Building the Ownership Society

This is, at last, the last chapter of my new book, Equity and Equilibrium: The Political Economy of Distributism. I post it here because so many questions have arisen on this site as to whether distributism is just another kind of socialism. This chapter, I hope, clarifies the relationship between distributism and the state.

Distributism and the Current Crisis

Discussions of what to do about the current crisis commonly take the form of an argument between “socialism” and “capitalism.” However, such a discussion is flawed in both of its terms. Real socialism collapsed in 1989, and few would want to return to that horrific system. What is less well understood is that pure capitalism itself collapsed in 1929, never to rise again anywhere in the world. There are few citizens with any living memory of real capitalism, and the memories they have are generally unfavorable. Capitalism collapsed for the same reason as communism, a victim of its own internal contradictions that caused chronic instability. Workers found the system unacceptable, to be sure, but so did the capitalists themselves, and few were very sorry to see it go. Pure capitalism had proved itself toxic to both capital and labor, just as Belloc predicted it would in 1913.

The first task in reforming the system to understand the system that we have, the system that is in full failure, and understand apart from the ideological terms commonly used to describe it. The system that replaced capitalism was first a hyper-active Keynesianism, brought about by World War II and which lasted until the late 70′s; Keynesianism itself was then replaced by a pure mercantilism, the system which combines private privilege with public power and which so incited the wrath of Adam Smith. It is this mercantilism which finds itself in the midst of a full-blown collapse. Both the Keynesianism which replaced capitalism, and the mercantilism which replaced Keynesianism, depend on massive government controls and subsidies which are no longer practicable or sustainable. Nor can we go back to the capitalism of the 1920′s without reliving the instability of that turbulent period.

If capitalism is not a viable alternative, if it represents a system that no living man has seen, why then do the arguments in its favor carry such weight? I believe the reasons are mostly ideological. Capitalists are quite willing to trot out libertarian arguments when dealing with some regulation or tax that they find odious, but they are just as willing to put such arguments aside when they seek some privilege or subsidy from the government. In this way, the most well-meaning of the libertarians serve as the fellow-travelers and useful idiots of the mercantilists. And although I have a great deal of respect for the libertarian arguments in general, in practice these arguments do not function apart from well divided property, as the older, pre-Austrian libertarians realized.

However, it would be totally unjust to critique the libertarians if the distributists did not have something of their own to offer, and something more than mere platitudes or even principles. Something programmatic and concrete, and applicable to our actual situation is required. Distributists have an advantage in this regard, since, unlike capitalism or libertarianism, there are actual distributist systems on the ground and working (Chapter XVI) and we can examine them for practical lessons to apply to our own troubles.

Distributism and Government

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