Often times when one criticizes our current economic structure and advocates productive property for the common man we are told that sounds like agrarianism, or the Amish, or some philosophy that would require the dismantling of our economy. Others hear about making business work for the smallest possible unit, and we are told about joiner’s shops and sewing operations. Yet is that the essence of Distributism?
Part of the problem is that people often view the essence of Capitalism as synonymous with industrialism. This of course happens due to our general historical confusion. Capitalism as understand it today, although being a complex matter, predated Industrialism for over a century. We see this with wealthy landlords who held large farms and employed numerous tenant farmers, or companies that had numerous employees who did not receive remuneration for their work, but paid a bare subsistence to them while they were working. The rise of major technologies came later, and the fact of their existence does not necessitate a Capitalist economy. They may very well have been used in a cooperative manner, and indeed they are today in certain places.
Nevertheless what does Distributism have to say about the agrarianism in economy? Must we all be farmers? Distributism because of this perception is compared to the Back to the Land movement.
What is “Back to the Land” and does it have any connection to Distributism? Back to the Land started in this country during World War II, and blossomed during the 60’s and 70’s. By no means were all of its adherents anti-technology, and many returned because of high costs of technological needs related to running a family farm efficiently. Mother Earth News, a periodical typical of the movement, was actually not so much a hippie magazine as it was chock full of interesting innovations and technological solutions to living naturally. Nevertheless you still find people connected to the concept that will tell you technology is evil. However even the waterwheel, the plow, the horseshoe, a washboard or a clothesline are forms of technology. Such a view is actually typical of an industrialized view that only mechanized machines represent technology.
Back to the Land was a laudable movement, and overall it had some good ideas. However, it is not for everyone and it is something which is not identical with Distributism, though it can be organized according to Distributist principles. To get close to nature it is not necessary to move back to the land, one can also cultivate produce in his own modest gardens behind the house sufficient to supply vegetables and fruit for a family. In any healthy society there would indeed need to be a significantly higher portion of farmers than there are today, yet it would not need to be all or even most to sustain society, rather it would need to be spread out as land would allow so as to maximize subsidiarity and yields for the community.
Technology is neutral and can either be used for good or evil. Too much technology, particularly when it is frivolous is certainly a bad thing and bad to an ordered life. A computer which serves purposes in union with man’s end however can be a positive thing, even on a farm. Just as farming technologies can be readily co-opted toward more efficient farming by families, so too can it be made for more efficient production by small units. It does not require one to be on a farm to make it work.
Another source for some confusion in the modern reader is that the skeletal model of economics before the Protestant Reformation is often used to help explain Distributism, and consequently makes examples of land and traditional trades, though that is not the whole story.
Hilaire Belloc in his book An Essay on the Restoration of Property for example, makes many notes on how to implement Distributist economics into modern facets of life (modern as the early 1900’s when the book was written), utilizing modern inventions. Nevertheless, some Agrarian know-how is important, since people could cut their grocery bills down a bit by growing certain types of crops right in their backyard, which generally yield enough to feed several families rather than just one.
Yet, just as medieval economies consisted of more than just farmers, but tradesmen who crafted the tools, built the houses and churches and merchants who sold and traded goods, so the modern society has tradesmen of a different sort, grocers and computer experts, repairmen and those who perform real and legitimate services which are in need. The idea that a man is to be entirely self-sufficient, while possible, is specifically disavowed as the aim of Distributism by its founders and its adherents (sensible ones at any rate). It smacks too much of a Utopian fantasy to be Distributist, which acknowledges that man is imperfect, and is no less viable for the fact unlike a system like Communism.
In fact, Belloc wrote:
The family is ideally free when it fully controls all the means necessary for the production of such wealth as it should consume for normal living. But such an ideal is inhuman and therefore, not to be fixedly attained, because man is a social animal. It is not impossible of achievement for a short time, and has been briefly achieved whenever a lonely settler has fixed himself with his family and his stores in an isolated spot. But such complete economic freedom for each family cannot be permanent, because the family increases and divides into further numerous families, forming a larger community. Moreover, even were the isolated free family to endure, it would fall below the requirements of human nature, its isolation stunting and degrading it. For men cannot fulfill themselves save through a diversity of interests and ideas. Multiplicity is essential to life and man to be truly human must be social.1
Thus an agrarianism such as the Back to the Land movement, which as I said before is noble in many of its aims, can not satisfy the needs of human nature, and not for every human, because not all men are farmers. Not all men persist in a traditional trade. The needs and desires of man are numerous, and his interests rather diversified.
Now in a Distributist society, as there will necessarily exist farmers, there will also exist tradesmen, there will exist also those in service based jobs, and there will be those in government jobs who get decent salaries, such as the military and those bureaucrats whose work is ordered toward the common good (as opposed to the manifold bureaucracies of today which tend toward the rich and powerful instead of the common good, such as the FDA which foists upon us numerous harmful drugs while trying to regulate natural foods, because the growing market for it is threatening multi-million dollar pharmaceutical companies). It is not the case that everyone should start living like medievalists.
All that Distributism really means, is that the majority of people rather than the minority are economically free and own their means of production. In the current situation, the bank has to infuse enough capital into society that can still be earned and paid back to it, leaving those who work running a hamster wheel in the real world to pay those who don’t work at all in the world of finance. I once said to someone advocating this, aren’t we stronger if the majority of people rather than run that hamster wheel for a parasitic organization like modern finance, ran their own businesses and kept capital, labor, and wealth local—as much as possible stronger—against recession, gluts, and difficult years? His answer was no, for no reason in particular except it was contrary to his economic philosophy, which is to say strength is determined by how much wealth concentrates at the top.
As Chesterton said, the problem with Capitalism is that it produces too few Capitalists. This is one area where libertarians and Distributists part ways. Both groups are opposed to excessive government, big government, high taxes, property taxes, minimum wage, American interventionism abroad (and as such any country’s interventionism), government fees and excessive taxes, paperwork, and the right of man to private property. When it comes down to it however, we disagree with libertarians as far as the nature of government comes in, the common good, the subordination of the laws of supply and demand to the laws of morality, and what the worker is entitled to. For example, when it comes to something like the intrinsic evil of pornography, a libertarian would say it is unfortunate because it is immoral, but nevertheless demand is there, and as such the supply is made available, therefore there is nothing the government can do about it since that would intrude on some entrepreneur’s rights to market his product. The Distributist will say, if there is a demand, that is because of moral corruption among the people, and therefore the supply needs to be suppressed and destroyed so that the demand can be contained until public morality is restored and education about the evils of pornography can be disseminated. Why? Because pornography is intrinsically evil, and destroys all those it comes in contact with, from abusing women to abusing its audience. This is to say, the state has a right to censorship. Another example of this would be with abortion. Catholic libertarians necessarily will acknowledge that abortion is evil, and many like Dr. Thomas Woods rightly join the ranks of the pro-life movement in calling for the overturning of abortion law in this country. However, if we take core libertarian principles, someone like Dr. Woods is in quite a bind, since there is a demand for abortion, to the tune of 1.3 million per year, and there are doctors who rake in quite a profit who are willing to perform it, therefore according to Libertarian principles the state should not get involved. Indeed, these are the teachings of Mises and Rothbard in action. Distributism by contrast, because it is based on justice and not on profit and gain, is in a position to deal with abortion whereas Capitalism is not.
From this point we come to why the government has the right to step in to correct certain intrinsic evils that tend to act against the common good. This is a principle which both Pope Leo XIII and Pius XI affirmed in their respective encyclicals, Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. If you acknowledge it is right and just for the government to outlaw abortion, to destroy pornography, to end the deplorable, demonic and absolutely inhumane evil of child pornography and child rape, you necessarily acknowledge that the government is to be involved in public morality and the common good.
What is critical and essential in Distributism, is not about farm as much as it is about the family. Capitalism focuses on the individual, while Distributism focuses specifically on the family and man as a social unit. The proof of this is in the following: if today men everywhere were to be more frugal, spend less, conserve electricity, build savings for a rainy day, invest in and own property, spend more time at home with his family instead of working as many hours as he could, and lived a more frugal lifestyle, the American economy would collapse. Again, if people lived a life more in accord with Christian economics and frugality, the economy would collapse. No one would be buying useless junk! The regular economic indicators are how much people are buying, I mean charging on credit to prop up slave labor in third world countries. If that stops the retailers go out of business, and having no local economy in place there will be no American economy any longer. By contrast in a Distributist society, if people stopped buying frivolously, lived frugally, and paid for those services which they required, all would be fine, since the survival of the economy is more attuned to the needs of family and therefore society, rather than the wants of the individual. The Distributist perspective is in line with the teachings of seven consecutive Popes, pre and post-Vatican II, from Pope Leo XIII to Benedict XVI. An application of them into American life today does not involve a rejection of technology, or forcing everyone to adopt farm life, but rather of conforming economics to both justice and the security of the family, society’s basic building block, rather than giving it free rein to service the individual who could care less.