Not since the Great Depression of the 1930s has there been such anger and frustration regarding both the American economic and political systems. People feel that our politicians have betrayed us, which is certainly true. And they also are beginning to think that the economic system which until recently was considered to be a model for the world has likewise let us down. Capitalism seems a failure. But if not capitalism, what is there? Is socialism the right alternative? Or is there some other way of organizing our economy in a way that serves social justice and the common good, the welfare of all citizens, not just of those with money or power?
Before we consider that question, we should probably define our terms. When I speak of capitalism I mean the kind of economic system which is dominated by large employers, usually corporations, which employ others to work for them. Capitalism is characterized by this employer/employee divide. To an employer, especially a corporation, employees are just so many items of expense. Sure they are necessary, but the fewer of them the better, and the less they are paid the better. That way profits are greater with higher salaries for executives and bigger dividends for stockholders. Capitalism tends toward a kind of class warfare, a warfare of those with economic power against everyone else. As a result, corporations love to ship jobs overseas where wages are cheaper, or to destroy unions in order to lower wages domestically.
Because of this, many people have turned to some form of socialism in hopes of creating an economy that is more humane. Now socialism means different things to different people, and some forms of socialism closely approach the distributist economy I will sketch below. But there is no need to champion socialism, if for no other reason simply because the name itself terrifies people. Historically to label something “socialist” in America has been to demonize it.
But we don’t have to choose between the discredited capitalism that we have and a socialism that conjures up in many people’s minds the Soviet Union and its totalitarian dictatorship. There are many other paths we can take in constructing an economy. And Distributism is one that needs to be seriously considered.
What is Distributism? Distributism is an economic system in which private property exists, yes, but private property at the service of people, of the common good, not of those able to amass the most wealth and power and exploit others. Distributism aims at well-distributed private property, small and local businesses, family farms, and cooperatives. Private property is a good thing if it serves the needs of people. If it is perverted into a method of domination by the rich, then it becomes an evil.
Well, if well-distributed private property is a good thing, how can we achieve it and how could we keep it? After all, wouldn’t the rich and unscrupulous simply accumulate economic power again? Wouldn’t we end up exactly where we began?
Distributists realize that we cannot rely simply on good will to establish or maintain a just social order. Many people might be content with sufficient income and never aspire to dominate others economically. But history shows that there are some who will not be content with a reasonable portion of the goods of this world. Distributists have come up with various ideas for both distributing property and for keeping it distributed. Let’s look at some of them.
One proposal that has often been made is to use the tax code to encourage small property. That is, to apply a highly progressive or differential tax to large concentrations of property, so that large corporations, with numerous outlets or branches, would be taxed at a much higher rate than small and locally-owned businesses. This would tend to break up such concentrations of property and likewise prevent future centralization. There is nothing wrong in using the tax power of the government to achieve this end, since the purpose of the government is the common good, not the welfare of the rich or of corporations. Private property rights are not absolute, but can and must be made to serve social justice. This is neither Marxism nor any form of socialism, but is firmly sanctioned in our historical tradition, for example, in the teachings of the Catholic Church and in early nineteenth century state regulation of corporations, before the U.S. Supreme Court invented the fiction that corporations deserve the rights of personhood. Other means to help divide property which can be implemented immediately include individual decisions to buy locally whenever possible and to boycott chain stores and corporate agriculture.
Distributism rests on the idea that private property has a purpose. That purpose is not to dominate others or to increase one’s income without measure, but rather to support the owner and the owner’s family in reasonable comfort. A person has a right to a living, but not to two or three or fifty livings. We have better things to spend our time on. Human life should be about celebration, about creativity, about community, about spirituality. We must all live together on this planet, and increasingly it is becoming clear that the destructive ways we have lived in the past will no longer work. Property can be used to aid the human race in its growth and happiness or to oppress the majority for the sake of the minority who hold wealth and power. Distributism is a way of empowering the majority, of making us owners, or part owners, of our work places. It is a threat only to those who think of the economy as an arena in which to crush their opponents and grab as much power as they can.
We can do better than capitalism, and we do not need to turn to socialism. Distributism has the potential to bring together many diverse groups of supporters and to create a just economy oriented toward providing for the real needs of all of humanity.