Distributism: A New Economic Philosophy for the Post-Crisis Age?

Thinkers on the Left blame the current financial crisis on the excesses of capitalism. Free-market partisans say it’s the government’s fault. Distributists say they’re both right, and their “third way” philosophy has a lot of appeal to the majority of Americans who are somewhere in the middle between socialism and laissez-faire, and yet recognize that the current “mixed economy” welfare state doesn’t work.

Speaking in the past tense, Ode Magazine says this of distributism: “The distributists saw private property as the salvation of society, and its concentration in too few hands as the greatest scourge.” But far from being an extinct school of thought, distributism is on the rise in the marketplace of ideas.

What is Distributism?

Distributism—also known as distributivism and distributionism—is an economic philosophy formulated by Roman Catholic thinkers in accordance with the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. It holds that the “means of production and distribution” should not be owned collectively (as with socialism), nor allotted haphazardly by the free market (as with capitalism), but dispersed widely among the general populace. In this way, it is like socialism in that it attempts to keep capital out of the hands of “capitalists,” but like capitalism in that it affirms the desirability of private ownership. Distributism is equally scornful of Wal-Mart and the welfare state, and thus has appeal to middle-America populists.

Distributists also support a guild system for the regulation of business, and are opposed to for-profit banking. The philosophy emphasizes radical decentralism to the extent that it holds that nothing that can be done by a smaller unit should be done by a larger unit. If a town can produce its own bread, for example, then it should not trade for bread produced elsewhere. In this way, it rejects the basic tenets of Adam Smith’s capitalism.

Distributism: From Left to Right

Distributism has its roots in the nineteenth century but reached its greatest heights in the mid-to-late twentieth century as the economic philosophy propelling the Catholic Worker Movement. Then, distributism was considered a “left-wing” phenomenon, but now its strongest constituency is on the far right of the American political sphere. Indeed, full page ads for distributist books have been featured on the back cover of the last two issues of The American Conservative.

The American Conservative (TAC) is a paleoconservative publication, and paleoconservatism differs from neoconservatism in that the former is staunchly antiwar: you will not find praise for Dick Cheney within TAC’s pages. But unlike libertarianism, the other antiwar philosophy of the right, paleoconservatism is ambivalent (at best) towards free-market capitalism. Paleocons are traditionally opposed to free trade and strongly support immigration quotas. More shockingly, they tend to support limited nationalization of industry: this month’s issue of TAC features an editorial in favor of “bailing out” the U.S. auto industry.

Generally, however, paleoconservatives are unconcerned with economics. Their chief causes are non-intervention in foreign policy (which, when combined with their anti-free trade views is correctly considered “isolationism”) and the promotion of “traditional values.” These concerns dovetail nicely with distributism, which supports the Christian Just War doctrine (under which virtually no wars are justified) and the primacy of the “Trinitarian” family consisting of one man, one woman, and their children. Thus, paleocons—which are far from being insignificant in number—who are exposed to distributism are likely to find the philosophy tailor made for the preexisting prejudices.

So What’s Wrong with Distributism?

So what’s wrong with distributism? Well, as theological ethicist Dr. Todd R. Flanders told the audience of an Austrian economics scholars conference in 2000, distributism isn’t really an economic theory at all, but an ethical one. Distributists have no coherent or practical plan for implementing their vision of a society of widely diffused property ownership; they only hold that it is morally just.

But is it really? Distributists refer to capitalism as “neo-feudalism,” but in reality, what they propose is a return to pre-capitalistic, medieval life. Their antipathy for the division of labor—that basic Smithian principle that has brought so much prosperity to the world—is grounded in a Marxist understanding of “worker alienation.” Indeed, distributism could be considered a kinder, gentler Communism, and we all know how well that worked.

A Preemptive Defense

The danger presented by distributism may be minimal, but that is not to say it’s non-existent. Big ideas have a way of sweeping over the world quickly, particularly in times of economic and political turmoil—times we are likely to be facing in the very near future. The economic ignorance fostered by a century of public schooling plays right into the reactionary creed of distributism. Its appeal to the Left, which thinks capitalism has failed; and to the Right, which blames the welfare state; makes it a potentially unifying force for anti-capitalists.

As a preemptive defense, capitalists must educate themselves on distributism and refute arguments made in favor of its core tenets: protectionism, socialized banking, occupational licensure (the guild system), glorification of smallness for smallness’s sake, etc. Free-market capitalists must articulate their arguments in a way that convince would-be distributists that their goals are best served by a truly free-market economy in which unhampered property rights are the foundation of ethics and prosperity.

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2 comments to Distributism: A New Economic Philosophy for the Post-Crisis Age?

  • Cleveland

    Thank you for taking the time to discuss this, I really feel strongly about it and love learning much more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with additional information? It’s really helpful for me.

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    Anyway, slick site – we joined your RSS feed now so thanks again!

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