When considering the practical implications of the economic doctrines of Distributism, it is important to remember that the theorists, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Penty, and Fr. Vincent McNabb, had no intention of merely providing a macroeconomic model for a nation. Such a macroeconomic model is useful for the prudential decisions of the statesman. They, more so than we, had hope that such a model would be taken up by the statesmen of their day. It is providential, therefore, that they also mentioned the microeconomic implications of the “Third Way.” It is these microeconomic implications, applied specifically to the current situation of the average traditional Catholic family, which will be the topic of this article.
It is particularly fitting that we focus on the microeconomic aspects of the Third Way and ask ourselves, how can we apply these principles and ideas to our own lives, our own family situations, and the situations of our ever growing traditional Catholic communities. The reason it is fitting is because “economics” from the Greek oeconomia, means “household management,” the way in which we give order, sustenance, and stability to our families and our communities. A true economic theory must, therefore, have as its primary aims the establishment of a system which provides for the basic needs of families and which provides men with work which is intrinsically fulfilling, capable of providing sustenance, and in full accord with the ultimate end of human life, the sharing in the Divine Life Itself.
What will enable our families to achieve these ends of work and household? First, we must commit ourselves to the goal advanced by the economic teachings of Pope Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum), Pope Pius XI (Quadragesimo Anno), and the Distributist theorists, the attainment of real property for families. It is only with the attainment of real property (i.e., not mortgaged to the modern day usurer) that we shall establish fixed “realms,” footholds of Christendom capable of sustaining over a indefinite period of time families dedicated to the Social Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Second, we must organize labor. Obviously, to organize labor there must be an sufficiently large “labor pool” to organize. If we are to truly construct the essentials of a microeconomic system, we must fulfill the end of an economic system: the satisfaction of the basic needs of families. This can only be done if there is a diverse enough group of men and women whose occupational talent would allow them to participate in this attempt to provide for the basic and primary needs of a community. In this regard, let us emphasize that our “parallel economy” (i.e., an economy which provides for the same needs as the dominant capitalist economy, but provides for these needs in a different manner), must be focused on attempting to provide what Fr. Vincent McNabb refers to as “primary goods,” (e.g., housing, food, clothing, and I would add medical services) as opposed to “secondary goods.” Secondary goods are those which are meant to satisfy some want or whim of man, but are not essential as are primary goods. By providing for the basic needs, or at least as many as possible, our community would advance towards the self-sufficiency which is the mark of all true societies.
Third, we need to have, on the part of a coherent community organized on the foundation of the true Faith, a commitment to support, in every way possible, the economic organization of the community on the basis of the teachings of the Church. Without this type of intentional commitment, any such project will fail. What is needed is both an occupational commitment on the part of some members of the community or communities and a financial commitment on the part of all of the members of a community. What type of occupational commitment would this entail? It would mean that a workingman or professional would give up his capitalistic consciousness which dictates that he use his skills, talents, and labors to fulfill the wants and whims of himself and his family alone, but rather, use them to both satisfy his families needs and contribute to the satisfaction of the needs of all the families in the community. What type of financial commitment would this entail? Only the resolve, on the part of all the members of the community, to channel their financial resources in such a way that their own family’s needs are satisfied through the efforts of the economic organs or corporate bodies which are made up of the men and woman of one’s own community. The point is not gratuitous financial contributions, but rather, simply fulfilling one’s family’s basic needs within the structures organized by the community itself. For this especially to occur, we must develop a stronger sense of “brotherhood” based upon adherence to the fullness of the true Faith and upon the God-given virtue of fraternal charity. Our commitment, as individuals and as communities, must be to ensure that whole groups of families, the larger the better, survive, prosper, raise and educate their children, and persist in their practice of the true Religion in the face of a completely hostile world and anti-Christian “system.” This would be our opportunity to disinvest in an economic system committed to the destruction of large, truly Catholic families and reinvest in a microeconomic effort that will not only sustain traditional Catholic families as traditional Catholic families, but, inevitably, help sustain the traditional chapels and schools which are now giving life to the souls and minds of so many.
The first step in the organization of such a microeconomic system is the organization of guilds. Guilds were the organs of the Distributist economic system which flourished in the Catholic centuries of the past. By their very nature, guilds demand a labor force divided according to certain specialties. For our purposes, since we are dealing with a relatively small labor pool, we ought to establish guilds each dedicated to the satisfaction of one of the basic needs mentioned earlier (i.e., food, housing, clothing, and medical care). Since these guild will be corporate bodies, uniting all the members of a certain type of trade, these bodies will need to be animated by spiritual souls. The first need for such an organization of workers is the spiritual and moral care of a chaplain. The chaplain’s role would be to properly orient the minds of the “brothers” so that in their dealings with one another and their clients, they will properly implement the teachings of the Church in their own specific field of labor, along with insuring that the men are always understanding their work and their labor as a guild from the perspective of the Faith and of the ultimate goal of human life. Also, in the great spirit of the medieval guilds, a special devotion to a patron saint should bind together the Catholic life of each specific body; St. Raphael for the medical workers and St. Joseph for the construction workers readily come to mind. By giving work a Catholic spirit, and by working with those who have the same faith and struggle to lead the same moral life, there will inevitably be a greater integration of faith and labor which will make for a more integral Catholicism on the part of those who attain membership in the guild.
Along with integrating faith and work, the system of guilds would help gain economic clout for the guild as a body of worker or professionals. Either the guild as a whole, for instance, the construction worker’s guild, would be in a better bargaining position as regards specific contracts because they have an assembled team with a certain reputation in the area, or an individual employee, say a radiologist, as a member of the medical services guild would have backing him a group of professionals from the same general profession. The ultimate objective for these guilds, of course, would be to serve as the primary “organs” supply the basic goods needed for the sustenance of the community. Not only should the work of the guilds be specifically directed to the good of their own specific communities. The members of the communities serviced by the guilds must also take it upon themselves to support their brethren by employing them. The traditional Catholic communities must begin to employ their own people to service the primary needs of their own families. When a traditional Catholic man is looking for a wife, he, if he is sane, “looks” in specific places and among certain families. Why is it not the same when looking for an employee?
B) Guild and Family-Owned Businesses
By organizing labor in the form of a guild system, financial resources can also be more easily pooled, making the takeover of operational businesses in the area in which most of the community lives more likely. A grocery store, farmers’ cooperative, or a clothing store which has as its aim the service of the community rather than pure profit, should be a goal for the relevant guilds. It is these types of businesses, either guild or family owned, which could make the Church’s demand for a just and affordable price a reality. Establishing affordable prices and providing just wages for the employees could be rendered economically feasible by a steady clientele and a high volume of sales. Business ownership also means some degree of political clout on the local level. Money means power; let us not shirk from this thought, but rather, employ the truth for the financial and social well-being of our communities.
Of course, in our time, one of the fields in which you find many morally objectionable practices and attitudes is the medical field. Surely, with all the medical needs of large families, including deliveries and pre- and post-natal services, one of the goals for a medical service guild should be the establishment of a independent medical clinic or the takeover of an already operational clinic. There might even be a concerted search to find staffing for such a clinic from among traditional Catholic medical professionals looking to move to one of the various communities in the United States and elsewhere. In full accord with the “back to basics” approach of this proposal, the servicing of home-births would surely be beneficial to those large or new families seeking to avoid the astronomical price, sterility, and nonfamilial atmosphere of the modern hospital.
As increasing numbers of young families realize that their children need the benefits of an education at a traditional Catholic school, they will necessarily consider migrating to a traditional Catholic community which is formed around an operational educational institution., normally one which can provide an education for all the years up to and including high school. One of the concerted efforts which must be made is to provide affordable housing for these new and growing families. Affordable housing is only possible when there is affordable land upon which to put a house. It would be most probable then that the communities which could attract such new or large families would be situated in rural or semi-rural areas. In these areas, tracts of land could be bought outright, without needing to ask for the “services” of the local branch of international usury. If real property is the aim, affordable land is a necessity. The next problem to be solved is the building of affordable housing. Here, I believe that the construction guild could make this there central task and “apostolate.” What better way to encourage young and growing families to move to chapels which provide also a school for children, than by making affordable, really affordable housing available to them? What better way to provide for steady and continuous work for the construction guild, than to service the demand which would no doubt exist if a ready supply were known to be available? Our slogan here should be “make work not fake work”! Of course, in these individual communities, there would need to be those who coordinated supply and demand. This could consist in an outreach program attached to the construction guild. The accumulation of capital by the guild itself, could facilitate the initial purchase of the tracts of land upon which the guild would build the houses. Houses not generally meant for singles or for small families, but for large ones. Again, increased volume would make possible affordable prices. The goal, of course, must be to have the maximal number of families possess their own mortgage-free housing.
On of the aims of the proposed guild-system must be the initiation of an apprenticeship system. Apprenticeships have always been the future of any guild. They have also been a source of hope for the young. The essence of the apprentice system is the existence of a master or master-craftsman and a disciple or apprentice. The relationship between master and disciple is fundamental of all true educational systems of any sort. Such a relationship, either established within a particular guild or, even, with a youth’s own father serving in the roll of master-craftsman, would remedy many of the dilemma’s which tax the minds and hearts of our traditional Catholic youth. First, there would be a greater psychological integration. By forming fraternal bonds with the men working in the same profession who, also, share the same faith, the true Faith would become something more than a series of propositions learned in childhood, with little relevance to the world of work, money, and friends. Rather, by feeling himself to be a vital part of a corporate body of men united not only be a common work but by a common faith, he will not be able help understanding the Faith to be something for mature minds. In this case, the Faith will provide him friends, mentors, customers, an occupation, hope for the future, and bread.
Second, the apprenticeship system would provide something desperately needed by our youth: a very quick transition from adolescence to adulthood. The serious work of a serious trade would not only render the youth more responsible for themselves, but it would also allow them to clearly envision the day in which they will be provident enough to form a family of their own. Attached to this idea of reviving the ancient position of the apprentice, is another proposal which has a similar set of goals. It is the master/apprentice relationship applied to professional “white-collar” careers. Most of these would fall outside a guild system which has as its aim the providing of what we have called “primary goods”; if a young person should want to become a professor, lawyer, or accountant for example. For these youth, I would advance the idea of a “big brother” program with an established network of professional contacts. These “big brothers,” who are traditional Catholics who already work in the profession that the youth is trying to enter, would act as advisor, confidant, patron, and contact provider for the youth as he maneuvers his way through the educational and professional maze that is part of the initiation into any profession. We would therefore ensure either that the communities we have been speaking of would have an entire ensemble of professionals dedicated to its service or you would have young traditional Catholics being carefully maneuvered into the “right” positions. We must cultivate our best and our brightest. Remember, the Masons took the idea from us!
E) Barter and Credit Unions
One of the most obvious problems encountered by the head of a household in his attempt to gain real property for his family is the fact that wages are not high enough to meet the demands made upon him to provide the primary goods necessary for his family’s survival in our contemporary society. Our style of life cannot be maintained without going into debt to one or another of the financial institutions which, through usury and by exploiting an economic system based upon wants and whims, have gained a hold on the money supply and have somehow received “permission” to create “money,” backed by nothing but the word of the institution itself. How can we avoid having the brethren go into debt? Such must be one of the primary aims of a parallel economy based upon the Distributist principles of Rerum Novarum. In this regard, along with the construction guild keeping prices down because of steady demand and because the objective is family sustenance and not profit, there are two other ways I would suggest for avoidance of indebtedness by our fellow co-religionists. They are a prudent and restricted use of the barter system, and the establishment of nonusurious credit unions. By the “barter system,” I simply mean the exchange of service for service, rather than the exchange of service for dollar. Not only would this exchange of one man’s work for another man’s work further strengthen ties between man and man, family and family, but it would also allow a family to conserve whatever monetary capital it has, while absolutely avoiding the need to go to the givers of credit to pay for a service. Moreover, as far as I know, a service exchanged for service (e.g., plumbing work for chickens and eggs), would not figure as part of one’s yearly income. Another way to legally “disinvest” in the System and reinvest in the homesteads of Christendom.
The other way I would propose for helping the traditional Catholic brethren to avoid the slavery of usury and, yet, to provide a source of finance for some of the projects suggested here, is to establish nonusurious credit unions. How can this be possible since the typical credit union loans out money at a lower, but still at some, rate of interest to its members? Here we must keep in mind the Catholic Church’s traditional condemnation of the taking of interest on all nonprofit yielding loans. Loans for housing construction are, except in cases of speculation, not profit-bearing loans. A loan with interest which serves as the initial investment money for a project which yields a profit, a census as the Medievals would have it, was always perfectly acceptable to the Church . The loaner, in this case the proposed credit union, would simply serve as a partner in what would be a joint venture. By receiving back part of the profit from these joint ventures, the credit union, which would have to be established by the pooling of capital, would be able to loan money to those in the community who are building houses or providing for other basic and primary needs. These loans would be paid back, on schedule, without any usurious charged being attached to the loan.
F) Not Treating Brothers Like Strangers
The above proposals are based on a cold and hard fact. It is that, in the near future, on the geo-political scene and on the macroeconomic level, there is little hope that the ideas put forward by the Distributists in the early part of the twentieth century will be implemented. Since, however, they are part and parcel of a full Catholic vision of the rightly ordered human society and since, according to Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, they are part of the full realization of the Social Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we must attempt to implement these ideas on the local level and community level. We need communities for this. We have such communities established and we know of a number of other such communities, in the United States and elsewhere, Tynong, Australia for example, who are in their nascent stage.
If we are to survive and to even prosper as communities of families animated by and adhering to Tradition, if our young are to be encouraged from going over to the other side, in their minds or in their hearts, and if we are to live the principles and doctrines that we adhere to with our minds within a hostile society, we must consider, seriously, the question, how to do it? The basic answer to this question is not to treat brothers like strangers.