Monday, June 6, 2011

Why I Cannot Be a Distributivist

The Distributist Review's Nicholas C. Hosford writes, "Because economics is a moral theater, the role of government as far as the economy is concerned is no different than its role in other facets of society: to enforce morality" — The Role of the State. "Yikes!" is all I have to say to this latter-day Girolamo Savonarola.

St. Thomas Aquinas would disagree, at least according to the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on Aquinas' Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy, which explains that the Dumb Ox taught that "coercive jurisdiction extends to defending persons and property both by force and by the credible threat of punishment for criminal or other unjust appropriation or damage[, b]ut it does not extend to enforcing any part of morality other than the requirements of justice insofar as they can be violated by acts external to the choosing and acting person's will."

That noted, I support the vision of Distributivism, just not the means most Distributivists propose. "Distributivist aims by libertarian means," I say. Call it Austro-Distributivism.

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Blogger Pints in NYC said...

Where does the Mondragon Group fit in with all this?

9:35 AM  
Blogger papabear said...

Unfortunately, that is John Finnis's spin on Aquinas, and Finnis tends to interpret Aquinas through a liberal lens. Aquinas, while realistic about the limits of law, is also a bit more nuanced.

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tend to think along those same lines. I think the best thing to do first to begin achieving Distributism is to re-establish gold or silver basis to the dollar. The second is break up the too-big to fail banks, starting by ending the Federal Reserve.

If you can take care of the greatest source of injustice, the society will begin to heal from the damage in a surprisingly short time, I suspect.

10:01 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Pints, the Mondragon Group is a good example of bottom-up Distributivism. I used to work at a food co-op, and am all for such enterprises.

papabear, thanks. Will research.

danightman, fully agreed.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Carl M. said...

While I'm sympathetic to CS Lewis' argument that the worst governments are those that will torture you while convincing themselves that it is for your own good, I don't think the idea of a non-moral government is very Confucian.

While the goal of the sage is to act non-coercively as much as possible, that shouldn't be taken to mean that the state is indifferent to morality. I can't detect any notion of a distributive justice vs. personal morality split in the early Confucian texts. The early Confucians certainly weren't egalitarians, but Mencius, for example, makes the case that there's no practical difference in culpability between letting the people starve in a famine and sending them to die in a war. One earns the mandate of heaven by making the world more humane. You make the world humane by being humane yourself and modeling this for others while seeking to get as far ahead in the world as fate allows. Once in power, you show everyone that there's no way to pursue self-interest absent benefiting others. When fortune is on your side, the world becomes harmonious. When fortune is not on your side, you have to retire because the world is set upon disharmony and conflict.

12:59 PM  
Blogger scotju said...

WC, I've always thought distributism was just another form of socialism. The fact that anyone who advocated it was very vague on how the land and money was to be parceled out made me believe that it was to be done by force. The guy you quoted didn't exactly quence my fears about it. And I've never heard of any successful example of d-ism being carried ot in real life. If you can post some articles about some successful projects, I'd like to read them.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

If a business entity is a creature of the government -- as corporations are, they are created by statute and only exist if properly registered with the state -- why can't the government regulate it? I'm not talking about sole proprietorships or partnerships in business, but corporations -- artificial persons that are created by government action. I don't see a theoretical problem with the state regulating or even controlling that which it creates.

3:14 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Carl M., I agree, I think the Confucian "rule by moral example" in this case might just involve minor tweaks like tax breaks to the little guy, etc. But enforcing morality? That's legalism.

scotju, I'm afraid a haven't found any. When I firest came across d-ism years ago, I said, "Yeah, right on!" Then I started reading stuff by latter-day d-ists.

Mark, how about not creating them in the first place? Just a question.

9:55 PM  
Blogger Donald Goodman said...


ST Ia-IIae Q. 95 Art 1 will probably explain St. Thomas's opinion on the purposes of laws. Namely, he held that their entire purpose was to make men virtuous and to restrain their vices.

10:21 PM  
Blogger tcasey1914 said...

But certainly St. Thomas would have supported usury laws and other limitations on the power to contract, correct?

I am out of my element somewhat with this, but I imagine the Church would not have divided "social" regulation from "economic" regulation. The state can -- and must -- regulate for the common good of the people. Period.

2:20 AM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

Well, that would be ideal, I think. I'm not a fan of corporations. But if they are to exist -- and they can only exist at the behest of the government -- then the government has power over them. Looking at the world as it currently exists, I think that the argument in favor of government regulation of corporations as a theoretical point is uncontrovertable.

2:53 AM  
Blogger love the girls said...

Q.92 Art 1 is also useful in explaining St. Thomas' position.

It might be worth noting that the libertarians have a strange Procrustean method of reading St. Thomas in which they force him to fit their world view.

3:56 AM  
Blogger Pints in NYC said...

Mark, you say:

> If a business entity is a creature of the government -- as corporations are, they are created by statute and only exist if properly registered with the state <

I don't think I fully agree with this. Don't businesses exist a priori gov't recognition there of? Aren't laws of incorporation merely gov't recognition & protection of a business?

Don't businesses (not all are nefarious, mind you) exist in the gray & black markets?

I can see gov't regulating those which register; but must all register?

6:37 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...


What makes a corporation a corporation is that the government grants the shareholders limited liability. That's not true of a partnership, which doesn't require any government recognition. Protection from personal liability doesn't exist in the "state of nature."

For example, if you and I enter into a partnership for the purpose of making cars, but all our cars have defective brakes and end up killing a lot of people, then we could lose everything we own paying those judgments. But, if we incorporate first, as long as we follow corporate formalities, we may lose everything we invested in the company, but we won't lose our non-business assets. (That's a simplified version of the law and of the business world, of course, but it does cover the basics of corporations.)

9:14 AM  

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