Capitalism, Socialism, and Beyond
Catholic thinkers have been at the forefront of rethinking modern economics from the perspective of the human person. Beginning with Leo XIII’s influential 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, but drawing on a longer tradition, Catholicism has subjected both capitalism and socialism to scrutiny, and found each wanting. Lay critics, such as G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and Msgr. Fulton Sheen in America carried forward this critique through the early decades of the twentieth century.
Until recently, however, this tradition has been in something of the doldrums. The triumph of the West in the Cold War convinced many that capitalism—at least as understood in certain quarters—was the way of the future, and that there was no particular “Catholic” way of understanding economic thought. Moreover, certain catholic thinkers embraced the view that the “creative destruction” of capitalism was supported by Catholic social teaching.
Nevertheless, the last decade has seen a remarkable efflorescence of the older leonine tradition. Writers as varied as Allan Carlson, Rod Dreher, and the Italian economist Stefano Zamagni have all subjected the rational, utilitarian, profit-seeking individual to a devastating critique. For example, modern economics makes little room for sentiments such as altruism or charity, which have profound economic effects. The phantom homo economicus that has dominated thought for the last two centuries and more simply does not exist.
The contributors to this remarkable volume continue the task, adumbrating the principles of what IHS editor John Sharpe calls the “Distributist, social Catholic and agrarian tradition.” This tradition focuses on the widespread ownership of property by which families can support themselves without reliance on the cash nexus or an unequal wage system. This in turn would lead to political decentralization and the return of government to small, human-scaled communities, along the American federalist model. Contributors include Christopher Blum, Aidan Mackey, and Thomas Storck, and cover subjects such as the thought of Distributist leader Fr. Vincent McNabb, the idea of a “Catholic Economics,” and a penetrating critique of modern economics by Ed McPhail through the ethical lens of Distributist thought. Of particular note is the essay “For the Life of this Pig,” by William Fahey, a profound reflection on the connections between families, the soil, work, and tradition. It alone is worth the price of the books.
The arguments for agrarianism are not without rebuttals. While respect for and defense of rural life is crucial for societal health, it is clearly not the only model of society. Catholic thought does not, contrary to some of the claims in this collection, privilege rural life; Christianity, after all, was spread first in the cities. Nor does agrarianism appear fully sensitive to the notion of vocation: if a young man or woman feels called by God and talent to neuroscience rather than husbandry, there should be little obstacle to pursue that career ethically. To do so, obviously, requires a larger economic (and non-agrarian) infrastructure. What this important collection does, however, is bring back into public conversation the truths lost in a whirl of consumerism, imported goods (made under conditions we would rather not think about), and the true conditions of the good society.
Posted: January 2, 2008
The Literary Burke
William F. Byrne