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Distributism Is the Future (That Few People Want)

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Over the years, many of us here at Acton have been engaged in long-running (and mostly congenial) feud with distributists.

Family squabbles can often be the most heated, and that is true of this rivalry between the Christian champions of distributism and the Christian champions of free markets here at  the Acton Institute. We fight among ourselves because we have an awful lot in common.

For example, we share the a focus on encouraging subsidiarity, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurship. We also share a respect for rule of law, private property, and the essential nature of the family. The key difference — at least as viewed from this side of the feud — can be summed up in one word: distributism is mostly unrealistic.

That’s a long-standing critique, but it’s also one that may be changing. Not that distributists are necessarily becoming more realistic (I don’t know that they are) but merely that some of the most forward-thinking of the neo-distributists (the neo-neo-distributists?) are adopting a more realistic form of unrealistic aspirations.

To see what I mean, consider the old school neo-distributist model for how the system could work in the real world: the Mondragon Corporation. The only example these type of neo-distributists ever give — and good grief, they refer to it ad nauseam – is the Mondragon Corporation, a Spanish worker cooperative federation. The problem with using the Mondragon Corporation as a model of distributism is that it does not fit the basic definition of a distributist firm.

For starters, it’s hard to see how such as globalist company fits the ideal of “localism.” Mondragon has over 70,000 employees in 257 companies and annual revenues of more than 13 billion. The idea that individual workers are “owners” is a myth that even their employees don’t consider real. A third of the company’s 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.

Multi-billion dollar globalist collectives owned by two-thirds of the employees is not a practical model for changing America’s economic system. What is needed is more small-scale practical changes — and any of the more realistic of the neo-distributists have begun to recognize this reality. In a recent debate sponsored by Acton, distributist Joseph Pearce said,

[I]n practical terms, every policy or every practice that leads to a reuniting of man with the land and capital on which he depends for his sustenance is a step in the right direction. Every policy or practice that puts him more at the mercy of those who control the land and the capital on which he depends, and therefore who controls his labor also, is a step in the wrong direction. Practical politics is about moving in the right direction, however slowly.

Over the past few years there has been two economic shifts toward practices that reunite “man with the land and capital on which he depends for his sustenance.” They are the “gig economy” and the “sharing economy.”

Gene Callahan recognizes this shift in a smart essay in The American Conservative titled “Distributism is the Future.” After explaining the basic theory and history of distributism, Callahan says, “Let us examine some existing instances of economic activities that are more or less distributist in character.”

His first example (of course) is Mondragon (it might now be a requirement for distributist to mention that company in every essay), though Callahan points out some of the many reasons it might not be the best model. His second example — open-source software projects — is interesting, but as he admits, suffers from the fact that most of the “workers” don’t actually make any money.

His third example is the most intriguing of all:

The communications revolution has made distributism more feasible in other ways as well. What is called the “sharing economy” has been a hot subject in the news, and in city councils, as companies like Airbnb and Uber have cut into the business of traditional hotels and taxi services, respectively. Both companies can be characterized, to some extent, as distributist enterprises.

Airbnb, by allowing homeowners to treat their property as small hotels, turns ordinary homes into capital goods, something of which Chesterton and Belloc would have approved. Uber does the same with people’s automobiles.

I can picture the Wendell Berry-type distributists spewing their locally-grown coffee all over their computer screens after reading Uber and Airbnb are models of distributism. But I think Callahan is mostly correct. The sharing economy is likely to be the most realistic form of distributism we will see in our lifetimes.

And that’s bad news 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.

Yesterday, the Boston Globe Magazine ran an article with a headline that summarizes the problem: “The gig economy is coming. You probably won’t like it.

According to a 2014 study commissioned by the Freelancers Union, 53 million Americans are independent workers, about 34 percent of the total workforce. A study from Intuit predicts that by 2020, 40 percent of US workers will fall into this category.

While there is considerable disagreement over this projection, what is clear is that “more and more jobs are being moved to independent contractor status,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University. Pfeffer cites a recent paper that found that “the percentage of workers engaged in alternative work arrangements rose from 10.1 percent in February 2005 to 15.8 percent in late 2015.” This rise accounts for over 9 million people — more than all of the net employment growth in the US economy over that decade.

I’m one of those 9 million. For the past five years, I’ve been an independent laborer who works from home. All of the products and services I provide (blog posts, editing, etc.) are produced with material goods that I own (a laptop, etc.). I’ve been living the distributist dream. I can also attest that this distributist ideal is is hard. Very, very hard.

I don’t have employee benefits (I pay for health insurance out of my own pocket) or take vacations (my last vacation was in 2008) and I have to pay all of my own payroll taxes (if you work for someone else take what your payroll taxes and double them — that’s what I pay). I also work many more hours than would a person who has a nine-to-five corporate job.

And yet . . . I wouldn’t change a thing. For me, this type of situation is the best option available. But it’s not for everyone. Indeed, it’s not for most people.

Most workers want security. They want limited responsibility. They want to sell their labor on the open market and collect a paycheck. They don’t want the extra layer of having to combine their labor with some tangible “capital goods” in order to make a living. They want to work for someone else, have someone else give them pay and benefits, and leave the worries to someone else.

Like the distributists, I wish the world were full of entrepreneurs who were more willing and able to make a living solely through their own capital and labor. Unfortunately, we don’t live in such a world. And if this is the vision distributist’s vision for the future, it’s a vision of a future that most people don’t want.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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