January 10th, 2013Distributism in a Nutshellby Joseph Pearce

I'd like to respond to the comment that Justin posted to "Distributism for Beginners" (Jan 7th).
Justin wrote: Is there any place on the StAR website for a summary of distributionism? I don't actually know what it is other than everyone gets one cow apiece, and that Chesterton advocated it. How would it work in contemporary technocratic society where collective effort is so necessary to keep the wheels of industry turning?
And my response:
Justin, I'm not sure that distributism can be put in a nutshell very adequately or in the form of a soundbite, though I will endeavour to do so. I suggest that you find time to read one or other of the books listed in my post.

Although Chesterton quipped that distributism could be summarized as three acres and a cow, it is not true that distributism can be summarized or dismissed as "everyone gets one cow apiece".

In a nutshell (however inadequate): The possession of productive property, i.e. land and capital, is an essential guarantor of economic and political freedom for the individual and the family. As such, a society in which many people possess such property is more just and more free than a society in which few people possess such property. In practical terms, this means that an economy comprised of many small businesses is better than an economy comprised of few big businesses. The same principle applied to politics means that a society comprised of many small governments, i.e. revitalized local governments, is more just than a society comprised of one big government separated from the needs of local people by its size and its geographical distance from them.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

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  • January 10 2013 | by Justin Swanton

    The big problem is reconciling the desire to fragment industrialism with the need to consolidate it.

    One man with a small business cannot produce a car, or an aeroplane, or a phone network, or a computer or any of the dozens of items and networks essential to keep contemporary industrialized society going. Any small business relies on what the big businesses manufacture: a small printing company cannot make cheap paper - it needs a huge paper mill to do that.

    Distributionism, it seems to me, requires the initial dismantling of the techo-industrial complex and a reduction of society to small village units whose wealth is centred on land. It basically means abandoning technology, which ultimately is perhaps not a bad thing. But you are never going to get people to do that voluntarily.
  • January 10 2013 | by Dan Guenzel

    Dear Mr Pearce:

    Thank you for that sensible description of what Distributism actually is. Your post is a much-needed answer to many.
  • January 10 2013 | by Titus

    Of course, ownership of productive property isn't the same thing, per se, as "many small business" (not that there's anything wrong with many small businesses or that they would not be more preferable in many cases). But a corporation that was owned by its employees, rather than by outside investors, would be an example of the same virtue, even if it were a comparatively large corporation.
  • January 11 2013 | by Titus

    Mr. Swanton's comment rests on several false premises.

    First, a small business can produce a car, or an aeroplane, or a computer. Many of the world's finest cars and aeroplanes are, in fact, made by small companies. Aston Martins are assembled by hand.

    What a small company cannot do---and Mr. Swanton alludes to the fact---is utilize economies of scale to the same extent as a large company. One may grant that economies of scale are necessary to produce most consumer products at competitive prices in unprotected markets in the present age.

    But Distributist ideas, as I suggested in my original comment, are not confined to "everyone has a tiny business." The underlying principle is "men own the means of production, rather than working for unproductive capitalists (or the state) who do." So even a large business could alleviate many of the pathologies of corporatism if it were owned by its employees: if the workers were the stockholders, elected the directors, and held ultimate control over the operation of the enterprise.
  • January 11 2013 | by Justin Swanton

    I think the nearest society ever got to distributism was after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The aristocratic ruling class, who had formerly owned gigantic estates, with a rural population by and large composed of tenant farmers, was weakened and impoverished, with the result that many villa communities became independent villages of which many (though not all) of the villagers owned their own land. Tenancy and slavery never disappeared, but for a few centuries they retreated.

    Wealth today is not built on land but on industry, and the bulk of industry by its nature has to be collectivised. Small businesses absolutely depend on big ones, who are responsible for the production of most of the wealth. If you work in a big business you are an employee and you can be fired. Collective ownership? You are still an employee and you can still be fired, but you keep your company shares. Maybe that is good enough.

    Real material independence which seems what is implied by distributism can, IMHO, be achieved only by fragmenting the economic system, which means de-industrialising it, something which morally and even physically is impossible.

    Any solution to this problem?
  • January 11 2013 | by Rodd Umlauf

    This "Distributism" sounds very compatible with "Familism" which I became framiliar with through the teachings of Dr. Scott Hahn years ago.
    When people talk to me about economics I tell them that I am not a Capitalist nor a Socialist, but a Familist. They are usually pretty confused by the term so I explain it to them in familistic terms. I'll have to check more into distributism to enhance my current beliefs.