The “new birth of freedom” that Michael championed largely came to pass. And it has tended to weaken the two other legs holding up society: democratic institutions and a vital religious and moral culture. Michael observes that “greater incentives will stimulate greater economic activism.” True, but he did not recognize that ever-greater economic activity can crowd out political engagement and sideline religious and moral authority. This is what has happened. Capitalism, now global in scope, is swallowing up more and more of civic life, so much so that in some contexts economists and policymakers present free market principles as ironclad laws about which we have no choice. Dwindling manufacturing jobs, technological displacement, global flows of labor and capital—we are told we have no alternative. This is a cruel reversal of what Michael commended as the source of freedom and openness...We are drowning in freedom... Age-old expectations of marriage and children have become choices. We can even choose to become male or female.
Our end is rest in God. In this life, we rightly cherish that which foreshadows this final rest: belonging to a family with its own home and heritage; being from a particular place and participating in a civic culture that has a noble inheritance to be cherished and sustained; being in solidarity as a distinct people that shares a common future, the most important of which is the Church, the people of God who seek to abide in him. What Michael Novak failed to recognize—what we must acknowledge—is that the dynamism of free market capitalism invades, overturns, refashions, and sometimes destroys these places of rest.
I think some of the criticisms of Reno’s article are too harsh. He is not a communist and doesn’t want the state to take over the economy. He merely wants to rein in capitalism so that people and businesses have less freedom. He doesn’t say so, but anyone familiar with Catholic social teachings and the encyclicals of several recent Popes will recognize Reno’s position as the old distributism of Chesterton and Belloc.
Resentment of the Reformation
Catholics have resented the Reformation for the entire five centuries that Protestants have celebrated it. Some have called it the greatest calamity to ever assault Europe and blame everything wrong with the West, from flat tires to broken springs, on the Reformation. They long for the medieval world in which Popes could force kings to make barefoot pilgrimages to atone for sin. Of course, they don’t want to go back to the mass starvation that plagued Europe with every bad harvest, or the ravages of the plague, or the abuse of power by the nobility. Mostly what they want is a return of the medieval system of small businesses organized into guilds that regulated all aspects of businesses, set quality standards, prices, labor policies, etc. and controlled entry into each profession. Guilds also looked after members through early forms of unemployment and health insurance.
After more than a century of laissez-faire that ended medieval poverty and lifted the West to wealth 30 time greater on average, socialism exploded in popularity in the US and UK. Marx’s myths about capitalism, that it would create monopolies and starve workers, became generally accepted as fact even as inequality was declining, living standards rising faster than ever and competition was destroying monopolies. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was published in 1904, handing Chesterton and Belloc the smoking gun with which to indict Protestantism for all the evils of modern society that they imagined. Distributists lacked Marx’s appreciation for the immense wealth that capitalism has created.
From its modern origins with Saint-Simon, socialists have seen their ideology as a substitute salvation plan for mankind. Not only would socialism distribute wealth evenly and make everyone rich, it would perfect human nature. Socialists invented the idea that people are born innocent and turn evil only because of oppression. Socialism would slay the greatest oppressor, private property, and create an environment in which people would return to their natural goodness. Chesterton and Belloc didn’t drink the Kool-Aid that socialism could perfect human nature, but they swallowed whole the nonsense that capitalism could make them evil.
They’re all distributists now
Reno’s charges against capitalism and his remedies expose his devotion to distributism. There is a lot wrong with Reno’s economics as his Public Discourse critics have skillfully pointed out. I want to concentrate on distributism’s view of human nature. It claims that an economic system makes people evil. Now all distributists, from Chesterton and Belloc to crunchy con Rod Dreher, Ron Sider and R.R. Reno, claim to be Christians and intellectuals to boot. They should know that Christianity has always taught that mankind is flawed and contains within it the seeds of all kinds of evil. I would venture to guess that they all know previous epics in history before capitalism during which people were more evil and afflicted by worse vices and social disintegration than today. So how do they explain them without capitalism?
The worst cases of the destruction of institutions of the family, church and community have taken place in socialist countries, especially Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China under Mao, Cuba, North Korea, etc. All of the vices of the modern West that Reno advertises existed and exist in all socialist nations. Has Reno watched any news about socialist Venezuela?
Reno, Dreher and all distributists have cause and effect backwards. Neither socialism or capitalism can destroy Christianity and Christian morals. Millennia of persecution of Christians is proof. The valor and faithfulness of Christians persecuted by Al Qaeda and ISIS is overwhelming evidence. But neither can socialism or capitalism make people evil and destroy institutions.
Christianity has always taught that people choose to respond to or reject God’s call. If they reject it, God allows them to commit the evil acts that human nature is in slavery to. Most of the problems Reno sees simply don’t exist, but those that do are the result of the rejection of Christianity by the West, not of capitalism.
The Third Way to Hell
Distributists insist they are not proposing a third way between capitalism and socialism. They merely want the state to intervene in the economy just enough to produce the kinder, gentler capitalism they imagine existed in the past. The greatest economist of the twentieth century, Ludwig von Mises, stated in a speech in 1950, published as “Middle-of-the-Road Policy Leads to Socialism,”
The interventionists emphasize that they plan to retain private ownership of the means of production, entrepreneurship and market exchange. But, they go on to say, it is peremptory to prevent these capitalist institutions from spreading havoc and unfairly exploiting the majority of people. It is the duty of government to restrain, by orders and prohibitions, the greed of the propertied classes lest their acquisitiveness harm the poorer classes. Unhampered or laissez-faire capitalism is an evil. But in order to eliminate its evils, there is no need to abolish capitalism entirely. It is possible to improve the capitalist system by government interference with the actions of the capitalists and entrepreneurs. Such government regulation and regimentation of business is the only method to keep off totalitarian socialism and to salvage those features of capitalism which are worth preserving...
Interventionism cannot be considered as an economic system destined to stay. It is a method for the transformation of capitalism into socialism by a series of successive steps.
State intervention in the economy always leads to socialism because each foray into the market causes harmful unintended consequences that lead to further intervention until the state controls everything. He
In other words, the road to hell is paved, either by the direct road to socialism used by Lenin or through incremental intervention by distributists.