The search for an economic and political “third way” between socialism and capitalism has been underway since the early 20th century, if not sooner. In Catholic circles, Distributism is a third way that many are eager to discuss. I suspect many of the people reading this blog have heard of Distributism by now.
I was once attracted to the idea of Distributism, until I came to the vital question of who would be doing the “distributing” of the private property that everyone was supposed to own and how it would be done. To be vague or silent on this question is completely unacceptable. And yet there are really only two possible answers. Either people will be persuaded via reasonable argument and successful example to get together with like-minded people and distribute property in various ways, or people will be forced to do it at gunpoint.
It didn’t take me long to realize that there was really no “middle ground” between these two options, just as there is really no middle ground between free will and determinism (even if various factors can influence person’s will). If you haven’t persuaded someone to do what you want, the only other way is force. So the question becomes: is it legitimate to use force to impose an ideology on society? Is it legitimate for a band of political visionaries to come together and either use the power of the existing state or establish a new state to drag the unwilling or apathetic masses along? And does a system which is supposedly in man’s best interests need to be established at gunpoint, as if it weren’t?
Distributism claims to be rooted in Catholic social thought. At the same time, many libertarian arguments against the use of force, or against aggression, are rooted in the natural law tradition of Catholicism and later developed through John Locke. The first major social encyclical, Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, states:
“Now, when man thus turns the activity of his mind and the strength of his body toward procuring the fruits of nature, by such act he makes his own that portion of nature’s field which he cultivates – that portion on which he leaves, as it were, the impress of his personality; and it cannot but be just that he should possess that portion as his very own, and have a right to hold it without any one being justified in violating that right.” (9)
A more clear statement of the natural, individual right to private property as extension of self “ownership” (or stewardship if you prefer) has hardly been made. No one is justified in laying their hands on the person or property of another outside of some rather extreme circumstances, such as immanent starvation. This has implications touching upon every aspect of political life, especially as it concerns taxation, economic regulation, and certainly the distribution of property. If no one is justified in violating private property rights, it becomes almost impossible for anyone to justify any sort of ideological regime, or any sort of government that depends upon tax revenues obtained at gunpoint. From a Lockean and “scholastic” point of view, that is to say, a natural law point of view, a government is justifiable only if it rests on the consent of the governed – this is the only condition under which taxation even for the services required for the defense of natural rights can be considered anything other than outright robbery.
So what of Distributism, or syndicalism, or “anarcho-communism”, or any number of third way “isms” that crop up from time to time? With regards to Distributism in particular it seems utterly wrong to even consider it a “third way.” Perhaps from the standpoint of personal choice, it represents a broad alternative to individual (first way) and state (second way) ownership of the means of production. One can opt for a voluntary sharing of property, shares, profits, etc. instead of being a bad old entrepreneur or a federal bureaucrat. But as a societal or political regime, it will either rest upon consent or it will rest upon force.
Insofar as it would rest upon consent, it could hardly exist as a “replacement” for capitalism, since people will still be free to engage in production and exchange in whatever ways they choose, within the limits of other people’s equal rights. People would be free to try out various Distributist projects, some of which might succeed and others which might fail. Others will still engage in the bad old “individualistic” capitalism (a canard, but I’ll go along with it for the moment). Such would be the necessary state of affairs in any society respecting a substantive individual right to private property.
Insofar as it would rest upon coercive violence, in which each person was “distributed” his allotted share by government officials and slapped down the moment he engaged in behavior considered too capitalistic, too “selfish”, or crossed some other ideological line, Distributism would only superficially differ from fascism, Stalinism or Maoism, again depending on how Luddite they go.
An ideology called “Distributism” had better get its story straight on how things get distributed. As a voluntary ideal, I think it is fantastic when and where conditions will favor its success. It is something all Christians and people of good will ought to consider as a possibility, though advocates ought to also be prepared for the reality that many people, for many reasons, some of which are very good and rational, will choose not to take on the responsibilities of private property ownership.
As a regime to be imposed through “policies” and directives that people have no choice but to obey, and that ultimately requires the forced redistribution of private property, I oppose it as a tyranny every bit as monstrous as Bolshevism or at least as undesirable and morally bankrupt as social democracy, again depending on how far the particular advocate wants to go.
We end up with only two ways, and we all have to decide which of the two we prefer.