Part 1 is here.]
An economically free society doesn’t have to be hyper-utilitarian, materialistic and banal; and yet, here we are, living in a capitalist age marked by these very features. Some social conservatives who see capitalism as one of the main culprits argue that we should turn away from both socialism and greedy capitalism, toward a more humanitarian and community-based approach, toward a small-is-beautiful aesthetic of farmer’s markets, widespread property ownership, social responsibility and local, collective enterprise, a political and economic strategy that would allow us to move beyond the noisy, vapid, bustling tackiness that has come to characterize so much of modern life.
The poet farmer and essayist Wendell Berry, and journalist and Crunchy Cons author Rod Dreher are among the more prominent contemporary defenders of this view. They build on the earlier work of writers such as E.F. Schumacher, Malcolm Muggeridge, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.
Belloc, in particular, often regarded as the father of Distributism, advocated government policies that would divide productive property more equally and spur the economy toward more buy-local patterns and greater individual contact with the land. His Distributist vision called for an active, top-down approach to the reallocation process. Here’s how Belloc put it in his 1936 work “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.
There are some problems with this vision of cultural renewal. First, if someone wants to model a neo-agrarian, buy-local lifestyle, and even write books praising its virtues (think Wendell Berry here), fine. But there’s something misguided and even disordered about going a step further and banding together with other like-minded people in order to wield the power of the state to coerce society in this direction.
Agrarian-Distributism also verges on nature idolatry, doing so when it implies there is something inherently superior morally and spiritually about living in a rural or semi-rural setting in close contact with the land. It’s true that God made a good Creation and that, as the Psalmist says, nature declares the glory of God. And one can learn valuable things from an agrarian author such as Wendell Berry about the rhythms, labors and beauties of agrarian life. But all this notwithstanding, are we really to conclude that moving to a rural setting, buying a few acres, planting a large garden, and enjoying the sights and sounds of the natural world must be morally superior to, say, moving into a dense urban setting where there are more people to reach for Christ?
In The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark describes how the early church and its leading missionaries (Peter and Paul, for example) focused on cities, and the early church thrived in urban settings almost unimaginably dense by today’s standards.
For my part, I’m strongly attracted to agrarian settings. My family and I have had the privilege to live in a semi-rural setting for several years, tending a large garden, keeping some laying hens and, when feeling particularly ambitious, tapping our sugar maples. One of my sons has even started to learn how to spot and harvest edible wild plants. I get the attraction of agrarian life, and think it would be a good thing if more kids put down their iPads, went outside and learned to enjoy nature. But this lifestyle is a preference, not a moral mandate, and it’s miles apart from pursuing a nostalgia agenda at a political level, one where people try to turn back the clock by legislative fiat to some idealized past of happily self-sufficient twenty-acre farmers.
Thomas Woods spoke to the problem of nostalgia in the introduction to his 2008 monograph Beyond Distributism: “The medieval economy that distributism holds up as a model bears little resemblance to the medieval economy as professional historians and economists have come to understand it…. Peasants labored exhausting hours and barely made ends meet even with all members of their families working.” Later he adds, “Conditions were described by contemporaries as a ‘violation of all decency’ and ‘altogether filthy and disgusting.’ As many as twelve people lived in a single room. A modern scholar of the situation speaks of ‘depravity which the towns could scarcely have rivalled.’”
These descriptions are only anecdotal, but they are corroborated by a steady increase in average life expectancy during England’s industrial revolution that followed. Yes, the condition of factory workers in the industrial revolution are dark and desperate compared to the lifestyles most in the West enjoy today thanks to various technological advances during the intervening decades. But it was a revolution that dramatically improved the average standard of living of the English poor.
History, then, poses one important challenge for Distributism. The very logic of Distributism poses another: Belloc’s Distributist program aims to limit what are seen as excessive concentrations of power in the marketplace, but it aims to accomplish this by concentrating more power where it’s already most heavily concentrated: in the central government.
Think about it. If we were to pursue the sort of top-down localism envisioned by Belloc and many of his Distributist heirs, who would decide who loses property and who gains property? Government functionaries. Who would decide how much land each family is going to get and how much land is too much or too little land? Government functionaries.
Who would decide whether Pete’s Pretty Good Bakery is getting too big when it branches out into wedding cakes and kolaches, or whether it’s only too big after it opens its second store in Smallville, or whether it becomes dangerous and evil only after it opens its third store? Its fourth? Who’s making those decisions?
To disperse power, the top-down localism advocated by Belloc and many of his intellectual descendants would hand enormous new coercive power over to the very institution in society that already has the most coercive power: the government.
In our time, Wendell Berry’s writings command perhaps the widest respect from those committed to a neo-agrarian agenda. In The Unsettling of America he champions “the idea that as many as possible should share in the ownership of the land and thus be bound to it by economic interest, by the investment of love and work, by family loyalty, by memory and tradition.” How much land would a man need in such a social vision? “The Homestead Act said 160 acres,” he writes. “The freedmen of the 1860s hoped for forty. We know that, particularly in other countries, families have lived decently on far fewer acres than that.”
Actually, this is typically the case only where farmers are growing cash crops to sell to urban/suburban markets made possible by capitalist wealth creation—Napa Valley grapes sold to wineries that market primarily to middle and upper class city dwellers; high end coffee beans sold to direct trade gourmet coffee shops; even Kentucky tobacco, a luxury crop that provided a game-changing inflow of cash into the agrarian life Wendell Berry grew up in and lovingly depicts in his poetry and essays. In other words, the thriving small acre farmer typically depends on the wealth of cities and, by extension, the wealth generated by capitalism.
We can take the connection a step further: the wealth the cash crop farmers gain from those trades is used to buy a host of things that agrarianism didn’t give us—electricity; morning coffee; the crucial medicines and antibiotics that fend off the deadly diseases that stalked our ancestors even a hundred years ago, reducing life expectancy, orphaning millions of children, and spreading extreme poverty in its wake; affordable books at the local bookstore and town library, including ones written by Wendell Berry; on and on the list could go of wholesome goods that are within reach of a small acre farmer thanks to capitalism and industrialism.
There is a third way that does encourage human flourishing, but it’s not Distributism. The third way beyond collectivism and cronyism is a free society marked by political, religious and economic freedom, robust civil institutions guided by natural law, a widespread belief that all humans are made in the image of God, and rule of law for rich and poor alike—justice for all.
[Part 7 is here.]