An Open Letter to Free Marketeers

Peter A. Kwasniewski

I received a passionate letter from a gentleman who opposed my distributist views on the grounds that I was advocating a position that could easily slip into the sort of diabolical statism symbolized by the Evil Eye in The Lord of the Rings or depicted in George Orwell’s 1984. The following was my reply, which was made public.

July 7, 2004

Dear Sir:

I appreciate your letter and I do not take the least offense at your vigorous tone. I will try to respond to your libertarian critique.

My main points were these: that Christian doctrine concerning the requirements of a just civil order in all its dimensions (in short, what we call “social teaching”) is not an optional and incidental part of the Catholic tradition, papal or otherwise, and that the critique of liberalism in economics and politics is not a passing fad promoted by medievalist popes, but the application of perennial principles. However, the reactions I’ve seen so far indicate to me that many misinterpret my remarks as an unabashed exaltation of the welfare state, social democracy, even straight socialism. This is not at all my view. I ardently support the principle of subsidiarity, which is arguably one of the central pillars of Catholic social teaching. As a distributist, I hold that the State must erect a framework of laws that, of themselves, channel wealth in culturally healthy ways—e.g., laws that support local family-run businesses, and penalize or prohibit massive chains like McDonalds or Wal-Mart; laws that support a mosaic of thousands of family farms instead of the enormities of agribusiness. Even one or two policies like this would significantly change the urban, suburban, and rural landscape of America. Christian thinkers frequently downplay the extent to which the modern economistic mindset privileges the amassing of wealth and property and the redefinition of the human good in terms of possessions (indeed, this is one of John Paul II’s most frequent, and most warranted, criticisms of the modern West). Thus it seems to me not just desirable but essential for human flourishing that legal structures be set up that discourage wealth multiplication and concentration, and encourage the distribution of real property. For many decades distributists have been addressing both why this is necessary for a just social order, and how it is realistically achievable without the constant interference of the State.

Mr. Woods is an intelligent man, but he is very impatient with opposition, and he is as convinced as a Moslem of Mohammed that economics leads irresistibly to, if not mathematically demonstrates, his conclusions. Therefore, someone like me can only seem a cranky socialist, a “statist.” An underlying problem is that gentlemen like Woods simply do not believe, or perhaps have never taken the time to find out if, there is any alternative to straight liberal capitalism or Real Socialism. “Take your pick, one or the other.” Thus, it is not surprising that one rarely finds “conservatives” of any stripe bothering to learn what distributists actually hold; they prefer a caricature that offers an easy target of attack. They assume we stand for massive state-led redistribution, heavy taxation, fascist or communist centralization, etc. We do not. But it takes time to discover that there are alternatives to capitalist hegemony.

Jesus did not teach that justice on earth was completely impossible and should, as a consequence, never be the goal of our toils here (did He abolish the natural law?; did He reject the existence of such a thing?—tell that to St. Thomas Aquinas and see what he says in reply!), nor did He institute a divine law that has no relevance to daily life in the world. His followers are supposed to be the salt that flavors the food, the leaven that raises up the dough. This, too, is what the Second Vatican Council said: the laity should transform earthly institutions by infusing them with the principles of the Gospel. The Church has never in practice, and will never in principle, exclude the political domain from those institutions that are supposed to be rendered instruments of justice. There can be many disagreements about how this “infusion” is to be done concretely, but it certainly rules out a radical separation of the public and the private spheres, which only mirrors the fateful early modern separations of culture from faith, nature from grace, politics from morality. It’s obvious that saints do not wait for civil authorities to solve problems; they go out into the streets and solve them themselves. But it’s equally obvious that Christian tradition has unanimously recognized a genuine obligation on the part of civil authorities to do everything in their power to promote the common good. This will include, of necessity, a certain amount of regulation of the economic sphere. What Jesus rejected was the kind of power Satan offered him. Not all earthly power is such, otherwise parental authority, for example, would be diabolical.1

Yes, it is true that States are governed by mere mortals and sinners. We mortals and sinners, however, have obligations to fulfill on our own behalf and on behalf of our neighbors, and God gives us the grace to fulfill them, if we do what He asks us to do: accept the faith He has revealed, receive the sacraments, seek Him in prayer. To say it is enough for men to believe privately in Christ or to fear the punishments of hell in order for them to be motivated to pursue justice, is a naive position. If man is a political animal, as Aristotle argued, then he is profoundly influenced by and indebted to the social structures he grows up in and lives in. Therefore, the law is a major force for good or for evil; so has it ever been, so will it ever be. That is why, too, there has never been nor could there ever be a “free market,” strictly speaking. The only real question is: is a given market surrounded by a wise and just framework of laws, or a stupid and wicked framework of laws? Probably a mixture; but what are the proportions? There have been more and less Christian rulers, more and less just societies. We are not doomed to the worst, nor are we guaranteed the best. Our fate is in large part left in the hands of our freedom and our counsel. This is why Scripture teaches that while it is true that God will judge all men mercifully, He will judge rulers with more severity, because to them was entrusted the gravest earthly responsibility. The ruler’s unambiguously active and central role is so much a part of Christian tradition that to deny it is simply to withdraw oneself from a chorus of saints and sages, and strike off on one’s own lonesome path.

You object that a State could be trusted to fix the boundaries of acceptable enterprise if, and only if, God were the one who ran it. But God does “run the State”—not personally, of course, but in the person of the rulers who hold their authority from Him. Over each human society stand men who are entrusted, by God, with the care of that community. They can discharge their duty well or poorly, virtuously or sinfully. This is a constant refrain in the Christian tradition, beginning with the New Testament which teaches that all earthly authority derives from God and is answerable to Him. A wicked ruler is abusing a God-given trust; a good ruler is exercising his God-given right. This is not to invoke a divine right of kings, but to accept what follows logically from the divine origin and goal of man in all his dimensions, including the social. (The argument is presented at length in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclicals Immortale Dei and Diuturnum Illud, both widely available on the internet, and both masterpieces.)

Let me take up one particular issue. You object that Pope Leo’s advice in Rerum Novarum is vague and difficult to enforce. Concerning these lines—”The employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age” (§20)—you write: “Well, of course; but how is this vagueness enforced?”

I answer that it is not vague to say that owners or employers have to observe certain rules about their employees. For example: the Church does not hesitate to ask States to make Sundays and holy days public days off, on which no factories should be running or shops open. Moreover, hours can be set such that men are not working through the night (which is unnatural), but only during the day, having time in the evening to be with their families. Pregnant women or women with infants should not be allowed to work; stress is dangerous to the unborn, and small children have a profound need for the companionship of their mothers if they are to develop a balanced psyche, to say nothing of other needs. And, since sweatshops are an abomination, they should be outlawed by any sane government. The capitalist always retorts: “Before my factory, the people had no work.” What he doesn’t say is that before the economic imperialism of Western nations ruined traditional social structures, the people had a balanced community life in which the young, the middle-aged, and the elderly had their valuable roles to play. It was the importation of a foreign way of life that created the kind of situation to which a factory might seem a good solution. The capitalist provides “answers” to problems he (or the anti-culture he represents) have manufactured.

My conclusion? There are many obvious ways in which civil authority—and here, as I said before, I have in mind primarily local government, in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity—can and should regulate economic life. Within a framework of just laws, ample opportunity still remains for the charitable endeavors of individuals and organizations, ample opportunity still remains for businesses to make fair profits. What will not be possible is a CEO who earns a hundred times what his workers earn; what will not be possible is a company that makes its profits selling pornography or condoms. One does not have to be a confirmed “theocrat” to recognize in these statements the constant teaching of the Church on the solemn obligations of individuals and societies toward the natural moral law and, indirectly at least, toward the Church of Christ. Do I advocate, therefore, a “welfare State”? No, I advocate something far more radical—a State that implements a consistent, rigorous juridical and legal order inspired by Christian principles. Thus, when you say that enforcement of a set of labor laws amounts to an “arbitrary exercise of force,” I say: Poppycock. Such laws are legitimate boundaries for human activity, which needs boundaries if it is to remain ethical. Good laws are a way for the better side of fallen man, when soberly in charge, to restrain his worse side when it’s drunk. Individual endeavors will never promote the common good, indeed they are more likely to detract from it, unless they are harnessed to that end by principles of action that can be reasonably followed by citizens.

What is needed to get to this scenario? Two things: wisdom and courage, the wisdom to craft appropriate legislation, and the courage to apply it. Such wisdom and courage has not always been lacking, as it is now among most politicians and political theorists. Perhaps our very lack of it should be a sign to us that we have gone astray.

Sincerely yours,

Peter Kwasniewski

P.S. — Although the principle of subsidiarity should be implemented as much as possible, nevertheless if each state or local government were to set its own minimum wage laws in the present context, there would be massive movement of factories and other businesses to those with the lowest rates. If a state could prevent a corporation chartered in another state from doing business in their state, laws at the state level would be sufficient. But at present, since business can treat the entire United States as one playing field, an effective legal remedy must also encompass the entire country. For this reason, right now a national law on the subject is necessary. Eventually, much more basic reforms are called for—all that is captured by the word “distributism”—which would take away the necessity for minimum wage laws.

When free trade exists across fifty states and one state makes its laws more demanding, many businesses will move out. Capitalist economic degeneration has proceeded so far that businesses would uproot themselves simply to escape the local laws, so there have to be federal regulatory laws. But obviously one should desire and aim at a social order in which the maximization of profit would not be an assumed axiom of economic planning. Let’s say, in contrast, there were businesses that actually wanted to be in a certain place, to serve the populace of that area. They would put up with all reasonable laws, even if their profits could be significantly greater elsewhere. A business solely interested in profit, on the other hand, will move to the cheapest place. In fact, in our degenerate situation, companies commonly not only flee higher-cost areas, but engage in “bidding wars” with state and local governments, demanding favorable taxation, zoning, training, and other concessions before they deign to locate in an area. State and local governments vie with each other in offering what amounts to “corporate welfare.”

Perhaps this is a way of seeing that there will always be a “welfare State” in quite a different sense: the State’s policies, or lack thereof, redound to someone’s welfare. With a socialist regime, policies may redound to the material welfare of the poor but ultimately do nothing to restore a just social order; they are like bandages wrapped around bad wounds. With a capitalist regime, on the other hand, policies redound to the benefit of owners, employers, pirates of profit; and again, they do nothing to create a just social order based on the widest possible distribution of beneficial property. Hence, I reject altogether the position that a State could be, as it were, economically neutral. Either it will craft legislation that wisely supports all social groups, aiming at a harmony of parts requiring some compromise from all sides, for the good of the whole; or it will tend to favor one part at the expense of others, demanding no serious compromise from that part, but many serious compromises from the others.

Although I favor subsidiarity, it must be implemented fairly, i.e., restrictions on employers have to go hand and hand with restrictions on employees. Thus I am not against a federal minimum wage law at present; but in principle I would wish to see it unnecessary, as a result of more radical and far-reaching social reforms. It cannot be overlooked that some people invoke the principle of subsidiarity in order to emasculate social justice in the present, while postponing any real attainment of justice to the Second Coming.


1 For detailed argumentation in support of economic regulation, see the relevant chapters in Thomas Storck’s books The Catholic Milieu and Foundations of a Catholic Political Order.