Aristotle & Distributism: Part I

(Upon request, I am presenting my essay, which I will develop in five parts over the course of this week, here at TAC as well as my blog, Non Nobis)

Distributism is a current of Catholic social thought which holds that a greater distribution of private property, used in accordance with higher moral values and within the context of duties to community and society, is the best economic arrangement. It stands in contrast to both nationalized industry (socialism) as well as the permanent existence of a propertyless class (a feature of modern capitalism). For this, it has sometimes been wrongfully criticized as a reactionary anti-technology theory, a political program that would take society back to the technical level of the Middle Ages.

These accusations are groundless, for Distributism does not depend exclusively upon a particular mode of production; a business wherein shares of ownership were distributed among the employees would qualify as a Distributist enterprise. Thus whether we look to businesses such as the Spanish Mondragon, or to the ten-thousand plus Employee Stock Ownership Programs in the United States, Distributist ideas are not only alive and well, but are growing in appeal.

Although Distributism is most often associated with the modern social teaching of the Church, it is arguable that the first Distributist was in fact Aristotle. This should not be surprising, for insofar as Aristotle’s political and ethical philosophy stressed the importance of discovering and implementing the mean, that is, the middle between two extremes, it is only natural that he would arrive at a Distributist philosophy.

This is not a matter of “reading into” an ancient theorist a modern idea. Rather, Distributism is drawn directly from more ancient principles and adapted to a modern technological society. Authoritative translations of Aristotle’s Politics present us with Distributist suggestions in a manner so clear that there is no need to “read into” them. And like the modern Distributists, Aristotle arrives at his Distributist conclusions after a rejection of both Plato’s communism (as well as what we might recognize as welfare) as well as the perverse form of “wealth-getting” that we would call capitalism today.

Aristotle’s endorsement of Distributist ideas, moreover, is directly related to his account of what makes a stable and harmonious society: a strong middle class. Such a middle class can only be built up through the distribution of productive property. But it would be wrong to assume that economic solutions alone can be employed to create the best kind of society, for Aristotle also places a heavy emphasis on a good education and good laws. Thus unlike the arguably more popular and destructive forms of capitalism and socialism, or even their milder counterparts, Aristotelian Distributism does not offer a panacea to the problems of society, but simply a foundation upon which to build.

This essay will proceed as follows. First I will explore Aristotle’s rejection of several elements of modern capitalism, as well as communism and welfare-statism. Next I will lay out his vision of Distributism. Finally I will tie that vision in with his argument for the best kind of polity. In the conclusion I will argue that this vision is entirely realizable today, and that even an effort to move society in its direction would have many positive benefits, even if the ‘ideal’ society is not or cannot be attained.

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