Posts Tagged ‘Kenneth Spence’

Kenneth Spence’s followup post attacks distributism as unrealistic, and also attacks distributism’s attack on capitalism as unfair.  Distributists blame the system of capitalism, he says, for the unjust actions of fallen humans operating within it.  And distributists, just as much as capitalists, can be inhumane and exploitative jerks.  “A distributist,” he says, “may commodify his hired hand just as a faithful husband may objectify his wife.”  Well, that’s true.  But it’s a lot easier to regard a worker as a commodity if that position is — and, c’mon, it really is– supported by your economic philosophy.  Under most capitalist economic analyses, it just becomes HARD to not think of people primarily as either bearers of one of the factors of production, or drivers of growth via consumer demand.  Humans become either little meat-buckets of “labor” (or “human capital” if you’re talking about white collar wage earners) or they become “consumers.”  Either one of these visions of the human person is insufficient.

Spence goes on to write that:

The history of industrialization is a gradual one: there was no paradigm shift at which all wage earners were thenceforth thought of as pig iron or hot fat, because that injustice is a personal sin… “The Man” doesn’t treat employees as raw materials—individual men and women do that, and it is theywho are guilty of injustice, not the system of capitalism. “The Man” and the distributist picture of our economy are largely a fiction.

Of course it’s people, and not economic systems, that make moral decisions.  But let’s stay within the capitalist paradigm for a moment and think of people as rational economic utility-maximizers, who respond above all things to incentives.  Spence’s next line pretty much gives the game away: “Even if a switch in economic systems might reduce the incentive for unjust commerce, we can’t switch to distributism.”  He goes on to make an argument about why this is so, but what he’s called attention to and semi-admitted is what distributists have been saying: capitalism creates an incentive to treat humans unjustly.

Dorothy Day had a line about creating a society where it is easier to be good.  That’s what we’re talking about.  Or at least doing our best to create a society where being good, treating humans as humans, isn’t alien to the core principles of that society’s economy.

This isn’t economic determinism, and it isn’t Pelegianism, either.  Our ultimate problem is original sin– not Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad.  The Dutch East India company was not staffed by minions of Sauron bent on destroying the Shire.  And ultimately the Holy Spirit, not economic policy, makes people good.  But there is such a thing as injustice, darn it. And justice does include distributive justice, darn it.  And it is appropriate to structure the laws of a country to try to minimize that injustice.

Responding to someone’s comment on the post, Spence writes: “I cannot favor revolution, so I think it best to stay with a system that is not causing the problems distributists accuse it of.”  Well, distributists disagree about what means are appropriate.  But to want to a) set up a co-op or b) ditch the doctrine of corporate personhood or c) use BerkShares in merry defiance of everything that both Tom Woods AND Tim Geithner might tell us about the natural and proper origins of money or d) drink home-brewed ale with friends while singing loudly and pounding on the table to keep time, even though it’s cheaper to buy Sam Adams and we can buy mp3s of people who sing way better than we do, or e) I don’t know, join a CSA– or any of the other things that we might do every day to start living in a distributist economy now– these things aren’t exactly making the gutters of Paris run with blood.  A lot of us are Burkeans, after all.  To say that the only choices are Rockefeller or Robespierre– that’s a false dichotomy.  Neither, thanks.  I’ll take Russell Kirk instead.


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Kenneth Spence recently posted an odd response on the Acton Institute’s blog to John Medaille’s defense of distributism, published over at Dappled Things.  Spence describes the failure of the Gracchi’s attempts to curtail the concentration of land into the hands of a few investors at the expense of the Roman citizen-farmers who had been the bulwark of the Republic.  “As Rome grew,” he explains,

the army was no longer made up of farmers who tilled their fields six or nine months out of the year, so that by the time of the Gracchi, the citizen farmer class upon which the Republic had been built was basically extinct. The rich could buy out the farms of whomever they wished, and more and more common families left their lands and moved to the capital, where they lived as dependents on the public.  In an attempt to save the Republic, Tiberius moved to redistribute the land and prevent the rich from buying it up in large tracts…

He claims that their failure (Tiberius was assassinated, and Gaius driven to death, by tetchy land speculators in the Senate) was a lesson for modern defenders of distributism:   If, he says, “there is anything to be learned from the failure of the Gracchi, it is that a distributist system is, if not totally impossible to implement, certainly a cure worse than the disease.”

The logic is wonderful.  Apparently, according to Spence, the difficulty of social reform (and the murder of social reformers) proves that reform would be “certainly a cure worse than the disease,” and should not be retried.  Gotta say I’m glad that William Wilberforce didn’t subscribe to his blog.  Not to mention MLK.

Plutarch’s assessment– which Spence quotes, in order to disagree with– was quite different.

What could be more just and honorable than their first design, had not the power and the faction of the rich, by endeavoring to abrogate that law, engaged them both in those fatal quarrels?

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