- The American Conservative - http://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Distributism Isn’t Outdated

I’m not holding out for a Red October 2017, but neither am I happy succumbing to a weary fatalism about the kind of capitalism we find ourselves with today. I want to believe things could be different, but that will require more vision than can be found in our current political arguments. And its accomplishment will hinge upon inspiring rather than alienating business leaders.

This will require a vision for transformation that—crucially—doesn’t revolve around a model of gladiatorial government whereby elected representatives battle for policy changes and social justice while we sit by cheering. No, we need a non-statist vision for economic and social change.

G.K. Chesterton’s early 20th century “distributism” is a movement typically considered a spent force, which is always a good reason to pay attention to something, for finding a vision for the future often requires swiveling back to the past. It holds out just the sort of powerful vision that could very well capture the hearts and minds of business leaders.

Chesterton’s “distributist” project tried to chart a middle course (but not “Third Way”!) between laissez faire capitalism on the one side and state socialism on the other. The problem with the former, as Chesterton wrote in The Outline of Sanity 10 years after the Russian Revolution, was that “The practical tendency of all trade and business today is towards big commercial combinations, often more imperial, more impersonal, more international than many a communist commonwealth.” While of the alternative, Chesterton said, “the point about Communism is that it only reforms the pickpocket by forbidding pockets.”

Instead, Chesterton picked up and ran with what we might call the Lockean strain in Pope Leo XIII’s famous encyclical Rerum Novarum, the emphasis on the natural integrity of private property. For Chesterton, ownership is a self-evident good, which therefore shouldn’t be abolished but widely distributed. Similarly, profit is a good thing, in fact too good a thing not to be shared. Accordingly, what Chesterton took issue with in the then-current defense of capitalism was that it was a “defense of keeping most men in wage dependence; that is, keeping most men without capital.” This conviction compelled Chesterton to lambast big business (which backfired when big chain of news stands refused to sell G.K.’s weekly); to monitor and oppose mergers; to advocate independent proprietorship; and to pronounce on every possible occasion that “small is beautiful”.

What possible relevance, though, can distributism have in globalized 21st-century economies? Economies where self-employment makes up so small a proportion of overall employment? In economies that produce complex, specialized goods from iPhones to aircraft?

Well, I think we could envisage in our economies a radical increase in the rate of self-employment—by which I mean, proportionately, a small increase! Small but significant. For, excitingly, many of the jobs that lend themselves to self-employment—bike shops, cleaning, landscape gardening, building trades—are entry-level. Ownership can be most achievable for some of the most disadvantaged and for the longest unemployed.

Policy circles at the moment, in the U.S. and the U.K., are abuzz with talk of how transformative “interventions” can improve someone’s life—interventions like the Family Nurse Partnership, or other types of mentoring for isolated young mothers. The distributist vision will require interventions as well, but interventions undertaken by men and women in the business community who give their time and energy to mentor young people at risk of crime, those coming out of the criminal justice system, or the long-term unemployed, all with the aim of giving them the confidence to set up their own productive, self-owned businesses.

How else might the distributist vision be achieved? Many on the right say that the best thing men and women in the business community could do for the poor is to start companies. Absolutely, but what about starting companies that the poor have a stake in from the very start?

Take a rural example: I have a friend who has made a significant amount of money, with which he has purchased a farm. But instead of working the land for him, the worker keeping the pigs will run the business with my friend, will co-farm, and will then share the profits.

Interestingly, however—as Jay Corrin notes in his excellent book Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy (University of Notre Dame Press, 2002)Chesterton’s promotion of ownership and concomitant dismissal of wage-dependence led, in the General Strike of 1926, to the distributists strongly disapproving of the central demand of the trade unions: an insistence on a living wage. As Corrin says: “Focusing on the issue of wages, they argued, would only serve to perpetuate the division of property between employer and employee.”

At this point, though, Chesterton was running so far with the Lockean strand of Rerum Novarum, he left behind its other emphasis: the living wage. We can’t afford to make that mistake. For the truth is we don’t have time to wait until the elimination of “wage-dependence”; something needs to be done now about the low-wage economy. More specifically, the poor deserve a “floor” in terms of income—in the form of a living wage.

In the UK there have been two recent political attempts to respond to Catholic Social Teaching: Phillip Blond’s Red Toryism—focusing more on Chesterton’s distributist vision—and the Blue Labour movement developed by Lord Glasman, a Jewish political philosopher. His thinking and activism bears the impress of his appreciation of what he called the precious “gift” of Catholic social teaching. For as a community organizer, Glasman is adamantly anti-statist. Only by lobbying companies one by one, he insists, bringing management into direct relationship with their low-paid staff, should the living wage be campaigned for.

Returning to America, the task of tackling poverty can seem overwhelming. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world, while drug use is so endemic that it would now seem that opium is the opiate of the people. But chief among our priorities must be to increase ownership amongst the poorest and to ensure them a living-wage “floor.”

How will this be accomplished? Not mainly through government. No, this vision will be accomplished by envisioning, rather than alienating, business leaders; envisioning them to do things differently in the capitalist economies in which we find ourselves.

James Mumford writes both fiction and non-fiction, his first book Ethics At The Beginning of Life [1] was published by Oxford in 2013. He is currently a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and posts regularly at www.iwritewhatilike.net [2]

Adapted from a speech at The Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture’s 15th Annual Fall Conference, ‘Your Light Will Rise in the Darkness: Responding to the Cry of the Poor.’

35 Comments (Open | Close)

35 Comments To "Distributism Isn’t Outdated"

#1 Comment By Gian On November 13, 2014 @ 12:17 am

Hayek with his notion of “several property” supports distributist goals. Hayek held that the social good of private property is only fully realized when property is dispersed thus “several property”.

#2 Comment By H.R. Brackmann On November 13, 2014 @ 2:35 am

The merits of Distributionism make sense in our current economy where a very small percentage of people, through the development of the corporation, own and control the majority of wealth in this country. As reasonable as it may be to take from the very rich, even 50% of their income, Distributionism implies that handing out (for example) $35,000 to the non-working, unskilled poor will uplift their status.

Unfortunately this is no different than our current welfare system and no amount of money will solve the problem. It isn’t so much about money, as it is about culture.

Even the poor, if they received $35,000 annually, would quickly spend themselves right back into debt because they have no concept of long term financial management no thanks in part to generations of Americans on welfare who have lived in debt all their lives.

Surely we have already seen this with the working middle class, who, while educated and gainfully employed, have by the same degree, spent themselves into debt to the tune of average credit card debt of $8,000 per family with less than $10,000 in savings. Even after working for 20-30 years, well-educated Americans with good jobs are in the same boat; a different canoe perhaps but still the same creek and also without a paddle.

The fact is that today, college students today start life in debt as has never been seen in our history. And they will be hard pressed to pay off their college debts even if they work as individual entrepreneurs outside of the corporate strata. Especially at a time when banks can wipe out the value of a doller, savings and property values on a whim.

Let’s look at the facts; the experiment of Distributionism has already been tried in the Middle East and Africa, where billions of US tax and donation dollars have been distributed to these countries and yet after decades of hand-outs and the well intentioned efforts of organizations like the Peace Corps and Doctors without Borders, these regions are still incapable of improving their own lives.

Until you change the culture and mindset of people, redistributing the wealth will do little to actually improving the lives of the poor. And when the government is allowed to take from even the super-rich and give it back to the poor, does this not imperil the merits of our Constitutional rights to property ownership free from government confiscation?

#3 Comment By Labropotes On November 13, 2014 @ 8:07 am

Drug use is rife in VT because everyone is effectively guaranteed a “living” wage. If you alienate your mother and father and your whole community, and you happen to be cold on a winter’s night, it’s the state’s duty by law to get you a hotel room. The perks are endless and there are social workers to coach beneficiaries in what’s available and what lies will secure it. Let it be known that a living wage starts with a bag of dog food and everyone will find a way to reintegrate with their community or they will die.

#4 Comment By Kurt Gayle On November 13, 2014 @ 8:42 am

Mumford quotes Chesterton on business: “The practical tendency of all trade and business today is towards big commercial combinations, often more imperial, more impersonal, more international than many a communist commonwealth.”…

Remember that quote. That’s Mumford’s own quote of Chesterton’s view of “the tendency of all trade and business.”

Yet Mumford follows with an avalanche on un-Chesterton-like silliness — this is not April 1st (did Mumford REALLY write this stuff?):

“G.K. Chesterton’s early 20th century ‘distributism’…holds out just the sort of powerful vision that could very well capture the hearts and minds of business leaders…”

“I want to believe things could be different, but…its accomplishment will hinge upon inspiring rather than alienating business leaders…by envisioning, rather than alienating, business leaders; envisioning them to do things differently in the capitalist economies in which we find ourselves…”

“The distributist vision will require interventions as well, but interventions undertaken by men and women in the business community who give their time and energy to mentor young people at risk of crime, those coming out of the criminal justice system, or the long-term unemployed, all with the aim of giving them the confidence to set up their own productive, self-owned businesses.”

“Well, I think we could envisage in our economies a radical increase in the rate of self-employment…excitingly, many of the jobs that lend themselves to self-employment—bike shops, cleaning, landscape gardening, building trades—are entry-level. Ownership can be most achievable for some of the most disadvantaged and for the longest unemployed.”

Sic!

#5 Comment By elizabeth On November 13, 2014 @ 8:46 am

Is there any room for the cooperative model in distributism? It is a model that promotes ownership, profit and fairness. Co-ops can also get too big to be accountable, but not nearly as easily as corporations owned on the stock market model.

Thoughts?

#6 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On November 13, 2014 @ 10:05 am

A very interesting, indeed compelling, idea. I won’t hold my breath waiting for it to become implemented though.

#7 Comment By Chris D. On November 13, 2014 @ 11:38 am

Great commentary. Though, I disagree with this…

“I have a friend who has made a significant amount of money, with which he has purchased a farm. But instead of working the land for him, the worker keeping the pigs will run the business with my friend, will co-farm, and will then share the profits.”

This looks like a step on the road to manorial feudalism.

I have to side with the darker assessment of Hilaire Belloc, who declared that all great fortunes are built on a crime. But, distributism won’t work. It’s a vestige of the late-agrarian/early-industrial era.

The only hope now is to increase competition amongst the capitalist class by reducing all barriers to entry. Keep them at each other’s throats so that profit margins are thin and capital accumulation slow and temporal. Then we won’t need their noblesse oblige. You can’t reform those who are sociopathically greedy, you can only keep them in check.

#8 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On November 13, 2014 @ 10:16 pm

Chris D, Is that quote truly from Belloc? Can you provide a source?

#9 Comment By B Funnell On November 13, 2014 @ 10:37 pm

Far from the Middle Class spending themselves into debt, they were given credit cards with no limits and no wage rises.

My investments were wiped out along with my employment in the GFC. I did not spend my way into debt – big business did and I have to pay their debts while those found guilty of criminal fraud are not penalized in any way.

And start saving all over again from nothing, including finding new employment, which was difficult now I’m aging and broke.

If we simply followed the Rule of Law and did not allow the corrupt and the proven criminals off scot-free we might have institutions worthy of the trust they use to fleece us.

#10 Comment By cecelia On November 13, 2014 @ 11:19 pm

Elizabeth – yes yes yes – in Spain and Italy and now here in the US employee owned businesses inspired by rerum novarum have been quite successful. Look up Mondragon – the fastest growing most successful chain of grocery stores in Spain started by them – as well as other businesses schools – the 7th largest corporation in Spain and all employee owned – a very interesting model. Recently the people from Mondragon have become involved in a project with a US Union to convert a closing steel mill to a manufacturer of wind turbines.

COOP in Italy is another one. Also Reggio in Italy.

Mr. Brackman – you might want to look at these examples too – a living wage is not welfare – especially if the ability to continue to get that wage means the company has to be competitive and productive

#11 Comment By PGL On November 14, 2014 @ 1:52 am

It isn’t productive to envy the fortunes that some have acquired. Warren Buffett can have hundreds of cars if he wants that many. I too can have a car and drive where I want. He has his own corporate jet. I can’t afford that but I can get a ticket and fly across country. I live in a heated home with AC, running water and a bit of space. He could live in a giant mansion but is probably no more comfortable than I am. Instead of bemoaning the fortunes of others I could apply some effort toward bettering my situation, if that is what I desire. I prefer that the distributionists worry about their own circumstances and leave the rest of us alone.

#12 Comment By VikingLS On November 14, 2014 @ 8:52 am

@Elizabeth

Yes very much so. Distributism looks to cooperatives for large scale enterprises. Mondragon in Spain is an example. [3]

#13 Comment By VikingLS On November 14, 2014 @ 9:08 am

@H.R. Brackmann

You don’t appear to know what distributism means.

Honestly one of the problems with distributism is that people hear the term and think “redistribution of wealth”

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 14, 2014 @ 11:28 am

Unless, there are rules of fair play that help the less honestly inclined to adhere to fair play any and all systems of human exchange will be dicey proposition for those that utilize it.

I am not fan of government forms of redistribution it lends itself to the kind of imperialism it is designed to prevent.

A perfect example is the redistribution of work illegal immigrants protected by the government and now a push to legalize that undercutting. Examining the costs of redistribution minus any input by the beneficiaries is costly on multiple levels.

I am inclined to support ownership and the same in maintenance.

#15 Comment By isaacplautus On November 14, 2014 @ 2:45 pm

I wish Paul Ryan would read more Chesterton and less Ayn Rand. Especially considering that Rand considered Catholicism a social disease.

#16 Comment By Ron Phillips On November 15, 2014 @ 6:02 am

@H.R.Brackman: the very (very!) few times [4] the poor used the money to start/expand family businesses, get education, and improve their housing.

It wasn’t enough, but it did good, not harm.

#17 Comment By Ron Phillips On November 15, 2014 @ 6:13 am

In fact, if you read Perelman’s [5], one of the chief difficulties in establishing wage dependency was stripping the capital from “the poor,” who tended to live on their own production rather than work the capitalists’ land or factories. Odd, that!

So, one problem ever since has been to give them enough to survive and provide an excess of labor, while not giving them enough to regain their ownership of production. Difficult, but social engineering has helped tremendously.

#18 Comment By 476 On November 15, 2014 @ 9:22 am

“H.R. Brackmann says:
November 13, 2014 at 2:35 am

The merits of Distributionism make sense in our current economy where a very small percentage of people, through the development of the corporation, own and control the majority of wealth in this country. As reasonable as it may be to take from the very rich, even 50% of their income, Distributionism implies that handing out (for example) $35,000 to the non-working, unskilled poor will uplift their status.

Unfortunately this is no different than our current welfare system and no amount of money will solve the problem. It isn’t so much about money, as it is about culture.

Even the poor, if they received $35,000 annually, would quickly spend themselves right back into debt because they have no concept of long term financial management no thanks in part to generations of Americans on welfare who have lived in debt all their lives.

Surely we have already seen this with the working middle class, who, while educated and gainfully employed, have by the same degree, spent themselves into debt to the tune of average credit card debt of $8,000 per family with less than $10,000 in savings. Even after working for 20-30 years, well-educated Americans with good jobs are in the same boat; a different canoe perhaps but still the same creek and also without a paddle.

The fact is that today, college students today start life in debt as has never been seen in our history. And they will be hard pressed to pay off their college debts even if they work as individual entrepreneurs outside of the corporate strata. Especially at a time when banks can wipe out the value of a doller, savings and property values on a whim.

Let’s look at the facts; the experiment of Distributionism has already been tried in the Middle East and Africa, where billions of US tax and donation dollars have been distributed to these countries and yet after decades of hand-outs and the well intentioned efforts of organizations like the Peace Corps and Doctors without Borders, these regions are still incapable of improving their own lives.

Until you change the culture and mindset of people, redistributing the wealth will do little to actually improving the lives of the poor. And when the government is allowed to take from even the super-rich and give it back to the poor, does this not imperil the merits of our Constitutional rights to property ownership free from government confiscation?”

Distributism is not about distributing other people’s wealth to the poor. It is about distributing the MEANS OF PRODUCTION as widely as possible, rather than centralizing it under the control of the state or giant corporations. It envisions an economy based on widespread property ownership, not handouts.

#19 Comment By ETH On November 15, 2014 @ 3:31 pm

@VikingLS

I was just about to make the same comment. Since “redistribution” is now a word that’ll destroy any thoughtful conversation and send it spiralling out of control, distributism and its merits will rarely ever be fully embraced by conservatives at large.

#20 Comment By Reinhold On November 15, 2014 @ 4:21 pm

Anything that rests on winning the hearts and minds of business leaders has already failed––they have no hearts and minds for anything but the freedom to exploit and to profit from others.

#21 Comment By seamus_padraig On November 15, 2014 @ 4:57 pm

@Thomas Meehan:

I think he meant Honore de Balzac. I know Belloc didn’t say that.

#22 Comment By Commander On November 16, 2014 @ 7:22 pm

Empowering people to help themselves and cooperate despite mutual differences would be great. But the world’s going to end before the ‘elites’ willingly give up anything willingly so that those lower on the economic scale can have a chance. They have an overwhelming advantage in the courtroom, ballot box, and Wall Street and they want to keep it that way.

#23 Comment By Jake Lukas On November 17, 2014 @ 12:34 am

VikingLS says: […] @H.R. Brackmann

You don’t appear to know what distributism means.

Honestly one of the problems with distributism is that people hear the term and think “redistribution of wealth”

I second this.

It’s probably too late now, but had I the power I would advocate we find another term for distributism. It seems folks simply assumes it means you take from a rich person to give a poor person. If anything, it means you stop taking from lower and middle class people to give to rich people.

But, then, I can’t really come up with a better term than distributism, since it refers to distributive justice. Maybe I just lack creativity. Oh well, I’ll give it a go. How about property-is-a-good-thing-so-more-people-should-have-it-ism? Or, let’s-not-put-all-our-eggs-in-one-basket-ism? Or, maybe, a-man’s-full-time-labor-is-worth-at-least-bread-enough-for-his-family-ism?

I rather like distributism and their goals come as close to my own as any other nameable group. This is coming from a fellow who has voted for and, in his own meager capacity, financially supported the Pauls (Ron and Rand). I confess that I’m no libertarian, but when these fellows talk about how our financial system tends to advantage the few over the many, they get my ear (to say nothing of foreign policy). I mention them precisely to highlight the fact that distributism does not mean government intervention to redistribute wealth. It doesn’t mean taking from one man to give to another.

I would also add that I am not a Catholic, lest you think I commend this to you for partisan reasons. But, please, do not condemn distributists if you’ve not [6] or at least [7] Rerum Novarum. Distributists aren’t out for your or anyone else’s money.

#24 Comment By Jake Lukas On November 17, 2014 @ 12:43 am

Chesterton’s “distributist” project tried to chart a middle course (but not “Third Way”!) […]

I would very much appreciate further explanation from the author on this comment. Why should the term ‘third way’ be so readily rejected when it can cover [8]? What advantages does the author see in positioning distributism as a via media?

#25 Comment By tz On November 17, 2014 @ 1:02 am

You can’t require paying a “living wage” without requiring the person slaving enough hours to pay the “living wage” plus social security, unemployment, and Obamacare.

Feel free to pay a “living wage” to your nanny or gardner. If you won’t or can’t (apparently inability to do something is a mortal sin?) then you are worse than the pharisees.

The genius of distributism is that it properly aligns the polity. If you are running a small business – even a Saturday craft-hobby-etsy type thing, you will think differently about taxation and regulation than if you only earn wages.

#26 Comment By Viking On November 17, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

Jake Lucas, I believe that James Mumford used “Third Way” somewhat disparagingly because it was the title of a book praising Sweden’s “mixed economy” of the middle third or so of the 20th century. The Scandinavian model of considerable governmental ownership mixed with the usual private capitalist behemoths seems less than ideal now, probably even to the Nordic electorates. That’s my take on it any way, relying on the first “third way” being all in lower-case, and the second enclosed in quotes and with the first letters capitalized.

I’m not as sanguine as you and others that distributism can be established without governmental interference. Perhaps it will only need to be done once, but still, it’s hard to see society just evolving into a more desirable (IMO, of course) form without such action. Perhaps a higher percentage of small businesses, but it seems to me that distributism will ultimately be here when most large companies have a considerable degree of worker ownership.

#27 Comment By m. joseph costello On November 17, 2014 @ 9:53 pm

Mondragon, the employee owned conglomerate in Spain has resulted in Troubles in Workers’ Paradise [9]
Corporations with shareholders have proven superior than the utopian based workers owned experiments that inevitably and almost universally fail.
As Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all other forms…”, so it can be said about all of capitalism and all other economic systems.

#28 Comment By Reinhold On November 18, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

“Surely we have already seen this with the working middle class, who, while educated and gainfully employed, have by the same degree, spent themselves into debt….”
Anyone I know who has too much debt was not off being profligate––they used the credit to finance necessities like healthcare and education. If there’s a cultural problem, it’s that life is too expensive even for the middle class to afford without taking on debt, and that’s probably how the capitalists like it.

#29 Comment By Bill Phillips On November 18, 2014 @ 6:04 pm

Or maybe we should scrap all the garbage wicked men have dreamed up, go back to the Bible and do that. Old Testament Israel was the freest country in the history of the world.

#30 Comment By EJTV On November 21, 2014 @ 11:41 am

You can put Lockean make-up on distributism as much as you like but it will remain socialistic. There is no way to achieve a rational redistribution of capital or the means of production other than by allowing the price system in the capital markets to work. Interventions there by a redistributist state, no matter how well intended, involve a violation of property rights and therefore a distortion of the price mechanism that individuals involved in unhampered exchange use to find the best allocation of capital. Even a group of wealthy capitalist sympathetic to distributism and willing to give most of their capital away to the poor (or whomever the distributists think the capital ought to belong to) will be groping in the dark.

#31 Comment By Michael O’Hearn On November 22, 2014 @ 2:24 pm

Looking beyond Rerum Novarum, the current pontiff in his first apostolic exhortation has excoriated the prevailing global economic system, without referring to it as capitalism as such. He rightly points out that vast inequalities of wealth in any society have a profound adverse psyological effect, among other injustices including ecologically, etc., something dismissed or overlooked until our time. He was not talking just about the indigent poor who are often excluded from meaningful participation, but also the unfortunate situation of how just a few individuals control the outcome and bring about perpetual war to keep their corrupt system going.

#32 Comment By Francesco On March 17, 2015 @ 7:40 am

A wonderful article full of points which demand futher examinations.
I especially like to highline this passage:

” But chief among our priorities must be to increase ownership amongst the poorest and to ensure them a living-wage “floor.” ”

This is so true! Especially when the world experience that the poorest feel themselves so much without dignity that they find themselves easily attracted by the traps of drugs, thefts, religious extremism, etc. (let’s all remember some people join ISIS even because they can eat at least once a day – and this should scandalize us all for we are witness of a highly resonating warning, to keep up an orderly life standard, in terms of the ‘intellectual honesty’ of both the pubblic policies and of all our ‘private everyday’).

In one word, THANKS mr. Mumford!

#33 Comment By Landon Roussel On November 14, 2015 @ 5:43 am

Totally agree. Distributism can offer a way out of poverty to many. It’s surprising at times why it is often thought that the only direction for free-markets to go is towards increasing centralization of goods. No, people can decentralize and still the market is free.

If you’re interested, I’ve written a related blog post. Just furthering the question of whether we need large, urban centers to achieve economic prosperity:

[10]

#34 Comment By Nelson On July 21, 2017 @ 10:58 am

One benefit of taxpayer paid healthcare is it eliminates some degree of uncertainty that might otherwise prevent a would-be entrepreneur from starting their own business or a small business from increasing its staff. True, the taxes would come from somewhere, presumably successful owners and employees. The highs would be lower. But the lows would be higher and the economy would be more dynamic as more people started businesses. Also with healthcare paid for, the minimum wage could be lower, without reducing the quality of life, which would also encourage more hiring.

#35 Comment By Vern Hughes On September 16, 2017 @ 11:32 pm

Distributism was indeed a Third Way. It has been the original, and best, Third Way on offer since the early years of the 19th century. In fact the distributists called it a “Tertiary Quid”, in trying to appeal to the Roman church.