Posts tagged with: distributism

Blog author: ehilton
posted by on Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Last week, we took a look at what distributists get right in terms of economics, through the eyes of David Deavel at Intercollegiate Review. Now, Deavel discusses where distributism goes off the rails in that same series. It is a rather long list, rube goldbertbut here are the highlights.

First, Deavel says that simple economics escapes distributists. Despite the fact that economics teaches that actions in the real world have real world consequences, distributists tend to ignore this fact.

They scoff at the notion that there might be predictive laws of economic behavior, such as supply and demand.  But if there are such predictive laws, then it behooves us understand them.  Distributists want third parties, such as governments or guilds, to arbitrarily set wages and prices according to abstract notions of justice.

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As David Deavel points out, free market economists and distributists “are often at each others’ throats.” Deavel is attempting to scrutinize distributism – what it is and what it isn’t – in a series at Intercollegiate Review. He claims that while piece of cakedistributism has its flaws, it has some valid points and there is much good to be found in the arguments of distributists.

So what it distributism?

Distributists like to describe themselves as an alternative or third way that avoids what they describe as the pitfalls of both capitalism and socialism.  They also claim that their system (alone, they sometimes say), is faithful to papal social teaching and the Catholic social tradition more broadly.  Their goal, they claim, is a society of widely distributed property and widely distributed wealth and power.  This differs, they say, from both socialism, in which the state owns the means of production, the vast bulk of wealth, and all power, and from capitalism, which is, they say, a system in which a very few private people own the means of production, wealth, and have the lion’s share of power.

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On Monday, January 28, the Rev. Robert Sirico participated in a debate, hosted by the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought, on the role of government in helping the poor. Fr. Sirico debated Michael Sean Winters, a writer with the National Catholic Reporter, on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The priest said during the debate that with the “overarching ethical orientation” a capitalist economy needs, it can provide for the needs of the poor. No solution, he said, will “get around the necessity of morally transforming society.”

He maintained that the free market is “morally neutral” and that the human actors in the market must bring good morals to it.

Winters argued that the free market system is not morally-neutral. Both men were dismissive of the theory of distributism, which upholds the right to private property but seeks to maximize the number of owners of that property.

While he believes distributism “is one of the legitimate approaches to an economy,” Fr. Sirico also thinks there are problems with it, calling it more of a “moral, aesthetic critique of forms of crass capitalism” than “an economic system.”

And Winters expressed having “a hard time seeing how we get from here, to any of the distributivist proposals I’m familiar with.”

Acton hopes to have a video of the debate posted on the PowerBlog early next week. For now, read “Catholic Thinkers Debate Government’s Role in Helping Poor” at the Catholic News Agency.

Blog author: dpahman
posted by on Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I recently asked the question at Ethika Politika, “Which Capitalism?” (also the title of my article), and I followed it up with a related question here regarding the relationship between distributism and capitalism (is the former a form of the latter?). In addition, Jordan Ballor reflected last week on the different orientation of definitions of capitalism and socialism, observing, “One definition [i.e. capitalism] is focused on structure, the other [i.e. socialism] is connected with moral ideals.”

On a related note, I found this post from Matt Mitchell at Neighborhood Effects to be quite to the point as well:

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt defended the company’s practices [of taking certain tax exemptions], saying:

We pay lots of taxes; we pay them in the legally prescribed ways…. I am very proud of the structure that we set up. We did it based on the incentives that the governments offered us to operate.

So far so good. He didn’t make the rules that privilege his firm, but he will avail himself of these privileges when offered. I can sympathize. I oppose the mortgage interest deduction but still take it every April. Schmidt’s next statement, however, is about as far from the mark as one can get:

It’s called capitalism…. We are proudly capitalistic. I’m not confused about this.

A quick lesson for Mr. Schmidt: genuine capitalism is about competing on a level playing field for customer dollars. If you offer a superior product or service, customers will reward you by voluntarily parting with their money in exchange for what you offer. (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
posted by on Wednesday, December 12, 2012

G. K. Chesterton
(one of the founding fathers of distributism)

Today at Ethika Politika, in response to a few writers who have offered, in my estimate, less-than-charitable characterizations of capitalism, I ask the question, “Which Capitalism?” (also the title of my article). I ask this in seriousness, because often the free economy that people bemoan bears little resemblance to the one that many Christians support. In particular, I ask, “Which Capitalism?” in reference to the following from Pope John Paul II, who outlines in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (no. 42) two different forms of capitalism as follows:

The first is “an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector” that “is the victorious social system” since the fall of the Soviet Union and that “should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society.” The second is “a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious.”

All three of the authors I take issue with are Roman Catholic and two of them have voiced their support for distributism as an alternative to capitalism. However, I ask with all sincerity, “[S]hould not distributists be asking whether distributism is a form of capitalism, rather than setting it up as an alternative to capitalism?” Given the high praise given by Pope John Paul II to capitalism, rightly understood as the free economy, ought not distributists simply be arguing that they, perhaps, have some valuable insights for supporters of capitalism, rather than opposing distributism to capitalism, uncharitably understood? (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, November 16, 2011

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.

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).

The presence of one group at the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests might be surprising: the Distributist Review has produced this flyer for distribution at the protests.  They don’t seem to have asked themselves whether G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc would have gone down to protest with the unwashed masses (the answer, of course, is never in a million years) but contemporary “neodistributists” are a more inclusive set. They go far beyond the metaphysical and aesthetic principles of Chesterton and Belloc’s economics. Since that flyer’s a little hard to read, we’ve put together a list to help you identify your inner distributist: herewith, Ten Signs You May Be a Distributist:

  1. You can’t wait for the Revolution: As we’ve explained before, the changes distributists want amount to revolution. That puts them squarely in line with the rest of the OWS camp, whose communications head told NPR, “My political goal is to overthrow the government.” Fortunately, the revolution will be prosecuted in accord with Catholic Social Teaching. (What’s a little property-snatching among friends?) If this idea excites you, you may be a distributist!
  2. You just want to grow heirloom tomatoes in a co-op: Or maybe your grandfather’s strain of prized carrot. Either way, if think the Catholic Social Teaching mandates this kind of lifestyle, you may be a distributist!
  3. You abominate the seedless watermelon: The seedless watermelon is an unnatural monstrosity, you say? If you oppose genetic engineering on principle and begrudge the one billion lives saved by the Green Revolution, you may be a distributist!
  4. You find yourself supporting environmentalist policies, but for different reasons: If you find yourself always on the side of radical environmentalists, but as with the seedless watermelon, different principles lead you to their extreme positions — well, puzzle no longer. You may be a distributist!
  5. You think you live in a polis: If you’d like to impose virtue on 307 million people the same way you would on 75,000; if you think that what worked on a co-op level in Spain can be scaled up 60,000 percent without distortion; and if you insist on economic self-sufficiency — in short, if you’re more attached to the form of the polis than Aristotle himself was, then you may be a distributist!
  6. You find yourself asking “What would Frodo do?”: Distributists often take The Shire of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings as a model society (mostly those who consider a return to the polis too fantastical). If you’re convicted that eating two breakfasts a day is more in line with Catholic Social Teaching, you may be a distributist!
  7. You really miss guilds: If you’ve mythologized the quaint, confraternal aspects of medieval guilds, and don’t mind overlooking how controlling they were; if you love the idea of long apprenticeships and don’t mind sweeping grants of patent and absolute trade secrecy, you may be a distributist!
  8. You dislike intellectual property: If you view Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution as a tool for enriching the plutocracy (except of course when monopolies are given to guilds) and identify more with the Swedish-internet-pirate school of thought, you may be a distributist!
  9. You bleed your patients with leeches: If you long for the simpler, more local health care system of the Middle Ages, when your barber performed appendectomies and your doctor’s first instinct in case of illness was to send for leeches, then you may just be a distributist!
  10. You brew your own beer: Coors is the beer of Republicans, O’Doul’s is probably the beer of the Tea Party, and the unwashed hipsters at OWS all drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, but if you brew your own beer, you may be a distributist! (No word on what Chesterton thought of bathtub gin.)

Note: If you would like a more serious response to distributism, see here and here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distributism is not a new idea—it wasn’t conceived by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. As Belloc explains in The Servile State, their idea was a return to certain economic principles of medieval Europe—a guild system, wider ownership of the means of production, etc.—in order to right the injustices of capitalism. But distributism goes back further than that, to Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus in the second century B.C., and the theory’s proponents would do well to learn from the tragic failures of the Gracchi.

Plutarch tells us that the two brothers were among the most virtuous men of their day. Tiberius, ten years older than Gaius, served with great distinction in the army and showed himself not only an excellent tactician but, in his famous dealings with the Numantines, a peacemaker also. He then returned to civilian life and was elected a tribune—a representative of the interests of the common man and one of the highest offices in the Roman Republic.

As Rome grew the army was no longer made up of farmers who tilled their fields six or nine months out of the year, so that by the time of the Gracchi, the citizen farmer class upon which the Republic had been built was basically extinct. The rich could buy out the farms of whomever they wished, and more and more common families left their lands and moved to the capital, where they lived as dependents on the public.

In an attempt to save the Republic, Tiberius moved to redistribute the land and prevent the rich from buying it up in large tracts. Whatever Tiberius’s intentions—and they were certainly noble—this was revolution, and the Senate reacted. Tiberius, who had with such skill arranged peace between his army and a barbarian tribe, became swept up in the political repercussions of his attempt to return Rome to her former glory, and was assassinated.

Gaius tried to accomplish the leveling that his brother had not, but he too made an enemy of the Senate and died violently. Plutarch says of them in his account:

What could be more just and honorable than their first design, had not the power and the faction of the rich, by endeavoring to abrogate that law, engaged them both in those fatal quarrels?

In his defense of distributism for the journal Dappled Things, John C. Medaille argues that it is the only political-economic system capable of rendering distributive justice which is not a “cure worse than the disease.” Substantial government intervention or workforce unionization present dangers too “massive,” he says, to consider. But if there is anything to be learned from the failure of the Gracchi, it is that a distributist system is, if not totally impossible to implement, certainly a cure worse than the disease.