I can always find common ground with the Distributists I meet. We want to replace the government-corporate cronyism that characterizes so much of our current economic system. And we want our culture to raise up young people with the skills, virtues and freedom to accumulate productive capital and invest it in ways that promote human flourishing for themselves and others.

But then there’s the question of centralized political power in the economy. Sometimes when Distributism is described, you get the sense that Distributism and one of its leading early proponents, Hilaire Belloc, have always been committed to a largely grass roots, bottom-up strategy of change. But Belloc himself painted a different picture in An Essay on the Restoration of Property:

We must seek political and economic reforms which shall tend to distribute property more and more widely until the owners of sufficient Means of Production (land or capital or both) are numerous enough to determine the character of society…. The effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice. (P.29)

So when I have a conversation with Distributists, the first thing I like to clear up is what they mean by Distributism. Do they merely want people and companies to model best-Distributist practices voluntarily, so as to propagate Distributist ideas and behaviors in a free marketplace of ideas? Do they just want to get the federal government out of the job of picking winners and losers in the economy? Or do they also want to vote in politicians who will arrogate to the federal government expanded powers to seize and redistribute private property and keep it more evenly distributed?

Until those questions are cleared up, the opportunities for muddle and fog are just too great to bother wading in.

Hilaire Belloc, An Essay on the Restoration of Property, (Norfolk, Virginia: IHS Press, 2002).

  • Joseph D’Hippolito

    As someone who was baptized and raised as a Catholic, I can see why Catholics like Distributism. First, it’s being promoted by their own (Belloc and Chesterton), and Catholics are big into group identity. Second, it sounds good, and Catholics love things that sound good ethically and intellectually (regardless of whether they have practical utility). Third, it hints at centralized power, and Catholics have been seduced by the value of centralized power (and its propagandistic cousin, “solidarity”), especially as it concerns their own church.

    Distributism has one basic thing in common with Marxism: Both were created by people with absolutely no economic training, either academically or practically. That, in and of itself, makes it suspicious to me.

    • http://blog.acton.org/archives/author/kspence Kenneth Spence

      hmm… nominate for “half-baked comment of the week?”

      • http://www.facebook.com/elias.crim Elias Crim

        Indeed. Talk about your homo economicus! And those Gdansk workers–propagandists all!

  • John Médaille

    Distributing property is not so much about what the gov’t should as about what it should stop doing; the huge accumulations of capital are impossible without gov’t power. 

  • John Médaille

    Distributism is not so much about what the gov’t should do as about what it should stop doing; the large accumulations of “property” are not possible without gov’t. Under the current system, there are some things and some policies the gov’t can follow, and it can take advantage of what opportunities arise. For example, it can refuse to bail out the banks, so as to make them even bigger, but break them up and sell them to regional banks. But in the end, its about less gov’t, not more.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.e.sweet John Sweet

    I don’t know enough about Distributionism. In fact I come to this site to learn, and I love it! When I hear ‘distributionism’ I think ‘redistribution’ and ‘Joe the plumber.’ So I think conservatives are generally opposed on principle. Is the Acton Institute libertarian? If you’re going to have government, you need some taxes, right? Shouldn’t those taxes be based on our morals – like low-income married parents get a higher standard deduction, personal & dependent exemptions, child tax credit, child & dependent care credit? Or is that socialism? Please don’t attack me because of my questions.

    • Roger McKinney

      John, It’s nice to have a seeker of truth respond. Distributism
      is as hard to nail to the wall as Jello. That’s because some promote it as a
      political agenda, which makes it a flavor of socialism, while others protest
      that it is totally voluntary and nothing but a suggested lifestyle. On the
      other hand, the lifestyle distributists insist that any other lifestyle but
      distributism is evil, so they imply the use of state force to implement it.

      There are different types of libertarians, too. Most
      libertarians see the state as a necessary good in that it protects life,
      liberty and property. As Mises wrote, liberty doesn’t consist in the absence of
      law; that would be the rule of thugs. Liberty
      consists in the rule of principles applied equally to everyone without
      favoritism. A passage in Leviticus commands Israeli judges to conduct their
      courts without favoritism to the poor, for example.

      A small group of libertarians reject the state and see
      taxation as theft, but even they see the need for the rule of law. They provide
      for judges who are paid by the litigants and the judges are to discover natural
      law, not make law. Security is provided by private firms.

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  • AF Zamarro

    Corporations spend billions of dollars per year conditioning consumers to believe that low prices are all that matter when it comes to making economic choices.  So, similar to the comment below, I think that there are forces considerably stacked against the distribution of wealth.  It is inaccurate to say that the current condition is a natural, organic outgrowth when in fact it is designed and financed by those who benefit most from it.

    “Economics is not about justice, it’s not even about money, it’s about power.” EF Schumacher

  • c matt

    How does distributism value centralized power?  It seems to suggest the opposite – the decentralization of wealth (therefore power).

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1060874428 Dylan James O’Brien Pahman

      I think that the point hinges on your definition of power. Most would agree that wealth is a form of power. But to decentralize wealth by means of giving greater power to the state through law and law enforcement, increases one form of centralized power (the state) for the sake of decreasing another (wealth, judged to be unacceptably distributed). Whether or not one can escape such a trade off is the point being argued.

      Acton seeks to decrease poverty through entrepreneurship and empowerment of private enterprise, while Belloc—at least from the quote in the post above—would decentralize wealth by increasing the regulative power of the state (“force as the handmaid of justice”).

  • Luke Daxon

    But capitalism itself did not appear out of the ether. Certainly in a European context, it was fashioned by the state. In my own country of Britain, it was Parliament that forced through the limited liability laws in the 1850s and 1860s which terminated the essential principle of business ethics, namely that businessmen take responsiblity for their debts. Similarly, it was Parliament that forced through the enclosure acts which overturned an established way of life in the countryside and terminated communal property rights recognised by law hitherto.

    Arguably the best example of all was Revolutionary France. For all its absolutism, the ancien regime was surprisingly localist and decentralised in practice, with multitudes of parochial customs and liberties which distanced the subject from the authority of the crown. The revolutionaries, animated by the liberal individualism of the Enlightenment, declared these anathema, and used state power on a massive scale to eliminate local freedoms. All this was to realise their dream of a perfect free market, with no hindrance in the movement of goods.

    • Roger McKinney

      Luke, actually capitalism began with the writings of the Church
      Scholastics at the School of Salamanca, Spain. Church scholars had kicked
      around the idea of a just price for half a millennium. In the 16th century
      they concluded that just prices can exist only in a free market. But the Church
      has always held to the sanctity of private property. Of course, free markets
      are nothing but the instantiation of property for without control, property
      doesn’t exist. The Dutch Republic
      of the 16th and 17th centuries was the first European
      nation to implement those Church teachings. The enlightenment did not give
      birth to capitalism, but to socialism. See Hayek’s history of socialism, “The
      Counter-Revolution in Science.”

  • http://naturalaw.failuretorefrain.com jurisnaturalist

    The article and comments thus far have not considered whether the distributist model rightly understands the way power emerges and grows.  One must understand the relevance of regulatory capture.  Of course Chesterton and Belloc lived in a world in which corporations and other privileges granted by the state were legion.  That firms could emerge apart from the help of the state was (and is?) suspect.  Coase, Alchain, Demsetz, and others have provided reasoning which provides for the emergence of firms even without the influence of power.  Firms can reduce the transactions costs of contracting and supplying goods which require join production.  Miller questions whether hierarchy is necessary for these functions to operate, and if so, whether hierarchy introduces new inefficiencies which match those overcome by creating the firm.  I say its a mixed bag, but on the whole firms probably make it possible to achieve greater economies of scale.
    But when firms are successful and start to amass wealth they can start to compete on margins other than price, quality, etc.  They can appeal to the state for protection from competition.  If they are successful, they will become more powerful and can further appeal for protections.  Politicians are happy to grant these privileges because they often receive kickbacks.  This is all captured in the literature on rent-seeking.
    If it were possible to sufficiently constrain the state from granting arbitrary privileges, then the size of firms and the market power they hold would not be an issue because such wealth would not be able to translate into political power.  
    My suspicion is that the distributivists, like the ordo-liberals in Germany after WWII, and most friends of regulation including the OWS folks do not believe such a constraint is feasible.  They remove such an approach from their set of options.
    But all of these fail in believing that more regulation can be successful.  They do not place sufficient consideration on the role of regulatory capture (see Baptists and Bootleggers) in furthering the interests of incumbents.  
    All of this to say that most people believe the most effective means to reform is through the state.  But Jesus modeled a different approach: sacrifice.  In order to remove privileges and favors we have to be willing to make sacrifices, buying out interest holders, and then setting the market free.  We have to trust that such actions will have a transformative impact on those for whom we make sacrifices, and especially upon those whom we buy out, otherwise moral hazard problems encourage the problems to persist.  
    In all things, it must be the power of God working in the hearts of men bringing about change.  Upon this I am certain the distributivists would agree. 
    Nathanael Snow

    • Roger McKinney

      Excellent comments! And I think the underlying assumptions of
      the libertarians and distributists are causing us to talk past each other.
      Libertarians take the classical Christian approach to human nature, even though
      many aren’t Christians and so don’t think about it: only God can change human
      nature. Libertarians don’t want to use the state to change human nature because
      they don’t think the state has that power. Distributists and OWS seem to
      believe, like socialists and most modern Christians, that law can change human
      nature. So the debate is about human nature and the ability of man to change it
      through law. Communism and Nazism were less economic systems than they were
      experiments in changing human nature. Libertarians are more like Adam Smith,
      who never reveals his philosophy of human nature but appears to assume the
      traditional Christian position on it. As a result, Smith was not concerned
      about changing human nature; he cared about controlling and limiting the
      effects of the bad side of human nature, particularly greed. His main point was
      that competition in a free market will sterilize the effects of greed. Whereas
      relying on government regulation gives greedy people an open door to bribe
      politicians and achieve through the state the things they can’t accomplish in a
      free market.

      • http://naturalaw.failuretorefrain.com jurisnaturalist

        Doesn’t Smith provide at least a shadow image of human nature in Theory of Moral Sentiments?  Does it not flow mostly from Hutchison?  I’ll have to go back through TMS to see.  I think he rejects Hume’s carte blanche perspective and imposes, if nothing else, self-interest, though mediated by sympathy which is in turn constrained by social distance.  But how far can sympathy take us?  Certainly it does not go far enough for the believer.  For we are to pray for our enemies and bless those that curse us.  
        Beware that we who understand markets start to think they are sufficient.  Market failures do need a solution.  They point to a problem which has only one cure.  For when we look at the world to see what is wrong with it we must confess with Chesterton: I am.
        Therefore it becomes the express responsibility of the believer to be the exogenous shock they wish to see in the world.  That is, to make sacrifices, and to care for the least of these from the fruit of our own labors and frugality.  
        Markets cannot sustain themselves.  But I think (Doug) North and co. are wrong in pointing to the state as an institution which provides the necessary support.  Instead I say that we are the salt and the light, and that He sustains all things through grace, systematically dispensed through those who attend to His spirit, but also by His will though others, and the good works that they do are then grace to them.
        God will achieve His decrees, but we have the opportunity to experience joy by participating with Him in His ongoing creative work.
        Nathanael Snow

        • Roger McKinney

          Smith doesn’t impose anything. He discovers how humans act
          in the marketplace and he finds that competition in a free market forces the
          greedy businessman to restrain his self-interest and direct it to the benefit
          of others.

           

          “Beware
          that we who understand markets start to think they are sufficient.  Market
          failures do need a solution.”

           

          Sufficient
          for what? And what market failures? No one thinks the free market will perfect
          human nature. All problems result from fallen human nature. Unlike most
          Christians today, and all socialists, free marketeers don’t strive to produce
          the Kingdom of God on earth. None of us even think
          that remotely possible. Given fallen human nature, free markets produce the
          most justice, least violence, and reduce poverty the most. That is a far cry
          from the utopias that most Christians and all socialists think they can create.
          I have no idea what you think the purpose of the market is, but libertarians
          have very modest goals for it: it is a process of price discovery and a place
          where people can freely dispose of their property as they see fit. That’s all.
          If you think the goal of the market should be to create the Kingdom of God on earth you’ll be severely
          disappointed. Those economists who see market failures everywhere have assigned
          roles for the market that it could never support and was never intended. Markets
          can’t do the work of government or the church. Those two institutions must
          share their part of the burden. And some thing none of those institutions can perform,
          such as changing human nature.

          • http://naturalaw.failuretorefrain.com jurisnaturalist

            You cite Wealth of Nations fine.  I want to re-read my Theory of Moral Sentiments to re-evaluate his approach to human nature.  I’m saying I don’t know, but I want to know.  
            How can there not be market failures?  There are transactions costs all around us.  Pareto optimality is a Nirvana.  Notice I did not say that there are market failures which require government solutions.  No.  I’m not talking Stigletz, etc.  I mean the market does not care for the least of these.  Nor *should* it.  I should.
            I’m also not channeling Gary North here.  I’m no Theocrat.  I’m saying the market should be free and unfettered, and those who are regenerate are solely responsible for demonstrating charity, though God uses whomever He chooses for dispensing that grace.

          • Roger McKinney

            I agree completely. However what do transaction costs have
            to do with market failure? The market should not be expected to care for the
            least of these, but because it doesn’t and wasn’t intended to it’s not a market
            failure. At the same time, nothing in human history has lifted so many of the
            least of these out of starvation poverty compared to free markets. All of the
            charity given in all of history probably wouldn’t equal what China
            alone has done in lifting over 300 million people from starvation with not but slightly
            freer markets. The history of mankind from Adam and Eve until the 1600 was
            relentless starvation for the masses. Poverty hardly changed for at least 6,000
            years. Beginning roughly in 1600 all that changed and nation after nation
            escaped starvation poverty. Did charity accomplish that? No. Freer markets did.

             

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1060874428 Dylan James O’Brien Pahman

            “The history of mankind from Adam and Eve until the 1600 was relentless starvation for the masses.” — This is a very broad generalization. Could you cite a source?

          • Roger McKinney

            Dylan, just about anything by Angus Maddison and on the Dutch Republic, see “First Modern Economy” by Jan DeVries. And a lot of economic history texts tell the same story.

        • Martial_Artist

          @jurisnaturalist,

          I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the idea that the state is the appropriate institution to provide the necessary support. After all, it has, always and everywhere, done such a sterling job. So good in the 2008 U.S. mortgage market collapse that the 115 extant government agencies that were regulating the mortgage markets appeared to have no discernible effect on the degree or pace of the collapse. Perhaps having 116 such agencies would have done the trick, no? ;-)

          Pas et bonum,
          Keith Töpfer

      • Martial_Artist

        @Roger McKinney,

        Smith doesn’t discuss human nature within his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, but I would not be surprised to find, even though I have not read it, that he does discuss it in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith was, after all, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow.

        Pax et bonum,
        Keith Töpfer

  • Roger McKinney

    Luke, it’s not good to build theory around one event. You
    need to take into account the larger history: since 1790 the US
    has enjoyed 57 boom/bust cycles like the current one. And over that period the
    distribution of wealth between labor and capital has changed very little. That’s
    because capital and labor are not antagonistic, as Marx insisted; they
    complement each other and need each other. If wages fall relative to prices,
    workers become poorer and can’t buy things. Prices fall and capitalists accumulate
    less wealth, too. Prices always and everywhere restore natural relationships if
    the government will allow them. That’s partly why we have depressions. If
    prices don’t restore things, look to the intervention of the state to find the
    blockage, not to the market. We do not have anything like capitalism in the US.
    FDR took us as close to socialism as a nation can get in the 1930’s without a
    dictatorship. No free market in anything has existed since then. Beginning in
    the 1970’s Carter deregulated some industry prices, but the Federal Register of
    new regulations has averaged 70,000 pages each year since 1970.

    • Luke Brody

      “One event”? If your assertion “since 1790 the US has enjoyed (I don’t think “enjoy” is the proper word here) 57 booms/bust cycles like the current one” is true–and I’m sure it probably is–than this is a bad economic system (no matter what you call it). Why is that so difficult to accept? Is there no better alternative to the status quo, i.e., capitalism vs. socialism? Einstein at the end of his life tried to disprove all of his theories. We should embrace such scientific enthusiasm regarding economic systems and try to disprove what we think we know. Perhaps instead of holding onto deep-seated beliefs we might find that it is both possible to travel faster than the speed of light and perhaps create an economic system that is equitable to the whole of the human race. 

      • Roger McKinney

        “…this
        is a bad economic system (no matter what you call it).”

        Compared to what? No system has lifted more people out of
        poverty than capitalism. The advent of capitalism in the Dutch
        Republic of the 16th century
        was the first time in history that people began to escape Malthusian cycles of
        mass starvation. A graph of standards of living from Adam and Eve until 1600
        would be almost perfectly flat with frequent periods of mass starvation. After
        1600 standards of living sky rocket upward for Western Europe
        and the US.
        After WWII a few other countries followed. Since 1980 China
        and Russia have
        followed. What’s so hard to understand? They all did it with slightly freer
        markets, nothing close to a libertarian society.  

        “create
        an economic system that is equitable to the whole of the human race.” 

        The
        Soviets tried and murdered 30 million the process. The Chinese tried and 30
        million starved to death in the 1960’s. You have decided to reject 300
        years of solid, sound economic science in the hopes of achieving some kind of
        utopia. But all attempts in the past have ended in mass slaughter. At the same
        time, you completely ignore what freer markets have actually accomplished
        toward reducing poverty.

  • http://reflectionsofthelastdinosaur.blogspot.com/ Rick Tormala

    I have yet to see an honest critique of the practical versions of Distributism like Mondragon or a challenge to the teachings of the Church serving as its foundation. Europe is collapsing yet Mondragon survives. http://www.mondragon-corporation.com/ENG.aspx  I challenge Acton to dissect Mondragon and point out what you consider its weaknesses, why it wouldn’t work here, and where it violates Catholic Social teaching if you think it does.  So far you seem to be dancing around and mocking a subject you don’t really understand or view as a threat for some reason.  Why I don’t understand? Look around the world and nation the unrest is real and dangerous. New ideas or old ones that work are needed to provide solutions. By the way I will support government and taxes when and where they make sense.  Everything must be judged as to whether or not it is just.  Taxes, regulations, legislation, and budgets must meet the standard of justice.  Ideologues imprison themselves and are part of the problem not the solution.

    • Roger McKinney

      Rick, I doubt anyone would criticize co-ops like Mondragon,
      except to say that they just don’t seem to work. The US
      has many co-ops but for some reason they never do as well as for-profit firms
      and often convert. No one will criticize voluntary adoption of any business
      model. The criticism is for the state forcing any kind of model on people instead
      of letting them choose. Forcing all businesses to be co-ops is simply unjust.
      And speaking just, Catholic scholars at the School of Salamanca, Spain
      determined in the 16th century that the only just price is one found
      in a free market and that the state has the right to collect taxes only for its
      God-given duties of protecting life, liberty and property of citizens. Any
      taxation above that is theft.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1060874428 Dylan James O’Brien Pahman

        If memory serves me—and in the interest of historical accuracy—Mariana says that taxes are legitimate for “public service.” Whether or not he, at least, would limit that to “protecting life, liberty, and property” may be an overstatement.

        • Roger McKinney

          Yes, Mariana said that taxes for legit purposes were good. Locke got the formula that the legit roles of the gov are protecting life, liberty and property from the scholastics.

          • Martial_Artist

            @Roger McKinnery,

            Precisely so. And with respect to “public services” (or public goods) paid for by taxation (as opposed to tolls, when applicable), the devil is in the details. The economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe makes a very strong case that there is no such thing as an identifiable “public good.”

            Pax et bonum,
            Keith Töpfer

    • http://blog.acton.org/archives/author/kspence Kenneth Spence

      Thanks Rick. We’re not saying that distributism in the Mondragon Coop violates Catholic Social Teaching–I’m sure it doesn’t! But our mission at Acton is to connect good intentions (i.e. faithfulness to Christian ethics) with sound economics.

      Distributism is great on umbrella principles, and I would never dispute its aesthetic sensibilities, etc., but the point we’re making is that it’s impracticable for a nation of 307 million people.

      Things change when you scale up in size–cf. the Federalist essays on the ‘new science of politics’. Our critique of distributism is a practical, prudential one.Mondragon may work amazingly, but it’s a voluntary association, and it’s tiny compared to the U.S. To effect a distributist economy would require governmental action–coercion–and that changes the prudential calculations substantially. Burke would no doubt agree with us that the establishment of a distributist economy would be a greater revolution for this country than was the Revolutionary War, and distributists don’t seem to be able to understand that.

      The entire U.S. population is not going to choose distributism, and anyone who thinks they would is too imprudent to deserve a voice in the political debate. On that point Aristotle, Machiavelli, Marx, Dewey–they’d all agree

      Cheers!

      • http://www.facebook.com/elias.crim Elias Crim

        Ken, the stuffing is coming out of the straw man, you’re beating him so hard. Distributism is not a political program which could ever be offered to the “entire U.S. population.” Its rebirth is part of an intellectual revolution around the field of economics that is about scaling down, not scaling up. When you’re caught in a dangerous hailstorm, it’s time to think about “umbrella principles.”

        • Roger McKinney

          Distributism is a fine idea as long as it’s voluntary. But when Distributists present it as morally superior, then you run the risk of people insisting that the state enforce it.

          You can argue that Distributism will make people wealthier and reduce inequality, but then that is an economic argument and it will fail on the grounds of sounds economics.

          You can make the argument that it is morally superior and that is a religious question and I can’t see how you can win that one.

    • Anonymous

      Mondragon looks a bit industrial and kibbutz-like. Don’t they make machines and run supermarkets? That’s somewhat removed from three acres and a cow.

  • Roger McKinney

    Luke, no one has ever said that free markets will make
    people richer every year with no bad years. But if you look at the long term,
    you’ll find that people today are about shockingly wealthier today compared to
    50 years ago, not to mention 100 years ago or 200 years ago. China,
    and many other countries, has lifted hundreds of millions of people from
    starvation to relative wealth in less than a generation. Was every year a good
    year? Absolutely not. Business cycles are fluctuations around an rising trend
    that goes back 300 years.

    That said, is there something wrong? Of course! Austrian
    econ has identified government manipulation of money as causing the booms and
    busts. In a truly free market for money those cycles would be severely dampened
    if not eliminated. At the same time, it’s simply false that anything close to
    global capitalism exists. Almost no capitalism exists in the world today,
    especially not in the US.
    And sound economics tells us that things go wrong when the government
    intervenes in the free market. The problems we face today are the result of
    government intervention in free markets, not the tiny, tiny space allowed for
    free markets today.

    • Luke Brody

      Roger, I just realized you’re an Austrian disciple. Hence, given that Mises was quite anti-Christian (and I am Catholic), you and shall have to agree to disagree. That is, we have different starting points for the creation of a rational economic system, i.e., I err on the side of equitable over capital. And I don’t believe economic systems would flourish if the state vanished tomorrow. That’s a rather simplistic way of analyzing modern economics (i.e., that worked pre-Modernity) akin to Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 formula for solving America’s economic problems. It’s a catchy tune but extremely simple and belongs on a pizza box. The reality is, if the state disappeared tomorrow, we would have Ayn Rand’s (devilish) Utopian society. Fantastic for some (like the Peter Schiffs, Bernie Madoffs, corporate exes of the world, hedge fund managers, etc. who know how to work the system for untold riches), unbearable for others. And that’s a system neither I nor Warren Buffet want to belong to no matter what side of the coin we’re on.

      A few words by Mises:[Jesus] rejects everything that exists without offering anything to replace it. He arrives at dissolving all existing social ties…. The motive force behind the purity and power of this complete negation is ecstatic inspiration and enthusiastic hope of a new world. Hence his passionate attack upon everything that exists. Everything may be destroyed because God in His omnipotence will rebuild the future order…. The clearest modern parallel to the attitude of complete negation of primitive Christianity is Bolshevism. (Socialism, p. 413)Jesus’s words are full of resentment against the rich, and the Apostles are no meeker in this respect. The Rich Man is condemned because he is rich, the Beggar praised because he is poor…. In God’s Kingdom the poor shall be rich, but the rich shall be made to suffer. Later revisers have tried to soften the words of Christ against the rich … but there is quite enough left to support those who incite the world to hatred of the rich, revenge, murder and arson…. This is a case in which the Redeemer’s words bore evil seed. More harm has been done, and more blood shed, on account of them than by the persecution of heretics and the burning of witches. They have always rendered the Church defenceless against all movements which aim at destroying human society. The church as an organization has certainly always stood on the side of those who tried to ward off communistic attack. But it … was continually disarmed by the words: “Blessed be ye poor; for yours is the Kingdom of God.” (Socialism, p. 420)Social cooperation has nothing to do with personal love or with a general commandment to love one another… [People] cooperate because this best serves their own interests. Neither love nor charity nor any other sympathetic sentiment but rightly understood selfishness is what originally impelled man to adjust himself to the requirements of society…and to substitute peaceful collaboration to enmity and conflict. (Human Action, p. 168-9)

    • Roger McKinney

      I’m not an Austrian disciple. I earned an MA in economics
      from the University of Oklahoma
      in mainstream econ. Later I read Hayek and Mises and determined that Austrian
      econ was more grounded in reality. We don’t disagree over what is a rational
      system; we disagree over what the purpose of a system is. In my mind the
      purpose of an economic system is to follow God’s rules for such systems. It’s
      all in the Torah. Justice requires the protection of private property (thou
      shalt not steal or covet) and private property requires free markets, else
      property doesn’t exist. Who causes inequality of wealth to exist? Does not God
      cause it by endowing people with different levels of intelligence and
      abilities?

      No one has ever believed that economies would flourish
      without some kind of government, not even Rand. Every promoter of free markets
      has always and everywhere acknowledged the need for laws that protect life,
      liberty and property. And no libertarian believes in utopias. Socialists and
      many Christians who think they can establish utopias through the law assume
      that libertarians are utopians, too. They’re not. Libertarians are very humble
      about what mankind can achieve, even the atheists.

      Yes, Mises was quite anti-Christian before he came to the US.
      Part of the reason was that he was Jewish and Jews had experience quite a bit
      of persecution. But read his biography and you’ll find that he encountered many
      Godly Christians in the US
      who endorsed his economics. He eventually became a great admirer of Karl Barth.
       

    • Luke Brody

      “Who causes inequality of wealth to exist? Does not God cause it by endowing people with different levels of intelligence and abilities?”
      Simply put, yes. But why? I suggest that this inequality of wealth is willed by God so that we should need one another, which should encourage the principles of solidarity and charity.  We see neither solidarity nor charity amongst the world’s elite, who have certainly been endowed by different levels of intelligence, abilities, and access to upward mobility and wealth. 

      As for the purpose of an economic system, I look to Distributist philosophy, which roughly states:

      1. The development of economic activity and growth in production are meant to provide for the needs of human beings. Economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power; it is ordered first of all to the service of persons, of the whole man, and of the entire human community. Economic activity, conducted according to its own proper methods, is to be exercised within the limits of the moral order, in keeping with social justice so as to correspond to God’s plan for man.
      2. Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him. It can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ.3. In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature. The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work. Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community.
      4. Everyone has the right of economic initiative; everyone should make legitimate use of his talents to contribute to the abundance that will benefit all and to harvest the just fruits of his labor. He should seek to observe regulations issued by legitimate authority for the sake of the common good.5. Economic life brings into play different interests, often opposed to one another. This explains why the conflicts that characterize it arise. Efforts should be made to reduce these conflicts by negotiation that respects the rights and duties of each social partner: those responsible for business enterprises, representatives of wage- earners (for example, trade unions), and public authorities when appropriate.6. The responsibility of the state. “Economic activity, especially the activity of a market economy, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical, or political vacuum. On the contrary, it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. Hence the principal task of the state is to guarantee this security, so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labors and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly. . . . Another task of the state is that of overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector. However, primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the state but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society.”7. Those responsible for business enterprises are responsible to society for the economic and ecological effects of their operations. They have an obligation to consider the good of persons and not only the increase of profits. Profits are necessary, however. They make possible the investments that ensure the future of a business and they guarantee employment.
      9. A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice. In determining fair pay both the needs and the contributions of each person must be taken into account. “Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good.” Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages. Access to employment and to professions must be open to all without unjust discrimination: men and women, healthy and disabled, natives and immigrants. For its part society should, according to circumstances, help citizens find work and employment.

      10. Recourse to a strike is morally legitimate when it cannot be avoided, or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit. It becomes morally unacceptable when accompanied by violence, or when objectives are included that are not directly linked to working conditions or are contrary to the common good.11. It is unjust not to pay the social security contributions required by legitimate authority. Unemployment almost always wounds its victim’s dignity and threatens the equilibrium of his life. Besides the harm done to him personally, it entails many risks for his family.

    • Roger McKinney

      I completely agree with the distribtutist
      philosophy as you present it except for these points:  

      7. “…Profits
      are necessary, however. “ 

      They’re not only necessary; they’re private
      property and should not be taken away through taxation except for legitimate
      reasons. However, the only legit roles of the state are the protection of life,
      liberty and property.

      9. “Agreement between the parties is not
      sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages. “ 

      That violates the determination of a just wage by
      the Church scholastics of the School of Salamanca.
      And it opens the door to any kind of arbitrary wage determination. Econ 101
      demonstrates the damages to others that wages above or below the market rate
      (the rate agreed by free negotiations) cause. To deny or ignore those damages
      is unjust.

      11. “It is unjust not to pay the social
      security contributions required by legitimate authority.”

      So state’s have absolutely no limits on what they can take
      from citizens. If democracies decide to take 100% of our income that is legit?

      What limits do you see on state power? Any?

    • Luke Brody

      Roger, this post starts with, “I can always find common ground with the Distributists I meet.” It appears you and I have found common ground . . . so I’m happy about that. That’s good enough for me–for now, anyway. But I think your question, “What limits do you see on state power? Any?” shows a lack of understanding of the goal of distributism. The goal is limited government. That is not the issue. The issue is, How do we get there from here? Populist revolt? Govt. intervention? Communism fell overnight with the assistance of both. This should happen in America, as well. 

    • Roger McKinney

      I think points 9 and 11 above betray the distributist desire for smaller government. 9 and 11 contradict limited government.

  • Chuck Huckaby

    I would think Belloc’s comment would be clear enough. He wants freemen instead of wage slaves. Any corrective he sees in terms of government intervention are only those demanded by justice – just as one seeks the return of ones stolen property. 

    Any intervention to remedy the situation that Belloc suggested was temporary and remedial to undo the damage of statist intervention on behalf of crony capitalists.

    • Micha Elyi

      Your term “wage slaves” is quite unclear to the point of self-contradiction.

      Did Belloc actually use such words?

  • Roger McKinney

    Distributism appears to be such a vague concept that just
    about anyone can claim to be one. But this comment from the Wikipedia article
    caught my attention: 

    “Distributism promotes a society of artisans and
    culture. This is influenced by an emphasis on small business, promotion of
    local culture, and favoring of small production over capitalistic mass
    production. A society of artisans promotes the distributist ideal of the
    unification of capital, ownership, and production rather than what distributism
    sees as an alienation of man from work.” 

    Apparently distributists want to go back to the Middle Ages.
    But they seem to have forgotten how bad the period was, how many people starved
    to death and how brutal life was. A good remedy for this nonsense would be to
    read Hayek’s “Capitalism and the Historians.”

    Before capitalism, all production was craft production of
    goods for the nobility. Producers didn’t use the products they made because
    they were too expensive, and those producers were the tiny, roughly 3% of the
    people, middle class. The vast majority, at least 90% of people lived bare
    subsistence existence just one meal away from starving to death.

    Capitalism introduced mass production, which is the only way
    to reduce the costs of things so that the poor can afford them. Marshmallows
    were food for the gods until someone figured out how to mass produce them.

    Distributists call medieval social structure “organic” but
    there was nothing organic about it. Serfdom was slavery and guilds kept people
    out of business, blocked technological progress, and generally kept everyone
    but themselves as poor as possible.

    The ignorance of economics and especially history on the
    part of Belloc and Chesterton is absolutely astounding!  

    • Anonymous

      Distributism isn’t vague but highly specific. No corporatist can claim to be one. It’s emphatically not about going back to the middle ages, but is utterly practical.

      • Roger McKinney

        If you want a return to the guild system and small businesses, you’re going back to the middle ages regardless of how you spin it.

        • Anonymous

          No spin. Distributism wouldn’t uninvent dentistry.

          • Roger McKinney

            Yes it would! Humans have suffered several reverses in technology in history. One of the worst came with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Distributism would cause another collapse in technology on the same scale. That would happen because people would become too poor to afford dentistry, so the science would wither.

          • Anonymous

            More people would end up richer because they’d not be borrowing to buy their homes nor working for a boss. Smallholding uses the land better than factory-farming.

          • http://blog.acton.org/archives/author/kspence Kenneth Spence

            Paul, have you any response to John’s comment just above? Perhaps something about home-brewed toothpaste?

          • Roger McKinney

            The evidence is strongly against that! Look around you at the nations with nothing but small family-owned businesses. They are the poorest in the world! And it flies in the face of sound economics from any school of economics. Autonomy does not create wealth; it destroys wealth. Free trade and investment create wealth.

            And I don’t agree that small land holders use the land better than large or corporate farming. But I guess that depends on your definition of better use.

            Distributism is a lot like socialism in that 1) it completely ignores economic science and 2) it portrays a utopia and compares it against reality, a contest in which reality always loses.

          • Roger McKinney

            It’s not true that even most nations that have small family
            businesses are tyrannies. But take wealthy nations like France
            that protect small family-owned businesses: the government has to subsidize
            them to keep them alive because they can’t compete in a free market because
            their costs are too high. Factory farming can’t create more waste than small
            farming because that would make their costs higher and small farmers would
            dominate. That just doesn’t make sense. Markets don’t make debt slaves of
            anyone. Do you think that small farmers don’t borrow money? You live in a dream
            world if you do. And working for a wage does not make one a slave. It’s
            dishonest and debating in bad faith to compare working for a wage with slavery.

          • John Couretas

            pauldanon said, “Distributism wouldn’t uninvent dentistry.” No doubt. But neither could distributism have invented dentistry as we have it today. Unless of course you believe that “smallholding” manufacturers could produce x-ray machines, painkilling pharmaceuticals, high grade steel for drill bits, computers and Internet service, electricity to power it all, etc. And then find a way to efficiently distribute all of this technology to 170,000-180,000 dentists in the United States when and where they need it. You know, logistics, communications, jet airplanes, heavy trucks …

          • http://blog.acton.org/archives/author/kspence Kenneth Spence

            #boomROASTED!

          • Anonymous

            Because distributism is people-centred, things like medicine would be a priority. There’d need to be infrastructure for that, but nothing like the grotesque infrastructure we presently have for shipping frivolous imported goods around the country.

          • Micha Elyi

            “Distributism wouldn’t uninvent dentistry.”

            True, but if honestly adhered to, distributism would make modern dentistry impossible.

            For distributism to become preferred by most people over the system of natural liberty (what its detractors dubbed “capitalism”), we would have to live in a world that had little or negative economies of scale, no advantageous technologies available that require large amounts of capital to realize, and no desirable products that could not be fashioned by a single artisan using his own self-made tools.

            One might think I’ve just described the Middle Ages but even then distributism was giving way to the requirements of wind and water powered mills, castle building, and cathedral construction (the highest-tech consumer products, military, and construction industries of their day).

        • GabrielAustin

          Curious this fascination with the Middle Ages. I recommend Henri Creange’s THE GUILDS IN THE U.S. He points out that it is very possible to restore the guild system, which chiefly insists on quality in manufacture. Now it may well be that the Good Old American system to sacrifice quality for profit. Is this not what happened to so many flourishing U.S. companies – automobiles, clothing, and the like? In the Middle Ages, Guilds did not foster mediocrity in manufacture, but rather quality.  No Planned Obsolescence for them, which is now rife in the computer industry. 

          An interesting sidelight: wage slavery may find an analogy in what can be called Tenure Slavery. Having gained [I avoid "earned"] an academic is not only protected by tenure, but also bound by it. Security trumps freedom.

    • GabrielAustin

      “The ignorance of economics and especially history on the part of Belloc and Chesterton is absolutely astounding!”

      You undoubtedly mean academic history and economics. On the fatuity of the latter read J.K. Galbraith.

      Belloc and Chesterton had this advantage: they did not change their views with every passing fashion in academic studies. Marxism, Structuralism, Deconstruction, and the various “studies” – Feminist, Black, and the like.   

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  • Anonymous

    I think the questions are answered. Folk won’t embrace distributism voluntarily, so force is needed. D’ism’s critics allege or pretend that the use of such force amounts to nationalisation, but they are innocent of (or mendacious about) realising that the outcome would be wide property-ownership, not state control. We mustn’t be squeamish about using coercion to right major wrongs.

    • Anonymous

      What’s that, please?

      • http://blog.acton.org/archives/author/kspence Kenneth Spence

        Distributism’s critics are concerned about armed revolution. The question isn’t can we imagine a better world, but can we effect it without a French Revolution? What you’re talking about is by any standard more radical than the American Revolution.

        • Anonymous

          Critics may fear a revolution, but they may also fear a loss of privilege. Revolution’s got a bad name. The French one was bloody and Godless. The Americans hijacked the word as a euphemism for their seizure of independence. As for radicalism, that’s not wrong in itself. Accusations didn’t put off the communists. This is all about reclaiming our birthright, no bad thing.

          • http://blog.acton.org/archives/author/kspence Kenneth Spence

            I think I will rest my case here.

          • Anonymous

            Is there one?

    • Martial_Artist

      @pauldanon,

      Your argument, particularly the last sentence, marks you as an amazingly honest consequentialist. My congratulations on your honesty, if not on your proposed solution.

      Pax et bonum,
      Keith Töpfer

  • GabrielAustin

    I have rarely read such illogical and unhistorical comments as these on distributism. Economics is not an arcane “science” as many economists  would have us believe. Read John Galbraith on the subject.

    Belloc’s chief point was quite simple: the government can control the growth of big companies by taxing the steps in growth, and encourage small businesses by granting credit to the formation of smaller companies.

    The figures given on starvation are fictitious. They are not natural results, but imposed by theft [Ireland in the 1840s] or by natural happenings [drought]. That they are somewhat less common [in the West] is also noted by Belloc, in the arguments in his THE SERVILE STATE. [Starvation continues to exist horribile dictu  in the United States]. 

    The growth of large corporations and bureaucracies has led, as he predicted, to Wage Slavery. This has subtly shifted from this country to countries in Asia. Look at the labels in your clothing: Made in Bangladesh [China, Thailand....]. Look at the labels on electronic equipment: same origin. It is cheaper to import apples from China than to raise them in the U.S. And so on.

    It was said many years ago that young people coming out of college are trained for and expect to find jobs in one of the large bureaucracies. The promotion of abortion is an instinctive effort to limit the competition from more workers: “undesirable populations” as Justice Ginsberg calls them.

    We see the triumph of unions [organized workers] replacing the corporation executives. Unions have slowly grasped power through the government, emulating the corporate executives. What is surprising in this? And unions like our bishops and our politicians are captive of their bureaucracies. So was it in Egypt of old, so also in Rome and Byzantium, so also in pre-Revolution France and in Tsarist Russia and in Soviet Russia and in China through the ages. All organizations [except one] are inevitably strangled by their bureaucracies. 

    • Roger McKinney

      Governments can punish large businesses and reward small
      ones. Many Latin American countries do just that and as a result the people are
      much poorer than they need to be. Large businesses are needed to produce large
      things, like airplanes, ships and railroads. Large retailers, like WalMart, are
      much more efficient than mom-and-pop shops. Greater efficiency means lower
      costs and fewer poor people. 

      The concern of distributists over business ownership is
      misplaced. Distributists should learn to care about the poor, not small
      business owners. Large businesses displace poverty. 

      You can call working for a corporation “wage slavery” if you
      like. Everyone is free to be as dishonest as they want. But you need to explain
      how it is different from working for wages at a small shop that can’t pay as
      well as the large ones.

      There is a strong correlation between the wealth of the
      people and the percentage of businesses in that nation that are small: the
      higher the percentages of businesses that are small, the poorer are the people.

      So by all means, if you love to make people poorer impose
      distributism by force.

    • Martial_Artist

      @GabrielAustin,

      You write:

      …the government can control the growth of big companies by taxing the steps in growth, and encourage small businesses by granting credit to the formation of smaller companies.

      To which I can only reply “Aha! The truth comes out.” In fact, what you are talking about is the social control of the market, i.e., one of the three varieties of socialism. But your assertion raises a particular question which must be answered if we are to understand how Distributism is to become the dominant model of the American (or any nation’s) economy, and you have thoughtfully provided the answer:

      Q: Who will determine what the “appropriate size” of any commercial enterprise is to be?

      A: The state is to be the dictator of what the “correct size” of any business is, and is to be empowered to use the tax codes to enforce its decision!

      Ergo, what you propose is already in place, it just isn’t imposing the Distributist preferences upon the marketplace, it is imposing a different variant of socialism—one in which your preferences will be imposed upon everyone else, whether or not they agree with your views. How very Christian of you to bless us all with your wisdom. Unfortunately, the answer lies not in the state planning the economy in any sense, it lies in the state rigorously refusing to insert itself into the marketplace, with the following exceptions:

      • Strictly enforcing the Rule of Law, a key component of which is ensuring that each person is treated as being equal to each other person before the law;

      • Strictly enforcing the right of each person to associate with each such other person as he (or she) chooses;

      • Strictly enforcing the rights of ownership of property which has been obtained either by original appropriation (e.g., real property acquired under the Homestead Act) or by a continuous chain of contractual exchanges back to an original appropriator; and,

      • Strictly enforcing the right of freedom of exchange of goods and services from owner/producer to customer.

      In other words, the state needs strictly to limit its involvement in the market. The reason the U.S. has not had a true free market in well over a century is that the government (primarily Federal, but not excluding some State actions) has continuously and destructively intervened in the marketplace.

      I thank you for your honesty in getting straight to the point about Distributism—that it is not a system that will evolve naturally, the state must impose it from without.

      Pax et bonum,
      Keith Töpfer

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  • Roger McKinney

    Quality of life is not possible without economies of scale. Economies of scale don’t prevent personal integrity.

  • http://www.acton.org/ John Couretas

    Paul: Under what conditions would people be “more likely” to drink home-brewed ale? Certainly large numbers of people do that now. I would suspect that even larger numbers of people drink craft beer or the micro-brews — something I prefer. The market economy makes that possible, btw, as does it make room for mass produced beer like Budweiser or Miller Lite, chosen by even greater masses of people. Are their preferences not worthy of consideration? Maybe the folks who drink mass produced beer have pedestrian tastes, according to some people. What of it? Why shouldn’t they enjoy a beer that the market can provide at a price they can afford and at a convenient retail outlet? Who’s to say that their beer is less virtuous than the home brew?

    I agree that economies of scale isn’t the yardstick by which we judge everthing. That’s clear. But the Coca-Cola Co. says that last year it “grew daily servings of our beverages to 1.7 billion. At the same time, system revenues have grown to more than $100 billion.” Economies of scale make that possible. And hundreds of millions of people find value and refreshment in a serving of Coca-Cola. They may even believe that their personal integrity remains intact after drinking a can of Coke. Would distributism allow such an enterprise to exist, under its management of the global economy?

    Economies of scale also make the home brewers supplies and apparatus possible. Economies of scale make production of raw plastic possible, mass production of tubing, the glass for the bottles, the materials for packaging, etc. The same holds for the plant equipment necessary for micro-brew operations. And then how do you get all this shipped, distributed and sold to the end user?