The Crisis in the 21st Century – I.III. Economy (Part III)
At this point in discussing the problems with the present economic state of Western Civilization, and particularly of the United States, there are a few clarifications that need to be made. First, capitalism is not intrinsically evil. Much good can come out of it; likewise, socialism and communism are not intrinsically evil. But it is important to recognize that all things, be they material objects or ideas in the abstract, have an innate quality according to their actual existence and implementation. Insofar as there is an ideal structure to which they will more or less conform in actuality, they have an objective quality and an objective ideal, which compares as better or worse to other things. Both the reality and the ideal will have tendencies and likely imperfections. Socialism is flawed both in actuality and in ideality, in both denigrating the inherent dignity of man. Capitalism is flawed mostly in actuality, as attempts to realize its ideality, the latter not being prohibited by man’s nature with necessity, ignore the reality of human beings fallen nature and difficulty in maintaining responsibility unless held accountable. Thus attempts are made to systematize accountability, which only further exacerbates the problem, by treating men as units rather than as persons. Thus, it is not that the systems are evil; they are morally neutral. But a gun is also morally neutral (the creation of guns as weapons may have been morally dubious, but the technology being realized the weapon itself, unless designed specifically for killing on a larger scale without other considerations, is not intrinsically evil; anyone who has never shot a gun will likely not acknowledge just how much fun it is). Things which are morally neutral can almost always be put to good or bad uses; as such it is up to morally responsible individuals to see that their use is not governmentally regulated, but prudentially guided, meaning on a personal level. Economic systems are no different. Capitalism may be validly exercised, but sooner or later, so long as it treks along the paths of capitalistic ideals, it will make moral behavior less and less capitalistically rewarding and immoral behavior all the more attractive.
Second, capitalism is rather firmly embedded in Western society and man is, whether or not he realizes it, rather woefully enslaved by not only a nationwide, but a worldwide market. How can man be freed from his servility to the dominant macroeconomic structure which compels his purchases and denies his working freedom? Immediate realization of a distributist economy is unrealistic and improbable. But recognition of its principles is not: indeed, if the subservience of man to economic practices which replace the person with the dollar as the idealistic telos for which it operates is to be averted, then there must be an establishment of self-sufficiency and the common good as the two operating principles of economic science.
It is a seeming paradox: that man must become committed both to self-sufficiency and to the common good in order to be free. But like in the interpretation of a Scriptural text, one must both believe in the verity of a single verse and of the entire Bible, which may seem at times contradictory; unless one understands the relationship of the part to the whole. So too must one understand the relationship between the individual and the community. If one improperly elevates the good of the community, and particularly of the state, above the good of the self, the good of the self ceases to exist and thus the community will also cease, sooner or later; contrariwise, if one disregards the good of the community in favor of the benefit of the self, the community dissolves. In the former error, one ceases to be a person; in the latter, he ceases to be truly self-sufficient, for try as he might he cannot both pursue wealth and disregard others, they being necessary to his goals. Yet if their good is no longer his concern, he becomes entirely dependent upon a macroeconomic system in which he does not deal with others as persons, but as units which themselves economically interact with himself as a unit.
In theory, then, distributism relies upon man recognizing that in some ways his good is superior to that of the community and that in others the community’s good supersedes his own; secondly, it relies upon man acknowledging that if he has too few options from which he may purchase his goods, then those companies are capable of exercising a certain form of economic tyranny over not only their consumers, but also their suppliers – for instance, when companies such as Wal-Mart demand that all of the packaging in which their resold products come be biodegradable, their suppliers have no choice but to comply or else go entirely out of business. Similarly, when trying to find a rare piece of music or an unusual book, Amazon.com is an invaluable service; but when they support “Gay Pride Month,” principle demands a boycott and thus a foregoing of the goodness of music or the written word, if it cannot be found elsewhere – and oftentimes it cannot. Compliance with the tyrannies of such companies ultimately redistributes the wealth of the individual into the hands of the already wealthy; and while the enormous quantity of existing money in the world makes it seem as though there is always more to be had, the simple fact is that when someone makes money, someone else loses it.
In stark contrast to this financially upwardly funneling hierarchy which results from the dominance of a large corporation, more people operating small businesses within a given community keeps money circulating within a community. In small towns across America, it is not uncommon for a Wal-Mart to open and subsequently suck the money out of a community, to the point where not only are most people shopping at a single store, but many are working there. While to some, attempts to keep most of a community’s money internal may seem like too much stillness, too much stagnation, and too much repetitiveness, such is little more than part of the myth of Progress. Furthermore, communal financial cycling allows for many benefits: particularly more men being masters of themselves in their work, as is in accord with their dignity (is it any wonder that so many men are not manly when the vast majority spend their whole lives taking orders, often as regards menial tasks, from other men? How can a cashier at McDonalds be respected by his company’s CEO as anything more than a unit of profit? How can he be a man to the company, when that which directs the company has never met him as a man?) and also involves the individual with the wholeness of his industry, making him master of his trade or practice.
Additionally a man will be more incentivized to achieve such mastery in a system where he alone is accountable for his financial success or failure; where incompetence will be recognized by juxtaposition to that which is better; and where a denigration of quality through monopoly is prohibited. It is from such a system that the things of a nobler culture come. Capitalism, as it stands presently, is perceptibly contributing to a watering down of cultural mediums. When anyone can publish a book, lower literary standards will prevail; when two-cent talent with a million dollar physique can score a record deal, true music is replaced with pre-packaged ear-candy. Any attempt to appeal to the masses immediately will result in finding the lowest common denominator; contrariwise, an attempt to appeal to the tastes of a local community will not necessitate dropping standards quite so low, and make it possible to gradually improve upon the quality of those things that are offered to the community: as master craftsmen compete for more mastery, for a product which is identifiable, appreciable, and superior, the local populace will benefit.
Such speculation about the benefits of a distributist society can go on ad infinitum. On the strictly practical level, it has to be acknowledged that such a society cannot be immediately realized, partly because capitalism is so thoroughly established, and partly because distributism, much like capitalism, cannot begin by a government, top-down initiative, but must start from the bottom, from the individual, to the family, and to the community. Small impacts, small attempts to do both the self and the other true justice, may collaboratively bring about not material exchange but genuine cultural development. Such can, and will happen, the more that individuals make sacrifices of extraneous wealth in favor of working for smaller businesses, by starting small businesses of their own which cater to local markets and not large-scale economies, by emphasizing personal relationships in their businesses – by being conscious of what John Paul II termed “the personalistic norm” – and by buying locally whenever possible. In other words, the implications of one’s financial decisions need always to be evaluated. It may end up costing a lot more for the average purchase – which will result in the purchases made being significantly more valued. It may reduce the number of things which an individual can buy – which will reduce the noise and clutter in man’s life, helping him find peace and quiet in the simplicity of a few good things rather than a million things of meager significance. Indeed, a man may spend a lot more on every single thing he buys; but if that money never goes further than his neighbor, and his neighbor’s money never goes further than his own neighbors, then more of that money comes back to the first man. In this way, the good of each is bound up in the latter and the good of each is respected for its own inherent quality; the self is sufficient and yet respectful of the community. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “Two people must be tied together in order to do themselves justice; for twenty minutes at a dance, or for twenty years in a marriage.”1 Indeed; and so must they be tied together in their economic community, as one person to another, lest the worse parts of human nature prevail.
1 Chesterton, G.K., What’s Wrong with the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994) 45.