Reprinted from Ethika Politika

Michael Hannon has made a serious attempt to deal with the disputes between the “capitalist” and “anti-capitalist” conservatives, and such a serious attempt deserves a serious response. Since I am mentioned in the article, it behooves me to respond as the “anti-capitalist” in this debate, recognizing of course that I speak only for myself and not for any other “anti-capitalist.”

Mr. Hannon’s article ends with the declaration that the anti-capitalists are “dead wrong,” but the grounds for this conclusion are not precisely clear to me. At one point he says, “All our best and brightest who are actually affecting the direction of our society on a large scale, even amongst Catholics, are capitalists!”  And it seems, we do not spend enough time running for office or lobbying on “The Hill.” This is all true, but it hardly suffices to establish the error of the “anti-capitalists.” He finds anti-capitalist too abstract and insufficiently engaged with “rubber meets the road” questions. This charge is the most easily challenged, since distributism and allied movements present a rich variety of institutions, on the ground and working over long periods and wide areas. Distributism is something one may see in practice and reach a conclusion based on actual experience rather a mere collection of abstract theories; it has both a history and a praxis. But can the same be said of “laissez-faire” or even “limited government” capitalism? More of this question anon, but first I must locate, as best I can, the ground of the article’s conclusion.

I think I may have located that ground in a comment of Mr. Hannon’s, in which he makes a mash-up of the term “individualist/personalist.” But these terms cannot be mashed together; to join them with a slash is to slash any meaning out of them; they are not synonyms but antonyms. Moreover, it is the opposition between individualism and personalism that is the very heart and soul of the argument; to miss this opposition is to miss the dispute entirely. Further, if these terms really are the same, then the distributists really are wrong, and wrong completely, or “dead wrong” as the article states. They are wrong first to last, top to bottom and side to side. If these terms cannot be distinguished, then the distinguished distributists have no place to stand; but if they can be, then the capitalists are shown to be true heirs and proponents of liberalism.

So the first task is to determine whether these terms are synonymous or antithetical. In the personalism of John Paul II, the human person, like the divine person which it images, is always a “being-in-relationship,” and is defined by those relationships. Just as the names of the Divine Persons—Father, Son, and Spirit (of the love between Father and Son)—are names of relationships, so too the human person bears a family name which indicates his relational origins. Each person is called into being by the ready-made society of the family, and from this community receives gifts of life, love, language, and culture. His life consists of the appropriation of these gifts and decisions about their use. As gifted, the person is also under an obligation to use these gifts for the common good, and to pass them on, intact at least and improved if possible, to a new generation. And since the person has obligations, he also has rights, since rights are that which are required to fulfill an obligation.

The “individualist,” on the other hand, is the heir of the Enlightenment, since the whole point of that movement was to “liberate” the newly-discovered “individual” from the natural bonds of the “hegemonic” institutions (as Ludwig von Mises and Michael Novak termed them) of family, community, and nation. Freed from the family, this “liberated” individual would have only contractual obligations, freely chosen and freely broken. Moreover, these contractual “communities” are deemed to be higher than the natural, “hegemonic” communities, precisely because they are “freely chosen,” an expression of the individual’s God-given liberty, the highest value—and perhaps the only one—that liberalism will admit. But this turns out to be a “negative” liberty, one that is not ordered to the goal of meeting obligations or developing one’s own personality. Rather, it merely means that one acts under no compulsion, particularly not governmental or social compulsion. One may choose to fulfill “hegemonic” obligations, but that is incidental and not essential to the notion of liberal “freedom”; it is still freedom regardless of how it is used. In reality, this is not freedom at all, but license, and such licentiousness is established within liberalism as the ground for all social relations.

Further, this individual is the possessor of a bundle of rights which are not rooted in obligations, but are rooted in, well, it’s hard to say what roots them. They just are, that’s all. Nevertheless, these individualistic and free-floating rights are supposed to form the individual’s bulwark against collectivism, but as Patrick Deneen points out, the opposite is the case:

It is only when the variety of institutions and organizations of humankind’s social life have been eviscerated – when the individual experiences himself as an individual – that collectivism as a theory becomes plausible as a politics in fact. Liberalism’s successful liberation of individuals from what had historically been “their own” and the increasing realization of the “individual” made it possible for the theory of cosmopolitanism, “globalism” and One State to arise as an actionable political program in the modern era.[1]

At this point, the capitalists—or at least some of them—are likely to raise the objection that they do indeed support something called “family values.” However, they can never explicate these alleged family values in terms of their own economic premises. They will insist that support of the “free market” is also support of the family, but what they almost always mean is support of the capitalistic markets. Aside from the dubious conflation of “free markets” with capitalism, the historical record suggests that capitalism dissolves the family rather than supports it. Nowadays, the erstwhile neoconservative is likely to blame this on an excess of welfare. Very well, but then, to what period in the history of capitalism are we to look for this support of “family values”? In the period when children worked from dark to dark in the mills to earn bare subsistence? When mothers were forced to leave the family to support the family (a period which has returned, at least for a large number of women)? This mythical support of capitalism for “family values” seems to have no historical expression whatsoever; it is a promise that must accepted sola fide and without reference to any actually existing system, now or in the past. The historical (and present) reality is that commodified labor has led only to fragmented families and unstable communities, communities and families that exist only by the will and whim of global masters. Some freedom.

It is precisely the historical question that separates the anti-capitalists and capitalists into the categories of “realist” and “romantic.” For the distributist can always point to real, operational systems, now and in the past; he can always say, “Come to (say) Mondragon, and see if you like it.” And you may love it or you may hate it, but in either case your judgment rests on actual observation of a real system. The laissez-faire or even “small-state” capitalist cannot do this. “Look at how well capitalism works!” they will exclaim, but when you point out that this “working” system is in fact crony capitalism and not the limited-state variety, they will merely bristle and promise that the limited-state variety would work even better. If you then ask the rather obvious question, “when was that true?” they are likely to go into a white-hot rage. But the plain and indisputable fact of the matter is that there is no period in human history when “capitalism” did not mean “crony capitalism.” This was certainly true in Adam Smith’s day, since the bulk of The Wealth of Nations is dedicated to documenting the extent of the cronyism in the capitalism of his day, mercantilism.

The historical question evokes such a strong response precisely because it challenges the capitalist’s self-image as a “realist.” But what he means by “realism” is that he accepts, without question, the shibboleths and dogmas of neoclassical economics. But these supposedly “neoclassical” dogmas are of rather recent vintage, and are, thus far, without any predictive success whatsoever. We have recently witnessed the spectacle of an economic meltdown that caught 95% (or better) of the working economists by surprise; the few who warned of the coming crash were ridiculed by their colleagues as “Cassandras” or “Dr. Doom’s.” But this should not surprise us; the same thing happened in the last recession, and the one before that, and the one before that, etc. Throughout the 20th century, the precise period of neoclassical hegemony, the theory lacks a single predictive success. Indeed, the economist finds out about a recession in the same way the layman does: he reads about it in the newspapers. The “dismal science” is dismal not because of its dismal predictions, but because of its dismal record in predicting much of anything.

The historical reality is that capitalism is not something opposed to big government, but something that depends on it for its very existence; without socializing at least some of the risk, capitalism could not exist. The historical reality is that big government and big business grow together, the one feeding off the other. For the higher the piles of capital, the thicker the walls of government necessary to protect it. The “victory” of capitalism has always meant the victory of the totalizing nation-state over every other polity. And there is no getting around this history, except by fleeing into economic Romanticism. The Romantic Capitalist would have us believe that it we kicked away the state supports, capitalism would float free as a cloud and carry all mankind with it into a glorious future. It is a vision worthy of Wordsworth, but one that lacks as much historical reality as a single daffodil. Hence, we are not permitted to ask the historical question, never permitted to ask for an actual example; the question is considered to be rude.

But capitalism is dependent on something else as well, something a bit worse than mere statism: it is dependent on its liberal assumptions about man and about liberty. It is part and parcel of that liberalism that “freed” man from all his natural associations. It is not without meaning that the original name for “capitalism” was “liberalism”; as the system came into a bad odor beginning in the 1870’s, it was repackaged as “capitalism” to become the content of a new “conservatism,” surely one of  the greatest marketing coups of the last century. But just as surely this is an imaginary conservatism, internally incoherent, and dependent on contradictory principles. This new “conservatism” demands people accept on Sunday principles which it insists they must abandon on Monday.

The realism of the distributist recognizes that the political, cultural, social, and economic realms cannot severed from each other; you cannot rest a conservative polity upon a liberal social and economic order, nor can you locate an economic “science” outside of a political economy. Every actual economy is already located within a structure of laws, customs, and social expectations and cannot be understood apart from them. Neoclassical economics lacks any predictive power precisely because it lacks any descriptive power, since its “descriptions” ignore most of what goes into any actual economy.

Whatever else can be said of this imaginary conservatism, we can clearly note, if we are realists, that it is culturally impotent. We lose every cultural battle because we march under the white flag of surrender. Or worse, we march under the enemy’s own flag, the flag of liberalism. This new conservatism has internalized individualism as its own ethic, and hence we cannot convince people even of such a self-evident principle that marriage is oriented towards the procreation and nurturing of the next generation. Under the ethic of individualism, marriage is whatever the contracting parties make it out to be, and who, having already adopted this individualistic ethic, can say them nay?

I hope I will not be called “rude” if I remind the editors of Ethika Politika that a political ethic must also be a social and economic ethic, and they must all be the same ethics; not a conservative one for this and a liberal one for that. If our ethics will not work in the economic realm, then we ought to do the decent thing and admit that neither will they work in any other realm. For of one thing I am sure: conservatism cannot be liberalism, because in any argument between a liberal and a liberal, the liberal will win every time.


[1] Patrick Deneen, “Inescapable Liberalism? Rescuing Liberty from Individualism and the State,” ABC Religion & Ethics, May 13, 2013,

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  1. “All our best and brightest who are actually affecting the direction of our society on a large scale, even amongst Catholics, are capitalists!”

    Except for his “best and brightest” judgement, I fear that what he says is quite true.

  2. I think a very large part of the problem is actually a divide of language. I am not Catholic but I am anti-modern and anti-Capitalist. One thing I have found very helpful is to carefully define my terms so that people understand exactly what I am arguing against. I find very often times that part of the problem is that Capitalism is a term with so much baggage that it is usually imagined in nearly Distributist terms. People imagine that Capitalism is the system where people start businesses and compete in a free market and that being against capitalism must be against these things, and yet nothing can be further from the truth.

    I find one thing that is critical is to start at the beginning. If one is opposed to Capitalism, then what is the Capitalism that one opposes? What are the alternatives? What are we fighting for?

    I find that the modernist Capitalists are impossible to convert. They cannot break out of the idea that we are perpetually at the apex of history. I find that the libertarians often can find common ground, as can the “old culture liberals” of New England (states which, btw, treat no-fault divorce as something which is guaranteed only if uncontested, because far from being a way for people to unilaterally break contractual bonds, it is a way of protecting the court system from collusion to perjury— in such states, whether a marriage is “irretrievably broken” is a fact to be determined at trial). Thus discussions and even partial alliances and such is, one can hope, the beginning of mutual learning.

    But the bru-ha-ha seems to me to be about the way we are divided by language. For those that aren’t sure consider this: many self-described “liberals” believe that “conservatives” control the media, while many of us believe that “liberals” control the media. The “liberals” we detest include the “conservatives” they detest. We even use those labels for the same reasons even if we use the other labels. Modern politics is multi-directional and part of what is needed is to help find the common ground that can be discussed.

  3. “…this individual is the possessor of a bundle of rights which are not rooted in obligations, but are rooted in, well, it’s hard to say what roots them.” Selfishness? Greed? All sanctified by the religion of laissez-faire?

  4. Chris, excellent observation about language, one that ought to be expanded into an article. I used to give my students the following exercise: take an economics textbook, any one. Look up the three terms in the index, “free markets,” “property,” and “liberty,” and then find the definition of the terms. Surely, these are three terms central to capitalist theory. It usually turns out to be a snipe hunt. Even if the term makes it into the index, it will be a rare text indeed that actually attempt to define it, and no text so far defines all three. This lack of definition characterizes economics in general; in no other “science” could you get away with such a sloppy use of terms.

  5. As a friend of Hannon’s, I think you are completely misreading his article. Since he aimed to talk about the dialogue between capitalists and anti-capitalists, he felt he should give a presentation of the capitalist’s views, which is the context of the “best and brightest” quote. Certainly Hannon himself has little sympathy for the opinion that the best and brightest out to be on the Hill, he was simply representing a common opinion of certain types of “conservatives,” an opinion he himself despises. Nor would he say that the anti-capitalists are dead wrong, since to the best of my knowledge he is one of them. Rather, the statement was that even though the anti-capitalists MAY be wrong, it’s still the case that the capitalists are failing to interact with anti-capitalist arguments. In this specific article he is punting on the issues themselves and making a MacIntyre-style critique of the premises that each side brings to the table that prevent meaningful exchange. The objective language he is using may lead to the confusion, but the actual point is completely solid– the capitalists aren’t even responding to the critiques of Porchers and other anti-capitalists, because their conceptual categories don’t even allow them understand those critiques.

    As for personalism/individualism, I do not think Hannon would be the only one who sees a little too much Kant, modernity, and Enlightenment in certain “personalist” writings. I’ve even heard “personalist” Catholic philosophers admit as much. Many traditionalists are more comfortable with a more straight forward common good Thomism. My hunch is that when Hannon says personalism, he is thinking of the De Koninck critique in particular:

  6. John, I recently read Mueller’s Redeeming Economics. Any thoughts on that book?

    Also, I’d highly recommend Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, which has an enlightening chapter on the origin and history of “capitalism,” with extremely thorough documentation.

  7. Mr. Medaille,

    A good piece, but Mr. Gerkin is right that you are unfair to Mr. Hannon (aside from the odd conflation of individualism and personalism, which he didn’t spend much ink on).
    His main goal seems to be to gently alert the capitalists (even the Catholic ones) to the fact that they are liberals. Perhaps a revision to the introduction is in order.

  8. Mr. Gerken,

    It seems that the piece you linked is criticizing a different personalism than the one I’m familiar with. Skimming through it, I couldn’t make heads or tails of this passage:

    ‘By their false notion of the common good, the personalists are fundamentally in accord with those whose errors they suppose they are fighting. To individualism they oppose and recommend the generosity of the person and a fraternity exterior to any common good, as if the common good had its principle in the generosity of persons; as if the common good were not the very first principle for which persons must act. To totalitarianism they oppose the superiority of the person-whole and a common good reduced to the state of a particular good of persons. Their protestation is made not in the name of the person as a citizen, but in the name of the citizen as a person, as if the person were not greater in the order of the common good than in the order of the personal good.’

    What beast is this? If he thinks that capitalists as they exist espouse a better attitude to personhood than whatever philosophical abstraction holds the one above, I’m not sure we are looking at the same planet.

  9. It’s very hard to take seriously someone who can call, with a straight face, the neophyte congressional staffers, and culturally ignorant policy wonks of think- tank land, “the best and brightest.”

    Perhaps they should learn something of human nature and history before they attack others for not grasping the mystical wonders of capitalist theory, or for not dedicating (wasting?) more time in the federal district “affecting the direction of our society on a large scale.”

  10. John, I am working on a series of blog entries (on my technical blog) on the CAP Theorem in computer science, and what this means for human existence on a cultural level. My basic theory is that because human communication is fundamentally lossy, we all must operate like computers disconnected from a network. It is from this observation that the basic necessity of individual autonomy arises, not as a “right” but rather as a practical necessity. The fundamental paradox is that while we are autonomous and have a need for autonomy, we are also social and have a need for society.

    What I am hoping is that my blog entries on this provide a more culturally supportive view of rights, where rights emerge from this basic paradox (of needing both individual autonomy and cultural support) within a specific cultural framework and therefore different from the rights theory of the enlightenment. So far I think I can only identify a few very specific human rights (defined as being applicable without regard to culture or era) and those are:

    1. A right to individual and local autonomy (i.e. progressively local but in circles, individual, household, local community, larger community, and larger scales of political union, but less power as more centralization occurs..

    2. A right to cultural support, subject to responsibility.

    3. A right to culture and

    4. A right to language.

    There may be others, but that’s all I can find right now.

  11. “The fundamental paradox is that while we are autonomous and have a need for autonomy, we are also social and have a need for society.”

    I wonder if autonomy, though a real desire, is either possible or desirable?

  12. John,

    Your 5th and 6th paragraph just shook my intellectual foundation and actually gave me some peace of mind with some of the thought-wrestling I’ve done recently. I’ve read your stuff before, but for some reason, this hit home. The notion of “rights,” at least in the sense and definition that I have presupposed for so long, is a cornerstone that you just cracked. Thanks.
    -A bruised and battered recovering capitalist crawling to the porch

  13. John, firstly, nice piece. I always look forward to a new essay from you. I have a question that I hope it is not too late for, and anyone else should feel free to provide their answer as well. I have a friend from the far end of the other side of the political spectrum that agrees with all of your insights into the problems of our current system but would then say that the path is forward, not backwards. He calls your distributism “traditionalism”, and then charges that the pre-capitalism “praxis” that you point to is nothing more than feudalism and it was rife with its own problems and injustices — basically that you are vastly underestimating the amount of bathwater that needs thrown out while saving the supposed pure baby of distributism. Also, he is not religious and does not accept at face value that the traditional moralities are necessary; he agrees with your individualist/personalist view but sees the possibility of moving forward into new community/family relationships. How would you fairly answer such a view?

  14. I enjoy reading John Medaille’s essays because he is anti-capitalist. I suppose Karl Marx would have called him a feudal socialist, but its a little late in history for such neat labels. I find more merit in individualism than Medaille does, but after some study of the origins of war, and the state, I began to realize that the very notion of inalienable individual rights is only possible on the basis of a society that respects and enforces such rights. Otherwise, “liberty” has its medieval meaning, my liberty as a powerful lord to do what I like, unlike you subordinate peons who have none. (A slave revolt in Mississippi in the 1840s was termed by outraged slaveholders “an attempt to overthrow our liberties.”)

    If there are no laws, traditions, customs, protocols, constitutional guarantees and mechanisms to enforce them, then my rights are no more that what I can defend against all comers who might care to trample on them. Complete anarchy quickly becomes rule by the strong, because there is nothing to prevent them trampling on the weak.

    I would question the notion that capitalists are the true heirs of liberalism. Rather, liberals are the true heirs of capitalism. It is the advent of capitalism that brought liberalism into being, and liberalism has since the days of the Luddites been the proponent of capitalism.

    I decline to write off the Enlightenment, because every tradition and institution can become oppressive of the sacred person that John Paul II wrote of. The paterfamilias can easily become a tyrant. There is something wrong in chaining a son to the forge merely because his father was a blacksmith, or to the heritage of his fathers 40 acres when the son has the skills and aptitude and yearning to be a skilled blacksmith.

    To Medaille’s commentary on capitalism and family values I can add nothing. Even a hearty “Amen” would distract from a cogent critique.

    To balance the integrity of the individual as a unique child of God with the web of human relationships that make this individual human and sustains their very existence is a delicate task. To deny one while exalting the other, in either direction, is a recipe for disaster. And of course I cannot say I agree that a political, social, and economic ethic must all be the same ethics, as I prefer a libertarian political ethic, interwoven with a socialist economic ethic, and a conservative cultural ethic. Is there tension between these three? Undoubtedly, but it is a tension that, if sustained, and not pulled out of balance, keeps a society from succumbing to the tyranny that lurks within every philosophical prescription, no matter how well intentioned.

  15. Siarlys Jenkins,
    “There is something wrong in chaining a son to the forge merely because his father was a blacksmith”

    But is it wrong when the son follows his father?. Can lasting socities be built without this following? Is it really conducive to happiness and well-being that all laws be overturned in every generation, as Jefferson wrote?

  16. “We have recently witnessed the spectacle of an economic meltdown that caught 95% (or better) of the working economists by surprise; the few who warned of the coming crash were ridiculed by their colleagues as “Cassandras” or “Dr. Doom’s.” But this should not surprise us; the same thing happened in the last recession, and the one before that, and the one before that, etc.”

    John, a large amount of the 5% that predicted the meltdown are ardent neoclassical economists of the libertarian persuasion. What do you make of that? Of course, they argue that the “system” and the reasons why the meltdown happened are the result of nefarious government interventions into the marketplace — where it “shouldn’t be.” That doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, but are you saying that even though their assumptions and predictions proved to be true, it doesn’t confirm their ideology (or at least parts of it)? Would you say that their “lassaiz-faire” ideology would end up creating the same sort of mess eventually?

  17. Roman, I don’t agree that the Austrians were prominent in making such predictions, aside from their standard prediction that hyper-inflation will begin next Tuesday. The example usually given is Peter Schiff, who did indeed warn of the sub-prime meltdown, and predicted in would bring down the economy. But Schiff never could explain the relation because he refused to fault the shadow banking system. The sub-prime meltdown did not cause the problem; at $1.4 trillion, a 20% default rate over a few years would have resulted in losses too small to do the $30T dollars in damage that was actually done. Everybody knew that the sub-prime market was failing, they just did not see the wider implications. It was the amplification of these loans (“gearing,” as it was known in the hedge fund trade) that caused the problem. Only a few analysts understood this wider phenomenon.

  18. Off-topic for the article but on-topic for Medaillists: a well-written article on coops in a 1920 volume of Journal of Home Economics. [At that time Home Ec was a solid and scientific part of academia. When feminists killed Home Ec, they killed a major source of serious academic work for women.]

    The article includes one instructive fact: Before the Revolution, half of Russia’s population was involved in cooperative businesses of all sorts, and it was those coops that held Russia together during the chaos of the Revolution.

    Might be a good lesson for people in, ahem, modern countries that are likely to descend into chaos.

    The PDF is here:
    Article starts on p370 of the PDF.

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