On Distributism and the Futility of Third Ways
The search for an economic and political “third way” has haunted intellectuals for over a hundred years in the Western nations. Many forget that fascism was at one time considered a viable “third way” between liberal capitalism and communism, preserving for the most part private ownership of the means of production for profit but subjecting it to near total control and regulation by the state. Many other models would follow, from the local and anarchistic to the national and statist, appearing under many different names.
I too was caught up in the desperate search for a “third way”, as are many Catholics who eventually find their way to Distributism. But it became quite obvious to me that what people who actually defined themselves as libertarians and capitalists were promoting and defending really wasn’t what I had always thought it was, nor was it anything I could possibly find objectionable.
To explain why, we might consider four possible ways that economic activity could take place: through voluntary individualism, voluntary collectivism, coerced individualism, or coerced collectivism. Here is a diagram to make it simpler.
Yes, yes, I know, I’ve put your favorite ideology in the wrong box, or left it out altogether, and you’re already skipping ahead to the comment box to give me a piece of your mind. This is an admittedly crude diagram that I’ve come up with on the spot in MS Paint to illustrate what I want to talk about though. I’m not arguing that the individualist vs. collectivist or the voluntarist vs. coercive dichotomies are the only possible or relevant ones in political theory either.
For the coercive individualist societies, fascism is such because there is private property + heavy regulation and control by the state, whereas in some right-wing dictatorships there is both private property and totally free markets with authoritarian control over most other areas of society.
As for social democracy, it is coercive individualist because it combines economic fascism (and now eco-fascism) with cultural Marxism: abortion, pornography, gay marriage, sex changes, and all of the rest of it are defended as individual and inalienable moral and political rights. These are the societies we all live in for the most part. Coercive police states co-exist with an atomized society in perfect artificial harmony. Divide and conquer, down to the last social unit, the individual.
For those who won’t see the connection in abstract terms, just take a look at China, which is for all intents and purposes a fascist state. In the old days there was an international communist movement, total nationalization of the means of production, and central economic planning; all of that warranted the communist label. Toady the Comintern is long gone, private property has made a roaring comeback, and markets are allowed to work within a highly-regulated framework. On top of it all sits a highly oppressive and authoritarian regime that isn’t shy about using mass murder to quell dissent.
We of course need little explanation for coercive collectivism, i.e. communism. It didn’t work, doesn’t work, and will never work – hence China’s transformation. It continues to survive, however, in pockets throughout the coercive individualist society: on college campuses and in labor unions especially.
Voluntary individualism is really systematized and consciously chosen sociopathy. These are the people who believe they are their own Gods, failing to realize that God is entirely self-sufficient, whereas they depend on things like, sunlight, oxygen, water, and other human beings for their lives. Ayn Rand, Anton LaVey, and a lot of rock stars are good examples.
Finally there is voluntary collectivism, which exists in pockets throughout coercive individualist societies. It exists in small towns, in Amish country and Catholic monasteries. It exists wherever parents are raising children, wherever people are worshiping God together, it is the basis of any volunteer army. It is the primitive tribe, the ancient household (at least the ones that didn’t have slaves), the medieval village, the modern cooperative. And for most of history it was the basis of all civilization. All businesses are really voluntary collectives, assuming they don’t employ slave labor, though cooperatives are more consistently collectivist than the typical capitalist enterprise.
The problem is that most people identify capitalism as voluntary individualism instead of voluntary collectivism. They do this because they see profit as the sole motivation for the existence of the capitalist and his enterprise. But the capitalist can’t make a profit in a free and competitive market unless he meets someone’s needs. If people are forced to buy his products, or if his losses are covered by the state, or if subsides allow him to compete with inferior products, or any number of scenarios, then he is partaking in coercive individualism. If he is taking all of his profits and squandering them on gold-plated toilet seats instead of saving and investing wisely, then he is partaking in voluntary individualism. But if he is meeting the needs of consumers by innovating and reducing costs and prices, if he is hiring workers and paying them wages that they agreed to, if production is being carried out according to a plan in which everyone plays a necessary part, then he is partaking in voluntary collectivism.
Which of these would Distributism fall under? I think it is obviously voluntary collectivism. The differences between a “traditional” capitalist enterprise and a Distributist one are of degree, not kind; they differ in their internal structures but not in how they are formed (by voluntary participants) nor how they operate (with voluntary consumers). Like any business, they can become tangled up with the state and participate in the coercive structure, in which individuals are, by policy decisions, more or less forced into accepting more expensive goods and services to appease a group (unions, lawyers, certain corporations) that contributes heavily to one of the ruling parties. No one ought to deny that most capitalists are as tempted to take advantage of the state as any poor person looking for a free ride. It’s the same principle at work in different ways.
The failure to identify Distributism in particular as voluntary collectivism is that this temptation can give way to full blown desire among those who view it as a “system” that is an “alternative” to capitalism and socialism, i.e. a third way. Though I doubt many Distributists would argue that it must be implemented by the state, to rail against “capitalism” without distinction while rejecting communism at the same time is to almost become an economic fascist by default. The only distinction Distributists appear to be willing to make is between “really existing capitalism” and “abstract” capitalism. The former is the world of regulated markets and corporatism, of coercive individualism, while the latter only exists in the heads of Austrian economists.
But this is also manifestly untrue. Though one can argue that most businesses participate in the coercive structure, it isn’t logically necessary that they do so. Many people are willing to accept the argument that one of the drawbacks of welfare programs is that they discourage work. What is true of the individual poor person who has to choose between a job or welfare is true of the the individual business that has to choose between fair competition and government favors, from subsidies to regulations that punish competitors foreign and domestic. If part of the lasting solution to poverty is likewise understood as getting people off the welfare rolls, preferably by reducing the size of the welfare-state, then it follows that part of the solution to corporatism is reducing the size of the state in general. Few will willingly give up free stuff from the government; whether you’re dirt poor or filthy rich, it’s hard to stay clean when they keep shoveling it right at you.
So there’s nothing abstract about wanting to reduce the size of government. It is a tangible policy goal that is hard but not impossible to achieve. This is what the Tea Party is about, and it is what Distributism ought to be about as well. It is time to stop thinking in terms of third ways, and to start thinking about how to create the best conditions for voluntary collectivism to thrive.