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Markets, Liberalism, and G.K. Chesterton

In his response to my previous Ethika Politika essay, Ryan Shinkel begins by  lamenting that I do “not discuss the word `liberalism’ with more nuance.” And certainly liberalism has been used at different times and places to mean different things. But the differences between Shinkel and myself are over graver matters than words, controversy about which is generally fruitless anyway. Instead let us turn to Shinkel’s substantive objections.

Shinkel claims to agree with the critique of market economics that I advocated in my reply. There I said that Catholic social teaching has always entailed:

a rejection of the notion that fundamentally all that is needed are market forces plus a legal framework that helps make these market forces function efficiently. Intermediate groups such as guilds, worker participation in management, coordination between unions and owners, proper regulation on the part of the government—all these suggestions have been offered by popes and a Catholic is free to debate many of the details of how they might be applied. But he is not free to suggest that market forces are fundamentally productive of justice or sufficient to regulate the economy.

Surprisingly, Shinkel tells us, “I happily agree with everything written above …” But does Shinkel really understand the point at issue? For in the next paragraph he offers as his limits and checks on the market “the rule of law, the mores and intermediating institutions of civil society, and initiatives of private citizens.” Perhaps I am at fault for not specifying that economic liberals are often quite willing to allow, indeed to celebrate, customs, voluntary associations, a strong cultural affirmation of marriage and the like, and to consider that these constitute sufficient restraints on the ravages of capitalism.

Sadly, they do not. For granting that we need such cultural supports, the question is whether the market itself, the practices and institutions of our economic life, need to conform to justice and the common good. Shinkel reveals his fundamental view when he says that the restraints that he advocates “provide a buffer between the market and the realms of value wherein certain things … cannot be bought and sold.” Indeed, this is the crux of the matter. Why is the market outside of the “realms of value”? Why should economic activity be handed over to Satan while the health of society is guarded merely by good will and private initiative? We must indeed erect buffers against human greed; this is done not simply by private institutions and good morals, but by the way in which we structure and regulate economic life.

I wrote in my original response to Shinkel of “the incredibly destructive effects that capitalism has had on all traditional cultures and ways of thinking.” What does Shinkel say to this? “But such vices are rooted in our fallen nature, and would manifest themselves in any economic system.” Yes, the vice of greed will always seek to manifest itself. That is not the point, however. It is that capitalism allows for greed, encourages it, even at times celebrates it. Shinkel mentions advertising and admits that it “seeks to reduce civil society into mere atomized individuals built for consumption.” Is he unaware that advertising was prohibited in the medieval social order, and in parts of Catholic Europe, e.g., France, well into the 18th century? But capitalism needs advertising, just as a sexually libertine society needs pornography. They both seek to initiate us into full participation in their respective vices. So the controversy here is not whether we need protections from the ravages of market economics, which Shinkel admits, but whether these safeguards should extend to economic activity itself, to orient it toward justice and the common good.

Finally, Shinkel has thought to invoke the liberalism of G. K. Chesterton and even to link Chesterton’s name with that of Edmund Burke. Yet in the very passage that Shinkel quotes, Chesterton explains that he means by liberalism simply democracy, a system of government against which I have never spoken, except to point out (with Leo XIII) that it is only one among several potentially just systems of government. But Burke? In What’s Wrong With the World Chesterton says there are “only two kinds of government … the despotic and the democratic.” He dismisses aristocracy, promoted by “sophists like Burke and Nietzsche.” Indeed, elsewhere in that book Chesterton recalls how he once distressed a “cultivated Conservative friend” by calling Burke an atheist:

I need scarcely say that the remark lacked something of biographical precision; it was meant to. [But] Burke did stand for the atheistic attitude and mode of argument … The [French] Revolution appealed to the idea of an abstract and eternal justice … Here Burke made his brilliant diversion; he did not attack the Robespierre doctrine with the old medieval doctrine of jus divinum … he attacked it with the modern argument of scientific relativity … “I know nothing of the rights of men,” he said, “but I know something of the rights of Englishmen.” There you have the essential atheist.

I am not enough of a Chestertonian to know whether Chesterton had elsewhere any extended discussion of Burke. But I am enough of one to know that it is hazardous for Shinkel to link Burke with Chesterton, even though American conservatives love to place both in their pantheon. But they place Chesterton there only by ignoring what he actually said. I daresay that he himself would not have been happy to be found in the same temple with Burke, the “sophist” and the “atheist.”


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Hear, hear! Life, liberty, and property…. in that specific order!

    I like the inveighing against the disruptions to stable trade as are caused by (intentionally disruptive) advertising. However I can already hear the howls about “protecting free speech” etc against Dr. Storck…

    Truly, if a constitutional amendment were passed tomorrow prohibiting all general advertising which includes pricing of any kind including use of the word “free”, would not our society immediately improve? Sure, we would sock the GDP figures a couple of points in near term, but society could immediately take a deep breath and move back toward civility!

    • Gary Houchens

      OK, Mr. Mullalley. If there were no advertising, then how would I know how to distinguish the goods and services provided by one shopkeeper from another, especially without prices? Not being argumentative here. I’m genuinely trying to understand how this would work.

      • Well, in the case of “prohibiting all general advertising which includes pricing of any kind including use of the word ‘free'”, you would actually have to talk or chat with the seller about your request and get a direct quote, or visit a retail location. Currently, mass communications in this rea assures only a few things: lack of service, centralization of purchasing, ever lower quality of goods, ever lower wages, excessive shipping and returns, etc…. Sayonara Amazon, Welcome Back Mom and Pop!!

      • OK, let me submit a modification, I am already missing Amazon. We will not jettison online shopping, but the FTC should have controls e.g. licensing and hard divisions between online and brick and mortar merchants, similar to old FCC divisions between TV and print media, which incidentally is the last time we had sound and independent journalism!

  • Glenn Willard

    Mr. Storck is correct that the crux of the matter is whether, as Catholic Social Doctrine has taught from the beginning, whether the market itself must be directed by law (i.e., “political path of charity”, Caritas in Veritate, 7) towards the good. Benedict said it succinctly:

    “[CSD] holds that authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity
    and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or ‘after’ it. The economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and
    opposed to society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner.” Caritas in Veritate, 30.

  • Gary Houchens

    This debate has prompted me to do some reading on Distributism, which I gather is Mr. Storck’s alternative to what he perceives to be Mr. Shinkel’s capitalism. I feel as though I’m getting a better understanding of the concept, especially from the series of essays David W. Cooney posted here over the last six months.
    Mr. Cooney seemed to carefully articulate how distributism shared certain things in common with capitalism and socialism, while thoughtfully distinguishing how distributism is fundamentally different.
    Mr. Storck’s posts here have none of Mr. Cooney’s measured thoughtfulness, and I say that less as criticism and more as disappointment because I believe he’s really trying to say something important that I want to hear and understand. Mr. Storck seems to operate from a world in which there are clearly good guys and bad guys (and, by extension, good Catholics and bad Catholics). Burke, I would presume, is a bad guy because he favored aristocracy. But would distributism have NOTHING in common with Burkean conservatism? It would seem from my (admittedly limited) reading of distributism that there would be many common points of contact to start building meaningful dialogue.
    Perhaps that’s the core of my frustration with this discussion. I now really want to know more about the distributist alternative to our current economic regime. I’m getting very little of that, though. In a world that is polarized between political conservatism and political progressivism (of the Fox vs. MSNBC variety), if you are really something OTHER than either of these, then you have to carefully explain how and why if you attack one side without also articulating your differences with the other. Otherwise, the reader unfamiliar with distributism will presume you operate according to Elizabeth Warren’s economic worldview. And I don’t think that’s what distributism is really all about?

    • Thomas Storck

      Mr. Houchens,

      Have you looked at any of my articles posted on the Distributist Review? There you will find a fuller explanation of my views – I can’t speak for all distributists, of course, and I’m glad that you find David Cooney’s articles helpful, and I think he and I are generally in agreement. Also, I’d suggest reading Belloc, his Restoration of Property, in particular, Fanfani, even Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic, though he was not a Catholic, and I think not a Christian of any sort, but he diagnoses many of the central facets of capitalism very well. Mr Cooney, I think, tends to be oriented more toward practical ways of realizing distributism, while I admit that I am interested more in its general principles and theoretical aspects. Both are needed.

      If you’ve read some of my DR articles, then I’d be happy to answer any specific questions you have.

      As to advertising, I would distinguish mere information – e.g., “Beginning today we will be selling cotton shirts at $15.00 a shirt. We have them in yellow, blue and white.” or something like that, from attempts to persuade people to buy things they may or may not need or want. The latter is insidious, demonic in fact, and has done much to reduce citizens to mere consumers, to change things into commodities, i.e. valued not for their use-value, but for something else.

      • I believe it is safe to say that Tom and I are in agreement here. In fact, what he says here is along the lines of my article on the science of economics combined with nature and roles of government. What Tom says here about the fact that the economy needs to be structured to provide sufficient restraints on immoral economic behavior (or, at least to mitigate its effects and render it easier for communities to deal with it when it occurs) is along the lines of what I have written here

        Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

        and here

        Capitalist Monopolies vs. Distributist Guilds

      • Gary Houchens

        Yes, I’ve read some of your work at the DR website (though as Mr. Cooney notes, I think the site is down at the moment), and I’ve found it helpful. I guess the concern I’m sharing has more to do with this particular debate with Mr. Shinkel. As I understand it, you are arguing that some Catholics are far too cozy with capitalism in their reading of CST, and are challenging that coziness? And that’s all well and good, but I do think that your challenge needs a bit more reference to the specific critiques of distributism vs. capitalism in order to distinguish it from the more generic Keynesian critique of capitalism (which really just functions to help prop up capitalism, as I understand it). I’m not saying you need to give a detailed explanation of distributism here, as that’s not the purpose of the exchange with Mr. Shinkel. But I believe the discussion would be much more thoughtful and productive (especially for those of us relatively unfamiliar with distibutism) if you made the perspective from which you are writing more explicit. Otherwise, as I noted, I can’t tell how your critique differs all that much from what most Americans would associate with political liberalism.

        • Thomas Storck

          Thanks for this reply. In the near future if the DR website continues to be unavailable, my articles there should be available elsewhere, and I think you’ll find that I address most of the these points. E.g., I’m thinking of one article called “A Distributist Looks at Capitalism and Socialism.”

          The matter is complex because capitalism as defined by Pius XI is the separation of ownership and work, which in itself is just provided that just wages are paid, etc. However, because of this separation there is a built-in tendency in capitalism to concentrate not on providing useful goods to fulfill human needs, but on production merely for the sake of sales, which needs advertising, and which tends to corrupt the entire culture. This latter is what is sometimes called the spirit of capitalism.

      • Hello again… Weber is the great thinker and critic of capitalism, but the philosophy of Marx upstaged him for melodrama– a great tragedy. Now Fanfani, errr, this is fine for purists, but the first thing you see online is that Fanfani worked for Mussolini and was an anti-Semite. So instead, why not reference William Jennings Bryan, who in his Cross of Gold speech declared:

        “We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men!”

        The 1896 election was a watershed in the US, and lost opportunity… the country had already endured two panics and depressions in previous twenty years, and could have reeled in capitalism. (In fact the desire was strong enough that T. Roosevelt later co-opted the progressivism for the GOP.) But Bryan was portrayed as a maniac by the monied interests, and McKinley and his “sound money” crowd won.

    • Thank you for the kind words about my article series. In regard to writing with clarity and precision, it should be remembered that writers some times have to assume that those reading us have either read what we have written before, or will be prompted to do so. The series Ethika Politika was kind enough to re-publish is one that was specifically written as an introduction and was necessarily more detailed that I have been in some other articles.

      Unfortunately, Tom, the Distributist Review site appears to be down at this time, and I don’t know when or if it is going to be back up.

  • Dan Hugger

    We must indeed erect buffers against human gluttony; this is done not simply by private institutions and good morals, but by the way in which we structure and regulate gastronomic life!

  • Dennis Larkin

    I think it’s worth recommending Dawson’s essay here, Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind. His contrast between the shopkeeper’s soul and the erotic soul of the lover, the saint, is marvelous: “Time is money” vs “All for love, and the world well lost.”

  • Ryan Shinkel

    Ryan Shinkel, here. Mr. Storck, I very much appreciate the time given for your responses. Just a few quick remarks for clarification:
    –By “rule of law” as a buffer, I meant to umbrella under that term “economic regulation.” It seems to me right and just in principle for there to be laws regarding how economic transactions go forth, what transactions cannot go forth, and so on. The question then in the concrete is what regulations are prudent and what are not. I am open to the evidence on that question, and currently am swayed to a view skeptical of centralized regulation. Local laws can be quite productive as the first option.
    –I hope there is not just confusion with the word capitalism. If you think greed is essential to it, celebrated by it, like a “Greed is good” mentality, then we need to define greed. One can mean an Ayn Rand heroic entrepreneur where consumption is never discouraged, but one can also mean merely a desire for material goods . The former is monstrous, the latter can be used for good or ill purposes. Defining what one means by greed would be helpful. That said, greed is a vice.
    –By “realms of value,” I meant things which are ends in themselves. I see the market as a question of efficient means, which must be properly guided and under-girded by proper ends. So the market should be structured by those ends. The market, like any method or means, must not be separated for concerns of justice. As our ends must be just, so should our means.
    –You are right to point out Chesterton’s interesting criticism of Burke. But let me grant for the sake of argument that Chesterton is right in his interpretation of Burke. Conservatives can still validly reconstruct a tradition of thought that synthesizes the two. Analogously, literary classicists may reconstruct a tradition including Chesterton and T.S. Eliot, who Joseph Pierce recently pointed were not literary soul-mates to say the least (
    –As to whether my dear Burke is a “sophist” or “atheist,” my own understanding has been informed by Yuval Levin’s recent book, The Great Debate ( According to Levin, Burke did believe in a natural law, but one whose epistemic access was not clear to first principles known by an individual doing arm chair philosophy (which French Revolutionaries like Saint-Just were doing), but discovered in our social life from what we have inherited via, to borrow from Chesterton, the democracy of the dead. There is a certain subsidiarity of appeal for principles of justice. Burke used more metaphysical appeals on behalf of Ireland and India, but with France appealed more to the historic character of French society since that was the more readily available. There are some Burkean scholars who do think he is not that innovative in the natural law tradition. Peter Stanlis writes, Burke “conceived of statecraft
    as the practical application in concrete human affairs of primary moral
    principles, clearly evident to man’s reason” (Edmund Burke and Natural Law, Ann Arbor:
    University of Michigan Press, 1958, 84).
    When it came to religion, Burke did speak of the “eternal contract” and the importance of Christianity in civic life. He is not one who appeals to St. Paul, however. But that hardly makes him a sophist and atheist. I personally think Chesterton in recounting that passage was being a bit hyperbolic and misunderstands Burke. But, like economic liberals, nobody is perfect.

    • Thomas Storck

      Mr. Shinkel,

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. To take your last point first, I only brought in the material about GKC and Burke because you linked the two together, in fact linked them together in opposition to me. So I thought it fair to point out that Chesterton, based on the texts I know, was no admirer of Burke.

      As to greed, I’m quite content to use the classic Catholic concept, e.g., as found in St. Thomas.

      Now you may have meant something similar to what I said about markets and regulation, but you didn’t appear to me to be saying that. I’m familiar with the views of some American conservatives who wax eloquent about non-market virtues and values, but when push comes to shove, really propose nothing effective to restrain markets, which they want to allow to operate in a pretty much unrestrained manner, even though this has always been devastating to family life, and indeed civic life. It appeared to me that this was what you were advocating, but if I was wrong, perhaps you’d want to make it clearer in the future that you’re perfectly prepared to accept limits on market forces for the sake of justice and preservation of the common good, and that this is not some malign interference with market forces, and that market forces have no special status any more than the other desires of fallen mankind.

      I’m not sure why you bring up “centralized regulation.” You’re probably aware that I’ve written quite a bit on distributism, and that I’ve said over and over that the best means of regulating the economy is via intermediate groups, i.e., occupational groups or guilds, which would be primarily local. But in a modern capitalist economy, centralized regulation arose not out of some evil statist desires on the part of anyone, but because business had already become so big as to be unable to be regulated by lower or local bodies. You may be aware that before roughly the Civil War, corporations in the U.S. were often restricted both in their sphere of operation – e.g., they were restricted to only one line of business or even to operating just one thing, as one bridge or one ferry boat – and they could not operate across state boundaries, and sometimes even county boundaries. Beginning around 1870 corporations sought for the right to be able to create holding companies so that they could own other corporations and operate across state boundaries and general incorporation laws so they could engage in any form of business. The only possibly effective way of countering their power was centralized state regulation. This was unfortunate, but was a reaction to the previously achieved gains of the corporations. If someone doesn’t like big government, then let him campaign against big business.

  • Gus

    Free markets have the potential to lead to consumerism. In
    fact, all economic systems do because consumerism is an attitude.

    Critics of the free-market approach sometimes confuse a
    free-market economic system with consumerism. Consumerism is an attitude that values owning and using stuff.

    Since consumerism is an internal attitude, an economic
    system cannot prevent it.

    The greed of consumerism can only be changed from within.

    The answer to consumerism is not new laws, but contentment
    with God’s provision.

    All of the above are from as essay at — How Should Christians Think about Free Markets and Consumerism?

    • True, in fact capitalism only got turned into consumerism after WW2, with birth of television. What glimmers of hope we had with internet reducing power of mass media are being dashed, as mass media has taken most control of the internet, in many ways magnifying their power.

      • Thomas Storck

        Mr. Mullally,

        My last comment was not directed to you, but to J. GradGus. Sorry, the placement made it seem as if I was replying to you.

        • No, that was a few days ago and it was in reply to Houchens that you had listed Fanfani… Perhaps it is impolite to butt in and undermine your point on this occasion, but I felt important for you to look at Fanfani not being a citation that will end up furthering the distributist cause in the US.

          • Thomas Storck

            Fanfani’s book, Catholicism, Protestantism, Capitalism, is an excellent work, despite any shortcomings that the author may have had.

          • Thanks, I am sure I will enjoy it… Just thinking way ahead to a point when the distributism gains some traction, and the first thing used to discredit it will be, that it is a harkening back to Fascism, Carlism, Victorianism, etc… So the more we can correlate the philosophy to classic US progressives both inside and outside the Church, instead of Europeans including sorry to say it, even the curmudgeonly Chesterton, we will be better off in the long run…. Merry Christmas!

    • Thomas Storck

      I’m afraid this is not true, or rather, by stating only half the truth, you in fact state a falsehood. Yes, individual moral virtue must be cultivated to oppose consumerism, but when an entire society exists that depends upon consumerism, individual virtue is a weak reed.

      Michael Novak, wrote (This Hemisphere of Liberty, p. 11)

      “One of the great achievements of the Whig traditon was its new

      world experiment, the Novus Ordo Seclorum (the new order of the

      ages). Its American progenitors called that experiment the

      commercial republic. The Whigs were the first philosophers in

      history to grasp the importance of basing government of the

      people upon the foundation of commerce. They underpinned

      democracy with a capitalist, growing economy.”

      If making commerce the foundation of one’s government doesn’t lead to consumerism, I don’t know what would. The ancients and medievals saw only too clearly that the commercial motive must be restrained by legal and other means, not made the foundation of one’s regime and celebrated as a virtue.

      • Gus

        The Whig Party did not come into being until 1833 (some 50 years after out nation was founded) and lasted for about 30 years. It’s primary contribution to economics was in recognizing that commerce relied on a sound infrastructure. Blaming the “capitalist, growing economy” that grew out of the “foundation of commerce” for consumerism is also not true.

        “There is a third way that does encourage human flourishing, but it’s not Distributism. The third way beyond collectivism and cronyism is a free society marked by political, religious and economic freedom, robust civil institutions guided by natural law, a widespread belief that all humans are made in the image of God, and rule of law for rich and poor alike—justice for all.}

        • Thomas Storck

          Really, JGrad, Novak is not referring to the American Whig party, but rather to the Whigs (such as Burke) and likeminded people in England and the U.S. in the 18th century.

          • Gus

            OK, let’s agree to not be disingenuous – I won’t feign ignorance if you won’t take isolated quotes out of context. Novak was simply saying, as he always has, that a free market and liberty go hand in hand. As he says on page 12, the commercial republic
            that was designed by the framers severely limited “the powers of government over the economy. They empowered economic
            institutions to act as full equals to political institutions – not *under* them, but beside them and free.” They did not make “commerce the foundation of one’s government,” as you well know. One could even argue that we have drifted too far from the framers’ concept of ‘liberty’ – that too much government intervention in markets and economics has turned us into the consumer-driven society that we have become.

          • Thomas Storck

            Are you familiar with a book Novak edited called Liberation South, Liberation North? In it there is an essay by Ralph Lerner about roughly the same group of people as Novak calls Whigs. I think if you’ll read that essay you’ll see that I’m correct, that the “Whigs” did mean to make commerce the foundation of our public polity, which is why we call it the commercial republic.

          • Gus

            I believe that Lerner’s essay is presented as a contrast to Segundo’s. The two essays show the different directions that were taken in North and South America when it comes to political structures and economics. The entire book is kind of an ‘instruction manual’ for South America – how SA countries need to change how they think about economics and politics in order to move away from a (socialistic) liberation theology approach to governing toward a democratic, free-market way of thinking. “This Hemisphere of Liberty” was along the same lines. The message is the same in both books: a free market and liberty go hand-in-hand. The term “commercial republic” is not a term that is widely used, and for good reason — it is simply shorthand for ‘a democratic republic form of government that recognizes the importance of free markets and commerce to liberty.’ This does not mean that commerce is *the foundation* of our government, and it does not automatically follow that a free market economy and commerce lead to

          • Thomas Storck

            “it does not automatically follow that a free market economy and commerce lead to consumerism.”

            I’m afraid that all experience teaches us otherwise.

          • Gus

            Only if you are determined to see it that way and want to ignore human nature, the fact that man is not perfect, our propensity for sin, and the devil’s impact on society or its systems and institutions

            Saying all experience teaches us that a free market economy and commerce leads to consumerism is like saying all experience teaches us that our system of justice, with judges, jury trials, imprisonment, and executions leads to crime.
            So we will not agree on this. Merry Christmas, and God Bless you.