Thursday, 4 August 2011

Christianity and Politics - Trailing my coat before distributists/ distributism...


In my posting yesterday (on Christianity and Slavery)

I included the following sentence:

"all attempts to link Christianity with specific economics are mistaken".

This was me trailing a coat before (i.e. seeking to provoke a reaction from) distributists, some of whom have been known to read the blog.

While I personally am quite strongly drawn to distributist ideas, as a look at my bookshelves would make clear, and I am aware that they are part of Roman Catholic teaching - in some strands, at least - I think the Chesterbellocian link to Christianity is mistaken.

I also think that a distributist economic system is semi-modern (neither ancient nor modern - in-between), hence a transitional state for human society, hence non-viable in the ong term.

Am I wrong?



dearieme said...

"all attempts to link Christianity with specific economics are mistaken": I think not. Socialism is ruled out by "Thou shalt not covet.....".

Nick said...

distributionism is a modern adaptation of teachings that were originally intended to be implemented in a different economic system.

Modern circumstances demand modern interpretations.

When adapting ancient wisdom to modern context, it is necessary to use the qualifier that these teachings do not demand distributionsim/socialism/centrism,but that our own humble interpretation suggests that those teachings are best applied through these systems.

Peter Maurin famously said "What we want to do is create a world in which it is easier for people to do good." This should be the goal of any political or economic system, and I argue that it is a deeply Christian goal.(interesting side note, see habermas-ratzinger discussons)

I suggest that Ayn Rand's paradise as well as Trotsky's do little to encourage good and offer great temptation.

At this point Chesterton's distributionsim with "three acres and a cow" is a utopian fantasy.

I suggest that a democracy with significant redistribution of wealth, regulation to ensure ethical and responsible business practices and that corrects market failures is a worthy practical goal. It is inferior to many theoretical systems, but no practical ones.

The Continental Op said...

I will never make my peace with Babylon, the Technocratic SuperState.

Kristor said...

All of the social commandments of the Decalogue have economic consequences. They would rule out economic policies that would tend to promote adultery, coveting, or dishonoring parents, and so on. But their effect is to proscribe toxic social arrangements, rather than to prescribe beneficial ones. They rule out, rather than in. Ditto for the social commandment in Christ’s Summary of the Law. It rules out doing evil to our neighbours, but aside from telling us that we should love them in the same way we love ourselves, it offers no specific prescriptions.

The proscription of stealing would seem to rule out state appropriation of assets proper to citizens without just compensation. And, “asset” is an extremely broad category. It covers not just real assets and earned income, but productive capacity (i.e., capital of any sort – time in particular); so that, e.g., a regulation that prevented a coal mine from operating ought to create an obligation on the part of the state to compensate the coal miner for the injury it had inflicted upon his asset. Only thus could the regulation avoid the imputation of having effectually stolen.

But even an adequately compensated expropriation would still have robbed the citizen of the freedom to decide whether and how to deploy the productive capacity of his proper assets. The freedom and right to use an asset are the only things that make it an asset in the first place; they are essential to assets per se. The only asset, in the final analysis, consists in power of agency, which is a product of the freedom to do as one would and the ontological resources at one’s disposal. Reduce either freedom or its resources, and you reduce power – you impoverish. Freedom itself is as much an asset as capital. So, to prevent the free use of resources proper to a citizen is itself to expropriate one of his assets. Thus the only way the state may avoid an imputation of stealth is for it to compensate its victims so as to restore to them all the power that state intervention has taken from them.

But this means that the state cannot morally take net revenue from a citizen. So the state cannot morally exact a tax. It must therefore buy its revenue, must exchange some good that only the state may confer for the taxes paid by citizens, by freely contracted agreements. Citizenship, then, would be optional to denizens of a nation, but never obligatory; and it would come with valuable privileges (among them, presumably, some extra-ordinary political influence), that compensated citizens in other ways than the coin by which they paid their taxes, whom no one but citizens would be required to pay.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - your argument demonstrates the difficulty of legalistic reasoning in actual politics: getting from the general law to the specifics of a highly specialized modern economy.

I suppose my doubts about this come from the sense that life in the Byzantine Empire was the highest Christian polity yet achieved - and the difficulty of generating that life rationally from the bottom-up.

A legalistic approach probably leads to a civilization of a negative type - based on proscriptions and rule-following (like ultra-Orthodox Judaism or the Amish, or maybe New England towns of the 'puritan' era) - whereas I believe that the Christian life on earth is meant to aspire towards Heaven.

Matias said...

Taxation equals theft only if individual ownership of property is somehow absolutely free of communal obligations and pure in its origin. But who created his possessions out of nothing?

Since the invention of agriculture, land has been the primary property of human societies, and behind every concrete society there has always been a "taking", a conquest of land and setting up of rules for its use and distribution. Even those legalistic societies like the Jews or Puritans have had a concrete promised land, which they have had to conquer before setting up their rules.

Liberal philosophical abstractions about individual property ownership were pretty much about justifying theft of Church property after the fact (in England and in France). Property was declared sacred by liberals only after they had stolen Church lands (20 % of all land in France before the Revolution).

For further reading I would refer to Carl Schmitt's Der Nomos der Erde. There he quotes the poem "Catechism" by Goethe:
»Bedenk, o Kind, woher sind deine Gaben?
Du kannst nichts von dir selber haben.«
»Ei! Alles hab ich vom Papa.«
»Und der, woher hats der?«
»Vom Großpapa.«
»Nicht doch!
Woher hats denn der Großpapa bekommen?«
»Der hats genommen!«

"Remember, my child, from where are your gifts?
You can have nothing from yourself. "
"Oh! Everything I have from Dad."
"And from where he has it?"
"From Grandpa."
"Not so!
Where did Grandpa get it?"
"He took it​​!"

(Sorry for the poor translation)

Kristor said...

Mathias makes good points, with which I do not disagree. But however the members of a society come to own property at the inception thereof – through taking, or making, or exchange – the Decalogue’s proscription of stealing prohibits coerced exchanges of property thereafter. And this is just to say that the proscription of stealing is an effectual prescription of laissez faire economics, and a proscription of taxation. Thus Christianity is ineluctably linked with certain quite specific economic policies.

The Israelite and Christian prohibition of charging interest to any but foreigners is an example of the Mosaic prohibition of stealing applied to business dealings in a most specific way. I participated in a lively and dense discussion of usury at What’s Wrong with the World, back in 2009. Most enlightening – for me, anyway. Masochists may find it at

Kristor said...

Mathias writes, “Taxation equals theft only if individual ownership of property is somehow absolutely free of communal obligations and pure in its origin. But who created his possessions out of nothing?” I’m not so sure. If taking of property is theft only when that property is absolutely free of communal obligations and pure in its origin, then given the fact that there is no such thing as that sort of property, then there is no such thing as theft. But that’s an absurd conclusion.

Perhaps Mathias meant to say only that taxation equals theft only to the extent that the value of that property originates with the owner, as the owner’s own original addition to the factors thereof that came into his possession by some sort of donation from the wider world. But any such addition of value by the owner is itself derived from factors that the owner did not himself earn or create, but that are rather donations from the wider world, or from God: his continued existence, his ability to think and work, the continued regularity and good order of the world, and so forth. Whether their delivery to our present moment is immediate – as is the case with our mere existence, our awareness, the order of the world, our rationality, and so forth – or whether it has been mediated by our community, or the wider world, or our own past decisions – as is the case with our present wealth, health, education, and so forth – all the ontological resources with which we confront the decisions of a given moment are derived from outside ourselves. An owner can arrange for none of these things, in the final analysis. We don’t wake up in the morning having arranged to be able to perceive or think or work, to invent or discover, or to own the same assets and talents we owned when we fell asleep. So, our capacity to add value derives ultimately – like every aspect of our existence – from grace. There is no such thing as value that we create out of nothing.

But this means that there is no jot or tittle of anyone’s property that is absolutely free of obligation. On the contrary: we owe *absolutely everything* to others, and in the final analysis we owe all of it to God. Strictly speaking, therefore, we don’t own a single thing: nothing qualifies as properly ours. So, no taking can meet Mathias’ definition of theft. The qualification of his criterion has not saved it from a reductio ad absurdam.

Kristor said...

Property, then, must properly attach to a person for reasons other than his original contributions thereto.

Perhaps we should notice the laws of compensation, or Karma, or conservation that everywhere hold sway – not as a parochial policy of our own particular universe, but necessarily and logically in all universes or states of affairs: you can’t get something for nothing, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, there is never any free lunch, whatever is enjoyed has somehow been paid for. These are logically necessary truths because they are different ways of saying that in order for some one thing to happen, all other things must be ruled out; they are, that is to say, all different ways of stating the Law of Noncontradiction.

All right then: what these laws tell us is that for every event, every transaction, a full ontological compensation is somehow willy nilly effected. I can now own some land only because someone paid for it: either I claimed it from a state of nature and, in so doing, somehow invested in it some portion of my life (by, say, leaving the land I once enjoyed, forsaking the benefits thereof); or someone gave it to me, increasing my economic wealth and his spiritual wealth; or I bought it from him, fair and square, so that we traded economic assets; or I took it from him unjustly, in which case the compensation for the taking of his economic wealth is subtracted from my spiritual wealth. In all three sorts of cases, the ontological books must immaculately balance, if we are to continue to have an ordered world.

If I have taken property unjustly, then, I am made thereby unjust, morally and spiritually ill. The taking redounds to my ultimate detriment.

Whether or not a given transaction was just is a different question, that is complicated, and not here very pertinent. Suffice it to say that even if my assets were unjustly acquired, taking them from me unjustly does not create a just transaction: two wrongs don’t make a right, but rather only two wrongs. However I got my property, then, stealing it from me is nevertheless wrong, and forbidden; even though taking it back from me by due process of justice is not.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor: I'm following this with interest - but I don't yet see the entailed economic conclusions.

Do not steal sounds so strict and pervasive a law that it must be broken inevitably. Could you give historic, or hypothetical, examples?

Could you sketch how were things arranged in this regard in medieval Europe, or Byzantium, or maybe puritan New England? Can societies be ranked in their observance of this commandment?

I am wary of (this-worldly) analyses which conclude that everything is unjust or sinful; in practice, when actual, existing societal injustice is pointed out, I try to ask 'compared with what?'.

Kristor said...

I guess that societies could be ranked according to how well they observed the commandment not to steal, but I would be hard pressed to do it myself. I’m not much of a historian. And it seems likely that virtually all societies fall far short of the ideal in this respect, one way or another. As you say, it looks awfully hard in practice to design a real-world society in which there was no stealing.

As to the question of the social arrangements that are entailed by the commandment not to steal, it seems to me that, as I was saying earlier in this thread, the commandment works by ruling out certain arrangements, rather than ruling them in. For example, the commandment says nothing about the criteria that a society should use to decide whether a man’s property is properly his. It says rather, only, that given such a procedure, it should be observed – no man’s property rights under the current local social arrangements relating to property should be violated. The effect of the commandment, then, is to preserve the social order, rather than to define exactly what that order should be. So, the commandment is really ruling out social *disarrangements*; ergo, “render unto Caesar.” Cf. also Romans 13:1-7, especially the last two verses:

6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

But then in verses 8-10 of the same Letter, Paul ups the ante. He quite correctly reduces all the social commandments to, “love your neighbour as yourself.” He says, “Love does no harm to a neighbour.” All right, then: if A takes from B without providing full economic compensation, the shortfall is made up by harm to the economic wealth of B and the spiritual wealth of A. So, if B walks away from the transaction feeling that he has been taken, well then, he is probably right: some of his life’s substance has indeed been taken, and his being has been vitiated (this is why being robbed makes us feel that our very guts have been violated). And this is stealing. The Decalogue abjures us to avoid it, not just because it damages the social fabric, not just because it damages the victim, but because it damages the thief – it harms him spiritually, in just the same way (though not perhaps to the same degree) that idolatry harms him. The Decalogue is addressed to the sinner, for his benefit, and not to the sinner’s victim.

Kristor said...

A social arrangement in which uncompensated taking is common – that is to say, a normal human society of sinners – is to that extent disobedient to the commandment against stealing. A human society of people who did no harm to each other would, as Paul says in verse 10, be “the fulfillment of the Law.” In such a society, no transaction would be imperfectly uncompensated; and, therefore, no transaction would be coerced, for coercion is ipso facto uncompensated reduction of the victim’s power or capacity or agency, and therefore of his substance. In such an ideal society, no transaction would wrest ontological resources of any kind from an unwilling party thereto. In such a society, there could be taxation, but the obligation to pay taxes would be voluntarily assumed by citizens, rather than enforced upon them.

I’m not sure I have answered your question. I’m not sure I can. Indeed, I’m not altogether sure I understand it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - your reasoning seems solid - but at the end of it all I am driven back to my sense that legalism is a snare when not subordinated to mystical revelation.

No law can be applied unproblematically - not even one of the ten commandments. All laws, pushed hard, interpreted precisely and generally, will end by being unjust - and also a distraction from proper attitudes. This particularly applies with multi-step logic (the problem is compounded by each step).

Naturally this does NOT mean that all is subjective and anything goes - rather that there must me correction from other sources of authority.

Another example is the attempt to explain exactly what happens in Holy Communion - I believe in the *real* presence, but I regard the Roman Catholic explanation, and also the Protestant objection to the Real presence, as philosophically-driven; subordinating the Truth to philosophy.

This is why I still remain unconvinced by the argument that political systems are constrained much by Christianity in practice. Obviously a totalitarian system is ruled-out, as is any system that prevents free will. But we would probably agree that slavery is not prohibited (by traditional consensus) and for the same reason taxation is not prohibited; although in an ideal society both would not feature - neither would usury (because the ideal society is like a family).

Kristor said...

“Legalism is a snare when not subordinated to mystical revelation.” Quite so. But, likewise, mysticism without reasoning tends to confusion; as the old saw has it, “Mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism.” Both mysticism and philosophy are needed for health: head in the clouds, eyes open, feet on the ground.

Still, as you say, mystical revelation is prior to ratiocination. Reasoning begins and ends in mystery. It begins with axioms that are felt to be self-evidently, inarguably true (or, in some cases – e.g., some branches of speculative math or physics or metaphysics – taken as such for the sake of exploration of a formal system), but the source both of the axioms and of their truth is impenetrably mysterious. We can’t say why our axioms are true, or how we know they are true. And reasoning reaches its limit when it operates upon itself, and proves that it can understand and state truths that it cannot demonstrate from its own axioms. Further, even when we are satisfied that we have explained a thing adequately, it remains clear that our explanation cannot have come close to plumbing its ontological depths. As Nicholas Rescher has pointed out, the number of true statements we may make about even the most trivial item is infinite. This was brought home to me forcefully when, at college, I learned the math that “governs” spinning tops. I asked the professor, “_Why_ does the top behave this way?” “No one can know that – it’s a mystery,” he said. Once we have done with our explanation of the top, there it spins before us still, just as opaque to us in its gorgeous fathomless concreteness as it was when we began our inquiry.

So likewise with the Real Presence in the host. The explanation of transubstantiation provided by Catholic doctrine sets forth a formalization of what happens in the epiklesis, so that we may assimilate it to comprehensible categories of human thought and experience. Its analysis may be ever so correct, and sufficient to that purpose (as indeed it seems to me to be), but the doctrine is nevertheless nothing more than an abstraction from a concrete event, and is therefore at best a synecdoche and indication of the Reality that it formally resembles. The concrete event as immediately experienced in its ontological fullness obviously far outpasses and transcends any analyses we might attempt. This is as true of the unconsecrated bread as it is of the transubstantiated host.

Orthodox blogger Joseph of Arimathea has suggested “that we might have something like a faculty of faith. If the peasant can commune with God as well as the philosopher, perhaps our principal organ for dealing with the divine is not our mind [i.e., our intellect]. Abraham’s fidelity and righteousness might have resulted from his superior employment of this faculty.” The notion makes perfect sense to me, and accords with everything I have read in Aquinas. We apprehend Truth immediately, as a basic datum of concrete experience; then, we operate upon that datum with our intellectual faculty, developing explanations and analyses in our attempt to integrate what it teaches us with the rest of what we are. The faculty of faith, then, is one with that faculty whereby we apprehend the self-evident axioms in any department of thought, or of life, and feel the force of their truth; raised toward its highest object, that faculty is trained upon the Most High, and is the medium of our ascent toward theosis.

Kristor said...

Philosophy, then, is and must be kept subordinate to our direct apprehension of Truth. Yet that our reasoning is bounded, and subordinate, and supervenes upon mysteries, and points to mysteries, does not of course mean that it is utterly inapt or bootless, or useless. Our very lives, after all, are likewise bounded, subordinate, supervene upon mystery, and point to mystery. Reasoning is like the rest of life: if ordered ultimately toward any but the highest good, it is disordered. If on the other hand it is ordered first toward Truth, it takes its proper place in the overall scheme of things, and does what it is intended to do, and ought to do, so that it works to increase human flourishing. Philosophy has its proper place and domain, and whether we over-extend its proper reach or enfeeble it where it ought to reign, we err. Thus while philosophy must be kept subordinate to Truth, it must also be kept in good and healthy working order, and we cannot safely cheat it; for, while it is subordinate to revelation of Truth, it is superordinate, and thus, properly, prior, to practical deliberations – such as those concerning political economy.

Thus in all my legal reasoning above, I take Scriptural revelation as the basis and fount of moral thought. So does your first question of the thread. In asking whether Christianity prescribes certain social arrangements, you presuppose that Christianity provides axioms for moral reasoning. If it did not, it could make no contribution to such reasoning, so that it could not factor into our quotidian moral calculus, and could therefore gain no moral purchase on mundane life, or anywise influence our behavior toward our fellows. In that case, your question could not even arise. But Christianity does obviously provide such axioms, and thus leverage and effect upon the mundane life we live toward our fellows – the life, that is, of the polis. But since the life of the polis entirely consists of the social acts of its members, a morality of social action cannot but entail some corollary injunctions respecting the proper form of life for the polis itself – respecting, i.e., political economy. The fact that you ask this question – the fact that the question makes sense, and is interesting to ask – suggests that the answer is, “yes.”

Indeed, it must be; there can be no way that Christianity has no implications for political economy. For, even the null hypothesis that Christianity is indeed wholly indifferent to questions of political economy would entail that so far as Christianity is concerned – so far, that is, as the highest truth of reality is concerned – questions of political economy are devoid of moral import. And that would mean that Christianity would not find *any* social arrangement problematic (a clear counterfactual). It would have the effect of ruling in any and every possible social arrangement. Thus even under the null hypothesis, Christianity would still have profound and far-reaching political and economic implications.

“Thou shalt not commit adultery” can make sense only in a polity that institutionalizes marriage. Effectually, then, it rules out polities that rule out marriage. It does not rule out polygamy or polyandry, but it does rule in marriage of some sort. Likewise, “Thou shalt not steal” presupposes the institution of property (however a given society may have defined it), and bids us to respect it as we do the marriage bond. By ruling out adultery and stealing, the Decalogue rules in marriage and property. And, therefore, because Christians are forbidden to steal, a polis consisting of good Christians would abjure stealing of all kinds, just as it would abjure all forms of adultery. Such would be the Christian ideal of social order that you notice, and that Paul and the Psalmist recommend to us, in which all the members of society treat each other with the respect and basic affection due to siblings.

Kristor said...

“No law can be applied unproblematically - not even one of the Ten Commandments. All laws, pushed hard, interpreted precisely and generally, will end by being unjust.” Are you sure about this? It doesn’t seem right to me. It seems too sweeping. I mean, granted, the world is complicated and laws simple, so that we simple fallen creatures find them often difficult to apply. But it seems to me that if the Law of God for Man cannot be applied with perfect adequacy, consistency and justice to all the exigencies of human life, at least in principle, and as a really possible achievement for us (in say, a redeemed world?), then we have on our hands either a violation of the Law of Noncontradiction – i.e., practical truths disagreeing with Truth Himself, so that the integrity of Truth is gone – or (perhaps this is saying the same thing) a defect in God’s Law, or both. I can’t abide that thought; the disintegration of truth is the impossibility of understanding, and therefore also of right action.

Brett Stevens said...

The point of conservatism is natural law.

Distributism, communitarianism, and even aspects of libertarianism reject the organic natural law and replace it with command economies of a sort.

In reality, it's impossible to detach the "free market" from culture; a better system involves open commerce, regulated by a strong culture and a powerful caste of highly intelligent leaders. Letting the markets regulate society, or the flip side, which is attempting a pure command economy, are both paths to ruin.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - I agree with what you say.

But I would add that Laws are at best intrinsically a selective summary of morality; a just society would probably not have Laws, and Laws are only (approximately) just when framed wisely and applied wisely.

Here and now, legalism is one of the major forces *against* truth and morality - this has been so since totalitarian regimes and bureaucracies began to use Laws strategically to trap and subvert.

When there is no wisdom, when Men do not seek Truth or Justice, then Laws become a snare.

But what of divine Laws? Clearly they are not devoid of meaning - of teaching; yet equally clearly they do not of themselves generate Justice and Truth - not matter how impartially and exactly they are applied.

I return to my point that all Laws, including divine Laws, can only work when embedded in a larger framework of motivations and morality - and when there is this framework, Laws diminish in importance.

At this point in human history, equipped as we moderns are with certain habits and vices, I feel that Law is a dangerous guide for us - it ought not to be the focus, I feel.

We almost need to recover the moral and social situation which prevailed before Law, before we can again recover the value of Law.

Kristor said...

“We almost need to recover the moral and social situation which prevailed before Law, before we can again recover the value of Law.” Now that’s an interesting thought.

I agree with everything you say here. Laws are like money. The more dollars you have, the less any of them matter to you, really. Likewise with laws. If you have lots and lots of money, but no wisdom or prudence in dealing with it, you will soon find yourself with no money at all. Likewise with laws. It’s prudence and wisdom one needs. Without it, laws, riches, and skill are all worse than worthless, because they give us the causal resources to do a lot more damage to the world than we could if poor, barbaric and hapless. And, the more wisdom and prudence you have, the less you need of anything else.

Even if there were but one law – say, “thou shalt do no murder” – it could have no leverage upon a people who had not the wisdom and prudence to understand, by reference to values prior and transcendent to Law, that there is a reason why they should not murder: namely, that murder is wrong. The law against murder derives from the wrongness of murder, and not the other way round. But a people who hadn’t the wit to understand that prior wrongness of murder would be just as unable to understand the wrongness of breaking the law against it.