instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

I'll take my three acres, but you can have my cow

T.S. O'Rama writes what I said to myself recently:
What I need to study is the "small is beautiful" ideas of Belloc and more about distributism.
I've read the occasional essay and critique of distributism over the past several years, and after thinking about it while weaving through traffic for a couple of days last week, I've come up with the following understanding, which almost no distributist would recognize as what he means by distributism.

There are three levels of distributism:
  1. The roots. The fundamental idea of distributism is, in the words of Rerum novarum, "every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own."
  2. The trunk. The corollary of the fundamental idea (and following on the Rerum novarum tradition) is that a state should govern such that everyone can both earn and keep property, in particular farmland.
  3. The fruit. "The nuts" might be a better metaphor, since the answers distributists give to, "Now that you've got these principles, what are you going to do with them?" tend to be... well, vague or impractical or impossible or absurd. I get the sense a lot of distributists never get around to even asking the question.
In short, distributism strikes me as a set of moral principles to be applied to economic policymaking, rather than as a complete economic system in itself.

It strikes me this way because those who do try to express a complete economic system based on distributist principles express what can be called, in two words that are more accurate than any fifty would be, "the Shire." Which is all well and good for hobbits, but we aren't all hobbits, are we?

A few days' thought leaves me believing distributist principles can be separated from the romanticism many distributists have for family farms. (As an example, Fr. Vincent McNabb, OP, who gave considerable theological heft to the early distributist writings, believed farming "was an institution so indispensable and divine that from it [Jesus] took no workers, but only the wisdom of the parables.")

The problem is, once the Shire is no longer the end of your economic policy, the need for a big word like "distributism" -- or, even worse, "distributivism" -- becomes unclear.

Chesterton wrote, "The truth is that what we call Capitalism ought to be called Proletarianism. The point of it is not that some people have capital, but that most people only have wages because they do not have capital."

So what do distributists want to do about it? If they want to give capital to most people, they have to take it from some people, which sounds more like "redistributism" to me. If they want to offer capital to most people -- in other words, to make it possible for them to acquire capital through work -- then they're faced with two problems.

The first is that, in the U.S. at least, it is possible for most people to aquire capital through work. Maybe not for all people, maybe not for enough people, but for most people. So it's not a matter of discarding a failed economic system, but of improving the one we have (and, at the same time, acknowledging its successes). Chesterton might still be unsatisfied, but the current system in the U.S. is already much improved from the Edwardian and Georgian English system he was critiquing.

The second problem with offering people capital is that a lot of people would rather have the cash. We aren't all hobbits, are we?

Now, those of us who are hobbits are largely free to construct our own mini-Shires, and we might all look for ways to help all hobbits throughout the world live as hobbits to the extent possible. But there just doesn't seem to be a wish, much less a need, to impose a policy of Shirification on whole countries.

In sum, my impression is that much of what is good in distributism has been adopted by our current economic system -- imperfectly, to be sure, but ideals are rarely perfectly realized -- and that much of what is left in distributism is not universally good.