Distributism vs Free Markets

Last night at the Acton Institute I attended a fascinating debate, titled A Gentleman’s Debate: Distributism vs. Free Markets.

Arguing in favor of free markets was Dr. Jay Richards, an author and also Assistant Research Professor at The Catholic University of America.

Arguing from the Distributist perspective was Joseph Pearce, a writer in residence at Aquinas College in Tennessee.

Here are some of my thoughts from the debate:

=>Kudos to both men for a lively and scholarly debate. It never once resorted to ad hominem. Both men exemplified what it means to engage in a scholarly debate in pursuit of truth.
=>The Acton Institute is a very religious organization, and both Jay and Joseph used religious arguments to bolster their positions. However, I thought each of them was more effective when arguing from a strictly secular outlook, basing their conclusions on what is right for man and man’s happiness here and now on earth, instead of what God desires of us.
=>One of the more powerful points espoused by Richards was in response to a distributist argument that business is best when it’s small. Pearce argued that “bigness” is inherently dangerous because the control of the business is remote from labor and labor’s direct concerns. Richards responded that “bigness” and “smallness” in business is irrelevant, because all that matters is how the business operates. Does it earn its profits through productive market processes or does it use the state to stifle competition?
=>Monopoly was a central topic throughout. Pearce used an (extremely unheard of) example from England in which four large brewers purchased 90 percent of the breweries and therefore knocked out all the competition. He said this lead to low quality beer, and that consumers desired higher quality micro brew. It seemed pretty clear to the audience and to Richards that, so long as no barriers to entry via protective legislation existed, competition would pretty quickly fill the void. It later came out that licensing requirements were in fact stymieing the market, but this did not seem to convince Pearce that government action was unnecessary to deal with the so-called monopoly problem on a free market.
=>I’m still unclear what a “Distributist” is. Pearce is author of a book titled “Small is Still Beautiful”, and his outlook was such that both small business and small government was an optimal social order. He criticized socialism and was not a bleeding heart welfare statist. Other than insisting on small business over large business, he didn’t make his point of contention extremely clear.

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