Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What is “Capitalism”?

As we mentioned a short time ago, we seem to be getting more and more questions from distributists.  Not from the official organizations, of course.  They have their Party Line and they’re sticking to it.  There are, however, a growing number of people interested in the subject who seem to be increasingly dissatisfied with the Party Line, which bears a strong resemblance to a somewhat skewed or off-center version of social justice.  As CESJ co-founder Father William Ferree put it,
Fr. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.
The favorite “social technique” of our own time is the “peaceful” demonstration, especially when media coverage is likely or can be arranged. Subsidiary aspects of the demonstration are boycotts, sit-ins, organized lobbying pressures, single-issue “advocacy” and then — crossing an invisible line which is hard to define and harder still to hold — civil disobedience, violent demonstrations, and, ultimately, terrorism!
Despite the social intent of all such techniques, and their almost universal arrogation to themselves of the terms “Social Justice” or “Justice and Peace,” these techniques are all radically individualistic. There are several criteria which can be applied to test this:
1)  They are directed immediately to some specific solution already determined in the mind of the “activist”; they are never a willingness to dialogue with other and differing opinions on what the problem really is.
2)  They are always intensely concerned with the methodologies of pressure, not with those of competence in the matter in question.
3)  They all require “time out” from the day-to-day social intercourse of life, and raise the question of how many objects one can juggle at any one time without dropping some or all.
4)  Any “demonstration” is by definition a demand on someone else to do something. It takes for granted that whatever is wrong is the personal work of someone else, not the common agony of all; and it always knows exactly who and where the someone is.
All this can be summed up in the observation that the “social activist” as we have seen them so far, is an earnest amateur by profession.
This is not to say that such “professional amateurism” is always wrong. It is wrong as a normal methodology. If it obeys the same principals which would permit a just war, or the insurrection against an entrenched tyrant, more power to it! But it is a hopeless and hence unjust substitute for the patient and full-time organization of every aspect of life which we have seen in the necessary implementation of Social Justice.
That, in a nutshell, is the attitude of the Just Third Way to the sort of “social justice” practiced by those who have become ridiculed as “Social Justice Warriors,” or “SJWs.”  The SJW is defined as “a pejorative term for an individual promoting socially progressive views; including feminism, civil rights, multiculturalism, political correctness, and identity politics. The accusation of being an SJW carries implications of pursuing personal validation rather than any deep-seated conviction, and being engaged in disingenuous social justice arguments or activism to raise personal reputation.”  Anyway, the question was,
From what I understand about economics it seems like there has been a bit of revisionist history. Perhaps I am wrong, so please tell me if I am. It seems that any time in the past when people bought or sold their goods to others was “Capitalist.”  Thus, in Tom Woods’s book, How the Church Built Western Civilization, the argument is that during the Middle Ages religious orders engaged in commerce, and therefore invented Capitalism.  I tried looking up the history of different economic systems, and the claim is always made that any economy in which goods and services are sold at a profit is and has always been Capitalist.  Yet if Capitalism is so old why am I under the impression it’s so new? When I try to look any of this up I can find nothing.
Here’s how we answered the question:
“Capitalism” is a term invented by socialists as a pejorative in the early nineteenth century to describe a system in which a relatively few people own capital, and everybody else works for them for wages. It was contrasted with socialism in which private property in capital is abolished as a natural right, and either the State or delegated private individuals own, and everybody else works for them for wages.
As Chesterton and Belloc understood, there is thus really very little difference between capitalism and socialism for the wage worker.  He or she doesn’t own capital in either system, and derives all income from wages.  In both capitalism and socialism, capital ownership is concentrated in relatively few hands.
Just as the socialists hijacked language, however, so did the capitalists. They made a great effort to turn the word “capitalism” from a curse word into a good thing.
Unfortunately, this did nothing to clarify matters, for there were (and remain) as many definitions of capitalism as there are people who consider themselves capitalists. It has been used to describe anything and everything from economic anarchy to rigid State control of the economy.
"Say wuh?"
Amusingly, Michael Novak claimed that what he meant by “Democratic Capitalism” is exactly what Chesterton meant by distributism . . . and Martin Gardner declared that what he meant by “Democratic Socialism” is exactly what Chesterton meant by distributism. Thus, capitalism, socialism, and distributism are all the same thing!
In reality, you can oversimplify somewhat by saying that, while socialism is one thing under many names, capitalism is many things under one name.
Thus, in his book, How the Church Built Western Civilization, Tom Woods, an Austrian economist, discerned elements common to Austrian economics and to a Medieval economy, and concluded — honestly, if incorrectly — that they could both be termed “capitalist,” at least by his definition of capitalism.  If we understood him accurately, Woods’s definition of capital is a generally free market restrained by individual ethics and characterized by private ownership of capital and a minimal economic role for the State.
The problem is that Austrian economics is “Currency School.”  That means the amount of money in an economy determines the velocity of money (i.e., the average number of times each unit of currency is spent in a year), the price level, and the number of transactions.  The main bone of contention (or so it seems to us) between Austrian economics and Keynesian economics is that Austrians demand an asset-backed currency, with the amount of currency determined by the amount of gold, while Keynesians allow the State to issue all currency, backed with its own debt, and manipulate the amount of currency to achieve political ends.
Ludwig von Mises (horns and tail surgically removed)
From the perspective of binary economics, both the Austrians and Keynesians are wrong. While the Austrians could easily be corrected by a few simple (though not necessarily easy) additions and changes of course, however, the Keynesians are so far wrong that it is unlikely that they will ever find their way back to anything resembling common sense.  The problem is that Keynes told the politicians what they wanted to hear, while von Mises did not.  Hence, virtually every economy on earth is Keynesian, not Austrian.
Our mention of Ludwig von Mises led to a follow up question:
Several years ago, a friend who was interested in such things told me he liked a Market economy, but not a Capitalist one in which you must sell in the market what you produce.  My friend would go on and on about Von Mises being evil and how he believed the German school to be correct (i can’t remember the name associated with that school). Do you know what that would be about?
That one was a bit vague, since we couldn’t figure out what “the German school” might be.  Nevertheless, we gave it a shot.  First, however, we admitted that we couldn’t really answer the question, at least without more information.  Frankly, it’s always easier to admit you don’t know the answer than to make one up or engage in doubletalk to sound intelligent but meaningless.
We do know, however, that a number of distributists consider von Mises and the other Austrians to be virtual demons in semi-human form.  Trying to sift through the vitriol, this attitude seems to be an application of the widespread belief among Catholics influenced by Msgr. John A. Ryan that the primary care for the poor rests not with private individuals under charity, but with the State under an egregiously misunderstood “social justice” . . . which has next to nothing to do with genuine social justice as we understand it.

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