VATICAN-POPE-AUDIENCEPope Francis needs distributism, argues Arthur W. Hunt III in the latest issue of The American Conservative. Hunt says that Americans and popes alike can embrace a humane alternative to modern capitalism:

In the midst of their scramble to claim the new Pope, many on the left missed what the Pontiff said was a nonsolution. The problems of the poor, he said, could not be solved by a “simple welfare mentality.” Well, by what then? The document is clear: “a better distribution of income.” And how might this be achieved? Through the “right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good,” to exercise some control against an “absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.”

The Pope called for a kinder and gentler capitalism. Admittedly, he did not provide many policy details other than, “We can no longer trust the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market … it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income.” It is that phrase, “distribution of income,” that struck fear into Palin and Limbaugh, and perhaps even Reno. It smacks of socialism—what Reno called the only and obvious alternative to capitalism. Reno briskly passed over any notion of a third solution, one many sons and daughters of Rome have rallied to for over a century.

The word distributism does not appear in the treatise, and nowhere does Francis fall back on his predecessors or Catholic intellectuals who have supported a third way of economic ordering. Nevertheless, policies that allow for the flourishing of smaller economic units while at the same time valuing work and broader property ownership are consistent with Catholic social teaching.

Despite not being Catholic myself, I found almost nothing in Hunt’s article all that objectionable. The only point of true disagreement is the claim that distributism is an alternative to either capitalism or socialism. Distributism is not an alternative at all, for distributism doesn’t actually exist.

Over the past hundred years there have been numerous explanations for why distributism is unrealistic and unworkable as a “third-way” alternative. Here are four that should suffice to point out why no one — whether a pope or plumber — needs distributism:

1. Distributism puts too much emphasis on physical property. – One of the key tenets of distributism is that property ownership should be extended to as many as possible. The seems rather unobjectionable until you consider that what they mean by “property” is the physical property that constitutes “means of production.” As The Distributist Review says,

The ‘means of production’ are the land, tools, and equipment needed for labor to transform raw materials into goods and services. As wealth (goods or services) is only possible by the combination of the means of production, labor, and raw materials, we believe it is best when these are owned cooperatively (worker-owned) or entirely operated by the family.

The irony is that the primary supporters of distributism are intellectuals (e.g., writers, academics, lawyers) who make their living based on their educations credentials rather than by use of “means of production.” These are people who have spent a significant portion of their lives earning advanced degrees rather than arable farmland or plumber’s tools.

While the global economy is moving to a service and knowledge-oriented model that is based on skills that can be carried around in one’s head, the distributist model prefers to transition back to the era when one needed land or a set of physical tools in order to make a living.

2. Even supporters of distributism are not distributist. – I’ve never meet a distributist that practiced distributism. You can read a lot of essays by college professors who endorse distributism, but you won’t find many (any other than Wendall Berry?) that have given up academia to push a plow or do any other labor that “transforms raw materials into goods and services.”

Some distributists will claim as examples of “functioning Distributist firms” the “thousands of home-based and employee-owned companies.” But what is the distinction between a “distributist firm” and a capitalist firm? Does “distributist firm” simply means a capitalist firm run by a person who calls themselves a distributist?

Also, most employee-owned and worker cooperative firms cannot truly be classified as distributist since the employees do not actually own the means of production. If you own property then when you leave you either get to take it with you or the remaining partners must pay you for your share of the business. That is not true for most worker co-ops. You are not an “owner” but a shareholder who gets a cut of the profits. That is profit-sharing, not distributism.

3. Distributism is a utopian scheme that has never been implemented anywhere in modern times. – The most common objection to distributism is that it is a utopian scheme. The reason this is the most common objection is because distributism has never really been tried anywhere. The only example distributists ever give — and good grief, they refer to it ad nauseam – is the Mondragon Corporation. The problem with using the Mondragon Corporation, a Spanish worker cooperative federation, as a model of distributism is that it does not fit the basic definition of a distributist firm.

Mondragon has 80,321 employees and annual revenues of 14.081 billion. The idea that individual workers are “owners” is a myth that even their employees don’t consider real. A third of their employees are not even members of the collective. And surveys have shown that relatively few workers in Mondragon firms consider themselves to be “owners” of the company. Most seem to agree with one worker who said, “I am the owner of my job. The only property I have is my job.” If the only “property” you own is your job, then you do not own property. You don’t even own your job as much as your job owns you.

4. There is no demand for distributism. – G.K. Chesterton, one of the founding fathers of distributism, quipped that, “The problem with capitalism is not too many capitalists, but not enough capitalists.” If that is a problem for capitalism, it is the fatal blow to distributism. The single biggest reason why distributism has not yet, nor ever will, become a mainstream “third way” is because relatively few people want to rely on their own private property to provide their income. Few people have the capacity, much less the willingness, to be self-sufficient capitalists in the mode that true distributism requires.

If pressed, I suspect many distributists would admit that for distributism to work you’d need to force it on people. The government would not only need to seize the means of production from the people who currently own capital, but force people who do not have any to take it and become self-sufficient. How this could possibly work in the real world is never explained. Even if gentle Pope Francis were to advocate such draconian measures it’s unlikely anyone would rush to implement such an unpopular plan.

Fortunately, most distributists aren’t advocating for their schemes be implemented by the State at gunpoint. They tend to be mostly genial, thoroughly non-threating advocates for an unrealistic form or economics. Like Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, and other form of fantasy role-playing, their hobby is mostly harmless. It would be petty to begrudge them their innocuous avocation — at least it would be if it wasn’t for the fact that we need their help.

As David Deavel has explained, there are a number of areas in which distributists offer some wisdom: 1) objections to the divorce of economics and ethics, 2) objections to the collusion of large business and government and the resultant concentration of power, 3) advocacy for entrepreneurism and widely distributed wealth, and 4) objections to the welfare state and its effects on the citizen’s relationship to government.

Distributists have much in common with those of here at the Acton Institute. We share those concerns as well as the distributist’s focus on encouraging subsidiarity, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurship. We could use their enthusiasm and brainpower to develop and advocate for real change within the current economic system. We should be allies — or at least co-belligerents — working toward the same goals.

But that would require distributists to give up their adherence to building a fantasy world on some Tolkienesque shire and join us in engaging in the messy, fallen realm of the real world. Do they have any genuine interest in actually changing the current economic situation? Are they willing to make the necessary compromises and sacrifices in ideology to create a world that is more in line with Christian social thought? Can they be satisfied accept proximate justice within the realm of work and economics?

If so, then we need to set aside our differences and find a way to work together for the common good.

Beyond Distributism

Beyond Distributism

Distributism, a program that traces its popularity to Catholic writers Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, promotes the widespread ownership of property by tempering the market with guilds or similar associations. By its nature, distributism must invoke the power of the state, a dangerous move that ultimately undermines its own objectives. Economic freedom in a market system, Thomas Woods advises, is a context more conducive to justice and human flourishing.

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  • Johann Gralog

    We should be allies, that is why this blog post mocks distributism based on a very limited understanding of it. Right. A fantasy world on some Tolkienesque shire? It’s just as easy to say that the Acton lives in a fantasy world which pastes some vague Christian morals on Galt’s Gulch. Same kind of jeer, though I do not mean mine seriously.

    Distributists abandoning their ideology, that is what setting aside our differences consists and working together consists of? Is this hostile, ill-informed piece (and I’m sure you’d think the same of distributist writings criticizing capitalism, fair enough) the method through which we become allies? Of course, I invite Mr. Carter to give up is adherence to capitalism and begin working for the common good. That last sentence must have been quite convincing, no?

    Sure, there are issues which overlap, but on other issues distributism is closer to Free-Market Anti-Capitalism. Why oughtn’t we join them instead? From where the thought that distributists don’t compromise or sacrifice? Perhaps we think that Chesterton’s quote is applicable here: “Compromise used to mean that half a
    loaf was better than no bread. Among modern statesmen it really seems to
    mean that half a loaf is better than a whole loaf.”

    The first and second point operate from a false premise, based on an incorrect reading of a single website. The third point is applicable to the views espoused by the Acton Institute as well, considering the secularization of our modern times. Point four yet again works from a false premise, and begins the creation of the straw man.

  • Bonchamps

    Yeah… I agree with the critique of Distributism (for the most part), but you don’t propose alliances with condescension and mockery. Christopher Ferrara did the same thing in his book attacking libertarianism and laissez-faire capitalism – “we might need to work together some day, but in the meantime let me tell how about how horrible, cruel, and anti-Christ those laissez-faire libertarians are.”

    • MiddleAgedKen

      Excellent point — I have lost count of how many arguments I have seen from people who appear to think you can sneer someone to your point of view.

  • Stu

    This article comes across as desperate.

  • Bill Hickman

    “If pressed, I suspect many distributists would admit that for distributism to work you’d need to force it on people. The government would not only need to seize the means of production from the people who currently own capital, but force people who do not have any to take it and become self-sufficient.”

    “Fortunately, most distributists aren’t advocating for their schemes be implemented by the State at gunpoint.”

    Do you think capitalism is not forced on people by the state? How do you suppose capitalists came to own the means of production in the first place?

    • MiddleAgedKen

      If memory serves, Albert Jay Nock said something of the sort in Our Enemy, the State, pointing out that no individual could have controlled tracts of land amounting to hundreds of thousands of acres without the intervention of the state (the crown grants in the colonial era).

  • Andromedus

    “Despite not being Catholic myself…”

    That’s about where you lost me.

    I’ve been an avid student of many schools of economic thought during my own search for truth. The most profound and inspirational I have found is by far that of distributism. Distributism itself doesn’t actually proscribe much in terms of laws and regulation. There is a great deal left up to the interpretation of those living within it in the spirit of subsidiarity, which allows local governments to discern what level of regulation they wish to have without imposing it on neighboring communities. Of course this characteristic is found in other forms of government as well, so this characteristic isn’t necessarily unique or even defining. What is more defining is distributism’s vision of the family as the smallest economic unit to consider when forming social policy, because it is the smallest unit capable of replacing itself. The “stork model of human replacement” found in other economic schools is more in line with the fairy-land of ogres and dragons than anything distributism conjures up. In fact, it is in ignoring policies’ impact on the integrity of the family unit that we find westernized nations tumbling backwards. Yet another more defining characteristic is the limitation of the accumulation of productive capital (productive being the operative word) into the hands of the few. This is anti-capitalist but it is not anti-property, nor is it even anti-wealth. In capitalism there is a pervasive distortion wherein every conceivable item of any use at all can be construed to be productive property through the implementation of rent. The end result is that, as capital naturally accumulates in a limited space (the planet being one such space) all property – regardless of function – tends to accumulate into a few hands. This enables a few capitalists to introduce artificial scarcities into the market, scarcities that may include shelter, clothing, food, and even currency and money itself. These scarcities become tools of social unrest and ultimately societal control. Distributism seeks to enable individual families and communities to isolate themselves from such despotic behavior as well as from the certainties of periodic global economic shock (due generally to the faltering of the economic models of other nations).
    There is far too much to be said in a space such as this, but I urge anyone interested in learning more about distributism to read Belloc’s “Economics for Helen.”

  • Ed Hamilton

    Joe, I don’t think you understand what Chesterton meant when he said “The problem with capitalism is not too many capitalists, but not enough capitalists”. He means that you would have distributism if you had widely distributed capital (and that’s the key to a more economically just society). And to touch on another point you make about no distributists practice distributism: but everyone practices it. Capital and property are meant to be in the hand of those that need it so they can take care of their own necessities. So if we do, we take better care of the property we own, we work more dilligently (and even with love) since we are doing so in direct benefit of our family. So if you go home tonight and spend money on your own household, you are being distributist. If someone steals that money you needed, they are being anti-distributist Finally, we need distributism of some form because distributism means getting into the hands of a family the very thing that they need to sustain themselves. That will be my last point because as you already can see, if I am correct, then distributism can’t be utopian because it already exists. Funny, isn’t it: we just need more capitalists to be better off (i.e. to make the world better distributists)!

  • Ed Hamilton

    The answer would have to be in disallowing the tendency for capitalism to degrade into something less capitalist: monopolizing. But simply because we can’t see beyond government intervention as a viable answer to making for more visible distributist structure, doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to make distributism work more widely or that we shouldn’t work toward such a goal.