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What's Wrong With Distributism

Distributism is, basically, the doctrine that "ownership of the means of production should be spread as widely as possible among the general populace, rather than being centralized under the control of the state (state socialism) or a few large businesses or wealthy private individuals (plutarchic capitalism)."

The best known advocates of distributism were probably Hillaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, whose book What's Wrong with the World gave this website it's name.

Note that Distributism is, fundamentally, a consequentialist doctrine - i.e., it seeks to maximize a certain ideal end-state-of-affairs viz., the widest possible distribution of ownership of the means of production - while leaving the means by which this is accomplished pretty much up for grabs.

And that, in the end, is what's wrong with distributism.

Given the vast disparities in productive potential found in nature between individuals, between ethnicities, between races, and so on and so forth, the only means of avoiding the concentration of ownership of the means of production in the hands of relatively few individuals, ethnicities, races, &c is to build a gigantically powerful centralized state which doesn't mind resorting to main force, whenever necessary, to bring about that goal.

Trouble is, once that gigantically powerful centralized state gets built - who do you think stands the best chance of taking charge of it?

Distributist philosophers? or, say, for example...Wall Street Banksters?

The question answers itself.

Comments (83)

To say that the only means of achieving the ends of distributism is a gigantically powerful centralized state show a lack of immagination.

There are other things theat can be done like growing a gaden, buying from local farmers, refusing to shop a walmart, getting to know your neighbors, sending your kids to private schools, starting a small business, buying a local paper, listening to local radio, getting our of debt, etc...

None of these involves giving any more power to a centralized state.

Right now in Colorado we have a distributist issue in the news. It seems that in 2008 the Colorado voters, perhaps lacking wisdom, but sure of the rights to determine the laws of their state regardless of what the gigantically powerful centralized state had to say about it, decided to legalize medical marijuana. Now we have a state law that contradicts the federal one, and we are working it out. While I don't support the new law, there are clearly distributist principles involved. Small business men are growing and dispensing a product against the wishes of the servile state.

Both Steve and Ben have valid points in these, their concise, analyses of this tenuous subject.

Of course, the deductive (top down) approach to realising a Distibrutist society is wrought with the danger of an overbearing state arising to replace the stranglehold that the present plutocracy has over us. Hitherto, I had thought that a Nationalist State would be well-placed in assisting the transition from capitalist liberal democracy toward the society so idealised by Belloc et al and by those like me in England awaiting its new direction. Nationalism and Socialism are both essentially anti-capitalist. However, ‘Leftist’ Socialism is inherently statist; and I think Nationalism would eventually go the same way as it sought both to ensure the welfare of the nation as it conceives it and also to maintain the power it struggled so valiant to achieve.

Put simply, I think this transition would theoretically replicate Marx’s “withering away of the State” but would inevitably, as it did with Bolshevism, simply increase the State beyond a size that is healthy for its people to live within it without being merely a functionary of it.

So it is that the best way of attaining the rudiments of a Distributist society is by an inductive (bottom up) method of living, as far dreams will allow, outside of the State. Obviously the libertarian mindset of the American people –not least the physical size of the U.S. –will more easily make inroads to this end. A good start would be nation-wide secessionism.

Don’t forget, Small is Beautiful -E.F. Schumacher. Start locally.

"Now, according to the natural order instituted by divine providence, material goods are provided for the satisfaction of human needs. Therefore the division and appropriation of property, which proceeds from human law, must not hinder the satisfaction of man's necessity from such goods. Equally, whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. So Ambrosius says, and it is also to be found in the Decretum Gratiani: "The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless."

A lovely passage from Aquinas (Lifted from Singer's "Famine, Affluence, and Morality". I think it's going a tad too far to get your Aquinas from Aquinas.) Seems like the beginning of a non-consequentialist argument for a kind of distributivism, no? I guess I wonder why you'd think distributivism is fundamentally a consequentialist doctrine. Yes, you can tell a kind of Lockean story about how some can remove something from the commons given the background assumption that God gave mankind the world for its benefit, but even Locke seemed to think that the burden was on him to justify deviations from a collectivist society in which individuals appropriate things for themselves and put limits on this based on whether appropriation would be consistent with respecting the rights of others to God's gifts. (For the record, I don't tend to think Aquinas or Locke were right about much, but I'd think in these quarters their opinions might carry some weight.)

But Ben and Richard, that's not what Chesterton said. I'm sorry to say that Chesterton said that to stop the landlord from overcharging on rent, there has to be a revolution. It's a passage both wonderful and terrifying. "I begin with a little girl's hair..." I did a post on it one time long ago on a blog far, far away. Perhaps I can look the passage up another time, or perhaps someone else will have the quotation ready to hand. Anyway, there it was, in his own words--there must be a revolution. Doesn't exactly sound like just planting a garden and home schooling your kids, does it?

Lydia,
http://web.archive.org/web/20071014120137/rightreason.ektopos.com/archives/2006/01/not_a_hair_of_h.html

I remember it because it was one of the very few times I've formally admitted to losing an argument.

It is part of the lot of man, to the extent that he forms into political society in durable communities, that he must confront certain permanent problems which on examination disclose no final resolution. He finds himself instead obliged to navigate these recurrent conundrums; and his attempts to do so will not admit of perfection but, rather, will ever consist in adjustment to circumstances, in compromise and correction, in melioration, in partial or temporary arrangements.

One of those problems concerns the arrangement or distribution of property. Another is the system of political economy. There are no perfect abstract solutions to these. Rare indeed is the generation like that of the American Framers, which had the opportunity to build almost from scratch. (And even they operated within an already extant political tradition.)

I am of the view that the security of property is an indispensable foundation for liberty and prosperity. Thus I would be strongly inclined to oppose any reform that would undermine that foundation.

What contemporary conservatives tend to forget, however, is that the free market principle is not the same as the security of property. Capitalism nor less than socialism has the power within it to undermine the foundation of a regime of private property. We have certainly seen in these last couple years how finance capitalism, intoxicated by abstractions, has profoundly attenuated private property. It has generated a staggeringly complex infrastructure of engineered abstractions from property which proved so fragile under sustained pressure that in end statesmen were forced to socialize most of the risk associated with it.

In embryo, I see the distributist as the political actor who decisively favors the principle of property over the principle of free markets. So the distributist, given today's climate of disarray, might favor harsh measures against what he regards as the usurious economy of Wall Street, with is rocket science engineering and brittle abbreviations of property; while resisting punitive measures on the ground level of homeowners, many of whom are current on mortgages that are way underwater and will likely never recover. He might favor restoring Glass-Steagall's firewalls on banking -- clear violations of the pure free market -- and reforms to curtail the exotic securities markets. He may judge globalization on balance a boondoggle; and recommend that we all revisit the wisdom of Alexander Hamilton, who set our republic on a firm financial foundation in the security of property, precisely by a set of calculated repudiations of pure laissez faire theory. Etc.

The distributist, like the capitalist, is confronted by circumstances that are far from ideal. They do not differ in that the first will employ the state to effect his reforms and the latter will not; the capitalist no less than the distributist relies on a governmental framework for his vision of political economy. What they differ in is what principles inform their efforts at correction and melioration.

In a piece posted at Front Porch Republic Allan Carlson describes how a distributist policy platform would rest on four pillars:

1. Trust in widely distributed private property as the safeguard of liberty and democracy
2. Restoration and protection of a truly competitive market
3. Faith in the natural family economy as humane and just
4. Suspicion of the national security state

For an explanation of what he means by 2 thru 4, see the piece:

http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2010/03/beyond-capitalism-and-socialism-rebuilding-an-american-economy-focused-on-family-and-community/

For the present discussion No. 1 is the important one and should be self-explanatory. Note that one need not be a full-bore Distributist to accept and espouse that key element of their thought. Russell Kirk comes to mind (anyone here want to challenge his conservative bona fides?) as does Wilhelm Ropke (see his fine book A Humane Economy.) Mention also could be made of those Southern Conservatives who've been influenced to one degree or another by the Southern Agrarians: Richard Weaver, Marion Montgomery, M.E. Bradford, etc.

The important thing to remember is that Distributism is based on widespread ownership of private property, primarily real property, i.e., land. An economy rooted in the land would have no truck with the abstraction of property which Mr. Cella mentions above.

There is nothing inherently "consequentialist" about distributism. Flexibility on the means of implementation does not = consequentialism. It becomes so - for any ideology - when one is prepared to do evil to achieve good.

There is distributism taking place right now in Cleveland and other parts of the Rust Belt. The US Steelworkers are consulting with the Spanish Mondragon - the most successful worker-owned/run business in the world, established by a Catholic priest in the 1950s. These are voluntary efforts.

That said, there have been legislative approaches to distributism as well, such as the Employee Ownership Act of 1999, and subsequent variations on its basic theme. Guess who co-sponsored that bill: Ron Paul. And you know when Ron Paul co-sponsors a bill, he doesn't believe it is unconstitutional or coercive, an abuse of government power, but one of the admittedly few things that government can positively affect.

I'm happy to discuss distributism at length with anyone who cares to; I'm even working on a paper I hope to publish somewhere at some point about the convergence of the American founders and Catholic political philosophy on the idea of property distribution. Just follow the url for my email.

I must also add one thing: the first advocate for distributism that I know of is not Chesterton, but Pope Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum. And no one made a better case for it than John Paul II in Laborem Exercens.

As long as the discussion is kept at a fairly general level, Distributism sounds pretty appealing. After all, who is against wider ownership of property? But when you push past this to the specifics of what Distributists want to do, I don't think the math works out, so to speak.

I'm not, as Steve suggested in another thread, a distributist. Wake the neighbors: I agree with Blackadder on an economic matter.

On the other hand I do think the experiment in eliminating all authority from persons, and instead vesting authority in rules, where the legitimacy of the authority of those rules resides in some amorphous "consent of the governed", is over, and has failed. When the patient will die is always an open question; but that he will die is now assured. So I'm probably more Moldbugian than Chestertonian on the issue.

I hope to publish somewhere at some point about the convergence of the American founders and Catholic political philosophy on the idea of property distribution.

That is a very interesting idea, Joe: one which I have given some thought to over the years too. Willmoore Kendall actually suggested that Hamilton, in composing the Preamble to the Constitution, had drawn from the political ideas of the medieval Schoolmen. Certainly (as I have argued with Lockeans and other moderns regularly) the Preamble offers little in the way of Lockean "rights" talk; nor does its so much has mention equality. Instead we get a set of purposes for political society that would have been familiar to virtually any political theorist of antiquity or the Middle Ages -- union, justice, tranquility, defense, etc.

Anyway, I think this is a very fruitful line of thought, not at least because for about a century the trend in American political thought has been to emphasize all that is modern and novel in the American tradition (and there is certainly plenty of that in it) while neglecting the curiously central themes that are not. I would recommend a careful study of Willmoore Kendall and his collaborator George Carey (a recent book about whom we excerpted here: http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2008/11/book_excerpt_defending_the_rep.html) for a bracing scholarly approach to the American tradition that gives the moderns the critique and correction they deserve.

Steve,

Typo: "...gave this blog ITS name" (not it's).

Steve Burton writes:

Note that Distributism is, fundamentally, a consequentialist doctrine - i.e., it seeks to maximize a certain ideal end-state-of-affairs viz., the widest possible distribution of ownership of the means of production - while leaving the means by which this is accomplished pretty much up for grabs.

The use of "consequentialism" here is confusing to me. Deciding upon the means by which something is to be accomplished is a matter of prudence. If property rights are absolute, then I see how distributism would advocate the violation of a moral absolute in order for certan consequences to be achieved.


the only means of avoiding the concentration of ownership of the means of production in the hands of relatively few individuals, ethnicities, races, &c is to build a gigantically powerful centralized state which doesn't mind resorting to main force, whenever necessary, to bring about that goal... Trouble is, once that gigantically powerful centralized state gets built - who do you think stands the best chance of taking charge of it?

While this counterproductive scenario makes sense a priori, I have to ask if it has happened in practice. The Distributists looked to land reform measures in Ireland as one of their models. There a mistreated, colonized people worked to confiscate the land of absentee owners and sought to give it to the native people who had been working it for generations. While some corruption was inevitable, Was the effort so co-opted as armchair psychology implies it would have been?

Land reform efforts in Latin America may have been even more needed to forestall socialism, but they could have faced greater obstacles because of greater corruption and other cultural factors.

Finally, let's remember that Chesterbelloc was quite aware of the collaboration between the plutocrat and the socialist, "Hudge and Gudge" as he called them in WWWW, so I think it's too easy to dismiss him as naive.

We're already living in a mega-state. Efforts to combat a maximalist government can also be dismissed on theories of institutional psychology: to destroy a powerful dysfunctional bureaucracy, you'll need an even more powerful bureaucracy, which won't then relinquish power. Doomed to failure!

Critics of the minimalist government ideal can also condemn it: powerful people will just buy their way into power anyway, and grow the govt for their benefit.

The problem is in part power, but also a matter of character: if the powerful classes (and even the powerless classes) look to Donald Trump, rather than Cincinnatus, for their ethical models, dysfunctional self-interest maximization will triumph over disinterested republicanism.


(Also, for Denver-area readers like Ben, the Denver Chesterton Society will be discussing the first two books of What's Wrong with the World at this Monday's meeting. )

Congress was also charged with maintaining a sound currency, which allows for the fair exchange of goods and services with money. Big deal if you own property, but can't exchange it or fruits from it for fair value. The degree to which our currency is so arbitrary in how its value is determined, to say nothing of the fact that inflation by definition reduces its purchasing value, is a topic that needs to be considered when talking about distributism.

So what can we look to for guidance, short of a return to a gold standard or index of precious metals? Here's something to consider - the economic histories of Taiwan and South Korea. Both were in near poverty and illiquid within living memory. Both have achieved remarkable economic success in many ways. Somewhere I remember reading that the two countries had extremely different levels of corporate concentration, however; one - I believe it was South Korea - had government led artificially lower interest rates which allowed for greater concentration in fewer hands, whereas in Taiwan the more market based approach to lending money generated higher interest rates over the years and this led to having more smaller corporations over the years than in South Korea, both overall and as a percentage of net holdings.

The Distributists looked to land reform measures in Ireland as one of their models. There a mistreated, colonized people worked to confiscate the land of absentee owners and sought to give it to the native people who had been working it for generations.

Kevin, I hate to say it, but to me this does not sound good. It's either redistribution by some sort of state power (someone had to stop the landlords if they tried to come back and start acting like they owned that land again) or else sheer anarchy. Neither is very attractive.

I don't intend to argue for land confiscation, I'm just noting the possible objections to Steve Burton's political psychology.

Forced to choose between incipient socialism that confiscates property for the government to own and plan, and a land reform system that confiscates property for the people who have been working it, I'd go with the latter. But I'd prefer to encourage latifundistas to break up their property without government coercion.

Land reform is not relevant for a technological, urbanized society where most people are not agriculturalists.

"It's either redistribution by some sort of state power..."

A little too simple perhaps. After all those landlords acquired that land in some manner and perhaps through the use or misuse of some sort of state power. Here is Chesterson:

"But in connection with this distribution I have laid myself open to another potential mistake. In speaking of a sweeping redistribution, I speak of decision in the aim, not necessarily of abruptness in the means. It is not at all too late to restore an approximately rational state of English possessions without any mere confiscation. A policy of buying out landlordism, steadily adopted in England as it has already been adopted in Ireland (notably in Mr. Wyndham's wise and fruitful Act), would in a very short time release the lower end of the see-saw and make the whole plank swing more level."

If a social problem can be fixed by purchasing some land and redistributing it, how is that inherently wrong?

Land reform tends to be a policy of socialist governments, not an alternative to them.

What the Distributists fail to understand is that the equitable distribution of property is an effect of a just society not the cause of one. The accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few is a symptom not the disease. This is why putting the State in charge of rectifying an inequitable distribution of property is like putting the disease in charge of eradicating the symptom.

If a social problem can be fixed by purchasing some land and redistributing it, how is that inherently wrong?

Al, I see that you and your ilk are still singing the same Siren song -- 200 million deaths on.

"Land reform tends to be a policy of socialist governments, not an alternative to them."

Yet the distributists and Agrarians put it forward as just such an alternative. Abusus non tollit usum.

Conservatives should be wary of calling a thing "socialist" simply because it doesn't jibe with finance/corporate capitalism.

Yet the distributists and Agrarians put it forward as just such an alternative.

We know that. We doubt whether an actual mechanism exists for making it such an alternative.

By the way, I'm waking the neighbors about Zippy's agreement with Blackadder. A red-letter day.

"We doubt whether an actual mechanism exists for making it such an alternative."

In the article to which I posted a link above, Carlson lists a number of proposals which might help create this sort of mechanism.

JSG, I haven't had time to read the whole article yet. But so far, I've seen two "mechanisms." The first is for everybody to run a family farm, make their own furniture, and raise their own chickens. I'm uninterested, since I don't want to do this, and I imagine lots of other people don't either. So this is not viable. Then I get to the next person he's discussing, and I find the following as a "mechanism." (Emphasis added.)

The ownership of land, a home, machine-shop, small store, and/or a share of “some necessarily huge machine” needed to become the normal thing, to set the moral tone for society. This would make “for stability in family and community life, for responsibility, for enterprise” and for all the other virtues which had been sacrificed to “an unclean monopoly.” Along with Belloc, Agar agreed that this goal was not in line with existing economic trends: “It must be produced artificially and then guarded by favorable legislation.” But there was little choice: “Either we restore property, or we restore slavery,” through the servile state which waited at the end of monopoly capitalism’s work.

Oh. So Steve was right in the initial post:

Given the vast disparities in productive potential found in nature between individuals, between ethnicities, between races, and so on and so forth, the only means of avoiding the concentration of ownership of the means of production in the hands of relatively few individuals, ethnicities, races, &c is to build a gigantically powerful centralized state which doesn't mind resorting to main force, whenever necessary, to bring about that goal.

I guess we all have to be forced to be free if we don't happen to want to own our own small business or weave our own clothes on a hand loom.

“It must be produced artificially and then guarded by favorable legislation.”

Quite unlike finance capitalism. That system, as we all know, has never once in all its long days of generosity to the Republic, asked for so much as a gesture of favor from legislation; nor indeed would anyone but a socialist utter a word against its artificiality, for again as we all know, all of finance capital grew up around us by the most pristine of organic processes.

~~But so far, I've seen two "mechanisms."~~

If you skip down to the end of the piece there is a list of about 15 things that might be put into practice.

"I guess we all have to be forced to be free if we don't happen to want to own our own small business or weave our own clothes on a hand loom."

Caricature is a poor substitute for substantive criticism.

"Quite unlike finance capitalism."

Heh-heh. Exactly.

Paul, look: You know I was opposed to the bailouts. It always seems to me really strange that I, the person who _opposed_ the bailouts, should be the one _defending_ capitalism. I mean, think about it: On the one hand, you are the one attacking capitalism nowadays, and on the other hand, you are the one who says that the financiers "forced" the government to "socialize their risk." I deny the "forced" and at the same time question the critique. In my opinion, that's worth pondering. Maybe if we let some more real-world consequences come into play, we'd recover a bit of "pristinity." Besides, let's face it: There were no credit-default swaps when these guys were telling us all, ominously, how "artificially" their ideal distributist world had to be put into place and enforced.

JSG, I stand by what I said, and I maintain that it _is_ substantive, inasmuch as the clear implications of force _do_ support what Steve Burton said to begin with, and inasmuch as it is clear, to me at any rate, and should be to you, that people *don't want* what the distributists want them to want. And guess where I got the reference to a hand loom? From a couple of paragraphs up in the very article you linked to. Not a strawman. Repeat, not.

Yes, I read the rest of it and got to the longer list. Goodness, what a hodge-podge. Everything from encouraging home schooling to enslaving (yes, I say, enslaving) small farmers by subsidizing them more heavily than they presently are in return for their agreeing to let school children visit their farms! Oh, great. _That'll_ encourage independence and freedom of spirit. And what will the requirements for the subsidies be next year? Putting up signs around your farm for the school children to read about the dangers of global warming? For goodness sake, how can advocates of independence of spirit be so incredibly naive? Hasn't anybody noticed the corrupting effects on small institutions of receipt of government money? It's a long list, and I could go down through it and try to say something about each one, but in general, it's just a mish-mash and doesn't look at all clearly to me like a recipe for the widest possible distribution of ownership.

Give it up. Despair. Most of us like to be wage slaves. And a lot of your small farmers can't maintain their small farms without a wage-slave job (and perhaps one for the wife as well) on the side anyway. And if you tell me this is because of heavy regulations--which it probably is, *in part*--I'll tell you, "Get back to me when you're willing to ease the regulations across the board instead of balking at easing them on the bigger farms." Because that's what I always get. I'm rather inclined towards libertarian sympathies, and when for one blinding moment I think the distributists or Crunchies and I might have found some common ground in loosening regulations, I suddenly find out something like, "Oh, no, we only meant loosening regulations on the small farms so as to penalize the larger farms." Or, "Oh, when we spoke out against farm subsidies [though the author of that article seems to _like_ farm subsidies so long as they are directed to small farms] we meant allowing large agribusinesses to deduct their gas costs for transporting their goods. That's the kind of 'subsidy' we want to end."

Craziness. You want to encourage independence for those who actually want independence, you might try getting the government _out_. Pretty darned generally. But the social engineering bug always comes in at that point, doesn't it?

Okay, end of diffuse rant.

Maybe if we let some more real-world consequences come into play, we'd recover a bit of "pristinity."

Or maybe those of us still living would be wishing for the return of any form of civilization, even one where we had to work on farms and have our own machine shops; or even, Heaven forbid, Moscow circa 1950.

You can't press the "off" button on the entire global economy upon which billions of people depend and expect anything but brutality and anarchy on a scale we'd all rather not think about.

Part of the reason I'm not a distributist is because distributism seems to be about an imaginary ideality, not reality. But distributism isn't the only point of view which suffers from that limitation.

Ah, the Wall St Banksters, how does our retiring, inactive, docile, namby pamby, little federal government manage to survive. How do our jeffersonians in Washington stand up to the Goliath of Wall Street?
Incredible, You have an administration taking over auto manufacturers, doling out the proceeds to it's union buddies, seeking, by means immoral & dishonest, to also acquire total control of the entire health care profession, while in short, said administration allied with similar thugs in Congress take on the appearance of a professional criminal class, and btw, offer support and forge alliances wherein they are the major partner, to those very Banksters, and it is these last and these last only, we are to condemn.

Way to go, keep your eye on the guy on the railroad tracks, there's the danger, don't mind the locomotive coming down on you.

Zippy, you and I can agree to disagree on that. But at least you're not the guy making snarky comments about the lack of "pristine-ness" in the free market as, apparently, some sort of argument for the legitimacy of distributist social engineering.

Here are a few more from the list at Front Porch Republic:

To end state “incentive packages” everywhere for migrating corporations;

How? If by federal power, we have constitutional issues. If merely by lobbying at the state level, then I ask, why? Is it really worth it for State X to have fewer jobs, because they do not offer tax incentives to businesses, in order to further a "localist" ideal? I'm highly unconvinced.

To loosen zoning laws and other restrictive covenants so as to allow greater use of family homes as places of work and production for market...

You know, I'm not at all sure that I _want_ the neighbors running a pig farm. Mind you, if they'd been here first, happily pig-farming for generations, that would be a different matter. But as it stands, I think I'll keep the status quo, thanks. As for "loosening covenants," let's think about that. Is that localism? One might be tempted to think that development covenants represent real localism--the decision of people to buy homes in a certain development on condition that they agree to certain ways of using their property. Indeed, some conservatives have thought of such covenants as ways of _creating_ conservative communities. But apparently some level of government--even if only municipal or state--is supposed to come along and _loosen_ them, insofar as they make it hard for people to use their property for running home businesses. Now, if people are convinced that a certain loosening of zoning is in the best interests of the community, well and good. But there are limits to what they are likely to want. (See above on pig farming.) And those limits are doubtless a good deal more restrictive than what the back-to-the-land types are looking for. Because people like their tidy communities. Which is okay. And is localism.

To mobilize credit, at favored rates, for new family businesses and other micro-enterprises.

Just what we need. Another targeted, government-driven, credit manipulation encouraging people to borrow more money.


To impose a progressive corporate income tax on retail giants;

Warning, unintended consequences in your rearview mirror are closer than they appear. Especially for the wage slaves who would prefer to stay that way.

I already mentioned this one:

To redirect farm subsidies ($20 Billion annually in the USA) away from vast agri-businesses toward the encouragement of small, general purpose farms (with the quid pro quo that families receiving assistance would open their properties to visiting school children and others).

Oh, and from back up in the article, here's a gem:

[S]everal projects launched by the American New Dealers during the 1930’s had Distributist roots,...

Now there's a recommendation.

Oh, and by the way, here's another irony: I note in the quote I give above the plea that the ownership of a home become a normal thing. Well, y'know, that was part of the point behind the tax deduction for home mortgage interest. Now, Paul, ahem, I notice that in one article that (if I'm not mistaken) you were the one to link approvingly to some time back--an article that purported to show us all how "government-rigged" the mortgage industry had been since old lang syne, an article that was a classic exercise in "lumping" rather than "splitting," with the Acorn-driven insanity lumped into a history that ranged back all the way to the 1940's--well, guess what one of the government interventions was that was being sneered at? You got it. The home mortgage interest deduction. And guess what the author of the article was pushing for? Renting becoming more the norm and a change in the American dream so that home ownership wasn't a part of it! You finance capitalist critics kind of need to make up your minds. Do you want to laud widespread home ownership as part of "distributism," or are you going to criticize even _moderate_ moves to encourage home ownership (such as the mortgage interest deduction) as merely being part and parcel of some gigantic "government socializing" of the real estate market and refer us favorably to article lauding the joys of renting and deploring the "normalizing" of home ownership?

Don't get me wrong: I agree that everything needs to be done in moderation. But that's precisely why that article was so ridiculous. Because things only really got crazy in the home mortgage world when moderation was thrown out the window and banks' arms were twisted, by government, inter alia, to give home mortgage credit to credit-unworthy individuals.

But it kind of annoys me when the distributists are trying to claim the idea of widespread home ownership as their own while, in other contexts, deploring modest, long-standing, widely supported measures to encourage widespread home ownership as part of "finance capitalism" or "the turning of the entire real estate industry into a government enterprise" or some such characterization.

"I'm rather inclined towards libertarian sympathies" and "Give it up. Despair. Most of us like to be wage slaves."

Well then, if it all boils down to economic choice, there's not much to talk about. Although I'm not Catholic, I tend to agree with that aspect of Catholic social thought which holds
that consumerism and conspicuous consumption are bad things. One reason that agrarian/distributist ideas are difficult to discuss with conservatives of a certain type of libertarian leaning is that those conservatives often have a pronounced tendency to privilege tangible assets over intangible ones (one wonders sometimes if they even admit the existence of intangible assets.) It all comes back to what people want, regardless of the larger consequences. But in my book economic libertarianism of this sort is little different from moral libertarianism: it puts a crown (a halo?) on individual choice in the same way and merely shifts the area of "freedom" from the moral to the monetary.


Lydia -- My only point with the "snarky pistine-ness" comment was that if economic systems "produced artificially and then guarded by favorable legislation" are a strike against distributism then they bloody well are against finance capitalism as well.

Finance capitalism is not the "pristine" free enterprise of lore. The intrusions of government to shelter and encourage and coddle it have been extraordinary, the rescues of 2008 being only the most recent and most dramatic examples.

You and Steve argue that what's wrong with distributism is that it appeals to an utopia with little regard for the consequences of attempting to build that utopia. I happen to think that there is some real weight to that critique. I also happen to think that (a) as Zippy's comment illustrates, the appeal to laissez faire capitalism is burdened by the same weight, and that (b) the opponent of former utopia who simply appeals to the latter utopia is not going to get very far with arguments about impractical reforms and unintended consequences; or, to be more precise, he will undercut himself precisely to the extent that he carries those arguments persuasively.

Put more dramatically, no distributist has ever uttered a proposal so radical as this: "hey, why don't we retry this modern capitalism thing, but this time without a banking a sector?"

More severe taxation on multinational corporations? Holy unintended consequences!
Sudden and irrevocable shutdown of the world payments system? Hey, that's market discipline, baby.

Favorable credit to micro-enterprises? State manipulation of credit markets!
A serenely laissez faire approach to biggest bank run in history? Burn, baby, burn.

Which of the above pairings comprise a more radical approach?

Now, if someone would like to oppose distributism by defending the system we have, that's fine. There are defensible arguments to be made under that head. But in that case he is defending finance capitalism, which is very far from the pristine capitalism of the earlier ages in America. The change can be suggested in a statistic I've mentioned a few times now: the change in the percentage of business profits derived from finance, from 10% in 1950 to 40% in 2005. I think it is perfectly fair to denote that transformation by distinguishing between capitalism as such and finance capitalism.

More severe taxation on multinational corporations? Holy unintended consequences! Sudden and irrevocable shutdown of the world payments system? Hey, that's market discipline, baby.

Favorable credit to micro-enterprises? State manipulation of credit markets!
A serenely laissez faire approach to biggest bank run in history? Burn, baby, burn.

Which of the above pairings comprise a more radical approach?

Well, yes, I do make a distinction between _doing_ something and _not doing_ something. I actually think it can be rather an important distinction. Especially when it's a matter of protecting people from the consequences of their own actions and telling the whole world that we can go on getting something for nothing, world without end, amen.

And I stand by my criticisms of the proposals in the Front Porch Republic article. If you wish to regard those criticisms as stemming from the perspective that we are probably better off where we are than we would be going there, feel free to do so.

JSG, baloney. That is, it's baloney to equate not forcing people to grow their own food and own their own businesses with "moral libertarianism." And, since you're the one who linked the Front Porch Republic article, please, I beg you, do not tell me that that's misrepresentation. Go read it again, if you think so. The glorification of "back to the land" is palpable and begins early on. There is nothing immoral about working for a wage and buying your vegetables rather than growing them. And since most of the people who grow their vegetables are going to have to work for a wage as well if they don't want to starve to death, there had better not be anything immoral about it. And there is also nothing immoral about _preferring_ to work for a wage and to buy one's vegetables. There is nothing immoral about considering that one's vocation is _elsewhere_ than in subsistence farming or even even small-business ownership and that one's vocation can best be fulfilled by working for a wage and buying one's vegetables. Distributism is supposed to have something to do with economics. If you are going to tell us that the only moral economics consists in forcing people to grow their own vegetables and own their own businesses, if (as it turns out) they don't choose to do these things voluntarily, because the alternative is "moral libertarianism," you will have simply confirmed Steve's main point in the main post. In spades.

"Because things only really got crazy in the home mortgage world when moderation was thrown out the window and banks' arms were twisted, by government, inter alia, to give home mortgage credit to credit-unworthy individuals."

I would be interested in seeing where this notion came from as it doesn't tell us much about what really happened. Just so stories that always seem to "prove" that government is the problem are a little too convenient.

"Finance capitalism is not the "pristine" free enterprise of lore..."

and neither was any other version of capitalism or, for that matter, any other economic system. There is no natural economic system which, if we would only stand back and let happen, will allow all sorts of wonderful things to happen.

Rather than get all exercised about a line in the book, why not step back and take advantage of our situation. The book was written 100 years ago. Lochner was five years old. Old J.P. could still stop a panic. It was a different world and Chesterson comes across as a bit of a crank (bathing and women voting) with a limited grasp of social policy.

There were at the time as there had been for decades reform movements in England and the U.S. on all manner of social issues. You don't need a revolution (or child abuse) to solve public health issues. Did GKC ever consider that labor and building codes could go a long way to improving things? They came and they worked.

Lydia and Steve are, if I read them correctly, quite right in pointing out that not everyone is suited to a distributionist lifestyle. The article reference by JSG puts Rube Goldberg to shame with all the levers and gears. One other problem; there are 300,000,000 people in the U.S. and 3,200,000,000 acres - do the math - it can't work.


I do make a distinction between _doing_ something and _not doing_ something. I actually think it can be rather an important distinction.
One of the things that the government does, as opposed to not doing, is enforce contracts, and more generally property rights. Choosing which contracts are enforced and which ones aren't enforced, which property rights are enforced and which are not (e.g. is a bond constructed of bundled cash flows from CDFs a piece of property? Is a particular loan legal?), is also a matter of doing, as opposed to not doing. Those choices always involve substantive choices of the good, or rest on substantive judgments of what is and is not considered good by the government actors involved in making those choices, and the positive acts which proceed.

So when we start to categorize things according to what is done versus what is not done by the government it isn't clear to me that they stack up in quite the way many folks presume them to stack up.

The reason things are the way they are is not because of some laissez-faire hands-off governance. What is more, it is never in any polity the way it is because of some laissez-faire hands off governance. To suggest otherwise is akin to suggesting that St. Ignatius was eaten by lions because of a sudden impulse of laissez-faire scrupulosity on the part of the Roman emperor: all he did was choose not to interfere with the lions.

There is also the matter of statutory obligations. The Federal Reserve Act obliges the Fed Board and the Open Market Committee to maintain price stability. That's a nebulous charge, to be sure; but one thing it cannot possibly mean is that the Board and Committee are to stand aside and do nothing as every asset class in the financial world collapses in value. Furthermore (given that the price stability mandate dates only from the 1970s), even the original Act set up the Reserve Banks as "lender of last resort," meaning that they exist to lend into frozen credit markets when no private actors will do so. Well, the world of September 2008 was teeming with frozen markets and petrified private lenders.

In other words, the liquidationist position appeals to a utopia where an act passed in 1913 either never happened or could be disregarded by all the officers shown in under its authority.

Zippy, I was shaken by your perspective on the bailout at first, but I've thought about it since then, and we will just have to agree to disagree. You know a lot about finance, and way, way more than I do. But the "pretending you can make something out of nothing forever" problem seems to me insuperable.

As I said to Paul, if he wishes to take my criticisms of the (mostly not-so-good) proposals at the Front Porch Republic article to stem from a belief on my part that we're better off where we are than we would be by taking the proposals I criticized, that's fine. That would not be a misrepresentation of my views.

I think meanwhile that the tu quoque he's trying to run is just a bit distracting.

And by the way, I think that my point regarding home ownership does not merely depend on the obscure fact from another thread that Paul once recommended an article that deplored widespread home ownership. The dilemma for distributists and those sympathetic to them goes much deeper than that: In brief, most contemporary distributists I know like untouched countryside and have a Crunchy-green hatred of "urban sprawl," even sometimes wanting to see various rather strong "anti-sprawl" measures taken at the federal level! Yet the home developments they don't like the look of are precisely the outworking of ... people's desire to own their own homes! While most people don't want to own a business, most people do want to own a home. Distributists should be happy about this, but somehow, when it's actually happening, they don't like it, because it isn't, apparently, pretty enough. To make matters worse, all those people who build all those little "castles" of their own also appear to like strip malls, which are anathema to the distributist-crunchy crowd. In other words, to the extent that Americans _do_ retain a desire for independence, for privacy, for freedom, and for widespread ownership of property, they don't exercise it in what are considered to be the appropriately picturesque and agrarian ways. Hence, what should be a partial realization of distributist goals--namely, suburbia--is not recognized as a good.

Which I think is worth thinking about.

A further couple of points:

(a) At least under Secretary Paulson, there was a principle (albeit an attenuated one) of market discipline enforced. AIG shareholders were wiped out. The same with Bear Stearns and Fannie and Freddie. Lehman's bankruptcy laid to waste not only the equity holders but the creditors as well. It was only after the calamitous market reaction to the Lehman bankruptcy that liquidation became untenable.

The only liquidation available after that would the kind Maximos favors -- Swedish-style mass nationalization of the banks, followed by dismemberment and a firesale of such liquid assets as still remained.

(b) I haven't endorsed anything in the Front Porch essay. Frankly I haven't thought it all through. I laid out above what I take to be the principle of the distributist as against the capitalist, but I must admit that workable application points are not easy to envision.

I'm sticking with defending what I take to be Steve's excellent point in the main post. I quoted the bit from the Front Porch essay (on "artificiality") in support of that point. And let me be clear: the proposals there wouldn't, I believe, actually result in such widespread ownership of the means of production as all that, even if they were all enacted tomorrow. Really to bring about a distributist ideal situation and maintain it would require even more draconian means. But I thought that the reference to artificial maintenance was telling insofar as it admitted to the failure of the state to wither away after distributing! A point Chesterton himself did not seem to appreciate.

I think your attempted tu quoque at that point, Paul, rather took us away from the reason for my comment, though JSG--who _does_ appear to endorse distributism and at least some subset of the proposals in that article--really liked what he regarded as a zinger. To me it sounded like the same-old: "Hey, you have to have _some_ government, so why not have the one I favor? Don't bother me with all that jazz about centralized power."

Which is kind of funny, coming from anyone--anyone at all--who is even somewhat sympathetic to a movement that is supposedly all about the decentralization of power.

Which takes us back, once more, to the excellent point in the main post.

But the "pretending you can make something out of nothing forever" problem seems to me insuperable.
Well, we don't disagree about that, at least in principle: that is, we are both opposed to the plutocratic status quo founded on continual issuance of phantom debt. In fact the more I learn about the nuts and bolts of the medieval understanding of usury the more convinced I become that we are the ignorant ones when it comes to finance and its moral implications.

But I wouldn't want to downplay our disagreements. I think government intervention during the few weeks of genuine existential crisis in 2008 was the right thing to do, without any question (though I think the "follow on" bailouts were completely unnecessary plutocratic pork). Deeper than that, I don't think there is any such thing as "laissez-faire economics" on the scale of modern nation-states: the concept is literally incoherent.

There are good ways and bad ways to face the music. Fiddling while Rome burns and the lions eat St. Ignatius of Antioch in the name of "laissez faire" isn't a good way.

Well, I jumped on that "artificiality" and "favorable legislation" business because I thought it might help illuminate the latent premise that I think Steve's formulation smuggled in. That latent premise is something like it is possible to have the system of finance capitalism we have *without* "build[ing] a gigantically powerful centralized state which doesn't mind resorting to main force, whenever necessary, to bring about that goal"; only distributism depends on that centralized state.

But it isn't possible. Massive state bailout has been "baked into the cake" of finance capitalism now for a number of decades, and perhaps even longer than that.

Now, if I read your arguments correctly, Lydia, I take it that you avoid this dilemma by saying that you actually don't support finance capitalism; what you're talking about is some antecedent iteration of capitalism before the structure of high finance (with its implicit promise of bailout) had been developed.

Which is why I don't think tu quoque (in the derogatory sense) is an accurate description of what I trying to do here. Steve can speak for himself as to what system he defends; but you, clearly, are not defending what we have now as against a set of proposed reforms that you think will not work. You, too, are pointing to a better ideal, which can only be achieved by a set of reforms (not clearly spelled out*) which will emphatically change the system we now have.

________________
* One possible reform that a reader could readily tease out of your arguments is a kind of surgical removal of any bailout machinery: some kind of truly binding promise not to ever again rescue an insolvent financial institution. As I indicated above, I think that would require something close to a repeal of the Federal Reserve Act (certainly a drastic curtailment of it). Even then, would investors actually believe it, or would their response be to call the government's bluff? Put another way, even with some pretty dramatic steps to proclaim Too Big To Fail repealed, my guess is that investors (not to mentioned foreign central banks) would snicker and say oh yeah? prove it; and personally my bet would be with them, not the US government.

Lydia writes:

Give it up. Despair. Most of us like to be wage slaves.

I'm all in favor of despair, but we should ask whether much of what is wrong with the world derives from, and feeds, the "wage slave" lifestyle. Hedonistic individualism on the weekend, workaholic technocracy during the week, and managerial collectivism all the time seem phenomena very bound up in the life of a salaried man today. If he were instead a propertied man, perhaps common vices would lessen and certain virtues would increase.

Lately I've been asking myself if I could really pay the costs necessary to live in a better society. Suppose reinstating most of the Hays Code in movies is necessary to revive family life and reduce divorce. Suppose rejecting economic and medical efficiency as overriding concerns is required, at the cost of 25% of lifetime income and five years of life expectancy for everyone. Suppose sticking by your principles means no orthodontic insurance for your daughter.

I have doubts I could do any of those actions. I too like the "wage slave" system. There are already so many hassles in opposing present-day problems it seems cruel to say further sacrifice is required.

The distributists are often vague, romantic and unrealistic. But perhaps they rightly understand that far-reaching changes are necessary, even if their prescriptions are debatable.

"Really to bring about a distributist ideal situation and maintain it would require even more draconian means."

No, no and no. A) No one is proposing a "distributist ideal situation" except as exactly that, an ideal. What I'm proposing is an application of certain distributist/agrarian ideas from the bottom up, which ipso facto can hardly be draconian. It's not like the distributists want to take over the GOP and implement distributism from the top down. B) I myself am not a full blown distributist. If I were to describe myself it would be as a Burke/Kirk conservative. But I do see the value in certain agrarian/distributist proposals, and will hold them up as exemplars any day of the week against those of finance/corporate capitalism, which inevitably results in consumerism and commodification.

Really, if you don't see consumerism as a problem, we have nothing to say. Do people here really think that wage slavery is okay simply because the people want it? Would you apply that same logic to prostitution or pornography?

Lydia - Though I certainly don't agree with everything, dang, my compliments on a great series of rants!

Do people here really think that wage slavery is okay simply because the people want it? Would you apply that same logic to prostitution or pornography?

What is wage slavery? Is it just working for wages? If so, then the differences between it and prostitution or pornography should be pretty apparent.

Blackadder, well said.

JSG, vhat is "consumerism"? If you mean for junk, then it's a problem, though only if it's clearly immoral or poisonous junk (as in _real_ pornography) am I looking for the government to stop it. If you're talking about cheap T-shirts and socks, then I say, bring on the consumerism. If you're talking about buildings you don't like the look of, then I really couldn't care less. Especially if they contain cheap T-shirts and socks. I have a family to clothe.

Kevin Jones, good questions. Some of them easier to answer than others. As in, I hope most of us really wouldn't be bothered in the slightest about the reinstatement of a code of decency for movies. Hardly a "price" to pay. I never go to the movies anyway. Certainly there could be situations in which your principles would require you to lose your job so that your daughter wouldn't have orthodontic insurance. But wait for them to come up. Why bring it on unnecessarily by taxing the dickens out of a big corporation? I have a Christian friend who works for Kellogg and has ten kids. I'm sure he'll have plenty of opportunities in life to take up his cross and follow. Taxing Kellogg progressively so that it has to cut back and fire him is not one of my priorities!

Consumerism: The pursuit of transitory and pleasure often resulting in the seeking of disposable goods.
Wage-Slavery: The ideal case is where all your temporal pleasures are provided from your wage that comes from work dictated to you. Lots of people prefer slavery, be it wage or legal. Supposedly it is bad because it restrains the good of freedom.

And for all the talk about the unrealistic nature of distributism, I'm afraid I can match with countless examples of the US being called a good example of a capitalist country and a poor example of a capitalist country depending on whose ox the author wishes to gore at a particular time. The best tautology I've seen for the US and capitalism is that if we deem the result good, it was because of capitalism, and, if we deem the result bad, it was because we don't follow capitalism.

Let me put my last point this way.

Laissez-faire is to economics what anarchism is to governance. By creating a truncated imaginary world in which "can't we all just get along" becomes the implicit principle of stability in the new world order, advocates of both lay claim to possession of the twin pillars of reason and morality.

This works out great in their fantasy stories.

In reality, not so much.

That is why the reality of Marxism differs so dramatically from the fantasy of classless-freedom-and-equality-for-everyone-the-state-fades-away anarchism which drives it. It is also why the reality of the plutocracy of modern finance capitalism, as Paul calls it, differs so dramatically from the fantasy laissez-faire economic anarchism which drives it.

You can't get the public authority out of economics. Without the public authority there is no economics. The best we can hope for this side of the Parousia is good and prudent governance. This requires good and prudent rulers, the authority of whom resides in their persons. And good and prudent rulers cannot be produced or sustained by having the right formal democratic machinery in place, or by attempting to turn them into mindless machines crunching their way through a Turing-complete computer program called "the Constitution", or by referring their authority to some amorphous abstraction of free and equal "the People".

As maddening as it may be -- and I do concede that it is maddening in the extreme, especially for we moderns who so often can so effectively make Nature submit to our technocratic wills -- we are stuck with ourselves as we actually are.

Zippy -- that still leaves open the question of whether the rulers should be the one, the few or the many, and which form is most conducive to goodness and prudence.

"Zippy -- that still leaves open the question of whether the rulers should be the one, the few or the many, and which form is most conducive to goodness and prudence."

How can this question even be asked in 2010 CE?

After 5 or 6,000 years of experience, one doesn't seem to work very well, ditto for the few. That leaves the many with all of its shortcomings (Churchill).

The last few posts have likely made it clear to neutral observers that there isn't a there there with conservatism. Social democracies seem to work better then the alternatives. That is likely why every few decades even the USA gets nudged ever more into that camp.

Al -- because it is a question that can never be answered finally and definitively. You may have noticed that perhaps the two highest profile columnists in the country's highest profile liberal newspaper (I refer to Friedman and Krugman) have both recently written admiringly of China's rule by the few. Europe looks every day more like rule by the few as well.

Our country is ruled by a few.

~~JSG, what is "consumerism"? If you mean for junk, then it's a problem, though only if it's clearly immoral or poisonous junk (as in _real_ pornography) am I looking for the government to stop it.~~

Who said anything about the government stopping it? I'm talking about attempting, from the bottom up, via education and what might be called "traditioning," to change people's desires so they won't want junk -- junk food, junk clothes, junk entertainment, etc. The corporate bread-and-circus dispensers will continue to provide junk so long as we keep demanding it. I say, let's work on changing the demand. As long as "cheap" is all we care about, guess what?...that's all we're going to get.

Lydia, I agree with almost everything you said. Including "despair," sort of, anyway. And Zippy, I tend to think you are right in saying that When the patient will die is always an open question; but that he will die is now assured. If things are not changed dramatically by immense infusions of grace, that there will be an end to the current order is predictable.

Nevertheless, I don't think that we have the right to sit back and watch the inevitable unfold and while we fiddle. For one thing, what arises from the ashes depends on a lot of little causes that pre-date the final collapse, including things that may be unrecognized now but will turn out to have been critical. Furthermore, I don't think it is irrelevant whether the end comes in 20 years instead of 30 years. It will matter a heck of a lot for my kids, and grandkids (assuming I ever have any). Lastly, there is always the off-chance possibility that the very infusion of grace that could change things around hangs on our choices, Like that of Martel, Don Juan, etc.

It seems to me that even though it is true that ultimately we have to make structural alterations at the governmental level, I don't think that the changes have to start there in order to be worthwhile. For example, a Christian business executive could be persuaded to re-think his business model: instead of having multiple entities owned by higher entities from the top down (with the stock-holders of the "parent" company owning the whole thing), he can re-organize so that ownership resides primarily at the lower levels and works its way up by a series of collaborative agreements by lower-level groups, on up the chain until the top level consists essentially in a board of representatives of lower-level groups. Would this work? I have no idea. But it is a theoretical way of having ownership of the assets of a conglomerate be both directed and owned by the people who directly have a stake in its success because they work that success (or fail). That is, it is in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity, while not requiring that we all go back to the family farms that simply don't exist and won't exist unless 3/4 of the population dies off in catastrophe. And it would require very little in the way of government mandate.

"Given the vast disparities in productive potential found in nature between individuals, between ethnicities, between races, and so on "

I missed this but someone should say something, I guess. Individuals, of course, but it's not 1910.

I missed this but someone should say something, I guess. Individuals, of course, but it's not 1910.

Not all ethnic groups have been able to accomplish equal results. Despite both being under imperial colonial rule, India, Indonesia and the far East are all better off than the core Islamic world. As with most things in Sociology, you can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt why that it is the case, but mere observation would show you that different ethnic groups, under similar circumstances, have not done equally at all.

Tony, I was trying to be humorous when I used the term "despair." Not being very sympathetic to distributism, I'm just telling _them_ to despair of getting people on-board with a distributist model. There is, actually, quite a bit to be said for working for an employer. Some people have the inclinations and talents to run their own businesses; some don't. I'm the sort of person who doesn't.

There is one thing, though, on which I think the distributists and I _might_ be able to agree, if only they were willing: If there was less government to fear, more people would be likely to run their own businesses and to feel that they had the talent to do so. Even I might be more interested in doing things "on the side" if I didn't have to worry about forms and regulations and tax mess. One of the best ways to encourage entrepreneurship, even if it did not result exactly in the sort of world the distributists want, would be _greatly_ to lessen the power of government.

I think that in particular people of distributist sympathies who identify themselves with or also happen to like things like environmentalism and its regulations, nationalized health care of one sort or another, "anti-sprawl" measures, and so forth, need to heed something a friend of mine once said: "Every good conservative should have a healthy dose of libertarianism in him." There needs to be a healthy impatience for bureaucracy and all its progeny. Why can't the tax code be simplified enormously? Why can't Aunt Jody make brownies in her kitchen and sell them? Why can't vast reams of regulations simply be repealed wholesale and replaced with nothing? Wouldn't this do more to encourage people to get out and do whatever they can do on their own than any other single measure? I think it's worth thinking about.

I can agree with that as a general principle, Lydia.

"Why can't vast reams of regulations simply be repealed wholesale and replaced with nothing?"

Possibly because Aunt Jody doesn't want to poison her customers so she wants the ingredients she buys to be safe and as represented. Read your Upton Sinclair.

Consider this. Let's get rid of the rules. Aunt Jody starts selling enough to hire a helper. The helper loads a sack of flour into the commercial sized mixer Aunt Jody had to buy to meet demand and gets her arm caught (personal experience here; the real world is full of scary machines that can really bite). We are looking at a six figure medical bill and you've eliminated workman's compensation (if you haven't, you have retained one of the real banes of small businesses), so who pays for this?

One can't wish to deprive her neighbor of the right to decide tomorrow to raise hogs and then remove the regulations that prevent that from happening. Which of the "vast reams" would you keep and which would you remove and by what criteria? Would you remove the extensive regulations on logging that help keep a mile of mountain from burying me?

You might claim "The Jungle" was long ago and the "free market" would be all we need now. A few years ago Channel 2 in Los Angeles actually did some investigative journalism on local restaurants and found all sorts of gross and dangerous code violations. Public outrage forced the Health Department to actually enforce the rules.

The whole tax thing has always mystified me. Really small businesses that are outside the areas of public safety are not, in general, all that complicated. Any business has to have books and, at a certain point, that means an accountant. A business that depends on financing is going to have to have the records anyway. Even the simplest tax codes will be beyond most individuals whose time would be better spent growing the business anyway - that is why we have accountants.

Taking health insurance out of employment would be a boon for every business especially small business. One of the major impediments on striking out on ones own is losing ones insurance. This is certainly the case for those who are uninsurable outside of a large institutional or corporate setting (I know folks with this problem).

Lydia, I don't know just what sort of business you would want to start, but for most it means getting a resale number and a license for the jurisdiction which is an over the counter transaction (at least that was my experience). Keep track of your expenses and income. Sole proprietorships without employees are usually really very simple. Governments can be annoying but hardly scary (do you live in a southern state?), believe me clients are another matter.

Al, I think that it would be very hard to choose which areas to simplify and which to keep intact, if we started wholesale changes. (It would, for instance, be very difficult to foresee the interactions of the changes - law of unintended consequences creeping up behind you.) But the tax code is another matter: there is no reason why a person who has a hobby that they enjoy, shows off their art for bragging rights, and that they sell the results of ONLY in order to buy supplies to keep the hobby going, ought to have to maintain records, inventory, and so on. But if they have revenue and might in one year accidentally turn a profit (even though the previous 6 years they had losses) then the tax code lands on them like a ton of bricks.

And as for hiring an accountant, the only reason most sole proprietors would ever WANT to have the kind of records and detail that require an accountant is if they are subject to tax complexities. It simply isn't true that any business has to have books. You don't have to have books if you are a cash-operated business and don't borrow money. I know some contractors who do that. Some of them operate in the gray market under the table, because they refuse to submit to the complexity of "the system".

It's true that taxes and regulations are serious obstacles to starting some businesses. However, in most cases, the biggest obstacle is competition from large corporations. And if you want to open a business dealing in anything that is also sold by your local Wal-Mart, Walgreen, Rite-Aid, Cosco, Home Depot, Lowes, or a dozen other "big box" corporations, well, you can just forget about it. These companies have made literally hundreds of small businesses obsolete. The neighborhood grocery is a thing of the past. Same goes for stationery stores, hardware stores, nurseries, etc., in any community where the big boxes have moved in.

When it comes to expenses, the largest expense for any start-up is marketing. Marketing, marketing, marketing. In the modern global economy every business is first and foremost a marketing business. And the more competitive the industry, the more you have to spend on marketing. I think this is perhaps the biggest flaw of the modern American economy as presently constituted: it is so dominated by marketing that everyone has to be a salesman in order to succeed. And even then, make no mistake - you will be out-spent and out-marketed by the big corporations. Most likely, they will put you out of business, the vast majority of start-ups failing in the first 12 months of operation. Rather than start a business and lose a small fortune, most people reasonably conclude "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" and they go to work for The Man. I have a blog post brewing on that topic ...

The economy is what it is. I want Lydia's friend - the man with 10 children who works for Kellogg - to keep his job too. But can he keep his job without Kellogg necessarily squashing the upstart cereal entrepreneur with a new recipe in Roscoe Gulch, Idaho? I hope so. We need an economic policy that helps them both.

So here's the point the anti-distributists need to face head-on: capitalism has nothing to do with "opportunity". It is the rule of money, plain and simple. Opportunities for small business ownership and small farming will continue to disappear as the corporations consolidate their stranglehold. Maybe you're OK with that. But look at what is happening: the corporations have jumped completely on-board with anti-family, anti-life, and anti-Christian political correctness. Here's Kellogg's own policy on workplace "Diversity and Inclusion":

http://www.kelloggcompany.com/corporateresponsibility.aspx?id=1514

Does this seem like a small thing? It's the death of our civilization by a thousand cuts. We all know good and well the kind of toxic atmosphere such policies create, and you can be sure that any company with a policy like this has its head screwed on backwards in other departments too. Don't get me wrong - I've applied to work for Kellogg myself, and if offered a job today I'd probably take it. Without a vigorous small business sector, working for companies like Kellogg will be the only option any of us have left. It might even be thought of as the "conservative" alternative to working for a government agency, but frankly, it won't feel any different.

~~~a friend of mine once said: "Every good conservative should have a healthy dose of libertarianism in him." There needs to be a healthy impatience for bureaucracy and all its progeny.~~~

I agree that a good conservative needs to have a libertarian streak. But he also needs an agrarian streak. The post-Reagan conservatives are all about the former but have forgotten the latter. Reading some of the older conservative writers might be a remedy for this.

I'm all for impatience with bureaucracy. But I'm equally for impatience with corporate B.S. Like Wendell Berry, I think we should be equally suspicious of big government and big business as, again, many of the older conservatives were. I once heard someone say that the current conservative collective memory only goes back as far as 1980. Unfortunately, I think that's true. It was certainly true for me until about five years ago when I started reading Kirk, Weaver, Nisbet, etc.

Do a little experiment. Watch 'Food Inc.' then try to figure out who's more at fault for the food & farming mess we're in, agribusiness or the government. An honest person, I think, will come to the conclusion that both suck equally.

The neighborhood grocery is a thing of the past.

Jeff, I don't know if this would count, but I have a fairly small grocery store--certainly nothing like a big-box store--where I do nearly all my shopping. Much as I defend the big-box stores in principle, I don't actually enjoy shopping at them. I go to our local superstore only when I need something I can't get nearer--more often clothes than groceries, with a few specialty grocery items. That's every few weeks. I go to the grocery store two minutes away every other day. Now, the reason you may not think it counts is that my small, local grocery store is a smaller member of a statewide franchise, Spartan stores. As near as I have been able to figure it out, within my own town there are three or four of the Spartan stores that are named after their local owner, Mr. Harding. I gather the Spartan stores in other towns have different names. They come in several sizes even in this town. This is probably the smallest. I like it because it's easy to get in and out of, easy to find things, and nearly everyone there knows me. My daughter was stunned when she walked in with me a couple of years ago (she is usually at home taking care of the younger children) and found everyone saying hello to me and me saying to the manager, "Hi, Matt, how's the baby?" She said it was the "how's the baby" part that really got her. Since it's a franchise, perhaps you won't consider it a counterexample to the statement concerning the end of the local grocery.

Oh, I also live next door to a man who is part owner of a small hardware store, still going strong (with an appropriately Dutch name) part of the way towards downtown. He has plenty of words to say regarding Home Depot and Menard's, but his store is still there, and he goes in to work at it a couple of days a week, at the age of 87, I believe.

Well, reading al's latest post at 6:15pm one wonders how the frontiersmen and the early businessmen of American history managed to stretch civilization across the continent without the aid of an army of bureaucrats instructing them on how they should go about it. Relying on Upton Sinclair's The Jungle for a picture of early American Industrialism is like using Michael Moore to learn about our current health care system. Read some Garet Garrett instead.

I'm glad you have these remnants of the older things, Lydia.

I'll just echo what Culbreath and JSG said about the convergence between state and corporate bureaucracy. Not a few times the perceptive observer will scratch his head for a long while before coming up with a difference of real applicable importance.

"So here's the point the anti-distributists need to face head-on: capitalism has nothing to do with "opportunity". It is the rule of money, plain and simple."

Capitalism has a specific definition; here is the wording used by economist George Reisman: "Laissez-faire capitalism is a politico-economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and in which the powers of the state are limited to the protection of the individual's rights against the initiation of physical force."

Now, clearly what we have today doesn't even approximate this definition of capitalism and so whatever is to blame for the massive imbalances in our economy, it is not capitalism. This article lays out the details:

http://mises.org/daily/3165

As I've tried to argue here in other threads, without much apparent success, is that probably the most significant way in which capitalism does not exist in America is with regards to the government's monopoly control of the money supply. Our present monetary regime makes it possible (in times of phony expansion) for the banking system to lend out capital to businesses that is many times the amount of actual savings in the economy. The main beneficiaries of this largesse are government, the large banks themselves, hedge funds, the super wealthy and large corporations such as Wal Mart, Best Buy, etc. In short, the big box stores did not come about through a process of strict capitalism but through a process of corporatism and it's difficult to say whether Wal Mart and the like would have come about without its privileged access to cheap and easy capital. There is a good argument to be made that if lending could only come from a pool of genuine savings, as in a 100% gold-backed economy for instance, then lending would take place at a much more localized level.

I'm unfamiliar with distributism so I don't yet have a firm opinion on it.

The main beneficiaries of this largesse are government, the large banks themselves, hedge funds, the super wealthy and large corporations such as Wal Mart, Best Buy, etc. In short, the big box stores did not come about through a process of strict capitalism but through a process of corporatism and it's difficult to say whether Wal Mart and the like would have come about without its privileged access to cheap and easy capital.

I don't agree that the central bank policies are really the root of the whole problem, Andrew, but I think what you are expressing here is consonant with distributism: the structure of globalization, with its capital market integration and advantages for the large and interconnected, would not be possible absent the vast interventions to favor these enterprises by the state.

"I'll just echo what Culbreath and JSG said about the convergence between state and corporate bureaucracy. Not a few times the perceptive observer will scratch his head for a long while before coming up with a difference of real applicable importance."

This is what flummoxes me about modern American conservatism. It constantly bewails the overstepping and accumulation of power in Washington, with which bewailing I heartily concur, but turns a blind eye to the obvious role of corporatism in these very abuses.

This is what flummoxes me about modern American conservatism. It constantly bewails the overstepping and accumulation of power in Washington, with which bewailing I heartily concur, but turns a blind eye to the obvious role of corporatism in these very abuses
There is this idea out there that PC tyranny is bad for business, an external imposition on benign corporations by bad government. But PC tyranny isn't bad for big business, it is only bad for small business. In fact it gives big business yet another competitive advantage over small business. Small business is inherently illiquid, and plutocratic PC tyranny is one thing among many that makes large businesses more liquid than small businesses, because it allows large businesses to treat human beings as just another fungible bit of machinery.

Can we all agree, then, on deploring PC tyranny?

I would hope so.

I loathe PC in all its forms. But that is not the type of thing I'm talking about, really. I'm referring to such situations as are described in Food Inc., which is why I referenced the movie. Situations in which huge corporations lobby Congress for laws that favor them over their smaller competitors, for instance, and because of their bigger clout get those laws passed. It bothers me, for example, that one big corporation has almost complete control over the U.S. soybean industry, by virtue of the fact that they were allowed to patent their genetically modified plants.

JSG, I think most of us agree that big corps getting in bed with government via clout and laws strangling their competition is bad pretty much across the board. What some of us take issue with is the notion that it is big business simply in virtue of being big that makes it evil. We have had this debate with Maximos, and this isn't the time to air the whole thing, but here is one basic reason to doubt the validity: if a guy starts a business small and, doing things wholly in virtue of good business and good wholesome activity becomes very successful and big, then how can we come along and say: "hey, you're big so you're evil"?

one big corporation has almost complete control over the U.S. soybean industry, by virtue of the fact that they were allowed to patent their genetically modified plants.

Why can't other companies keep on growing their other old (natural) style soy beans? Why can't one of them come up with their own new genetic modification? Oh, don't get me wrong: I absolutely DEPLORE many of the things that get patents nowadays as being a violation of the whole reason for patents, but that's a side issue.

There is a good argument to be made that if lending could only come from a pool of genuine savings, as in a 100% gold-backed economy for instance, then lending would take place at a much more localized level.

Andrew, I agree with that. And maybe doing this would also help turn lending away from usury back into the charitable work that it ought to be anyway. (Which Zippy's recent posts on usury would probably support).

I don't think a simple gold backed standard has a remotest chance of working, though. In theory, the amount of money ought to increase with the amount of new wealth that is generated by new work. Measuring this is phenomenally difficult, since it means (among other things) having to figure out how to deal with new wealth that is consumable (like food. Worse yet, the amount of new wealth and the amount of gold (or new gold) simply doesn't match up at all well: there will be constant disconnects between them as new forms of wealth come along or as old gold mines peter out. What we need is a new idea for money that is in principle better connected to the generation of new wealth.

"What some of us take issue with is the notion that it is big business simply in virtue of being big that makes it evil."

It's not the bigness per se that's evil, but the fact that when when a company gets so insanely big it tends to lose what might be called its constituent humanness. In other words, I think that the bad practices of mega-corporations are, in fact, directly related to their size.

"if a guy starts a business small and, doing things wholly in virtue of good business and good wholesome activity becomes very successful and big, then how can we come along and say: 'hey, you're big so you're evil?"

I'd be interested to see an example of a business that has grown to the size of the mega multinationals via "good business and good wholesome activity." At some point (inevitably, I'd say) profit begins to take precedence over people. There is a reason why Christ says it's hard for the rich to enter the kingdom. I don't recall an exemption for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

"Why can't other companies keep on growing their other old (natural) style soy beans?"

Because a large majority of currently grown soybeans have been cross-pollenated by air, insects, etc. with the genetically modified version, and Monsanto has made it difficult, if not impossible, for farmers to get seed soybean elsewhere.

"Why can't one of them come up with their own new genetic modification?"

They may not believe in genetic modification, for one thing. And if another company does create a different GM soybean, the problem just repeats itself.

It's a fitting comment on an economic system promoted by a couple of poets that the conversation has gone to commodities. Soybeans are around ten dollars/bushel and modern farming methods make a 1,000 acre farm a part time proposition.

A large business is necessarily a rich one, and since money is power a large business wields a certain amount of power. This is reason enough to naturally distrust big business, but largely ignored among libertarians.

"A large business is necessarily a rich one, and since money is power a large business wields a certain amount of power. This is reason enough to naturally distrust big business, but largely ignored among libertarians."

And among many contemporary conservatives, who think that, mirabile dictu, Lord Acton's famous line about power corrupting somehow doesn't apply to big business.

"It's a fitting comment on an economic system promoted by a couple of poets that the conversation has gone to commodities. Soybeans are around ten dollars/bushel and modern farming methods make a 1,000 acre farm a part time proposition."

Calling Chesterton and Belloc 'a couple of poets' is like calling Jefferson and Adams 'a couple of politicians.' Read Chesterton's book after which this website is named, and Belloc's "The Servile State" and get back to me on this. And what's your point about soybeans?

I used to consider myself a distributist, but found that, IMO, I disagree with them on too many points.

As a result, my new book (due out on tax day) is on Microcapitalism. And it provides more concrete steps to achieving it.

I agree with distributists that:

1) Productive Property should be in the hands of many privates citizens, not a few. (Note: not all, just as many as possible)

2) It's going to be a bottom-up change, and yes, it will be a revolution.

3) There is little if anything the governement can do to enforce small property, and it probably shouldn't.

4) Ususry is a chief component in the mess of capitalism we have now.

5) Rule by the few; either a business over a nation of employees or a few state officials over a nation of citizens, tends towards abuse. To cite Acton, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

However I disagree with them that:

1) Chesteron's admittedly incomplete Outline of Sanity isn't the only method to achieving it. I see a lot of distributists calls to action that echo what Chesterton put out, but he himself said a more concrete plan was needed, that he was just providing an outline.

2) The name is terrible. On this point I agree with Chesterton and some of his peers who criticized the name. They want to redistribute wealth, but so does Obama. Both differ on the definition of wealth, and how it should be distributed. But because of the name, one sounds just like the other.

3) One does NOT need to be agrarian or own one's own business to effect a change to small property.

4) A "big" business is necessarily going to tend to abuse; but it is the concentration of power/control of capital that is the problem. Also, "big" these days can be deceptive. Do you mean number of employees? Market share? Revenue? Profits?

5) Intellectual property, property formation, and the improved communications system are not addressed. Chesterton could not have seen this (as he mentions Cobbett could not have imagined how things were in Chesterton's day), but one of the greatest champions of the distributist/microcapitalist ideals IMO would be Seth Godin. He too called for a small property revolution in his book Linchpin that came out in February of 2010.

Here's a recent example of big business potential for evil: Walmart in Battle Creek's drug policy and recent firing of an employee on legal medical pot. I think they handled the situation well, BUT Walmart's corporate policy was more restrictive than the State of Michign's law, and that is an inidcation of a problem. When a company is a majority employer, their policies can limit who can get a job and who cannot, even if they are more strict than the law. What if Walmart, like the hospital the Distributist Review mentioned recently, refused to hire people who tested positive for nicotine? Is that the right way to stop smoking?

Regarding revolution: yes, Chesterton called for a revolution. He talks a lot about revolution, and does not mean a flag waving, aristocracy-beheading, military coup revolution. He also said "No man has ever seen a revolution." In Orthodoxy he talks about the fact the orthodox are in an "eternal revolution" (which became the name of my company). Any time you are trying to restore order, even in your own life, you are conducting a revolution, according to Chesterton. Aside from Chesterton, consider the "Industrial Revolution" as a revolution as well.

As a commenter posted above, it was Leo the XIII who laid out the ideals of property and human rights in communion, without a plan of action to fix it over the world. The Church does that a lot, actually, championing the ideal without a specific method.

FYI, here's Gerald Russello's review of John Medaille's new "primer" on distributism:

http://www.amconmag.com/blog/distributism-more-than-a-middle-way/

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