A few weeks ago I poked gentle fun at distributists for being utopians. They didn’t find it funny—at all. Apparently, a distributist with a sense of humor is about as rare as a distributist corporation (Long live Mondragon!). Not only did the post annoy the self-professed distributists, it inspired rants from people like Front Porch Republic’s Jerry Sayler.
Sayler wrote a lengthy rebuttal aimed at me. I know this because the words “Joe Carter” were included in his essay. If he had not included my name I don’t think I would have recognized he was attacking my ideas since they don’t resemble either anything I’ve said or believe. I would have ignored the rant completely had I not been intrigued by a not-altogether surprising statement:
Just in case it’s not clear, I am not so interested in defending Distributism – an interesting and provocative theory of which I know little – as I am in addressing Mr. Carter’s premises. The question is not whether Distributism lives up to the creed of Western liberalism but whether that creed should be our measure.
For instance – who cares if Distributism contains “a hidden coercive impulse” or not? While I can’t speak for the Distributists I myself endorse coercion quite openly, much as I endorse gravity. Yes, tyranny is a nasty business, but then so is falling down a flight of stairs.
The tagline at FPR is “Place. Limits. Liberty.” Unfortunately, over the past year the “liberty” part has been all but excised from their vision of human flourishing.
But before I delve into that, let me first provide some context and explain my mixed feelings about FPR.
In a Facebook comment yesterday Jake Meador said, “If a line in the sand between FT and FPR hadn’t been drawn already, I think it’s probably getting drawn today.” While many of the commenters at FPR seem to be dismissive of First Things (“I don’t have as much of a stomach for First Things anymore. They are indeed a bunch of liberals, and they even say they are. Conservative liberals, maybe, but liberals none the less.”), the feeling is not mutual. Many of us here at FT are rather sympathetic to the goals and philosophy represented by FPR (our deputy editor, Matthew Schmitz, is even listed on their masthead as a contributor).
While I’ve never been fully on board with “Porcherism”—the affectionate name given to the site’s philosophy by both its critics and friends—I’ve considered myself something of a fellow traveler. I especially admire the way Porchers tend to present thoughtful criticisms of our culture of consumerism and radical individualism. However, though they raise the right questions, they tend to offer, at best, facile solutions.
For instance, a few months ago I attended a conference at Mt. St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland that was co-sponsored by FPR. I was excited to meet and learn from some of my favorite FPR writers (including Mark Mitchell, John Schwenkler, Jeremy Beer, Rod Dreher, and Caleb Stegall) and thrilled to see so many young college students in the audience. The libertarians have been snatching our children away for the past few decades so it was encouraging to see young people interested in localist and traditionalist philosophies. What I wasn’t expecting was that the conference would do so much to disenchant them.
For example, one professor (they were almost all professors) presented his localist bona fides by explaining how he bought his vegetables from a local food co-op. He was very proud of the fact that he paid a higher price to support a local farmer—despite the fact that the same vegetables from the same local farmer could be bought at Whole Foods. For most agrarians throughout history, food was considered fuel for survival and cheap food has made it possible for populations to grow and thrive. For the tenured agrarians, though, food is a totem, a symbol of how they are not only making the “right” consumption choices but how they are supporting the environment and the community in the process (a debatable assumption). The professor’s underlying message—though admittedly presented rather winsomely—was that if you bought bananas at Wegmans rather than whatever was in season from your local farmer, you were part of the problem.
During the question and answer session that followed, an earnest student stood up and asked how people like him—poor kids on the college’s meal plan—were expected to partake in the “luxury of buying local.” The professor’s rather dismissive and surprisingly smug answer was that the student should buy what he could afford and make his meals in his dorm room. And if the student couldn’t afford the higher prices charged by local farmers, then the right thing to do, said the professor, was to eat less food. Hunger was the price one pays for philosophic consistency. Can’t afford organic arugula? Let them eat leeks.
Other presenters denounced the current American trend (that has been going on for over 200 years) of people choosing careers that take them away from the local communities. Ironically, the laments were almost exclusively being made by college professors who had left their own local communities to take jobs in schools far away from their hometowns. (Of course they bought their veggies from a co-op so they could still consider themselves to be good “localists.”)
In America we all get to choose our traditions, so I can’t really fault folks for choosing to be traditionalists. They may be a bit preachy and lacking in self-awareness, but these types of Porchers mean well and are trying to do the right thing. They also tend to be pro-liberty. They may want you to buy your raw milk from a local farmer but they aren’t going to advocate laws to stop you from buying some pasteurized two-percent at the Walmart Supercenter. They respect freedom—they just want you to use it to make the right choices. I’m fully in agreement with them on that point.
There is another brand of Porcher, though, that is less enthusiastic about giving people the freedom to make choices for themselves. They believe the flaws of democracy and capitalism are so great—individuals continuously make the wrong choices—that we need to abandon (or at least seriously curtail) both. Last year, for instance, John Médaille published a provocative essay on FPR titled, “Why I am a Monarchist.” In a follow-up essay he explains the powers that should be afforded to the King of America:
Concerning the king, he needs to have real authority, an authority that extends to the executive, legislative, and judicial functions. Of course, he should not be the only authority in these areas, nor even necessarily the ordinary authority; but he should, in some sense, be the ultimate authority. The king’s government also needs to have its own revenue stream, one fixed in the constitution and independent of any legislative body. A king who has to beg his bread from the legislature is no king, and whoever holds the power of the purse will soon hold all other powers. The legislature may by its own will supplement the constitutional revenues, perhaps to pay for a war or some other extraordinary expense, and they may control the funds they levy. But for the budgeting of the constitutional revenue, the king should be primary, or even the sole, authority. Other authorities may comment, they may even censure a king, such as when a king neglects the defense of the realm to build himself palaces. But in the practical world, control of the budget is control of everything else. The king should also hold an absolute veto over both the legislature and the judicial functions. And finally, there needs to be a difficult but peaceful means of removing a king; without this, kings themselves become the cause of revolutions.
Your second reaction to this passage (assuming your first reaction was “That’s nuts.”) is likely to be, “But what if this king turns out to be a horrible ruler?” Médaille responds to just that question in the comment section:
To accept a monarch–or any ruler–is to accept the inevitability of a bad ruler. That’s the human condition, and there is nothing to be done about it.
In a similar vein, there is a group of Porchers who are quite comfortable with socialism. In a comment to Sayler’s post, I questioned whether he might be advocating socialism. An FPR contributor Russell Arben Fox responded,
Incidentally, I’m one of the socialists you’re worried about–a democratic and decentralist socialist, I hasten to add, though that may not make much difference to you. Anyway, pleasure to make your acquaintance.
Pleased to meet you too, Mr. Fox. And to answer your question, no it does not make a difference. I’m opposed to socialism even if it is democratic and decentralist. Indeed, I find it rather disturbing that purported traditionalists would advocate a system that has a tradition of failure. Socialism doesn’t work, whether on small or large scales.
Ironically, my opposition to such socialism got me labeled a “liberal” by the other FPR commenters. To be fair, they qualified it by saying that I was probably a “conservative liberal” since I supported such travesties as free markets. Free markets are supposedly coercive in a way that is detrimental to human flourishing while decentralized socialism or distributism (headed by a king?) would presumably always make the right choices for us.
Since 2008, FPR has been a fascinating project. But the fusionism of self-sufficient and freedom-loving localists with monarchists and socialists can’t last forever. Either the various groups will go their separate ways or Porcherism will eventually be dismissed as a bizarre philosophy that has no connection to American life in the twenty-first century. It would be a shame if Porcherism failed. We need an attractive presentation of traditionalism that can inspire the masses, not another fantasy ideology that appeals only to quirky academics.