Acton Institute Powerblog

Distributism’s Fixed, False Beliefs

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Picking up the comment thread from this post.

pauldanon says: “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.”

I know it’s futile to point out obvious things to a distributist. The fixed, false beliefs undergirding distributism are impervious to reason and experience. But let me try one more time, perhaps for the benefit of those new to this nonsense.

Wishing a “people-centred” economy into existence is integral to the distributist fantasy. But how does its magical, humane “infrastructure” come into being? Would you have the steelworker who loads the arc furnace at the mill that supplies the metal for the dentist’s drill become more “people-centred”? How? Maybe he is ordered to pause every 30 minutes to read Wendell Berry poems to his co-workers as the furnace melts its batch of scrap? Or perhaps the fellow on the diesel engine line gets a union-mandated break to strum folk music on his banjo? Or maybe the jumbo jet assembly plant can set aside plots of land for organic gardening?

These examples are as absurd as distributism. Which is more of an aesthetic, a sensibility, a nostalgia for a bygone era that conveniently ignores pervasive wretchedness, than an economic possibility. And at the heart of distributism is the hidden coercive impulse that would prohibit ordinary folk from behaving and consuming, as pauldanon says, in “frivolous” ways.

That’s the key isn’t it? In a distributist economy, we’ll need a Czar of Aesthetic Consumption to decree what is “frivolous” and what is not. That’s how you order “priorities.” Perhaps the Czar would publish a regular Compendium of Consumer Errors, updated to thwart any new and distasteful consumer demand. But pauldanon’s frivolity and mine won’t always line up. Imagine all the frivolous things and past times that actually make life tolerable for masses of people who care nothing about the distributist program. Would the Czar of Aesthetic Consumption allow a person to walk into Walmart and buy a box set of some really bad TV show for viewing on a monstrously large flat panel HD screen? Horrors! How about a weekend bus trip to Branson to take in the latest Elvis tribute? Are you kidding? Playing golf on a summer afternoon? The Czar would not be amused.

But oh wait — there’s Mondragon, a “cooperative.”

pauldanon says, “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.”

But Mondragon sells its capital goods, appliances, industrial components and whatnot into the vastly larger market economy – according to the market economy’s competitive demands – and without which Mondragon would cease to exist.

Here’s the latest news about Mondragon’s global expansion in the auto industry. Doesn’t sound much like the guild system to me. Btw, “polymer” is a euphemism for plastic, the raw materials for which are made in petrochemical refineries. These refineries can cost billions of dollars to build, and millions of dollars annually to maintain. The engineers who construct these plants don’t follow a “small is beautiful” ethic. And where does Mondragon get the computer-controlled machine tools necessary for molding the auto parts? Does it ring up the Ancient Order of Molding Machine Craftsmen?

Mondragon auto parts coop moves into India

This joint venture is a part of the globalization process which the cooperative is undergoing in order to meet the requirements of the key players in automotive manufacturing, who aim to set up a panel of suppliers able to offer global development and production. The new India plant will be the second Cikautxo facility in Asia, as this year production was commenced in China, in the plant located in the industrial park which MONDRAGON has in Kunshan, an area close to Shanghai. Cikautxo, apart from its plants in the Basque Country and Aragón, also has production plants in Brazil, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, China and now India.

The Cikautxo Group, which develops and manufactures parts and groups in polymer materials for different applications, forecasts consolidated sales this year of 220 million euros, of which 85% will be from the Automotive market.

A funny thing happens when you give people the freedom to make their own economic choices. They do quirky and “frivolous” things. But that freedom is indispensable to the sort of life we actually live today in this country. Most don’t want to join the distributist hobbits in their workshops hand tooling leather sandals and fitting barrel staves together. Short of a distributist takeover of America (which could only happen in a bad TV show), millions of souls who daily and freely make untold numbers of economic choices that affect their own well being will merrily go on doing their own thing. They may choose to work and shop in co-ops, or not. Whatever they choose to do, one thing is certain. The distributists will carry on with their fixed, false beliefs.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • you just don’t understand what distributism is:

    Capitalism = means of production and land owned by individuals in the free market, but concentrated into few hands

    Socialism = means of production and land owned by the state

    Distributism = means of production and land owned by individuals in the free market but not owning the means of production another person labors at.  Distributism is like Mondragon and it is small only in the sense that ownership is distributive instead of concentrated.  It has proved itself to be quite successful.

    • “You just don’t understand what distributism is…” Oh you just don’t understand how priceless your comment is!

      • Great rebuttal!  It contains so much substance.  Thanks for it.

        • Micha Elyi

          Well, in Mr. Spence’s defense, squeezing all that refutes you – the entire Real World –  into a single combox is difficult.

    • Martial_Artist

      Mr. Pearson,

      There is no legal obstacle to implementing distributism in the United States. You may make blind assertions that it is not possible because the government somehow acts so as to make it impossible, but I have yet to see any citation of examples of just how you believe demonstrate those government actions. Capitalism, by contrast, neither requires, nor prohibits such concentration by government into a “few hands.” There doubtless are cases in these United States in which government does act so as to concentrate ownership into a “few hands,” but those instances involve the imposition of government regulation and/or subsidization, and those automatically and categorically remove the economy thus described from being a purely capitalist economy, a situation supported by no advocates of a true free market. Since we do not have a capitalist economy in the United States, but rather a hybrid and partially socialized economy (regulations and subsidies are rampant here), your argument takes on the characteristics of one straw man (distributism) against another straw man (the moderately socialist economy of contemporary America).

      If you want to be a distributist, please feel free to save your money, purchase your land, equipment and materials, and go for it. All we who believe in liberty and free markets ask is that you do neither appropriate nor suborn the state to favor distributism over: the enforcement of strong property rights where property has been acquired through either (a) original appropriation, or (b) mutually agreed contractual exchange, or an unbroken chain of such exchanges tracing back to the original appropriator.

      The more I read distributist’s arguments, the more I am convinced that:

      Distributism has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried!*

      Pax et bonum,
      Keith Töpfer

      * — Credit, and my thanks, to the archdistributist advocate Chesterton for the archetype for this adage.

      • Thank you for the thoughtful response.

        I looked into starting a micro-brewery the other week.  You don’t think the fact that it can cost as much as a million dollars just to get your first bottle of beer on the shelf of a local liquor store dissuades entrepreneurship?

        I was reading the Wealth of Nations the other day, book 1, chapter 8.  I was quite impressed by (and not in a good way) by Smiths analyses of what was a closer system to Laissez Faire than we have here.  I think many neoclassical thinkers are looking through clouded bifocals at their beloved economic philosophy. 

        And by the way, many distributists are quite conservative and see distributism first as a way to limit the size of centralized and centralizing government through subsidiarity and the recognition that property ownership is necessarily a real possibility to the vast number of members of any truly free society.  We have regulations that protect children from exploitation in labor and regulations that limit monopolies and cartels.  Many distributists simply want to see that form of regulation expanded to look at economic rent and its impact on the market and on distributive justice.  John Medaille has said that Mondragon may be one of the closest things we have in the “real” world to a really libertarian society, where the entire education system and social network is provided without help from the government.

        • Martial_Artist

          I do, indeed, think that the sort of example you cite does more than just dissuade entrepreneurship, it tends to preclude it, as I would have thought would have been rather apparent from those parts of my comment which read [emphasis added]

          government does act so as to concentrate ownership into a “few hands,” but those instances involve the imposition of government regulation and/or subsidization, and those automatically and categorically remove the economy thus described from being a purely capitalist economy


          the enforcement of strong property rights where property has been acquired through either (a) original appropriation, or (b) mutually agreed contractual exchange, or an unbroken chain of such exchanges tracing back to the original appropriator.

          . I use the term capitalism in an archtypical sense, paralleling the usage of Hoppe in his A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism. And, while I am not specifically an anarcho-libertarian, my differences with them are rather few. And I am most certainly not enamored of government regulation as history (even simply the six plus decades which I have personally witnessed) suggests that government regulation is almost always ineffective, and much more often than not counterproductive. Your cited example of the inordinate costs of establishing a micro-brewery suggests you wouldn’t likely disagree strongly with that latter assessment.

          Because I am a Catholic holding libertarian views (and there is a causal relationship there, flowing from the former to the latter), I am led to insist upon the Rule of Law, and especially that component which insists that all persons be treated equally before the law. Government subsidies, and far too often government regulation have clearly come to violate that latter precept ever more frequently in the modern era, going back at least to the era of the first Roosevelt’s administration.

  • Martial_Artist

    Mr. Couretas,

    You write:

    A funny thing happens when you give people the freedom to make their own economic choices.”

    Your comment leads, in at least one way, to the most telling critique of distributism. Namely, because there is no legal barrier to organizing the economic aspects of one’s life as a distributist, and no discernible practical barrier to doing so beyond the unsubstantiated claim of the distributists’ themselves that the current pattern of ownership somehow magically precludes them from pursuing that organization of their own lives on that model, why is it that the only distributists we ever find are theoretical distributists, by which I mean those advocates of that system who actually attempt to put the system into practice.

    I would humbly suggest that the very absence of such actions on the part of the system’s supporters is, in se, the most telling refutation of the viability of distributism as an organic economic system.

    Finally, your observations on the necessity of “Czars” simply illustrates that distributism is simply another, albeit rarer, species of socialism, requiring intervention by an authority (presumably the state) in order to have any hope of surviving as an economic model. In the taxonomy proposed by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, it is simply another subspecies of socialism, specifically of what he calls “conservative socialism.”

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  • I don’t think distribution is what you think it is.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t see anything in Distributivism requiring Czars (and I do not support it, being of the Austrian school). Render under to Czars?

    Catholic social teaching includes subsidiarity and solidarity and I think it can apply to economics. I ought to think of the consequences to my neighbor. I ought to think if this is a temporary situation brought about by anomalous exchange rates and neither take advantage of theo=ir misfortune nor our inflexibility. Many things are better in large, national forms, others are better local.

    But ultimately, it ought to be person to person, not consumer to amoral faceless entity.

    Wouldn’t there be a really different attitude to business if wage earners all could run and keep a few tens of thousands of dollars from a flea-market or home based business, but have to face the regulations?

    They aren’t sympathetic because they don’t engage. They don’t engage because the bottom rungs of the entrepreneurial ladder are cut off. And they are cut off because we have a form of caste system.

    If businessmen would have to earn wages, and wage earners would have to run businesses I thing thing would be better.

    In that sense, distributivism says we each need to walk miles in each others shoes.

    • Roger McKinney

      Of course distributists don’t claim to need such Czars. That would scare off people. But the logical conclusion of their demands is that they would need Czars to implement their policies.

  • Roger McKinney

    Every pro-distributist poster has a different idea of what distributism is. They must be among the Occupy Wallstreeters because neither has a clue as to what they’re about!

    For 30 years I have listened to socialists debate what is true socialism and what Marx meant by obscure phrases. For the past 10 years I’ve listened to Keynesians debate the oracle’s esoteric ideas. Distributism is just like both in that every supporter has a clear idea of what it means to him, but none of them can agree.

    No system of organizing society is more people centered than capitalism. Capitalism puts people at the center of life and protects that life, liberty and property.

    Distibutism is not people centered at all. It is do-gooder centered. Distributists would force the rest of us to conform to their utopia if it kills us.

    CS Lewis once wrote that there is no tyranny as bad as that
    of a do-gooder. The materialist tyrant will occasionally relent if from nothing
    but fatigue, but do-gooders out to save the world never get tire and never,
    ever relent. The tyranny is relentless!

  • Luke Daxon

    If an institution chooses to associate itself with Christianity, as does the Acton Institute, then it should speak in a manner which is Christian. This would tend to rule out spite, bitterness and insult.

    You disagree with distributists. But when you explain why, please do so with charity. The inference that distributists are somehow morally defective, as well as merely cretinous is not Christian. If you consider yourself a discple of Christ, then it is incumbent on you to take heed of his words. He had some sobering thoughts on the consequences of insulting and malicious speech (Matthew 5:22). I  don’t speak from a position of moral superiority in this regard. There are plenty of people with whom I disagree, and I can be guilty of insult and the mispresentation of their thoughts  in our conversations, but I know that is wrong.

    I have to say I find it hard to explain the grudge against Distributists shown by many of the authors on this blog. It is not as if they are about to seize power and kick down the doors at Grand Rapids, let along Washington. Is it merely distributists’ ideas that are disliked or is it a personal animus to people like John Medaille and Thomas Storck? Why not invite them to contribute an article to this blog? That would not signify agreement with their views, but simply a willingness to enter into charitable discussion.

    • Luke: Why the nanny-ish condescension? Did you really need to bring Scripture into this? I don’t apologize for the tone, which was appropriate for this hobbit world of distributism. I am, after all, writing about an absurdity, something that does not exist. There is no such thing as distributism, not even at some of the few places reputed to be practicing it such as Mondragon. What’s more, did I describe anyone in my post as “cretinous” or “morally defective”? No, I didn’t. Your characterization of my post was most unfair.

  • Does anyone put a gun to the had of a monk when he chooses to renounce private property?  Is it his right to do so?

    Is it the right of a distributist to patronize only small business, profit share in his own business and to evangelize his point of view?  Isn’t part of the idea of a free market about the ability to choose where a person spends his money and his time.  He does not always have to make his choices based on what is the best bargain, but he could make them on friendship as well or perhaps he does not want to buy products from a slave camp like China.

    • The monk is perfectly free to renounce his possession of private property. Holding a gun to his head, however, is coercion and not freedom. No one’s questioning the right of distributists to make free economic choices, as it suits them. The point of the blog post — and I thought I made this clear — is that to usher in a distributist utopia would require a massive sacrifice of economic and political liberty. The last economic utopia — Marxism — didn’t work out so well. In that case, Marxists actually did hold guns to the heads of monks — and priests and bishops and nuns and partriarchs — and demanded that they give up their property and their lives.

  • Catholic

    The “ad hominem” comments, in the article and in the commentariate, are what give Acton a bad name.  Actonites (do you see how easy that is?) and Chestertonians don’t disagree on half as much as either thinks … only maybe some of them aren’t thinking as much as they should; rather, each spends precious time criticizing characitures of the other.  What would Jesus do?  What would his Apostles do?  What would Jesus teach us to do? – if the previous questions require too “much” holiness from the average Joe.

  • AMDG

    I’m a capitalist, but I have to agree with the other commentators regarding the tone of this article: it contains one “ipse dixit” statement after another, though one quote might be traced via Google.  Why not quote the distributists themselves, critiquing their ideas line by line (if you are capable of doing so without constant recurrence to self-proclaimed refutations or proofs, as the case demands).  You do the Acton Institute no service with this drivel, to be blunt.


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  • If anything I’ve written here has been take as a personal offense, I regret that very much and apologize. Certainly not my intent.

  • This article made me laugh like a hyena.
    I became interested in Distributism in the long, dark winter I spent as a CINO; by the time I started taking my religion seriously I was (thankfully) protected from its diseases by Austrian inoculation.

    Just yesterday I had a discussion/debate with a Distributist group and had to give up on it as a lost cause. They were, of course, quick to accuse me of not being interested in the truth of their crackpot fantasies, as though it were requisite upon me to refute the same error that they obviously didn’t want corrected anyway.

  • Eric

    Catholicism is no stranger to violent coercion. Thomas More, for instance—canonized only last century—sent people to the stake for their Protestantism. The Inquisition tortured and killed “heretics” for their beliefs. In the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, thousands of French people were slaughtered because of the Church’s feud with the Huguenots.

    Catholicism is not, nor ever has been, as meek and mild as the sheep’s clothing it wears. Those who are afraid of distributism remember well the atrocities committed by the Church in the past, in its sometimes satanic fervor to propagate its point of view. They will find a better picture of the religion of Jesus in the simple faith of groups like the Waldensians, the small flock of Bible believers forced into hiding in the mountains during the Middle Ages because of persecution.