Distributism seems mostly to be discussed, the rare times it is actually brought up, in a very hypothetical and academic fashion these days. This is all well and good. To everything there is a season. However, it seems that there is a danger of spending too much time on this sort of discussion and too little on how to apply it. Perhaps, as someone currently locked in the “Ivory Tower” (which has sadly become a pejorative phrase in these times rather than a term of endearment to that Turris eburnean the Mother of God), I read my own prejudices into this. If I am wrong, and I hope I am, I am willing to be corrected. However, it seems Dale Ahlquist’s recent article “G.K. Chesterton’s Distributism” draws our attention to the need of a more active Distributist discussion. As St. Francis might have said, discuss Distributism always, if necessary use words.
By the term Distributism, I take it to mean an English (and by extension American) attempt to live out the principles set forth most clearly in the social encyclicals. Other methods for approaching the same goal have been attempted in various parts of the world under various names and we can of course find similar movements which were not explicitly motivated by those Papal letters at all (the Jeffersonian-Southern Agrarian tradition comes to mind). But it is a way of life chiefly, not an economic system or a way to run a business, it is a total way of life that is, in a word Catholic. So, while not denigrating those who like to debate the various points of Distributism or engage in crusades against all comers who would question this system, I would like to suggest that we need to do better at looking at this as a system of life. The English distributists had their Catholic Land Movement and the Ditchling Community, among other “non-academic” aspects to the program. There are similar activities going on in places today, the longest-running and best-known of course being the Catholic Worker Movement.
Dorothy Day wanted the houses and farms to be a part of every diocese and to serve as schools in which all interested people (notice the key of this being voluntary, because as Ahlquist notes Distributism must be voluntary: “Distributism cannot be done to people, but only by people.”) would learn how to perform the Works of Mercy. Most of them, Dorothy hoped, would then go out into the world and form their lives, no matter what they did, around these Works of Mercy. She liked to quote St. John Chrysostom who talked about “Christ rooms” in the houses of Christians where those needing a place to stay could find a bed and meal. But, of course, she knew there were many other ways do perform the Works of Mercy, which is, I would suggest, synonymous to living Distributism.
Since Distributism is not a system for hermits, it is by nature communal and communitarian. While we may have to get things started by our own initiative, any plan that is not strongly rooted in a community is bound to fail. Distributism, like Christianity, assumes community. It is a system which is based on love of neighbor. If there is no neighbor, there can be no love of neighbor and thus no Distributism. Modern economics doesn’t know how to handle things like love or the gifts that come from love. Love, by nature, cannot be said to be scarce and yet it is not equally available for the taking (as is the case with air), it comes from an act of the will. Worse, as common sense tells us, love plays a key role in some of our most important actions in life which have major economic impacts (marriage and having children being the two most obvious examples). Catholic Social Teaching calls us each to relate to one another based on Christian love, not simply based upon utilitarian considerations. The implications of this are that, again, we cannot force people to adopt such a system (as love cannot be forced) and that the methods of implementation of such a program must start off at an interpersonal level.
The major difference between Distributism and secular systems like Capitalism and Socialism is in a word: love. Socialism holds its attraction because it claims to eliminate greed and “bad things” in life through the benevolent power of the State. Communism (of the secular sort) holds a strong pull because it preaches the possibility of a state of total equality and harmony for all. To compare Monastic Communism and Marxist Communism is to reveal the key difference, and to also explain why one fails and the other creates saints. Monasticism is voluntary and is based on mutual love for the other as the other it is not forced and it is not based on a “I get what I deserve and he gets what he deserves” mindset.
So, where does this all leave us? We need a community-centered approach that allows people to voluntarily be a part of this group whose actions are considered (at least ideally) through the lens of Christian love. Hey, let’s all be monks! But no, that’s not what I am suggesting. There is the monastic route, that is true, but there are also others which need to be examined and are likely to make better models for most people who are interested in the Distributist life. One benefit of subsidiarity is that there is no need to worry about finding one solution that will work for everyone. The Catholic Workers have put this to use and each house is slightly different. Some of them are even Catholic.
With that in mind, there are some common elements which I suggest should be considered in any attempt to live the Distributist life. The Eucharist and the parish must be at the heart of the life of every Catholic. To attempt to do anything without this element will eventually end in failure and disappointment. Some parts of the United States are blessed to have parishes in every neighborhood that are still active and open. Other regions are not so lucky and the “suburban parish” model is coming to dominate due to a combination of declining ordinations and dispersal of Catholic populations. For priests, having to shepherd such large numbers of souls spread over a wide area can be a nightmare, but for building a community centered upon parish life, it makes things very difficult. Often parishes are located in areas where, by necessity, like-minded individuals will find it hard to live close together or close to the church. This is not an insurmountable problem, but every added minute that it takes to get to a neighbor’s house or the parish makes it more likely for a person to decide to stay home, particularly if hauling children is involved.
Economics, particularly game theory, stresses the importance of incentives when considering any human actions. If you are designing, say, an auction for some public land, you want to make sure that all the players involved have the most incentive to behave in the manner in which you want them to. When talking about building community, care must be taken to ensure that everyone’s incentives are aimed in the same direction. This is why monastic communism, but not State Communism works. Within the family, we have natural incentives which make it an ideal model for all larger-scale communities, however the natural incentives which one finds in a family are not guaranteed to be present in our fallen world on any larger scale (sadly, they are not actually guaranteed in the family, either as we see evidence nightly on the news). The local government, in a Catholic world should focus on making it easy for men to be good. This is, in a nutshell, what incentives are all about. Even with men of goodwill, sometimes sin and pride rear their ugly heads and the community needs to be there to keep them in check.
For a distributist-based community, these incentives must be voluntary because Distributism must be voluntary, yet they must also still have teeth, otherwise they would be useless. When studying intentional communities it often becomes readily apparent when incentives align and when they don’t. Many a commune has fallen apart over things which to outsiders may seem petty, but they were enough to tear the community apart. In cults a charismatic leader and brainwashing can keep people together, at least for a while, but that is not a healthy form of incentive alignment. Distributism is not a cult and neither should any group trying to follow it as an ideal of life be one either.
Co-op arrangements, co-housing, and community land trusts area all methods which have successfully been used to ensure incentive alignment of participants in communities and all seem useful from a Distributist perspective. Co-ops, or collective ownership, are well-known in the United States with numerous credit unions, food coops, herd-share/community supported agriculture, and worker-owned businesses being the prime examples. In some cities, apartment buildings are run on a co-op system as well. This model has the benefit of a relatively long tradition in the United States as well as being a widely understood and accepted organization.
Co-housing is perhaps less well-known and has a name which unfortunately reminds me of cohabitation. It is a relatively new idea that came to the U.S. from Denmark. However, as Peter Maurin would say, it’s an idea so old it looks new. A co-housing community is typically a collection of privately owned houses and property with some shared resources (often a park or garden or community house) which are collectively owned. Residents often share various tasks and will commonly meet together or have community meals and celebrations. Of course, this sounds very little different from the old New England model of the village and the village green…but moderns like to forget things like that.
Community Land Trusts (CLT) were formulated by Ralph Borsodi and Robert Swann about forty years ago as a means to provide price stability and access to land to low-income residents. The CLT is organized as a non-profit organization which holds an area of land in a given area under trust. The land is then leased for use to those who then can make improvements and use the land as long as they wish. However, because the CLT owns the land itself, the owners of the buildings on it are not able to sell as freely as in traditional settings. The CLT is community-run and exists to maintain stability in both purpose and value in the community. CLTs were often used to allow affordable access to farm land (particularly to minorities), but have been widely used in a variety of situations since then.
All three of these models provide measures to ensure that those involved in a new community are truly devoted to the community mission, they are set up on a voluntary basis, and yet are legally binding to those who choose to participate, as long as they chose to, while allowing them a straightforward means to leave without either destroying the whole community or causing needless strife. Perhaps new arrangements could be created for Distributist communities as well. Also, such communities could just use the old-fashioned parish neighborhood approach and just move in and live as Christian neighbors and build things from there. Then there could be hybrid approaches, with everyone living in a normal neighborhood way and coming together in a food-coop or a communally owned garden. The options are virtually limitless. The important thing is to get people thinking and get people working.
The nice thing about Distributism is that it is so open to local variation. This makes it far more flexible than either Crony Capitalism or Socialism. It can be individualized as much as the people involved are individualized. Of course, it is much easier to sit and discuss the theory behind Distributism, I know that I am perhaps the most guilty of all of that, but the action must start somewhere for each of us. Grow your own lettuce in your dorm room if that is all you can do. Move across the country to be with like-minded people and start urban farms in dilapidated areas of over-the-hill cities if you can. As we were reminded at the recent G.K.Chesterton Society conference, we must go out and fight losing battles … and win them. That’s what Don John of Austria did and that is the call for distributists, too. So, let the battle plans begin!