This is an attempted critique of the episode of the Taylor Marshall Show where Taylor Marshall, Jay Richards, and Timothy Gordon critiqued Distributism. Find it here.
Disclaimer: My discussion of Distributism is as I understand it. I’m still learning and so it may be something a bit different. So do you’re own research. Don’t be stupid and pull a Timothy Gordon and prove that you’ve read as little as possible by actual, smart Distributist authors. A list of resources I’ve found helpful are at the end.
A reaction to this video could be summed up in the line by Laurence Laurentz in the movie Hail, Caesar; “Would that it twuh so simple.”
Where does one begin critiquing a discussion between men throwing a mutual admiration party for each other? Due to the lack of challenge, they feel encouraged to make stronger—and decreasingly reasonable—statements. (Unless of course it was Timothy Gordon speaking, who jumped right into the inane from the beginning. Whenever Gordon speaks in this video I’m reminded of Sirach 21:18; “knowledge of the ignorant is unexamined talk.”)
I went through the video twice; the first time straight through and the second time slower while taking notes. Both were an occasion for frustration but it was a good exercise because I think I know where they went wrong. So that is what I will attempt to explain here.
Libertarian First, Catholic Second
These three men are essentially Libertarian in their economic thinking. One need only listen to their arguments to get this obvious sense. But if anyone needed more than that, Gordon explicitly says so around 11:15 when he says he took the idea of “contracts and property from a couple Libertarians in law school” and he references Libertarianism a couple more times throughout. Since the other two didn’t take issue but only continued to affirm Gordon, we’re left with the conclusion that they all agreed.
But they are also Catholics, which is inherently not Libertarian about anything, and so they find themselves in a bind. The Economic Libertarian mindset tends toward the idea of an infallible free market. But to say the free market successfully produces something that is inherently immoral throws a wrench into the Libertarian philosophy. It says there are some rules that must be placed on the market. It says neither the free market nor free will can have complete free rein.
The free market, like free will, must be bound with rules and placed under discipline. Just as there are places the free will ought not go because we have the moral law, so also there are places the free market ought not go, and therefore public law ought to be.
This very limiting of the free market is exactly where Distributists begin. They say moral law exists first, and therefore we ought to build our economic system around that. Libertarians say economic law exists first, and therefore we need to build our morals around that.
To see my point, in this video notice how often they make an epic Libertarian case which seems like it’s in the bag when suddenly, at the last minute, they will pull back into cover—as if realizing that they just made a case for anarchy and must now re-establish their Catholic credentials.
One example is around 7:00 when Gordon brings up the idea of the right of contract and how Capitalism involves both property and contract and how we “never hear about contracts” from Distributists. Jay Richards then agrees and says Distributists are quite diverse in trying to reconcile “internal contradictions” but then he gives this gem: “Normally they’ll just dismiss contract as if, ‘Well, a mere consent to an act is not enough to confirm moral (audio skip)’. Which is of course true! You know. You can consent to something that’s morally evil. Nevertheless….”
See how they were making an essentially Libertarian case for contract, as if contract is this all-important principle that must not be crossed, but then had to back-pedal? They make as strong a case for contract as possible but then must conclude by saying it isn’t always a good thing and can be immoral. Well…exactly. That’s what Distributists start with.
As I understand them, Distributists wouldn’t look on contract as some untouchable icon as these men seem to. Prostitution is a contract, and yet immoral and degrading to society. It’s the Libertarian Catholics who are shocked at limiting the extent of contracts until they actually talk through it and then by the end must agree with Distributists that some limits must be in place.
Libertarian Catholics begrudgingly conclude where Distributists sanely begin, but not because the basis for their arguments lead them to that conclusion.
Another example is around 52:25 where Gordon brings up the free will argument and how Catholic Capitalists miss out on a good argument by not employing it enough. Here is his mini-monologue in full:
“What I never hear—I almost never hear—a robust defense of free enterprise Capitalism on the basis of our Catholic defenses of free will, especially the sort that arose after the Reformation when the free will was under Christian attack. You defend Capitalism if you believe in man’s right to do with his time, or…you know like Gandalf tells Frodo…All you have to decide is what to do with the time that’s given you. That is Capitalism! And it is a reflecting glass, it’s not a crystal ball, is what I tell people on Twitter. Yeah, if we have a wicked, decadent society that’s full of porn and smut and dirty smoke stacks then it will reflect that back to us. But if we’re doing things properly—properly ordered liberty is first—and if we have a Christian society based on virtue ethics Capitalism is the only way that will reflect that back to us without perverting those good values. I never hear that free will defense.”
Again, see what happened? He’s making as strong an argument for free will as possible (and one gets the sense that it must be unfettered or it is not truly free) but then must end with saying that the free will must not be unfettered and that things must be done “properly.”
Gordon even says, “properly ordered liberty is first.” This sort of idea is exactly what Distributism starts with! Distributists begin by saying, “Of course you can’t have a society with unfettered free will. The system must be properly ordered. According to Catholic social teaching that includes a wider distribution of private property.” Timothy Gordon’s conclusion is almost on accident and not because it flows naturally from the basis of his argument. The very premise of his argument does not lead to the conclusion that “properly ordered liberty is first.”
He’s starting with Libertarianism and throws in a dash of Catholicism at the end.
A third example where they show their Libertarianism is around 30:14 where Taylor Marshall quotes from Rerum Novarum 5, which says,
“Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.”
After quoting this, Marshall then embellishes the teaching by saying that according to Pope Leo XIII “The person has a right of liberty to use his wages as he sees fit.” See what Marshall did? He’s interpreting Leo XIII through a Libertarian lens. Leo XIII did not say the wage earner could use his wages “as he sees fit.” A Libertarian might say such nonsense but the Pope did not.
Is there anything in Catholic social teaching that allows for anyone to do anything “as he sees fit”? That is far too broad a guiding principle for morality. Even with our own bodies, which is the ultimate private property, the Church never tells us to do as we see fit. On the contrary, the Church—the pillar and foundation of the Truth, established by Christ—has the right to bind our consciences and we must change ourselves to fit its teachings, and not to do as we see fit.
Marshall is starting with Libertarianism and tweaking Catholic teaching to fit.
As a Catholic I lean toward Distributism because they begin with Catholic social teaching and try to figure things out from there, contrasted with a sort of Catholic Libertarianism which must throw in some Catholic teaching in order to establish legitimacy.
- “Rerum Novarum: On Capital and Labor” by Pope Leo XIII, 1891
- “Quadragesimo Anno: On the Reconstruction of the Social Order” by Pope Pius XI, 1931
- “Centesimus Annus: On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum” by Pope John Paul II, 1991
- “Laborem Exercens: On Human Work” by Pope John Paul II, 1981
- “The Hound of Distributism” edited by Richard Aleman, 2015 (several of the contributors to this volume have written books too)
- “The Outline of Sanity” by G.K. Chesterton, 1926
- “The Servile State” by Hilaire Belloc, 1912
- I’ve found The Distributist Review online to be helpful.