Towards a humane economy: a reply to Thomas Storck
by Philip Harold
The issue of economic life is a very important one for Catholics. We must realize that in the history of mankind there have been only two economic revolutions: the agricultural and the industrial, with the second of these coming very recently. The problem of moving towards a humane economy must be approached in the spirit of full engagement with modernity (an attitude embodied in the papacy of John Paul II) rather than an antiquarian desire to return to the pre-capitalist era. I feel Thomas Storck has this spirit in his article “What is distributism?”, but his comments stand in need of clarification and development. To do this, I would like to penetrate to the root of the problem with capitalism, which I believe to be embodied in its ethos.
Structures are a function of attitudes, and it is capitalist attitudes which must be changed before capitalist structures can change. What are capitalist attitudes? They are so pervasive today and infect our lives so deeply that it can be hard at times to objectify them. One element of the capitalist ethos is clearly seen when contrasted with the ascetic life.1 The ascetic tries to gain a maximum of pleasure from a minimum of goods, while the capitalist is concerned about obtaining the maximum of goods, and very often settles with the minimum of pleasure. In our capitalist society today it is seen as a virtue to always be dissatisfied, because the dissatisfied person seeks more improvement, progress. If one is content, then there is no impetus to “serve the common good” by working harder, more efficiently. Efficiency in fact dominates our practical thinking.
Mr. Storck hinted at the most important capitalist attitude that must be changed, namely the perceived absolute right to private property. This has deeply formed our mindset as Americans. If something is your property, you earned it and should be able to use it for whatever purpose you desire. This attitude places an enormous amount of power on the holding of wealth. Those who are rich can easily satisfy the smallest, most ridiculous whims without the disapproval of society, which upholds it in the name of private property. The more wealth one accumulates, the more power one wields. The unlimited striving for material gain, at its highest levels, often manifests the will to power rather than the avarice of the capitalist. This is connected with another capitalist attitude: the exaggerated importance of money. Money would not be the means to such great power did it not have the power to sway the hearts of men. Those interested in a humane economy must first counter these attitudes.
Primarily, this must be interior, in ourselves. We must ask ourselves: Do we focus our pleasure on gaining the next consumer good, instead of enjoying the material goods we already have and the higher goods which are not economic at all? Do we allow consumerism to infect our preferences and lead us to desire illusory goods such as the latest fashion? Do we eat and drink for the sake of our bodily needs only, or with a view towards the maximum pleasure? To what degree do we cultivate an indifference to money, which was exemplified by St. Francis in his visit with the Soldan, who “offered Francis many valuable gifts, which the man of God, greedy not for worldly possessions but the salvation of souls, spurned as if they were dirt.”2 Do we justify our superfluous purchases, or perhaps even our addictions, by assuming that since we earned the money we can do whatever we want with it?
Although primary importance must be given to changing our own dispositions, we must also be secondarily concerned with changing social attitudes. The absolute right to private property must be countered with a strong sense of social responsibility. The more a person has, the more is expected of him, which does not mean making a humanitarian donation to a charity for the purpose of quieting one’s conscience and gaining applause. The social responsibility of wealth means first of all a care for the workers whose labor is responsible for the success of the firm—labor which should not be valued by the supply and demand for it, but by the needs of the workers. Those at the top level of management must be concerned about this; it is their serious moral responsibility. This means that types such as Bill Gates should not be idolized as if “they have it all.” What they in fact have is an extremely weighty burden, a heavy obligation for which they must be held accountable.
This is all very different, however, from any type of government coercion or political action to change structures, which is the approach of Marxism, and which seems to me the prime danger of distributism as explicated by Mr. Storck. It is one approach to try to conform our own attitudes and actions to the truth, and another to imagine that this strenuous task can be bypassed by blunt political action. It cannot. This must be very clear when talking about economics, because otherwise one might get the impression that distributism as an economic system can just be implemented by various policies encouraging widespread ownership. If this is what distributism is about, then in practice it is bound to be a miserable failure. The problem is not the capitalists, it is not the bureaucrats; the problem is me. I need to conform myself to transcendent truth, resist bad capitalist attitudes and be concerned with my economic welfare only insofar as it serves the basic needs of my life. When I do this, I inspire others to do the same, then an economic system resembling the distributist ideal will arise organically, without need for state coercion.
Philip Harold is a senior philosophy major at FUS, president of the Philosophy Club and son of Philosophy Professor James Harold.