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Homo Economus Christianus

October 29, 2009 

By Bart Flueren

Third Ways: How Bulgarian Greens, Swedish Housewives, and Beer-Swilling Englishmen Created Family-Centered Economies — And Why They Disappeared

Allan C. Carlson
225pp (hardcover)
ISI Books, Delaware 2007.

Question: What do the author of The Journal of My Brother Alexei to the Land of Peasant Utopia, the corporation of Swedish Socialist Housewives, the Dutch Christian Democratic movement, Hillaire Belloc, and G.K. Chesterton all have in common? Third ways, apparently. In his book bearing the same title, Allan C. Carlson sketches various movements in twentieth century Europe that—based on Christian values, the appreciation of the family, and agrarian forms of life—provided a way out of the false dichotomy between state-dominated socialism and laissez-faire capitalism.

Third ways, as Carlson describes them, are characterized by four prevailing features. First, they take private property as the basis of all economic relations. Holding and maintaining property in private possession is intrinsic to full human participation in the world. Therefore, socialism, although perhaps based on a legitimate concern for human wellbeing, is based on a false conception of human nature; the respect of private property is missing. Second, proponents of third ways seek to protect small scale business, agrarian and other “organic” forms of life, and the wellbeing of the working class against the dangers of laissez-faire capitalism. Third, third ways are geared at the preservation of the family as society’s cornerstone, and as the “chamber of liberty”[i] (Chesterton). Liberty should be protected against erosion from both the state and the market. The fourth and most distinctive feature of the third ways is their inspiration in a profound but practical Christian understanding of the human person, who belongs to the family, the land, and the community.

Although the term “third way” was coined by Leo XIII more than a century ago, it must be noted that in contemporary political theory it is not taken to refer to a Christian middle ground between the excesses of capitalism and socialism. Rather, it refers to the blend of social-liberalism advanced by the UK Labour Party under Tony Blair, the Democrats under Bill Clinton, and other progressive Western administrations of the 1990s.This social-liberal ‘third way’—which is intellectually indebted to the Cambridge sociologist Anthony Giddens—is a middle ground between capitalism and socialism. But it is based on a secular, rather than Christian, understanding of the human person.[ii] Distinctively, Giddens’ third way does not set the preservation of organic forms of life and the family as its main purpose but rather focuses on the advancement of technology, education, and social welfare. The weakness of such postmodern third ways is that they are not grounded in a constitutive understanding of the human person. They mostly look after the needs of the individual human body, not the whole person, and not the community.

The first and foremost merit of Carlson’s book, therefore, is to remind the intellectual and political community that Giddens cum suis were not the first to have offered a way out of the false dichotomy of capitalism or socialism. And second, Carlson shows that social-liberalism is not the only third way by demonstrating the relevance of a Christian conception of the human person for economic law and policymaking. The most important implication thereof is that human happiness consists in more than just the maximization of utility or pleasure: in addition to the socioeconomic variables of the market and the state, the human person and his distinctive natural rights and obligations—such as those regarding the family—constitute a third variable that despite its unquantifiable nature should be of decisive importance.

So how does this work? Carlson discusses a good example in Hillaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton’s theory of distributionism[iii], which they advanced in the UK during the interbellum. In the early twentieth century, ninety percent of the farmland in England was still owned by a small class of landowners.[iv] At the same time, the rural proletariat had largely exchanged agrarian life for what Belloc described in his The Servile State[v] as a new kind of slavery: the rural proletariat of old in the new structures of capitalism. Concerned with the unequal distribution of wealth and its effect on human wellbeing in England after the Industrial Revolution, Chesterton and Belloc found themselves inspired by the Leo XIII’s Encyclical on capital and labor, De Rerum Novarum (1891).[vi] The solution they proposed was at base a “peaceful agrarian revolution”, in which the land would be redistributed over a wider class of citizens so that workers could re-establish their attachment to it and maintain a family life independent of the state and large corporations.

But before discarding distributionism based on its prima facie incompatibility with modern industrial economics, it is important to appreciate the two central principles undergirding it. First, the necessity of private property and, second, man’s natural desire for “the ideal house, the happy family, the family of history.”[vii] As the Pope had stated in De Rerum Novarum, the possession of private property was “pre-eminently in conformity with human nature”.[viii] In the view of distributionists, “all human subsistence is derived either from labor on one’s own land, or from some toil, some calling, which is paid for either in the produce of the land itself, or in that which is exchanged for what the land brings forth.”[ix]

Although favoring private property, distributionists went about it in quite a different way than the laissez-faire liberals. According to distributionists, private property is not meant only for the few—in liberal terms, whoever can acquire it within the terms of the law—but for the many: most adult persons or at least most heads of households. Therefore, the condition that most of the land is owned by a very small class of landowners is at odds with human dignity and, for this reason, politically undesirable. As Chesterton put it in The Outline of Sanity, “the average respectable citizen ought to have something to rule.”[x]

In practice, distributionism proposes a “peaceful agricultural revolution”, in which private property, land, and capital are spread to a wider class of owners. Along the lines of De Rerum Novarum, distributionists argued that

the law should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners. (…) If working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining share in the land, the consequence will be that the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will be bridged over, and the respective classes will be brought nearer to one another.”[xi]

Also, Chesterton proposed a variety of other measures, such as the support of small retailers over large department stores, and the breaking up of monopolies, as well as encouragement of agriculture over industry, suburban life over urban life, and private transportation over public transportation, etc.[xii]

The second pillar on which distributionism leans, and which provides additional rationale to the necessity of private property, is the preservation of the family as the “chamber of liberty” and the cornerstone of society. In Belloc’s time, the progressive intelligentsia was challenging the institution of the family for a variety of reasons. For social egalitarians, the family was an outdated institution which kept in place class-differences and obstructed social emancipation. Liberals were suspicious of the family, as an archaic remnant of an authoritarian patriarchy that obstructed people’s freedom, creativity, and—in the end—productiveness. To the capitalist, women and children are not ‘productive’ when they are at home. They too could be employed in the factory, mills, or shops.

The erosion of the family is what distributionists and other Christian thinkers revolted against most fiercely. In De Rerum Novarum, the Pope had stressed the importance of the family as the natural home of mankind, where both men and women find their fulfillment. As the French thinker Etienne Gilson explains, the family is one of the “natural social structures outside of which [man] could neither live nor achieve his full development.”[xiii] Since we are born out of the natural union between man and woman, the family is the most vital institution in society, which also precedes both the market and the state.

Chesterton especially romanticized ordinary family life:

As every normal man desires a woman, and children born of a woman, every normal man desires a house of his own to put them into… He wants an objective and visible kingdom, a fire at which he can cook what food he likes, a door he can open to what friends he chooses.[xiv]

Because the family is a natural and necessary institution, it should be protected against destructive elements of both the market and the state. Women and children should not, out of financial considerations, have to work in the factory. According to the distributionists, payments to workers should be sufficient so that a man and a woman could live off one salary, own a house, raise children and be sovereign of their little kingdom.

Preserving the family was also an important concern of the Christian Democratic movement as it arose in both Catholic and Protestant political theory in nineteenth century Europe. As Carlson notes, the Dutch reformed pastor Abraham Kuyper recognized industrialization and its concomitant, centralization, as great threats to the family:

No longer should each baby drink warm milk from the breast of its own mother; we should have some tepid mixture prepared for all babies collectively. No longer should each child have a place to play at home by its mother; all should go to a common nursery school.[xv]

Christian democratic policy has been geared at preserving the family through tax benefits and state allowances to support marriage as well as the birth and rearing of children. This is a way of recognizing the prior existence of families—the dependence on families of both state and market. Notwithstanding recent cultural changes, the Christian Democratic movement is still surprisingly strong in Europe, at least in name. The current German, Belgian, and Dutch prime ministers are Christian Democrats. And these parties have large youth followings, which at least in the Netherlands seeks to reclaim the specifically Christian roots of the party in the spirit of Carlson’s third ways.

It is for the preservation of the family that the Swedish socialist housewife movement, quite independent of distributionist theory, founded a cooperative political organization to make themselves strong in numbers for family values. This meant curbing the monopolies of grand corporations by demanding fairer consumer prices and dividends from the supermarket from which she buys her necessities. In the early years, the Swedish socialists looked upon the family as the primary vehicle for the emancipation of women. It was in the course of the later twentieth century that attitudes changed and certain women began seeing the family as a threat and impediment to female emancipation.

Notwithstanding the successes, many critics have argued that such third ways were neither concrete nor influential. However, Carlson is arguably right to contend this. Especially after WWII, governments across Western Europe have de facto enabled the distribution of property over a wider class of citizens due to a heavy increase in taxes on land, capital, and inheritance. Also, the rise of the welfare state significantly increased social security and justice in Europe: minimum wages, mandatory health insurance, public education, and labor laws allowed Europe’s working classes to benefit more and more from the increase in wealth. The question of whether this was due more to the influence of Christian or socialist thought will be addressed below.

Another piece of evidence for the historical and contemporary relevance of Carslon’s third ways is the economic policies of the European Union concerning agriculture and market competition. The European Union is protecting its internal agricultural sector through subsidies and quotas. They wish to prevent small farmers from going bankrupt due to foreign competition. In this way, small farmers and niche farm-related industries (e.g., cheese and wine production) continue apace with the taxpayer’s help—though at the cost of market efficiency and the agricultural sectors of other countries. Secondly, the European Union also has strict market competition laws to prevent to prevent practices of monopolies, i.e., vertical price controlling, horizontal price agreements (cartels), and mergers and acquisitions that are bad for the market structure. In effect, European policies protect smaller companies from the power of larger companies, ultimately with the goal of promoting consumer interests.

The question remains whether the distribution of land and the rise of the welfare state in the twentieth century are due more to the Christian democratic liking of private property or to the socialist dislike of it. In other words, are these developments due more to socialist or Christian ideas? Although in the UK and the USA the development of the welfare state is largely associated with the Left, in continental Europe the Christian democratic parties had a large share in it. After the Second World War, the Christians and the Left marched together in the rebuilding of most of Western Europe. The Christian democrats, employing the concept of subsidiarity, agreed that the state would tax people to ensure social housing, healthcare, and education. The answer is not an either/or but a both/and. The policies of the second half of the twentieth century in Europe were inspired both by Christian third ways and socialism.

But are Carlson’s third ways in any way relevant to contemporary politics? Over the last fifty years, Europe has secularized to a degree that no one expected. Rather than taking the family as the cornerstone of society, the generation of ‘68 rejected the “chamber of liberty” in favor of sexual liberty and individual development. This ideological change, paired with the widespread use of anti-contraceptives, led to a decline in birth rates and a rapidly ageing population. This demographic development puts huge pressure on the welfare state, which can only be sustained if the workforce is large enough to cope with the taxes, and also feels enough solidarity towards their fellow citizens to bear the burden of high taxation. As both of these factors are on the decline due to secularization, immigration, and individualization, it is likely that the welfare state will fall apart and lose its share of the public task along the way.

Even so, a Christian perspective on economics is a possible answer to the problems that Western European welfare states are facing. This is true even if the number of Christians is limited. First, the current public health schemes are too expensive for an ageing society to maintain. You cannot have an entire society—or even a great portion—living in nursing homes. Therefore, as far as healthcare policy is concerned, the family will (and perhaps must) regain importance, as it will be the only option for taking care of the elderly that is both economically feasible and humane—once the state fails. Second, a Christian conception of the human person also amounts to a more responsible way of living and going about using the earth’s resources. Modern economics is based on the idea of ever-expanding consumption; yet, it is clear that the earth only has limited resources. In light of this, a prudent man who thinks not only of himself but also of his contemporaries—as well as future generations—must be prepared to alter his consuming, and thus, his spending. This may be problematic in modern economics and markets, but there is nothing essential about them, at least not to the Christian. We can tolerate slower growth and fewer consumables. We should not tolerate the depletion or loss of natural resources.

In conclusion, Carslon’s Third Ways not only shows the importance of Christian thinking for the twentieth century but also for twenty-first century political economics. Christian charity, personal responsibility, and the family as the chamber of liberty can regain prominence only when the welfare state fails. However, external economic factors and utilitarian motives are limited in what they can do to restore people’s personal and public morality. Since the real crisis of the West is of a moral and personal nature, the answer needs to be both moral and personal. This will also make it practical.

Bart Fleuren works as a policy advisor to the Christian Democratic Party in the Netherlands and studies law at the University of Leiden. Formerly, he studied philosophy at Utrecht and Cambridge.


[i] Carlson, 11.

[ii] Giddens, Anthony. The Third Way. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[iii] Carlson uses “distributism”, but “distributionism” and its related forms will be used in this review. “Distributivism” is often used as a synonym in related writing.There is little if any difference in meaning between the three words.

[iv] Carlson, 6-7.

[v] Belloc, Hillaire. The Servile State. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1977 [1912/13]).

[vi] Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on labor and capital, De Rerum Novarum, May 15th, 1891.

[vii] Carlson, 6.

[viii] Ibid., v.

[ix] Boyd, Ian. “Chesteron and Distibutionism”, in Colnon, G. K. Chesteron, 285; Carlson, 6.

[x] Carlson, 17-18.

[xi] Ibid., v.

[xii] Carlson 20-21

[xiii] Carlson, 154.

[xiv] Chesterton, G.K. What’s wrong with the world? 72-73; Carlson, 11.

[xv] Kuyper, Abraham. Uniformity, 32; Carlson 160.


One Response to “Homo Economus Christianus”
  1. Roger Thomas says:

    Excellent and thought provoking review – now I need to go get the book! I’ll put it on my shelf next to Carlson’s equally excellent Between the Cottage and the Workstation (Ignatius Press, though I suspect it is out of print.)

    It would seem the question pivots around the issue of what the basic unit of society is. Secular liberalism unquestioningly presumes that it is the individual; Jewish tradition seems to presume the family; Christian teaching seems to seek a balance. Important as the family is, individuals matter to, and matters such as conscience and life choices. To this American, the cultural pendulum seems to have swung much too far in the direction of radical individualism – and our families are suffering for it.

    Was Distributism just a pipe dream, nothing more than the transient enthusiasm of a couple of nostalgic Englishmen who liked their landscapes rustic and their taverns intimate? Or was there something more to it? It seems to me that the harvest reaped from the sowings of Big Government and Big Business indicate that there should be something to it. The more distance there is between the party making the decision and the party impacted by it, the worse things are.

Care to comment?