Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Logic of Distributism

We should call this posting the “Illogic of Neo-Distributism,” for what’s being touted these days as “distributism” is in many cases neither logical nor distributism.  What Chesterton and Belloc were talking about was something substantially different (in the philosophical sense) than what passes for “distributism” today.  The title of today’s posting just sounds better.

Here’s the story.  Last week a “distributist economist” posted a comment on Gary Reber’s FaceBook page.  Gary’s response was pretty good, but having had prior experience with the DE (Distributist Economist), we kind of figured the DE wouldn’t pay any attention.  So we started looking a little more closely at the statement, and modified (slightly) the response that Gary posted.

Confounding the DE was, all things considered, pretty easy.  All you had to do is know a little basic logic, that is to say, common sense.  The DE, after all, is a theology professor at a small Catholic college, and allegedly has some familiarity with Aristotle and Aquinas, and basic principles of reason.  Here’s what the DE said:

“The marginal value of capital without labor is the only precisely known number in all of economics: it is precisely zero. And all capital is merely prior period labor.”

Okay, here goes.  The first sentence boils down to meaning that capital is not productive.  Only labor is productive.  The second sentence boils down to Karl Marx’s idea that capital is really only congealed labor — capital is thus only labor in a different form.

Logically, then, labor = capital, and capital = labor.

Herr Perfessor DE thereby violated the “identity principle.”   He claimed he didn't, declaring that "prior period labor" and "congealed labor" are not the same thing, and therefore the identity principle had nothing to do with the case.

Uh, huh.  Anyway —

The identity principle is the positive formulation of the negative “contradiction principle” that a thing cannot both “be” and “not be.”  The identity principle is that a thing is fully what it is, and is what it is in the same way as all other things in that class — i.e., that which is true is as true, and is true in the same way, as everything else that is true.

The Perfessor, however (we don’t know if Gilligan or Mary Ann agreed), implied that labor and capital are at one and the same time both essentially the same and yet substantially different.  Labor as labor is productive, but capital as labor is not productive.

Thus — according to the DE and going only by his statement — labor both is, and is not productive, and labor is not labor.

According to Aristotle and Aquinas, the first principle of reason is that a thing cannot both “be” and “not be” at the same time.  This is the above-mentioned principle of contradiction.  To deny this principle, considered the basis of reality (as the Perfessor clearly does), is “mental suicide.” (Aquinas, Post. Analy. Lib. 1, Lect. 20.)

The DE also happens to be a fan of G. K. Chesterton, and has been lauded as “the” distributist economist.  (Having a professor of theology installed as “the” distributist economist really doesn’t do much if the neo-distributists are trying to convince people that they’ve based their system on reason instead of faith — see our series on “The Death of Reason.”)

Here, however, is what Chesterton had to say in his biographical sketch of St. Thomas, The Dumb Ox, about people who base their philosophy (or anything else) on the premise that a thing can both “be” and “not be.”  Chesterton first quoted from Rev. Martin C. D’Arcy’s book, Thomas Aquinas (1930):

“ ‘A certain likeness can be detected between the aim and method of St. Thomas and those of Hegel.  There are, however, also remarkable differences.  For St. Thomas it is impossible that contradictories should exist together, and again reality and intelligibility correspond, but a thing must first be, to be intelligible.’ ”

Chesterton then said,

“Let the man in the street be forgiven, if he adds that the ‘remarkable difference’ seems to him to be that St. Thomas was sane and Hegel was mad.  The moron refuses to admit that Hegel can both exist and not exist, or that it can be possible to understand Hegel, if there is not Hegel to understand. . . . And this is what I mean by saying that a modern philosophy starts with a stumbling-block.  It is surely not too much to say that there seems to be a twist, in saying that contraries are not incompatible; or that a thing can ‘be’ intelligible and not as yet ‘be’ at all.”

Of course, most ordinary men (or women) in the street might also be tempted to ask the Perfessor, while capital can (presumably) produce nothing without labor, just how much can labor produce without capital?

This involves another contradiction, for if capital is really only congealed labor, as the DE insists, then there is no problem with saying that only labor is productive.  This is because the added increment we see when labor is combined with capital is clearly due to labor in another form — even if the owner of the capital only gets back his depreciation (the cost of his labor used to produce the capital) as Marx insisted was the owner’s just due, as it compensates him for the labor he congealed in the capital.

If, however, capital is substantially different from labor, as the Perfessor also insists by claiming that capital is not productive, and therefore not to be counted as labor (according to Karl Marx, if labor is expended on something that does not produce something of value, it does not count as labor, see Das Kapital), then we are once again enmeshed in an irreconcilable paradox: where the Perfessor before claimed that labor both is and is not productive, he is now forced to claim that capital both is and is not productive.

And people wonder why we might have one or two difficulties with neo-distributist “logic.”

Credit is due to Fulton Sheen for giving us the substance of these arguments in his book, God and Intelligence (1925) — introduction by G. K. Chesterton.