The distinctive feature of Distributism, the chief feature which differentiates it from Capitalism, is the widespread ownership of private property. Capitalism, according to the definition of Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931), is “that economic system in which were provided by different people the capital and labor jointly needed for production”.1 In other words, under Capitalism for the most part capitalists supply the means of production and hire others to work for them, thus some provide the capital, others the labor. Although there are many more laborers than capitalists, capitalists usually are richer both as individuals and as a group and as a result have more political power and control. This is not the place to discuss all the ills which result from this capitalist division of ownership and work; rather I want to point out the differing effects of Distributism and Capitalism on labor or (to use the capitalist term) the labor market.
We might begin the discussion with the following incident. In the December 15, 2011 issue of one of our local weekly newspapers, our congressman, a Republican, was quoted as follows with regard to the extension of unemployment benefits recently passed by Congress.
Now, I had a business owner call me and complain that he’d had to lay off a woman because of the economy and he called her back when things turned around and said he’d like her to come back. She told him, ‘Call me in 30 weeks when my unemployment benefits run out.’
Now what can one say about this? Assuming the accuracy of the account, of course one could simply inveigh against this woman, point out her laziness, her disinclination to work, her willingness to live off tax dollars, etc. But although for all I know, the woman in question may be lazy, we do not know whether this is true or not. Perhaps she is a mother with small children—is her desire to stay home with them for another 30 weeks wrong? In any case, I do not think that speculation about this woman’s character is the most important issue here nor the deepest lesson we can learn from the story. For first of all, note that the employer was quite willing to lay off the woman. As the owner he controlled the work of his employees. Although perhaps he is a benevolent employer, who tries to keep his employees working as much as possible, one can nevertheless wonder whether he would be willing to take a cut in his own profits to keep his employees working, even if at reduced hours. For remember that it is not only the employer who draws his livelihood from a business, but all the employees too. If one wants employees to have a sense of solidarity, to be willing to share in sacrifices to keep the firm afloat, then one can rightfully expect some sacrifices on the owner’s part too.
Secondly, one can assume that the owner did not wait 30 weeks before he hired another person for the job. In other words, although he probably wanted his ex-employee back because she was already trained for the job, neither he nor she seems to have had any sense that there was anything more than a business relationship between them, simply a matter of money when all was said and done. And although certainly not all capitalist employers regard their workers as simply production factors, this is the attitude toward employees that the capitalist system fosters. Any employer who has too much sense of responsibility to his workers is liable to be run out of business by those who regard their employees as so many cost items. Therefore since the capitalist is usually willing to lay off employees with little or no regard for their well-being, why should employees have any sense of loyalty to the firm? The practice of looking out for number one has permeated our culture and influenced almost everyone. Is it surprising that sometimes employees take advantage of the system, since most employers do so routinely? Is it surprising that employees will take from the federal treasury their small sums when bankers have taken their immense sums?
It takes little reflection to see that this problem, this incentive toward greed and other vices on the part of both employers and employees, would not exist, or would hardly exist under Distributism. If a man owns his own business, or if he is a part-owner in a cooperative business, then necessarily he is going to regard both his job and the business itself very differently. Neither will be something simply external to him, something for which he feels no loyalty, something whose only function is the weekly paycheck. I daresay that under Distributism not everyone will love his job or his type of work, for mankind cannot entirely escape the curse of Adam, but no one need feel that he is merely a production factor, an expense, a person treated as a thing, something to be discarded if only that were possible.
The labor market divide, owners vs. workers, is not a healthy divide. Even with the best will in the world—and how seldom does that occur—there will be an incentive on the one part to pay as little as possible, to reduce benefits and workplace safety, and finally to replace employees with lower-paid foreign workers. Under Capitalism employees will always be an expense that reduces profits; this is inescapable. And on the other hand, there will be an incentive for workers to look only to their own perceived interests, to slack off at work, to abuse sick leave and unemployment benefits, etc. But since the capitalists are almost always the more powerful, generally they are the ones who are able to put into effect their wishes, to use the political process to facilitate moving jobs overseas, to weaken workplace safety laws, to attack labor unions.
And it is the keynote of the capitalist system, the division of owner and worker, that actually provides the incentive for this type of behavior.
Since the fall of Adam and Eve, mankind has had a propensity toward evil conduct, toward greed among other vices. The aim of the political art ought to be to reduce the scope for these vices as much as is reasonably possible. It is usually not enough simply to preach to people, for we humans are notorious for not heeding good advice. Rather disincentives to good behavior should be eliminated whenever this is possible. Distributism largely does this with regard to the employer/employee divide—it simply folds the two into one. Probably in any distributist economy there will be some who will be employees. But the point is that self-employment and cooperative employment would be the rule and would encompass the vast majority of workers. Thus the tone of society would not be set by the rivalries of capitalism, the notion of always looking out for number one, the idea that since the other guy is trying to get all he can, I should do the same. Just as Capitalism has an inherent disdain of limits, including the limits of justice, Distributism would promote a sense that everyone ought to receive what is due to him, but no more. Distributism would promote the idea that everyone willing to work is entitled to a living for himself and his family, but that to seek to increase one’s income without measure is to follow the maxims of the Devil.
The lot of mankind since the Fall has been sad enough that we don’t need to heap more misery upon our poor race. Whenever we can, we should shape our institutions to promote human happiness and contentment. Capitalism is the enemy of contentment and simply adds to the strife that afflicts humanity. Distributism does the opposite, and if for no other reason, it deserves our attention as a benefactor of the human race.