The mention of Distributism often draws skepticism by those who, while valuing its merits, believe Distributism incapable of providing satisfactory answers to our modern needs. From chewing gum to automobiles, chairs to food stuffs or toys to beer, we live in a world consumed by and dependent on mass-produced goods and large-scale industry. The distributist’s reputation for favoring small-scale production, usually “mom and pop” and mostly local, appears to conflict with computer chips, fax machines, and high-rise construction. Any expectation of the family business replacing our automotive, aerospace, or shipping industries seems dubious at best. Doubt lingers whether a Distributive State can be competent in facing the challenges left over by the failures of Socialism and Capitalism.
In anticipation of any discussion about Distributist reforms such as worker-owned businesses, micro-credit, or social investing, which can (and have) successfully taken over medium and large-scale operations, we should explore why G.K. Chesterton, while never denying the presence of the factory or the value of employment in a Distributive State, believed large-scale industry took a back seat to small producers and self-ownership.
As editor of G.K.’s Weekly, Chesterton courageously challenged the political and economic establishment throughout the pages of his famous newspaper. His writing was so extensive that his two most famous books articulating the Distributist thesis, the influential The Outline of Sanity and the superb What’s Wrong with the World, offer us only a fraction of his political and economic thought. In every issue of G.K.’s Weekly, the erudite Chesterton challenged political and economic theorists whose hyperopic focus on the macroeconomic state of the nation, filled with statistics of industrial output, trade, and unemployment figures, failed to address the problems most pressing to the masses or the man on the street. Today, these cold and mathematical calculations continue to provide economists with the raw data necessary to predict and analyze the “boom and bust” market.
Economists project and examine because economists are always predicting and diagnosing, just like the weatherman and about as accurately. How economic factors affect quality of life for families, real people—the poor, the farmer, and the home—are left out of the equation. These economists cheer when unemployment stats decline, while the common man is left to ponder whether reductions in unemployment translate to earning a livelihood or earning a minimum wage. Economists advise our congressional leaders, the heads of banks, large-scale industry, and corporate goliaths about economic shifts and their impact on industry because they are under the impression that as a nation we rise and fall according to industrial production.
But mass-producing industries are not the solution to get the nation going. The revitalization of cottage industry is what we need in order to get the nation going; local economies; small firms; genuine relationships based on trust, reputation, love, dedication, and hard work. Cottage industry is about those closest to us: our households and communities; the rural towns; urban dwellers; real life and real people. Mass production breeds more mass production. Mass production does not see the value in the ‘thing’ created, but only how many quantities of that ‘thing’ produce token wealth.
Chesterton recognized how the powerful concentration of the mass production system severed widespread ownership, augmented the nation’s reliance on industry for its Gross Domestic Product, challenged the power of the State due to its size, and just how influential these large firms were in obtaining government subsidies and rescues (what we dub “too big to fail”), so that when they collapsed we collapsed with them. Unable to compete with the bargaining and lobbying powers of the factory, local production suffered as mass producers increasingly became the sole sources of wealth for local communities, paid unjust wages and offered unjust contracts to the worker, eliminated the ownership society, and, without loyalty to King or country, packed up and moved for greener pastures, leaving small towns in ruin as has become evident today in the United States.
Chesterton and the distributists were micro-economists who understood that the smaller picture is the bigger picture. The answer to our problems is micro because life is micro. It begins with the family on a plot of land and continues down the rural road, past our neighbor’s home and straight to the market square. Solving the problem of the masses builds a system resistant to the fracturing of the national economy and the tyranny of the board of directors. It restores the stable economic foundations necessary for family life and puts man back in touch with his humanity so he may concentrate on virtuous living through compliance with the Divine law. And it is only from this norm that any larger industry can grow. For Chesterton, an economy dominated by mass-produced goods could never replace the strength of a decentralized economy because ownership diversification also means self-reliance for small towns and for the small country. Local production for local consumption is a policy enabling the flow of an extensive variety of goods and services created by and sustaining the very community that makes them.
“We want to decentralize production, so that each district may tend to be self-supporting, we want to have little knots of craftsmen everywhere supplying the needs of the district which feeds them,” he wrote.
Chesterton never denied factories would continue to exist in a Distributive State. He simply asserted that any community with an economic foundation based on diverse ownership would offer men the choice of whether to work for themselves or sell their labor to capital, which means that, given this state of affairs, capitalists would be forced to pay a living wage and treat labor as co-creators of production instead of mere factors of production.
So what does ownership diversity within medium or large-scale manufacturing look like? Is there a solution? Yes. The answer is found in worker-ownership: the distributist cooperative.