Blog author: kspence
by on Wednesday, August 31, 2011

If modern distributists would like to identify themselves as agrarians, they may, and line up behind John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and the rest of the contributors to I’ll Take My Stand. Then they would be making a super-catechetical argument and we should not take issue with them on this blog. Their claim, however, is to offer the only modern economic theory which is fully in line with Church teaching, and that we cannot allow to go unchallenged.

The central claim of modern distributism, as articulated in this recent essay, is that when economists left off considerations other than the calculus of markets, their discipline ceased to be a human science, and so lost much of its value as an explainer of human action. Thus distributists attack capitalism, which according to their thinking became dehumanized:

Labor was no longer the source of all human values and its sustenance the purpose of all human production. Rather, it was just another “raw material,” like pig iron or hog fat, to be purchased at the lowest possible price. The question of justice was reduced to the question of “freedom”: so long as there was no coercion in the labor contract, the price was to be considered “just.” In the long run, so it was believed, all economic actors, acting in their own “self-interest,” would produce the best possible outcomes.

Distributists are right to say that the science of economics lost a part of its essence when it abandoned questions of human nature, but capitalism was around before that abandonment, and it will exist unaltered should the economic establishment come to its senses. And a distributist may commodify his hired hand just as a faithful husband may objectify his wife.

The history of industrialization is a gradual one: there was no paradigm shift at which all wage earners were thenceforth thought of as pig iron or hot fat, because that injustice is a personal sin.

Capitalism has given us the Twinkie, the deep fried Twinkie, and the ogre green Twinkie. It has not, in the end, given us an unwanted issue of Sports Illustrated each year, a multibillion dollar pornography industry, or a meaningless common culture. Richard Weaver isolated that culprit in his 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences when he said,

The average man of the present age has a metaphysic in the form of a conception known as “progress.”

According to Weaver, modern man has no metaphysic at all: he has become a materialist and an egotist. That is why too many companies treat their employees as “resources” and why too many banks thoughtlessly loan money to people who won’t be able to pay it back. It is why the business pages of newspapers routinely report that companies lie about their accounts, or that struggling firms have been bought up and liquidated without any thought for their employees’ lives. But “The Man” doesn’t treat employees as raw materials—individual men and women do that, and it is they who are guilty of injustice, not the system of capitalism. “The Man” and the distributist picture of our economy are largely a fiction.

Even if a switch in economic systems might reduce the incentive for unjust commerce, we can’t switch to distributism. Beyond a Spanish commune 0.17% the size of theU.S.economy, no one has ever effected a distributist economy—it’s certainly never been done politically.

The United States is not an agrarian country; it is, for better or worse, a fully industrialized one. Dreams of a network of pastoral communities dotting the rolling Kentucky hills, the Texas plains, and the California valleys must remain dreams—images of the citizen-soldiers of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem.

You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall…

Thanks to PewSitter, the Catholic Drudge Report, for the link!

  • Roger McKinney

    “How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
    From behind each fence and farmyard wall…”

     Even that was a fantasy. Washington
    at Valley Forge asked where are the yeoman farmers who
    started this war? They went back to farming and left him with the misfits of
    society to fight the war with.

     Distributists commit the same fallacy as socialists: they
    compare reality with fantasy and find reality lacking. Duh!

     Reality is too harsh for distributists. That’s why they
    refuse to learn economics. They remind me of the people who committed suicide
    after watching the movie Avatar.

     BTW, Austrian economics has always been human centered.  

     “The question of justice was reduced to the question of
    “freedom”: so long as there was no coercion in the labor contract, the price
    was to be considered “just.”

     Economists weren’t the first to decide that. The Church
    scholars as Salamanca were the
    first to say that labor contracts freely agreed to are the only just one.

  • Luke Daxon

    Hello Kenneth 
    I would be a little cautious in quoting Richard Weaver if one’s aim is to criticise distributism, because, as a traditionalist, agrarian conservative, his sympathies were with the small scale, local economies favoured by distributists. He deplored the degradation of moral values in the West, but he seemed to regard industrialisation and the ascent of massive enterprises as a contributing factor. Disagree with him all one likes, but he did say it. “Respecters of private property are really obligated to oppose much that
    is done today in the name of private enterprise, for corporate
    organization and monopoly are the very means whereby property is
    casting aside its privacy…The moral solution is the distributive ownership
    of small properties.”

    In terms of where Western society is heading, well, who can speak with certainty? I think a glimpse at Detroit is a salutary warning that massive urban settlements do not necessarily endure forever, once the industries that sustain them have gone.

    • Roger McKinney

      Luke, almost every monopoly in this country was created by
      the state – Utilities, cable TV, patents, etc. The economic definition of a
      monopoly is a company with 100% of the market in a good with few close
      substitutes. The anti-trust legal definition is vague and means whatever the
      presiding judge says a monopoly is. The only economic monopoly I know of in the
      US today is


      That doesn’t mean that corporations don’t abuse consumers.
      They do so by bribing politicians to put their people on regulatory agencies
      and create regulations that protect them from competition. But the solution is
      not “the distributive
      ownership of small properties.” A nation of small properties would increase the
      costs of everything dramatically and impoverish everyone.


      business is vital to lower costing goods and the alleviation of poverty. The
      solution is to take control of the economy from corrupt politicians (that’s
      redundant) and return it to the free market.


      Concerning Detroit, the knowledge problem that Hayek
      identified for central planners of economies applies to large corporations as
      well. Corporations are centrally planned mini-economies. Once they become large
      enough, management no longer has access to the amount and kinds of information it
      needs. That’s one reason we see companies like GM failing. GM is working much
      better now as a much smaller company.

    • Kenneth Spence

      Luke–I agree that Weaver would probably disagree with my dismissal of distributism. Also I have only read _IHC_ and _The Ethics of Rhetoric_, but I think it’s fair to use him to lay blame elsewhere than at the feet of capitalism.

      And to be clear, my sympathies are also with agrarians, but I cannot favor revolution, so I think it best to stay with a system that is not causing the problems distributists accuse it of.

      As for Detroit, the life of the auto industry has not been natural for decades–government has kept the American auto industry propped up for a long time, but its problems have become so large that even Uncle Sam can’t keep Detroit floating along. I think capitalism is rather good at moving workers into other sectors as a country’s competitive advantage fades in a certain area.

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  • Dcastlen50

    “Distributism” spelled backwards is Socialism.  Distributism is an attempt to put lipstick on a vicious pig.  The only way it will work is if all are angels and all the leaders are gods as well as angels. 

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  • Chris Ferrara

    I see no indication here of what the “capitalist system” is supposed to be, other than precisely what the Popes have condemned: an economic regime in “agreements” are the only legal criterion of justice, regardless of disproportionate bargaining power,  the family wage is rejected as a moral obligation, and all wages, prices and interest rates established by the “market process” are deemed just, without further moral or legal correction. 

    To say that capitalism does not include the personal sins of capitalists is to duck the issue: that the capitalist system demands the right to be free of “external” moral inquiry or correction and that it leaves morality entirely to the decision of the individual. The capitalist system rests on nothing other than the public morality/private morality disjunction of Enlightenment liberalism in general, which is why you facilely equate the role of law in maintaining morality as “imposing virtue.” In other words: You can’t legislate morality—a proposition that is both false and nonsensical on its face.

    Nor is distributism a fantasy.  It is as near to reality as any small business, and is as easy to achieve as a simple refusal to do business on any basis other than in a neighborhood and with neighbors.  The cities and rural regions of Europe still exhibit  the distributist model: small farms, small businesses, no fast food hegemons. Walk through the streets of Rome and you will see how one can satisfy the needs of life without ever once patronizing a mass capitalist enterprise.  Distributism is nothing other than capitalism for the common man.  

    • Roger McKinney

      Chris, Read anything you can about the Church Scholastics at
      the School of Salamanca, Spain. The Church gave us capitalism. In their search
      for a just price, they determined that a just price can only be found in a free
      market. That includes wages. The only moral price or wage is a just price or
      wage and those only exist in a free market. 

      As for small farms and businesses, you can find them where
      people are poor. Small businesses tend to be inefficient and increase the costs
      of goods to consumers, making consumers (all of us) poorer. There is a direct
      correlation between the percentage of businesses that are small and family
      owned and poverty. 

      Distributism does nothing but maintain poverty.

  • Dr. Mendonça Correia

    I’m not sure what to think about a person who states that “[e]ven if a switch in economic systems might reduce the incentive for unjust commerce, we can’t switch to distributism. Beyond a Spanish commune 0.17% the size of the U.S.economy, no one has ever effected a distributist economy—it’s certainly never been done politically.” This is an obvious ‘non-sequitur’ based upon innacurate informations about Distributism and its history.
    With this website’s permission, I would like to point out to Mr. Spence three or four little but meaty Distributist books that he should read before venturing on further attacks against Distributism: Penty’s “A Guildsman’s Interpretation of History”, London 1920, and “Distributism: a Manifesto”, London 1937; Robbins’ “The Sun of Justice”, London 1938; Goodman’s “Distributism: a Catholic System of Economics”, Martinsville VA 2006, and Weber & Goodman’s (eds.) “The Distributist Debate”, Martinsville VA 2009.
    As for Mr. Spence’s following statement, that “[t]he United States is not an agrarian country; it is, for better or worse, a fully industrialized one”, there are several people saying more or less the same thing about the European Union. It may be of some use to Mr. Spence to know that this has been raising a rather interesting problem in Europe: where are the Europeans supposed to buy their food?… Anyway, Mr. Spence should check what is going on with the Western European industry right now: I gather the United States are going through an experience which is not very far removed from the European.
    With all due respect, Mr. Spence should think twice before trying to persuade his readers that those countries which he says are “fully industrialized ones” have reached a sort of economic point of no return. There is just one point of no return in Economics, and that is annihilation.