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?
*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.
The entire country, including and especially the blogosphere, is ablaze with commentary, debate, and verbal warfare over the merits and potential consequences of Obamacare’s passage into law on Tuesday. Among us Catholics debate has been particularly intense, since the American Church played a key role in opposing Obamacare due to its anti-life provisions, though I can’t say that I agree at all with the bishops when they suggest that the bill was otherwise acceptable.
I opposed, and continue to oppose Obamacare for many reasons, abortion funding being only one of them. Indeed, while the absence of the Hyde language from the bill is certainly troubling, the truth is that Catholic taxpayers have been funding “medically necessary” or “exceptional” abortions at the state level through Medicaid for decades – abortions which are still offenses against life according to the teaching of the Church. Some Catholics have also been doing so through their participation in private health care plans that cover abortion. In modern America, we may as well forget about any kind of meaningful “conscience protection.”
It occurs to me that there are – among several others – two major problems that I have not seen adequate coverage of in the news that will result from Obamacare, though I admit, I can’t read everything, so if someone can direct me to analysis of these issues, I would be grateful.
In the third installment of my proposal for a libertarian-distributist alliance, I explore why libertarians ought to be open to distributist ideas. An excerpt:
Chief among the reasons to support a greater distribution of property is the simple truth that the maximum sphere of individual liberty is not to be found in an individualist utopia, but a strong localism that provides individuals in a moral and efficient way that which they would otherwise turn to a powerful state or crime syndicate to provide.
This essay I wrote today is a much more developed treatment of the libertarian-distributist alliance I proposed not long ago. It was inspired by a critique of the Acton Institute and it’s Fr. Sirico by distributist Thomas Storck, linked through the essay.
My hope is that it can be an opening move in a real dialogue between libertarians and distributists. Comments are welcome.
Having at times been a bit critical of my co-contributor Joe’s enthusiasm for Employee Owned Companies (EOCs) and “economic democracy” in general, it seems only fair that I spend a moment looking at the good sides — and there do definitely seem to be good sides to the employee owned company model.
Being entrepreneurially-minded, employee ownership is certainly not something that I’m in principle opposed to, it’s more that I think it probably works well in certain situations, but is not a panacea.
Where It Doesn’t Work
It seems to me that certain business characteristics will make it particularly hard for EOCs to prosper. This does not mean that employees at such companies should not have company issued stock, but the amount of stock distributed to employees by the company should probably be limited to the traditional 10-20% maximum.
Companies which require large amounts of capital investment (early stage startups which are trying to grow very fast, research-intensive companies) are generally not going to be good candidates. The traditional return for investment is stock — either by the general investing public through a public stock offering, or through specific investors in a privately held company. Such companies often reserve a portion of stock for issue to employees as an incentive (or sell to them at a discount via stock options) and have company performance based compensation, but their need for capital makes it impossible for them to reserve 50%+ of company stock for employees.
(Part I may be read here. Some of the discussion may be followed on my blog. Note: the presentation of this essay on this blog may differ somewhat from the outline I set forth in the introduction in Part I. The critique of communism/welfare-statism will be published tomorrow.)
In an academic culture that is often characterized by historicist and relativist viewpoints, the notion that Aristotle may have had anything relevant to say about modern economic systems seems a little strange to us. While it must be admitted that we cannot expect the ancient versions of capitalism and communism to be identical to their modern counterparts, we can nonetheless differentiate the historically-shaped form from what is arguably the timeless content. Moreover, by way of critique of the two dominant economic paradigms (for in the final instance, welfare-statism/Social Democracy incorporates the worst features of both), we can arrive at a more clear vision of the Distributist alternative.
Though it ought to become obvious through the critique of communism, it bears stating up front that the Aristotelian critique of capitalism is not an attack on private property. Difficult as it may be for some readers, the notion that the essence of capitalism is the possession and use of private property is a fallacy bequeathed to us not only by certain capitalist ideologists, but by many (though not all) communists and assorted “anti-capitalists” as well.
A definition of capitalism that accords well with Aristotle’s critique is an economy in which production for exchange is predominant, as opposed to production for immediate use/consumption. Though it is modern technology since the Industrial Revolution that actually allows such an economy to come into being, the pre-industrial tendencies towards this type of economy have been in existence since the dawn of civilization, and reached a pinnacle in the great civilizations of antiquity, including the ancient Greece in which Aristotle lived and wrote.
(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.
Rather than drown my readers with a lot of words, as I sometimes do, I’m going to write and post this essay in several parts over this following week. I hope that by the end of it at least some will have a somewhat greater understanding/appreciation of Distributism, an idea that Catholics such as myself hope will gain more ground and exposure in the coming years, though I absolutely do not claim to be anywhere near the final word on it (some will say other things, some will say the same things better). I look forward to discussion on this topic.
To read this on the American Catholic click here.
In the many discussions about socio-economic matters we partake in here at The American Catholic – not all of them as charitable as I would like – the topic of wealth redistribution often comes up. Clearly some of us hold different views as to the effectiveness of wealth distribution, or the forms it ought to take. Catholic social teaching does not attempt to confine redistribution to one set of particular policies, and it does not support the enlargement of “the welfare state”.
But there is no question that the redistribution of wealth through taxation is in itself a morally legitimate practice for government to engage in.
(I was going to wait until later to do this, but I just couldn’t )
After many months of waiting and speculation, Pope Benedict’s third encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Truth in Charity, CV for short) was released to the public today. As I read it this morning, I was grateful that we have been blessed with a Pontiff whose intellectual command of the social and cultural issues of our day is so wide-ranging, dynamic and insightful.
The reaction, thus far, has been more or less what I expected: people of various ideological persuasions attempting to take away what they can from it. I will have more to say about that below. For now, though, I want to highlight what I thought were the most important themes.
First, the Pope reminds us that Catholic social teaching cannot be arbitrarily divided into different categories. Of the Church’s social doctrine, Benedict says: “there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new” (12). Nothing in this encyclical, then, will fundamentally alter or revise anything that has been said before since the publication of Rerum Novarum in 1891.
I am going to provide everyone with a nice blast from the past- everyone I know respects Pope John Paul II- most orthodox Catholics refer to him as John Paul the Great. So I think what he thought officially as Pope on the question of Capital/Labor/State as part of the tradition deriving from Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum- is incredibly interesting and relevant. Here is Chapter One of Centesimus Annus with no personal commentary- let the “man” speak without any interference from me:
A typical question, as a previous post here at American Catholic, with regard to worker’s cooperatives has been: if these firms are so great, why aren’t there more of them?
The short answer to that question is that there are more of them, in several countries, than there ever has been before. The trend towards worker ownership of businesses is on the increase, in the United States and elsewhere, and has been for sometime. Gar Aplerovitz, in America Beyond Capitalism, gives us an overview of cooperatives in the United States: