as much from old social teaching as from new. In fact, it is questionable whether one can understand truly newer teachings without an understanding of the foundations they stand upon.

Distributists are impractical, idealists. They romanticize the past and want to recreate the Middle Ages.
I will not deny that distributists are idealists, if that means they hopefully strive for the best things. But I do deny that idealism must be impractical. The goal of the Christian life is perfect imitation of Christ, yet we know that, ultimately, His perfection infinitely trancends human potential. An idealist becomes impractical when he becomes proud, when he despairs at human failures and seeks to be a god instead of to be like God . In the words of Chesterton: "There cannot be a nation of millionaires, and there never has been a nation of Utopian comrades; but there have been any number of nations of tolerably contented peasants."(Outline of Sanity CW. V. 192)

During the Middle Ages, Christianity permeated society much more obviously and extensively than it has in the centuries following the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. Therefore, distributists look to the Middle Ages, not to replicate a utopia, but to learn from a society which recognized the Christian hierarchy of goods.

Stay tuned for Part II: The Problems with Capitalism

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Kingship in Tolkien

[First of all, if you have seen THE MOVIES, you really must click on that picture and cleanse your imagination of the distorted and deficient phantasms lodged there by those odious films.]

A couple of weeks ago, I returned once more to my eternal "most favoritist" of books -
The Lord of the Rings. This will be my fourth or fifth time reading it from beginning to end, in addition to those many times when I've read favorite passages, either with friends or on my own. As always, I am captivated by the piercing beauty and sadness of the tale.

I once attended a lecture on Tolkien by Mr. Gerry Matatics (before he took up the unfortunate errors of sedevacantism). As he analyzed the character of Aragorn, he made a beautiful point about the importance of kingship in Christian fantasy and Christian fairy tales. Particularly in this post-monarchic, democratic world, mankind needs images of holy kingship in order to better understand Christ. As a philosophy professor recently reminded me, the whole of material creation exists in order that rational creatures dependent upon sense knowledge(i.e, men) can understand something about God. Creation exists precisely as it does in order to best reflect Truth Itself. For example, our perception of the relation between God and man is profoundly augmented and deepened by the experience of human fatherhood. The Creator could have brought all of mankind into being in one instant, all at once, bam... Instead he instituted matrimony for the propogation of the human race, that the order of the universe might present a clearer image of it's End.

Christ fulfilled perfectly the three roles of the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament: priest, suffering servant, and king. Thus, our understanding of Christ depends, in part, upon our understanding of kingship. Since living examples are in short supply, now more than ever, we must turn to stories as vital, rich fodder for a Christian imagination. And good kings and kingly men abound in The Lord of the Rings:

"Do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know."
- Celeborn

"There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark."
- Aragorn

"One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters."
- Aragorn

"Glorfindel was tall and straight; his hair was of shining gold, his face fair and young and fearless and full of joy; his eyes were bright and keen, and his voice like music; on his brow sat wisdom, and in his hand was strength."

"We will have peace, when you and all your works have perished - and the works of your dark master to whom you would deliver us. You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men's hearts... Even if your war on me was just - as it was not, for were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine for your own profit as you desired - even so what will you say if your torches in Westfold and the children that lie dead there?"
- Theoden, King of Rohan

"Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity."
- Gandalf

"The wise speak only of what they know."
- Gandalf

"[H]e that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom."

"He turned his dark eyes on Gandalf, and now Pippin saw a likeness between the two, and he felt the strain between them, almost as if he saw a line of smouldering fire, drawn from eye to eye, that might suddenly burst into flame. Denethor looked indeed much more like a great wizard than Gandalf did, more kingly, beautiful, and powerful; and older. Yet by a sense other than sight Pippin perceived that Gandalf had the greater power and the deeper wisdom, and a majesty that was veiled. And he was older, far older."
- Narration

"The hands of a king are the hands of a healer."

"Once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people."
- Eomer, on the field of Pelennor

"War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend."
- Faramir

"We are truth-speakers, we men of Gondor. We boast seldom, and then perform, or die in the attempt. Not if I found it on the highway would I take it, I said. Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow, and be held by them."