Distributism: Novel Economic System


I have never written much about Distributism because, to quote Gertrude Stein, there is no there, there.  Chesterton and Belloc I think used Distributism primarily as a springboard to attack the capitalism they both loathed.  The details were kept vague because it was obvious that, unless humanity were suddenly to become exempt from sin, the implementation of such a system, if it could be implemented at all, would require a very powerful state indeed, something that Chesterton and Belloc both loathed just as much as they loathed capitalism.  Thus Distributism was something to be trotted out in their writings periodically, but neither Chesterton or Belloc made any attempts to seriously implement it in the real world, and of course one would not expect a pair of writers to do so.  That would be done, if at all, by those inspired by the concept.  However, although the concept evokes a lot of sturm und drang on Catholic blogs, attempts to implement it in reality have been precious few and far between.  It is therefore only appropriate that a science fiction novelist, John C. Wright, has examined a concept that I think will always remain firmly ensconced in the fictional realm:



A reader asked me my opinion of Distributionism, which is GK Chesterton’s tentative venture into economic philosophy.

For better or worse, my take on Distributism is uniformly and unabashedly negative. You see, I had studied economics for many a year before I stumbled across the writings of Mr Chesterton, and I found him wise and witty and much to be admired in all other areas but this one. Once he starts writing about rich folk, he speaks frothing nonsense, and there is a touch of hatred, of true malice, in his tone I do not detect anywhere else.

Chesterton holds that the concentration of wealth into a few hands was bad for all concerned, and looked favorably on the idea of each man owning his own means of production, and their incomes being more equal.

By what means this was to be accomplished is left vague in his writings. Whether this was to be by a medieval guild system, or some form of government-run syndicate, or an all-volunteer affair, is never mentioned one way or the other. He states clearly that he opposes the Enclosure Laws, by which common greens, formerly owned and used communally, were made private property; but he does not state clearly how, or even if, he would reverse this.

His position differs from Socialism mainly by being nondoctrinaire by being unclear. Continue reading

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.

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(Content advisory to the above video.  A few of the Rules of Acquisition are off-color.  You know what the Ferengi are like.)

We have been having a debate recently on The American Catholic between Austrians and Distributists.  As a devotee of free enterprise with as little government intervention as possible, I have found some wisdom in the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition as set forth in one of my favorite fictional realms:  Star Trek.  Many of the Rules of Acquisition of course are merely for entertainment purposes and would lead to immoral results, if not bankruptcy or prison, if attempted in reality.  However,  after a quarter century of running my own business, I believe these rules are insightful:

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Oh What a Tangled Web…

Few things are more annoying to me than the obstruction of both semantic quibbles and logical fallacies to a clear understanding of reality. Thus my experience as a Distributist has become one of near-perpetual annoyance, given the proliferation of both throughout the Distributist camp. Here I want to address a few of the latest examples of this obstruction, and provide some insights as to how and why it ought to be overcome.

First, there is John Medaille’s interview with the Young Turks, in which he declares that one cannot be in favor of both free markets and capitalism, simply because he has defined a free market as a situation in which there are vast numbers of competitors, and capitalism as a situation in which economic power has been concentrated in the hands of a few large firms. When challenged on this distinction by the interviewer, who asserted that capitalism could be defined as a free market economy while this economic concentration could be defined as corporatism, Medaille essentially had no choice but to agree. He then decided to add that “the capitalism we have” is what he claims to be talking about, regardless of how one wants to “define it in the abstract.”

By answering in this way, however, Medaille might leave you with the impression that people who claim to be in favor of capitalism aren’t interested in criticizing that which “we have”, when it is beyond obvious to anyone who actually reads the material of self-identified pro-capitalist organizations such as the Mises Institute that they view “what we have” as corporatism or statism or state-capitalism or some variation on that theme, and oppose it as well.

Read the rest here.

Liberty Matters – And So Does Virtue

In recent months I have been walking a fine line between libertarianism and communitarianism. Now that Phillip Blond has made his American debut, everyone is weighing on the conflict between these ways of looking at the world. I already covered David Brook’s assessment in the NY Times a while back. A brilliant Catholic philosopher by the name of Edward Feser has also given much attention to the viability of the libertarian/conservative “fusion”, which shares many similarities with the libertarian/communitarian debate. And now a Patrick J. Deenen weighs in on Blond, for communitarianism and against libertarianism. And a Mike Gibson fires back on his blog.

Since I’ve had a lot to say about these issues in the past, I’m going to say a bit about the latest round of conflict between libertarians and communitarians, and explain why I don’t think there needs to be any conflict at all. For one thing is missing from almost all of these analyses and exchanges – mention of, let alone fidelity to, the US Constitution. Not only that, but I am convinced that “subsidiarity” needs to appear in any discussion or debate between these ideological camps, as it really does bridge the gap between them. I would venture to say that the US Constitution is fairly good embodiment of the principle of subsidiarity.

Read the rest here.

Congratulations Rand Paul!

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Rand and Ron Paul are the true face of the Tea Party. I support them 100% in the months and years to come.

Though I agree that with Rand that we don’t need to apologize to the world for our economic system, we do need to continually revise and update it in accordance with the demands of the moral law and human dignity. My hope is that Distributist ideas can continue to gain traction in America, and among the Catholics in the tea party and hopefully beyond.

Is the Means of Production an Obsolete Idea?

The “means of production” (which may be defined, roughly, as consisting of capital goods minus human and financial capital), is a central concept in Marxism, as well as in other ideologies such as Distributism. The problems of capitalism, according to both Marxists and Distributists, arise from the fact that ownership of the means of production is concentrated in the hands of the few. Marxists propose to remedy these problems by having the means of production be collectively owned. Distributists want to retain private ownership, but to break the means of production up (where practicable) into smaller parts so that everyone will have a piece (if you wanted to describe the difference between the Marxist and Distributist solutions here, it would be that Distributists want everyone to own part of the means of production, whereas Marxists want everyone to be part owner of all of it).

Where a society’s economy is based primarily on agriculture or manufacture, thinking in terms of the means of production makes some sense. In an agricultural economy wealth is based primarily on ownership of land, and in a manufacturing economy ownership of things like factories and machinery plays an analogous role. In a modern service-based economy, by contrast, wealth is based largely on human capital (the possession of knowledge and skills). As Pope John Paul II notes in Centesimus Annus, “[i]n our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources.”

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A Distributist Manifesto

It recently occurred to me that I, and many others, talk an awful lot about Distributism without defining it. This is no longer an acceptable practice to indulge in, as the word becomes more known in Catholic circles in these economically troubled times.

There is a great deal of confusion about what Distributism is, what it means, what its place is in Catholic social thought, and even over who started it. This essay will attempt to address some of these confusions, by answering the following questions:

*What is Distributism?

*What has the Papacy said about Distributism?

*Why Distributism?

*What is the relation of Distributism to capitalism and socialism?

*How does Distributism answer its critics?

I will state forthrightly that I speak only for myself, and not for any other individuals or organizations purporting to be Distributist themselves. Though I have written for The Distributist Review, the following arguments and opinions are mine alone.

With that said, I hope you will find the following exposition helpful in your own mission to understand this idea, which is regaining popularity among Catholics. With this newfound popularity comes a great deal of criticism and sometimes even distortions by those who are sympathetic to it.

What you will not find here are technical details about cooperative firms or Distributist legislation, though I may always make future additions or posts on the topic.

Read the rest here.

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