Friday, January 17, 2014

Toward a Truly Free Market

Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More
© 2011 John C. Medaille 
282 pages

 "I been a-wonderin' why we can't do that all over. All work together for our own thing, all farm our own lan'.[...] I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin' fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin'. And I been wonderin' if all our folks got together and yelled..."
(Tom Joad, The Grapes of Wrath)

Toward a Truly Free Market argues for an economic system based on neither an unmoderated free market nor an authoritarian command structure, but on  moral principles that put human needs, not ideological purity, at the center. At the heart of these principles is the concept of distributive justice. After sketching out the general problems of conventional economics, Medaille claims that capitalism and socialism are more alike than different. The constant lack of equilibrium in a capitalist economy, the fact that labor is never paid enough to ‘clear the markets’, dooms capitalism to a series of booms and busts, and it is that cycle that distributive justice is intended to remedy, because attempts to 'fix' capitalism through intervention have only led,  to increased economic and political power in the hands of a few. Toward a Truly Free Market offers a fairly comprehensible 'third way' to economics, one that defies partisan labels and offers a humane vision for the future.

The distrubist worldview envisions a society in which both political power and the ownership of production (on which political power depends) are as widely distributed as possible. In this society, no one is an employee; almost everyone has an owner's stake in society, whether in the form of a family farm, a small business, or membership in a cooperative. The idea doesn't originate with Medaille; although aspects of it have been imagined since modernity began (Thomas Jefferson's agrarianism, for instance),  it was argued for under the name Distributism beginning in the 19th century -- as part of the Roman Catholic church's social doctrine. Then, Catholic authors like G.K. Chesterton argued for it as a moral alternative. as a system that would protect the integrity and autonomy of the family against both the ravages of factory dependence and state socialism; now, with distributist ideas  developing a life of their own outside the Church, Medaille takes an economic tack by first examining the weakness of economics without justice, which attempts to reduce land, people, and money to commodities, and then explaining the principles of distributive justice, moving from the general to the particular.

While classical economics begins with the material ("Economics is the study of how scarce resources with alternative uses are distributed"),  distributist economics begins with people: Medaille describes an economy as how a society is provisioned.  His criticisms of socialism and capitalism bear out that provisioning isn't necessarily material; he laments over the destruction of local economies, the brokenness of families, working long hours at jobs which offer no meaningful compensation, only a paycheck, and the fact that people at all levels of society, from the family up through the neighborhood, city, and state become increasingly dependent on the national government, leading to the death of civic society as Citizens become clients and case numbers.  This is true whether the system chosen is capitalism or socialism,  Medaille's solution includes "remoralizing the market, relocalizing the economy, recapitalizing the poor, and reinvigorating local politics".  Operating principles of distributism include solidarity, or the belief that political decisions should be handled by the smallest capable agent; thus, a city would be responsible for its schools, and a state for its highways. Medaille elaborates on how distributive ideas can inform taxation, industry, healthcare, and government policy.  Although he sees a place for government (keeping the currency sound, pricing in externalities, national defense),  distributism rejects a top-heavy state. Politics, like a house,  must work from the ground up, from civic participation to tax funding.  That funding comes not from income or property, but on the land itself. Decentralization is a recurring theme; Medaille's idea on fixing healthcare includes having a range of licenses, beginning with the quasi-medical and progressing to  doctors of medicine) not only would this allow more people to enter the medical field, as they could more easily move between study and practice (a given person might take a license as a midwife, and then use that to pay for more advanced training in obtstritcs or general medicine), but it would result in better healthcare over all, as seasoned and highly-trained doctors would only see problems that could not be resolved at the lower levels.  He advocates for an end to "supply-push" economics, in which companies produce a given number of goods and then use advertising to gin up interest in them, when general-purpose machinery that can adapt to produce anything that is needed by the local economy ("demand-pull") is a more intelligent and just use of finite resources. Otherwise we are merely producing landfill.  

Toward a Truly Free Market is a fascinating book. The beginning  is the most challenging,with the discussion of the 'distributive' and 'corrective' aspects of justice, and  the difference between use-values and exchange values, but understanding what the author means by justice is rewarding once he begins writing about a system that is based on it. Although distributism proper began in the Catholic church, being developed in papal encyclicals, I've encountered its ideas in various and sundry places:  James Howard Kunstler wrote on the virtue of Georgist taxation in The Geography of Nowhere, Chuck Marohn of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns is a firm believer in subsidarity, and the push for local economies, especially local food movements, is gaining serious traction in the environmental and health movements.  Although some aspects were more harder to imagine, like the revival of guilds or the practicality of cooperatives,  Medaille includes sections on communities like the Mondragon Cooperation which put these principles to work. Although there's some economics to digest, the book picks up steam as it moves toward public policy. A fly in the ointment is that Medaille assumes readers have heard of distributism; he doesn't elaborate on it at the start. He develops the idea throughout the book, so strangers won't be lost, but they have to be willing to jump in. This is perhaps explainable given the book's Catholic publisher; since distributism is part of the Church's social doctrine, it almost has a ready-made audience. The claim that capitalism and the state have an unavoidably symbiotic relationship with one another could have used further development; I've heard the same claim from hard-left circles, too, and would be interested in understanding the full reason why. Medaille operates on the idea that the state is necessary to keep capitalism from destroying itself, but Hayekians believe capitalism would have worked out its inner inconsistencies if meddling interventionists didn't keep getting in the way, like suppressing a fever that's intended to kill an infection. (Medaille takes more than a few shots at the Austrian School throughout, which is amusing given that Hayek drew on a distributist work, The Servile State, in his The Road to Serfdom. )

Many national-level reforms mentioned here don't have a prayer of materializing in the current political climate, but a philosophy as locally-focused as distributism can get along.  Determined people can build little sanctuaries of restoration in their own communities, with or without government sanction;  even urbanites can relocalize their food, and cooperatives of all kinds are possible, and already in practice. There's a lot of cause for hope here, and Medaille offers a thoughtful criticism of our current system which is outside the usual complaints.

Related:
Books and essays by Wendell Berry
small is beautiful, E.F. Schumacher

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