Amid this week’s debate over the meaning of a Vatican department’s call for regulation of the global economy, we should note that there are some Catholics who don’t endorse the status quo or a new global Leviathan — these neo-distributists both find fault with current market arrangements and seek local solutions. This position happens to be on display in a new edition of Commonweal, where TAC contributor John Schwenkler and his Mount St. Mary’s University colleague David Cloutier argue for an “Economy of Care,” and suggest that developing new arrangements might begin with the most basic and important commodity: food.
Unfortunately, the article is currently accessible only to subscribers, but an excerpt gives you a sense of Schwenkler and Cloutier’s argument:
[T]here have never before been so many opportunities to buy better food—food that is healthier for themselves, for the communities it comes from, and for the land. …
These developments have the potential to make our food economy not only healthier and more sustainable, but also more careful and loving. These may seem like strange categories to apply to any kind of economy; growth and efficiency are the more conventional measures of economic success. We are used to thinking of love and care as domestic rather than ecomomic virtues. But as Pope Benedict has written in Caritas in veritate, “authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity, and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or ‘after’ it.” In other words, Christian caritas (from which we get both the words “care” and “charity”) is not merely a private affair “outside” economic relations, or even an add-on of charitable giving that occurs after the market has done its work. Rather, love belongs within the relations of the marketplace. The pope calls for economic forms that go beyond “the exclusively binary model of market-plus-state.” What is needed, Benedict writes, is “a profoundly new way of understanding business enterprise.” He recommends “mutualist” or “cooperative” economic principles and organizations that embody the twin goods of solidarity and subsidiarity.
It is tempting to dismiss this vision as a pipe dream: What would it mean, for example, for large-scale investment banking to be animated by “gratuitousness” and love? There may be good answers to that question, but they aren’t obvious. Our food economy, by contrast, is a case in which we already have before us a range of opportunities to incorporate the logic of caritas into our ordinary routines. Not only are organic and sustainable farming methods better for the environment, not only are the foods they produce better for our bodies, but the forms of economic exchange they enable tend to be ones in which “authentically human social relationships” can take root. At farmers markets, producers meet consumers, consumers meet one another, and products are bought and sold in ways that sustain local communities rather than international corporations.
Schwenkler and Cloutier go on to conclude that economic reform — at least when it comes to agriculture — must be a grassroots movement:
Sustainable agriculture can be renewed only from the bottom up, by gradually changing both economic and cultural patterns. Some policy changes might be in order (for example, eliminating federal subsidies that strongly favor industrial farming), but many more changes will depend on families, associations, small businesses, and local communities.