Beyond Capitalism and Socialism: Rebuilding an American Economy Focused on Family and Community

by Allan Carlson on March 8, 2010 · 34 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire

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This piece was originally a keynote for the Public Affairs Lecture Series at Washington State University-Vancouver on February 8, 2010.

Hillsdale, MI. Eighteen months of severe recession have brought to the surface old truths that many chose to forget when times seemed to be good:  the business cycle has not been eliminated; finance capitalism is by its nature unstable; politically-connected corporations commonly escape market discipline; and there is nothing conservative about the “creative destruction” of a capitalist economy.

Indeed, a curious aspect of political labeling in America has been the conflation of the word “conservative” with the interests of the great corporations.  The problem is an old one.  As one commentator noted in the mid 1930’s, the label “conservative” had then been thoroughly “discredited,” twisted by the “apostles of plutocracy” into a defense of “gamblers and promoters.”  He continued:  “According to this view, [the old Republican political boss] Mark Hanna was a conservative.”  This diagnosis remains fairly accurate:  the “conservative commentator” Newt Gingrich, for example, is a great admirer of Mr. Hanna.

I will focus this evening on a different gallery of political thinkers and activists.  In their deep respect for the integrity of the human person, in their allegiance to the natural communities of family and village, in their celebration of the family farm and the independent shop, in their devotion to private property, and in their reverence for traditional ways, these figures could be labeled conservative.  At the same time, their commitment to the ideal of economic democracy, their refusal to treat human labor and relationships as commodities like any other, their sympathy for the pluralism and peculiarities of small human communities, and their rejection of imperialism and military adventurism seem more atuned to the modern progressive label.  They have been seekers after a “Third Way,” a social and economic system that in important respects would be neither capitalist nor socialist.

In Europe, these seekers included:  Great Britain’s Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, architects of the Distributist program [to which I will return]; the Russian agrarian economist Alexander Chayanov, who crafted a remarkable theory of “the Natural Family Economy”; the Bulgarian peasant leader Alexander Stamboliski, who turned his nation into a model agrarian republic and co-founded the “Green International” in 1923; Nancy Eriksson, a Member of Sweden’s Parliament who defended a curious political movement that might be accurately labeled, “The Desperate Swedish Socialist Housewives”; and Gilbert Dru, Etienne Gilson, and Wilhelm Roepke, architects of a vibrant mid-20th Century Christian Democracy that aimed to build a Humane Economy.  These episodes effervesced in events of brilliance and excitement, sometimes reaching fruition, only to fade in the face of the two main 20th Century ideological contestants:  capitalism and communism.

Tonight, I want to tell you about three American writers and activists who also have been part of this quest for a Third Way:  Ralph Borsodi; Herbert Agar; and Wendell Berry.  I will also suggest ways in which their examples and ideas may help us understand the current economic crisis and point toward an alternate Conservatism for the decades ahead, one combining a preferential option for the natural family with a more decentralized, human scale economy and a curtailing of the “national security state.”

I. Decentralist Economics of Ralph Borsodi

For 25 years, from 1920 to about 1945, Ralph Borsodi was one of America’s leading public intellectuals.  He had begun his career in New York City as a consulting economist and advertising expert for several of America’s leading corporations and trade associations.  Borsodi grew increasingly troubled, though, by what he saw on Madison Avenue.  In a series of books, he traced a change among American companies from a focus on making products that met consumer needs toward an economy resting on high-pressure marketing, the manipulation of emotion, and heavy consumer debt.  He denounced especially the new technique of “national advertising”:

[Its object] is to create desire.  It ignores the question of the necessity for the goods and tries only to succeed in persuading the public to buy what the advertiser offers….  [The advertiser] creates…a necessity in the lives of the people that has no economic or moral basis in fact.

More broadly, he saw modern finance capitalism working mightily to eliminate the free market.  The real “competition” among corporations, Borsodi said, was a quest “to secure [political] privileges which enable their possessors to operate outside of the competitive market.”  He indicted not only state-granted franchises and subsidies, but also licenses, tariffs, special corporate tax breaks, and nationally advertised trade-marks, all of which – he said – conspired to raise prices, crush diversity, handicap the small producer, and favor extreme centralization.

In his best-selling 1928 book This Ugly Civilization, Borsodi more directly attacked the status of joint-stock corporations.  He emphasized that they were neither a natural nor an inevitable development.  They rested instead on a grant by governments of legal privileges, ones denied to families and individuals.  These privileges included limited liability; perpetual life; and the ability to issue stock, bonds, and other debt instruments, which gave corporations huge advantages in raising capital.  He labeled corporate charters “veritable letters of marque”: that is, licenses to commit economic piracy, commissions “to embark upon the adventure of doing the investing public with impunity.”

While praising the modern “machine” tool, Borsodi condemned the “huge” factory as “a steam-age relic rendered obsolete by the electrical age,” yet sustained in the twentieth century by the regulatory powers of government.  As he wrote, “It is the factory, not the machine, which destroys both the natural beauty and the natural wealth of man’s environment; which fills country and city with hideous factories and squalid slums,” and which robs “men, women, and children of their contact with the soil” and “familiarity with the actual making of things.”  He added:  “Against the family…the factory wages a ruthless war of extermination….  Industrialism seeks to root out individual devotion to the family and the homestead and to replace it with loyalty to the factory.”

So, what was Borsodi’s alternative?  The working home, the economically functional home, he said, had to be restored; and this needed to be done in a revived countryside.  As he argued, “Man, no matter how often he has tried to urbanize himself, can only live like a normal human being in an essentially rural place of residence.”  Setting an example, Borsodi and his family resettled on an abandoned seven-acre homestead near the Ramapo Mountains, north of New York City.  Each family, Borsodi insisted, must also begin “an adventure in home production,” rooted in “true organic homesteads.”  Gardens, chicken coops, a few cows and pigs, carpentry workshops, small machine shops, loom rooms:  all were necessary in real family homes, he said.  Careful experiments showed that a homestead equipped with appropriate tools and small-scale machines was more efficient in producing three-quarters of the products that a family home would need.

In a way, Borsodi and his wife also invented modern home-schooling.  “When I compared Mrs. Borsodi to the average school-teacher in the public schools,” he wrote, “I saw no reason why she could not teach the children just as well, if not better.”  They brought their children home, and found that this “experiment in domestic production” also proved superior to schooling organized on a factory model.  Two hours a day of course work, it turned out, was all it took for the Borsodi boys to keep pace with their public school counterparts.

In 1933, Borsodi launched his School of Living to teach others how to build their own home, make furniture, tend a garden, care for poultry and dairy animals, operate a loom, and conduct a small family business.  Thousands attended and Borsodi Homesteads mushroomed across the American countryside.

II. The Second Character in this tale: Herbert Agar.

The son of a prominent corporate attorney in New York City, Agar had an Ivy League education, including a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University.  In 1928, circumstances led him to England where he joined the editorial staff of G.K.’s Weekly, the journal owned and edited by G.K. Chesterton.  Here, Agar drank deeply from the well of Distributist ideas.  Briefly, this idea-system was rooted in a rejection of socialism as immoral and unjust.  Its proponents  rejected as well modern capitalism, which – the Distributists said – tended toward monopoly and toward a peculiar alliance of the great corporations with government:  what Chesterton called “The Business Government”; or what his collaborator Hilaire Belloc called “The Servile State.”  According to Belloc, The Servile State existed when productive property was concentrated in a few hands and when most adults derived their livelihood strictly from a wage, tied in turn to government benefits, or the welfare state.

As Chesterton framed the matter, the Distributist alternative rested on the premises that public life exists to defend private life, that property secures liberty, and that “all political and social efforts must be devoted to securing the good of the family.”  Put another way, the Distributists held that private property in a home, some acres of land, and basic tools were so important that every responsible family should have them.  Again, this broad distribution of property was the Distributists’ answer to both the “wage slavery” of monopoly capitalism and its close partner, the welfare state.  Chesterton was also a fierce foe of British imperialism.  Adventures abroad, he believed, always came at the expense of the common people at home; local communities would be sacrificed to globalist dreams.

Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for his first book, The People’s Choice, Agar returned to America.  He wrote a long article in 1934 entitled “The Task for Conservatism.”  Applying Distributist analysis to the American setting, Agar – the historian – sought to renew the “Conservative” label by appealing to “an older America,” a time when there was “virtue in and a moral plan for the nation.”

Central to this plan, Agar insisted, was “[t]he widest possible distribution of property.”  To some of the nation’s Founders, notably Thomas Jefferson, “this meant agrarianism,” or self-sufficient farming.  To others, such as John Adams, “this meant an interdependent community” of farmers and modest merchants, with government maintaining the balance.  All the American founders, Agar argued, held that “a wide diffusion of property…made for enterprise, for family responsibility, and in general for institutions that fit man’s nature and that give a chance for a desirable life.”

But America had lost its way, Agar said, becoming “the victim of economic determinism.”  The natural wealth of the nation in conjunction with the industrial revolution had intensified “the normal human temptation to sacrifice ideals for money,” lifting “the rewards for a successful raid on society to dangerous heights.”  Morover, the political franchise had been expanded at the very moment when “the temptation to plunder was growing irresistible,” opening up the system to a form of mob rule, guided by the plutocrats.  By 1914, Agar argued, the American capitalists no longer needed an agricultural surplus for export, and they planned the coup de grace for the independent farmer.  Indeed, Agar said, the “Coolidge prosperity” of the 1920s masked the devastation of private property in rural areas, as small farms failed by the tens of thousands.

Could the situation be reversed?  Agar thought it possible that trends had gone too far in the wrong direction:  “If Americans have come to believe that a wage is the same thing as freedom; if they prefer such a wage, with its appearance of security, to the obvious danger and responsibilities of ownership, then they cannot be saved from the servitude which awaits them.”  Yet he concluded that a “redistribution of property” could still be accomplished; this was “the root of a real conservative policy for the United States.”  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.

In 1937, Agar, Borsodi, and others of a similar frame of mind launched the remarkable monthly journal, Free America.  The lead editorial in the first issue defined the journal as “the meeting ground for those who are equally opposed to finance – capitalism, communism and fascism.”  The editors recognized “a fundamental community of aim in the Borsodi Homestead Movement, the Southern Agrarians and their allied Distributist Groups throughout the country, the consumer Cooperative Movement, the Catholic Rural Life Conference, [and] certain of the Protestant rural life organizations.”  In housing, the goal was to build “the owner-occupied home of the free man,” where “living and producing a livelihood are welded into an harmonious whole.”  Among its projects, the journal ran an architectural contest for new designs of a “productive home”; it received over 500 entries.  Contributor Louis Bromfield, himself a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, set the broader tone.  He called industrialism the source of “a vicious and Hellish puzzle,” with agrarianism as the cure:  “A piece of land for every family is the soundest of all bulwarks [of liberty]; indeed it is the ultimate one.”

III. Third figure: Wendell Berry.

Like Chesterton a poet, novelist, and essayist, Wendell Berry is the most important American writing today in the agrarian tradition.  Born in Kentucky, he still resides there with his wife Tanya on a small farm overlooking the Ohio River.

The word most commonly associated with Wendell Berry is “community”; and he does give this often mangled term a fresh and vigorous meaning.  In one exemplary essay, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” Berry provides a formal definition of “community” as “the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so”; and also as “a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature.”

According to Berry, the “beloved community” makes claims that commonly trump the freedom of the individual.  Individual rights and the satisfaction of individual desires “are limited by human nature, by human community and by the nature of the places in which we live.”  This membership is “that company of friends” that gives pleasure and meaning to individual lives.  Even the landscape becomes marked by paths connecting households, a commerce of shared affection, trust, bounty, and work.  Indeed, the true community becomes an almost living thing, a network for communicating news and gossip, part of a village’s “ever-continuing conversation about itself.”

Most good communities have shared characteristics, Berry maintains.  They live by a “precarious interplay of effort and grace.”  They can “enforce decency without litigation,” using techniques such as shunning and emotions such as shame to influence individual behavior.  The vital community also rests on the natural economy of altruism, solving its challenges “by non-monetary exchanges of help, not by buying things.  Such living communities create people of superior moral worth:  “Persons of character are not [governmental] products.  They are made by local cultures, local responsibilities.”

Berry summons up the powerful metaphor of the Dance to describe the good community, where the members would gather “in the immortal ring, the many-in-one.”  As the fictional Andy Catlett explains:  “He has heard the tread of his own people dancing in the ring, the fiddle measuring time to them, a voice calling them, through the steps of change and absence, home again.”

Yet, in Berry’s mind, the modern world threatens and corrupts such true community.  Berry cites the current commercial order as a sinister force.  He writes:  “As the salesmen, saleswomen, advertisers, and propagandists of the industrial economy have become more ubiquitous and more adept at seduction, communities have lost the loyalty and affection of their members.”  Neither conservative nor liberal defends any longer “the economic integrity of the household or the community,” which are the mainstays of family life.  He notes that under a “conservative” President, Ronald Reagan, the American economy, “which once required the father to work away from home – a development that was bad enough – now requires the mother to work away from home, as well.”

Modern war also erodes true community.  As one of Berry’s fictional characters, Jayber Crow, describes Word War II:  “This new war, like the previous one, would be a test of the power of machines against people and places; whatever its causes and justifications, it will make the world worse….  The dark inhuman monstrous thing comes and tramples the little towns and never even knows their names.”  The true world of vital communities is “a mosaic of little places invisible to the powers that be.”  And, indeed, Wendell Berry has been a leading critic of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He sees them as wars of empire, paid for (disproportionately) with the blood, treasure, and integrity of America’s remaining small places.

Some would dismiss Borsodi, Agar, and Berry, together with Europeans such as Chesterton and Chayanov, as hopeless romantics, with their ideas and arguments irrelevant to modern time.  I would reply that agrarian and distributist analysis had in the 20th Century important policy consequences and that it may also offer insight into the events of the last eighteen months.

Relative to past influence, several projects launched by the American New Dealers during the 1930’s had Distributist roots, ranging from the Subsistence Homestead Program to the Housing Act of 1934.  After World War II, the British Conservative Party adapted large portions of the Distributist platform, pledging to create a nation of property owners – as an alternative to the Labour Party’s welfare state.  Down in Australia, the Democratic Labor Party, which featured a “model Distributist program,” held the balance of political power for 20 critical years, starting in the 1950’s.

How might agrarians and distributists view our current situation?  Let’s start with Fanny Mae and its cousin Freddie Mac – mortgage companies that privatized executive pay and profit while socializing risk and loss.  These could be seen as splendid examples of a Business Government at Work.  This same Business Government might be perceived in the skillful way in which former Goldman Sachs executives have alternated between “creating” and “solving” the financial crisis.  For example, it was then Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson who successfully lobbied six years ago to weaken the reserve obligations of private U.S. investment banks; later, as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, he wound up in charge of the 2008 bank bailout, which saved the great banks from their follies.

The concept of Business Government may also explain the preference shown these days by both American and European governments for so-called “public-private partnerships,” cozy arrangements for the relatively few “owners” and “leaders” who effortlessly move between both sides of the partnership, reaping rewards either way, while the majority of people struggles along.

Back in the 1920’s, Distributists noted how owners of the great corporations had themselves abandoned free-market economics.  Instead of believing that if men were left to bargain individually the public would automatically benefit, the corporate leaders now pleaded with workers not to strike “in the interests of the public.”  Chesterton commented:  “The only original case for capitalism collapses entirely, if we have to ask either party to go on for the good of the public.”  Instead, he said that “ordinary conservatives are falling back” on Communist arguments “without knowing it.”  Over the last 18 months, the American government’s remarkable takeovers of the insurance giant A.I.G. and auto legend General Motors appear to be a similar repudiation of free market capitalism, in favor of an arrangement not quite socialism either:  but a form of Business Government that serves primarily the well-off and the well-connected.

Indeed, this model of Business Government could explain other global developments.  For instance, we might see this victorious system in contemporary Russia, where “Mafia capitalism” and state-favored oil and gas companies have grown among former KGB agents and their ilk, to create a class proudly self-labelled “the oligarchs.”  Meanwhile, a crude welfare state inherited from the Communist time keeps the wage-earning Russian masses alive… and mostly propertyless.

Journey to China, and there you may find still another iteration of the Business Government at work.  Western corporations have moved their production lines to the Peoples’ Republic, where an authoritarian regime – a reliable Business Government – keeps the laborers cheap, docile, and strike free.  Indeed, in 2002, the Communist Party of China actually invited capitalists to join its ranks, cementing another kind of partnership.  Distributists and agrarians actually predicted long ago this merger of Capitalism and Communism, finding it to be the logical consequence of a shared materialistic world-view.

Critics of Agrarianism and Distributism have argued that this social-economic scheme lacks specific policy ideas.  The charge is incorrect.  From Belloc and Chesterton to Agar and Berry, they have advanced clear ideas for building a property state, where giant economic institutions would be cut down to a human scale and where all responsible families would own a home, productive land or small shop, and garden.

How might this policy orientation be applied to our current economic and political situation?  Good Distributists in America would take the opportunity, I think:

–      To break up, prudently, the great, politically-favored banks;

–      To restrict much more sharply the revolving door between regulated banks and corporations and their regulatory agencies;

–      To focus mortgage lending again on small, locally controlled savings banks (such as the pre-1981 American “Savings and Loans”) and on Credit Unions;

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

–      To replace welfare benefits with opportunities for family property ownership and the creation of “children’s trusts.”

–      To limit direct and indirect mortgage subsidies – including tax benefits – to only one residence per family (disallowing them on “second” or vacation homes and investment properties);

–      To reduce property-taxes on homesteads of 3 to 20 acres.

–      To let real bankruptcy courts divvy up failed, albeit politically favored dinosaurs like General Motors;

–      To prosecute aggressively white-collar criminals who have violated the public trust through recklessness and fraud;

–      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).

–      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 (e.g., telecommuting, professional offices, and so on) and multi-generational residence.

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

–      To protect and encourage home education.

–      To impose a progressive corporate income tax on retail giants;

–      To improve greatly highway systems, both the asphalt and digital kinds;

–      To focus tax relief on families with dependent children; and

–      To end neo-imperialist adventures and “nation building” abroad, in order to restore the republic at home.

This policy platform rests on four pillars:  trust in widely distributed private property as the safeguard of liberty and democracy; restoration and protection of a truly competitive market; faith in the natural family economy as humane and just; and suspicion of the national security state.  Could this be the next Conservatism?

At first look, probably not, at least not on Rush Limbaugh’s and Sean Hannity’s watch.  And yet, within the populist anger now stirring across America, there may be a substantial number of persons who would respond with enthusiasm to the program just outlined:  one that sees beyond capitalism, socialism, and empire; and one that reconnects with the best traditions of the American Founding.  Perhaps it can be seen as a protean, promising movement, simply awaiting its leaders.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Brandon March 8, 2010 at 12:32 am

Thank you Dr. Carlson, for writing another informative article on the Distributist movement. I think this line of thought would appeal to many, especially young people, who are looking for an alternative to stale Republicrat politics as usual. I am 22 years old myself and I must admit, Distributist and agrarian politics inspire a passion in me. I think that many my age, who see both the sham of monopolistic capitalism and the fraud of socialism, would respond favorably to much of what you’ve mentioned here.

avatar HappyAcres March 8, 2010 at 8:20 am

FP readers, including myself, are drawn to the community vision you outline.

But I’m always mystified by the presumption that the State must be co-opted to promote the vision.

That will never happen, for a multitude of reasons. And so essays in this vein are always bittersweet.

I’m reminded of socialists who want to rule the world, but cannot make a single commune thrive.

Why aren’t distributist communities thriving?

avatar John Médaille March 8, 2010 at 8:45 am

H.Acres. Distributist communities are thriving. Distributism is on the ground and working, and working on a large scale and over a long period of time. In Mondragon and in Emilia Romagna. In mutual banks and insurance companies. In thousands of employee-owned companies. Distributism goes from success to success, while capitalism goes from bailout to bailout.

As for “what will never happen,” that is an argument that had some resonance for several generations. The capitalists seemed to have gained complete control of the state, and any musings on Distributism and Agrarianism could only seem like mere nostalgia for a time lost and never to return. However, this complete victory turns out to be complete defeat. State Capitalism can no longer sustain itself, and we are witnessing its demise. Neither Bush nor Obama nor Palin nor any of them can restore the system. The world will have to be rebuilt, one way or the other.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 8, 2010 at 1:03 pm

“…..hopeless romantics”. This old saw cast at the unfortunate soul who raises both fists at Technocratic Modernism would seem to get things precisely backwards. It seems to me that these are people of hope and that they are reacting to the zero-sum “it’s business” hopelessness of those who think business is the act of finding new victims.

The continuing surprise expressed by many at how this “correction” is playing out is another example of the misapprehension at work in our form of government. The American form of a Republic has always been more firmly grounded in the Platonic/Socratic camp of “government by those who know”…the oligarchy, as opposed to the democracy and its collectively held virtue of Aristotle. Rome was as dismissive of the rabble as we are now and the various pandering to democratic discontent is just as sophisticated now as it was then. Every time somebody hears salutes to “democracy” or “democratic institutions” in Washington, they should cover their exposed precincts because they are likely about to experience a little Droit de seigneur at the hands of our “representatives”.

Sometimes we strike a better balance, sometimes we don’t, this is one of those “don’t phases and so you can count on one thing: hearing many salutes to democracy from our all-knowing, little doing oligarchic leadership.

Not that the mob would seem to do much better, hence the subtle beauties of the deliberative government, that thing the Framing Oligarchs left us because even though they were oligarchs, they knew the sting of those who treated them as serfs.

avatar John Willson March 8, 2010 at 2:25 pm

This is, of course, brilliant, and I follow Allan like a lemming right up to his seventeen Distributist points. Twelve of them require an active government that 1) wouldn’t do them and 2) if it did would screw it up. Agrarianism and Distributism are both negative-positives, that is, they require natural and voluntary communities to act and to hold off the national state and the Business Government at the same time. Our economy is controlled now by what Forrest McDonald called the “Brer Rabbit” principle: “Please don’t throw me in that briar patch!”
A-D’s should be entirely, utterly negative on the national level. Vote against everything, propose nothing, be a Ron Paul that even Ron Paul would be afraid of. On the local level we should be active in every way, especially in growing things, making things, and fixing things. And maybe finding smart lawyers to protect us against Business Government while we do it.

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 8, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Wonderful essay, Allan.

Relative to past influence, several projects launched by the American New Dealers during the 1930’s had Distributist roots, ranging from the Subsistence Homestead Program to the Housing Act of 1934. After World War II, the British Conservative Party adapted large portions of the Distributist platform, pledging to create a nation of property owners – as an alternative to the Labour Party’s welfare state. Down in Australia, the Democratic Labor Party, which featured a “model Distributist program,” held the balance of political power for 20 critical years, starting in the 1950’s.

Don’t forget also about the Social Credit Party and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, both of Canada, and both of which advocated a variety of distributist or quasi-distributist policies and goals.

avatar Stephen March 9, 2010 at 2:07 am

I am a staunch advocate of a freedom and that comes most readily in the forms of democracy and capitalism. The problem as I see it is when the 2 come together; in the modern US democratic system, it takes money and a lot of it, to win (how much did President Obama spend in his bid for the White House???). Unfortunately to get the financial support, candidates must turn to those who have money and they are not the family farmers. I just don’t think any government will have the best interests of the people in mind when they get their support from those who have other interests.

avatar Bob Cheeks March 9, 2010 at 7:30 am

What is fascinating about Dr. Carlson’s essay and the distributist movement is the effort to capture a mode or form of human existence that reflects the truth of reality.
A noble effort indeed, given the nature of man with our associated and obvious imperfections.
Following Voegelin, the act of capturing the ‘truth’ (and maintaining it) necessarily requires the abandonment of those derailed and decultured ideologies that describe the “climate of opinion,” and possibly the reopening of the debate re: nominalism and fideism.
One might think that any effort to restructure society must be predicated on the idea of a communal return to a metaxical reality where man lives, imperfectly, in the tension of existence defined by immanence and transcendence. Which will, of course, be strenuously objected to by those unfortunate moderns publicly educated.
The failure to “change the heart” of man will doom the project to inevitable failure. However, as the history of philosophy has shown our sundry cultures and civilizations are continually rising and collapsing as the truth of reality is gained than lost. I would think that anyone who thinks that this isn’t representative of the “human condition” might want to re-read the New Testament. Yet, the point remains that because there are so many living in error or wanton stupidity isn’t cause for us to join them.
And so, on the level of the mundane we must inquire: What aspects of federalism and republicanism are to be rejected? What is a “responsible” family? Who determines who gets how much land? Doesn’t distributism require as significant a bureaucratic social imprint as the current social democracy? How will a “distributist” gummint restrict those folks who are smarter, harder working, or luckier than their neighbors and seek to acquire more land, or expand their small businesses into large business e.g. human nature?

avatar John Médaille March 9, 2010 at 9:21 am

Bob, I stand with Adam Smith on this question, namely that the natural differences in talent and ability are not enough to explain the vast differences in ownership; only the presence of the state can explain that. He also points out that the excess can only be held by depriving 500 men of their livlihood, and that the landowner could not get even a single night’s rest were it not for the presence of the magistrate. He notes with bitterness what Locke notes with approval, namely that the purpose of the state is to defend those who have property against those who have none, that is, “To defend the rich against the poor.”

The answer of both the pre-Marxist socialist and the anarcho-liberterian is that without the state, property will be divided either evenly or nearly. If property is usufruct, then the “owner” is the user, who is there to defend it. But far flung ownership requires a cop to defend property, and the more accumulation of property you have, the more cops you require.

The distribution of property mostly requires that the gov’t stop doing things. However, the transition might require the gov’t to do things, things that tend toward greater property on the one hand and its own demise on the other. But it is hard to get an institution to work towards its own destruction. Nevertheless, all of our current institutions seem bent on suicide, so perhaps this is the moment to actually accomplish something.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 9, 2010 at 11:36 am

Point of Order Medaille: …” But its hard to get an institution to work toward its own destruction”.

I think you have to add the phrase :”at least on purpose”. Inadvertent self-destruction seems to be all the rage.

What is the role of private property in the Distributist model? How might it differ from Bolshevik collectivism? Can private property remain so that the tragedy of the commons is averted? It is not as though the private property paradigm has fully averted the lapses of the tragedy of the commons now , but one can say these tragedies, when they occur…aka “externalities” etc… are due as much to state and large institutional intervention , blurring the lines and responsibilities of private property.

I have to admit my own ox being gored over the idea that tax credits for second homes might be eliminated. These palazzos are a significant part of my livelihood in this land of weekenders. Ditto tax credits for private land trust preservation. Citizen owned BLM land (in concept) is abundant in other parts of the country but here in New England, it is the private land trust that has been most successful at preserving open land. However, I can also see an avenue for …I regret the connotations of the phrase but “sharecropping” on these farmlands with local farmers capitalizing upon the asset of absentee landowners in a fair contractual manner…at the very least in a transitional form. Obviously, them that owns the land holds the sword and it would be nice to see a re-birth of small family farms but this would seem to require State Confiscation and Re-distribution and as in Zimbabwe, this kind of thing does not always turn out too well

avatar John Médaille March 9, 2010 at 12:04 pm

As I said, Dirk, “all of our current institutions seem bent on suicide.”

Private property is at the core of Distributism, and collectivization is the exact opposite of it. If property is good for some, it is good for all. As far as the “tragedy of the commons” is concerned, the author of that famous article confused common property with unowned property. The commons were very well managed because they were well owned. Each person had a specific set of limited rights and guarded them jealously, and the commons along with it; they took responsibility for the health of the common land. Unowned property, on the other hand, grants the rights of use without limit and hence without responsibility. Thus, the air and the rivers are “unowned,” and hence they are used as gaseous garbage dumps or open sewers. The existence of unlimited rights in theory means that in practice “rights” will always be allocated by power.

What possible function does the absentee owner perform that he should get a share of the crop? What does he add that he may claim a share of the grain he did not grow?

You can find any number of failures of land redistribution for a variety of reasons, which I have covered in several works. But to summarize, such redistributions can be based on justice, or can be mere thuggery. But the only examples that work (and they work astoundingly well) are based in justice.

But you get to the heart of the problem with current institutions. You are agin ‘em, except when they grant you a particular privilege, that of escaping taxes that your neighbors would have to pay; clearly, your deficit will have to be made up by their contributions. Now, take this attitude, multiply by a factor of million, and place it in the hands of interests more powerful than you and me, and you get our current situation. It is like all of my colleagues in the real estate business, who divide their conversational time into complaining about gov’t interference and lobbying for more gov’t support.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

avatar richard March 9, 2010 at 12:15 pm

I don’t have much to say but a hearty Thank you Dr. Carlson! I enjoy all your writings, and treasure my autographed copy of your book The American Way.

Dr Willson Great quote-(Thank you sir!)
“On the local level we should be active in every way, especially in growing things, making things, and fixing things. And maybe finding smart lawyers to protect us against Business Government while we do it”.

The greatest impediment to my small farm has been business govt. The sad thing is we have produced and eaten a lot of wholesome food over the years that we legally can’t sell.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 9, 2010 at 1:05 pm

John, no argument nor debate from me on the Pogo Account. He should be tattooed on all our heads as a little scarlet letter reminder when we shave. What I am attempting to ponder is transitional states, as opposed to precipitous land re-distribution.

What the current land owner functions as , or contributes to the bargain is the land itself and the taxes paid upon it and the ability to carry non-productive portions of it (for us, perhaps not for wildlife) while the productive parts are opened to a lease-holder/ tenant farmer. Again , I am fully aware of the downside of this arrangement which is why I used the loaded term “sharecropping”. It is not as though the large land owner is escaping taxes that will have to be paid by others either. Preserved open land requires no services and as long as the principle use structure is taxed at a rate commensurate with the neighbors, no harm is done. In fact, in many instances, the household on a small property with simply one child in school is actually being subsidized by the larger absentee land owner, despite their tax credits. Add multiple school children and you arrive at a major deficit that is picked up by the larger “absentee” land owner. Now, I’ll agree that the absentee landowner may be anathema to the idea of local community.

But the current reality of the situation is that the average graduate of a Land Grant Ag. College is not going to be able to afford to purchase land well in excess of $10k an acre..let alone on up to $300k an acre . Hence, the primary destination of the Ag School graduate in large agribusiness, another form of absentee ownership in ways. Obviously, it is the luxury, tax credited market that is pushing the land prices out of the level of agricultural sustainability.

As an aside, the small grass fed beef growers are using lease arrangements to good effect and have been doing so for a long time apparently.

Again , I am not trying to defend either the current paradigm nor save my cozy place within it, I am attempting to get my head around Distributionism without arriving at the thuggish side of land re-distribution. Mondragon, as little as I know and understand it, purchased a depressed asset and then built it up spectacularly through Distributism, diversifying their holding and retaining, as I recall something along the lines of 75% of the employees in an ownership position…..thus staying within the private property paradigm as a Free Agent . Is it possible to scale these efforts up beyond their currently anomalous character or do current conditions….. such as precisely those I describe, exist as an insurmountable obstacle, thus forcing the trauma of re-distribution if local agriculture is to be reformed here in a high land cost region next to a ready market?

avatar Bruce Smith March 9, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Hold your horses! It’s pretty obvious to anybody who bothers to take the trouble to do the analysis that allowing massive concentration of wealth ultimately leads to dysfunctional and failing economies so shouldn’t we be talking about the process of achieving optimum adaptive rule fixes for a better allocation ethics? Jim Manzi has something to say on the subject of this process:-

http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/09/the-paradox-of-libertarianism.html

avatar John Médaille March 9, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Dirk, there is one thing, and one thing only, that the landlord cannot and does not contribute to production, and that is land. If I make a hammer, I can contribute a hammer to production, and if I make a nail, a nail. But I cannot make land. Now, if the landlord makes some improvement to the land, a dam, a road, a mill, a whatever, he may charge for his improvements for it is his labor, or the labor represented by his capital.

As for paying taxes, the landlord does not pay them; he is merely liable for them. Only the sharecropper can pay the taxes, albeit indirectly. Of course, some hold land as others hold art, away from usage. But even this adds to costs, since land held out of use increases the price of land that is used. Indeed, the speculator normally withholds use of his land precisely in an attempt to drive up the price.

In a society that privileges land ownership, there is surprisingly little thought given to its origin or justification. There is, of course, the comforting Lockean myth of original use. However, no actual parcel of land traces to this myth. The land you and I hold we got from somebody who eventually got it from some Indian, who probably took it from some other Indian. All land traces to an original act of violence, not original use; right of conquest is the origin of all actual property relations.

I don’t have a particular problem with that. It is not the original ownership that concerns me, but the current ownership, and it seems to me that this can be justified only by usufruct. The one who makes the land fruitful is the one entitled to the fruits of the land, subject only to what others contribute, and there are always others who contribute.

The private property paradigm, as you term it, is the proper paradigm. That’s the whole point. What is the best way of extending that as far as possible? That’s the critical question. As Chesterton put it, “It is no more a defense of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate then it would be a defense of marriage if he were to have all our wives in one harem.” The Duke in this case is the enemy of property, just as he would be the enemy of marriage in the other case.

And I know nothing of the tax case you cite, but this I know: every grant of privilege, every request for subsidy, is justified by a sentence in the form you have given us. For all I know, or care, it may indeed be justified. But a society built on such justifications will soon cease to be social, and then will cease to be, which is about where we are right now.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 9, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Absentee owners are making all kinds of improvements to the local holdings in the form of roads, drives, barn renovation, liming and mowing sour grasslands, re-establishment of sugar-bushes, clearing to recreate agricultural fields etc etc but that discussion seems at a dead end. I have been looking for a way to wed land and capital-poor young farmers with existing enlightened landholders so that what is now expressly that “land collected like artwork” you (accurately) mentioned can be returned to farming that might benefit the young family farmer and provide an avenue that presents the young farmer with an ability to begin controlling their means of production rather than simply looking in without any means whatsoever. Admittedly, it is a reformist and tepid avenue of attack and very small and unique in scope but it is the reality in this particular area.

We have some remarkable agricultural land along the Hudson, up the Connecticut River Valley, from Narragansett to Buzzards Bay, along the Delaware and it lies within a huge market. I’m looking for ways to encourage local agriculture which is already growing but still an impossible dream for the local farmer. I’m looking at how to do it now and not “what if”.

Private Property: “What is the best way of extending that as far as possible? Thats the critical question”

Agreed.

What is that way within our context and how is it achieved short of robbing Peter who robbed Chief Mukluk to pay Paul? Is another round of re-distributive conquest the only way? Where can we go to see more distributist solutions and what kinds of agrarian distributist models can we see and in particular, how did these models begin under what may or may not have been a hostile larger economic system? If there were barriers, how were they overcome? If there were failures, why? Admittedly, It is my responsibility to get up to speed with Chesterton and Belloc and I will.

avatar John Médaille March 9, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Dirk, I think the method of answering your question is rather straightforward: it is simply to imagine that you are a young man possibly interested in farming and then ask, “What would it take to induce me to farm this land?”

In Taiwan, the answer was simply to give the land to the farmers in return for an amount equal to 25% of the current crop for 10 years, after which they would own the land. But that was a situation of existing, experienced farmers who had been paying 50-70% of the crop forever, on a tenancy-at-will arrangement. The explosion of productivity on the farm was sufficient to finance Taiwan’s entry into the industrialized world without a lot of foreign “aid.”

Your situation is different, but the question is the same. If you can answer it for young D.W., you can answer it for Sam and Jack and John.

avatar Steve Berg March 13, 2010 at 10:49 pm

There have been some programs in Iowa that try to match up landless people who want to farm with landowners who for one reason or another cannot or do not want to farm their property. One of my cousins in southwestern Iowa was in a situation like this until his health gave out.

I also thank Allan for writing this perceptive and intriguing essay. Crony capitalism and crony socialism are nearly identical twins, and efforts along the lines Allan describes here, similar to Jefferson’s Ward Republics, are one of the few viable ways for us to crawl out of the financial abyss now facing us.

avatar Brandon W March 15, 2010 at 6:42 am

I think there’s room for more modernization of the proposed economic model; beyond productive land and small shops could be a opportunities for self-employed knowledge workers to work in free-forming and ever-changing networks to produce an economic output. However, the premise is sound, and the criticisms (and warnings) are both prescient and worth serious consideration.

avatar Wessexman March 15, 2010 at 7:23 pm

To John Wilson and others who have objected to the use of the state in distributism. Me and most distributists are quite anti-state, we know the centralised state usually mucks up and that it undermines community, family and such associations. However we are also not classical liberals and certainly not radical free marketeers in the sense we don’t object to any interference of the state in the market on principle and we tend to hold the common sense position that the state can achieve a limited amount of things, more than the nightwatchman ideal would allow, in the economy and society. So sure we need to radically scale back the state and we need to decentralise gov’t but that doesn’t mean we have to asrcibe to the complete free market ideology, something which is American style libertarian/classical liberal and not conservative or traditionalist, and can’t support even limited, well thought out state action(and I mean that beyond simply nightwatchman.) aimed at creating a more distributist society.

avatar Paul March 19, 2010 at 6:11 pm

I used to consider myself a distributist, but my views vary a bit. I classify myself as a Microcapitalist (see MicrocapitalistManifesto.com)

I’m strongly disagree on the state’s need to redistribute the existing productive property – that will either happen on its own or the people will take one of several routes to accomplish that goal.

Another point I disagree with the mainstream distributists is the agrarian focus. Just because Belloc and Chesterton lived in a time of transition does not mean every citizen must take up some sort of farming activity to have productive property.

Furthermore, mainstream distributism neglects new areas of property, namely intellectual property and capital formation.

Microcapitalism is focused on encouraging small business and personal productive property, the protection of workers’ capital (by them owning it, not the state or the employer) and small government. It cannot be legislated, it must be a ground-up revolution from the people taking small steps personally.

To this end, there is a great many steps that can be taken by individual citizens, independent of the state, that do not require rezonng and farming activity.

avatar Wessexman March 19, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Paul firstly distributism generally doesn’t posit a large role for the state in distributing property, in fact it tends to want the state to interfere less. However it certainly doesn’t believe we need to stick to the laissez faire ideal completely and that measured and decentralist policies which promote distributism are acceptable. For instance a georgist land value tax replacing most other taxes, particularly when it is collected locally, is perfectly acceptable.

Secondly the Agrarian focus of Chesterbelloc is, imho, a very good thing. Agriculture is key to human civilisation, it is the archetype of all crafts and a strong, healthy and numerous class of yeoman farms are a necessary support for any healthy and free state. We require a revivial of small agriculture and a better rural-urban balance, even today but that doesn’t mean any necessary Ludditism or forcing everyone back to the land, it just means a more healthy and balanced idea of agriculture.

avatar Paul March 19, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Wessexman,

Big-government distributism is only advocated by some since Chesterton himself said he had not definite plan for how the redistribution would take place. Allan’s article here, as John pointed out, lists 12 out of 17 steps that involve big government involvement. Most distributists are small government, but the article here takes a different track. You are right to point out that Allan does seem to be in the minority here.

It is also worth noting that many objections to distributism seem to be centered around an assumption “big government” is needed to redistribute the property.

The reason why I am less agrarian than mainstream distributsits is that having grown up on the East Coast, I know all too well that many people in America do not have the access to even grow a garden, much less grow enough to eat or trade. If we want to mobilize as many people as we can, leading with an agrarian front or making farming a big focus immediately alienates those in cities or where land is so expensive they are unable to purchase (i.e. redistribute) it. Consider how many displaced workers – those most likely to be swayed to Socialism and hit hardest by the economic state – are largely city dwellers unable to start gardening, much less a farm.

I’m not saying to abandon the agrarian tactics in the strategy; growing your own food (if you are able to) is a simple step that increases one’s independence and strikes at the big box merchants at the same time, and is a good idea to promote. However, 70+ years after the Chesterbelloc wrote, a much smaller percentage of the population is able to, particularly since so many got suckered into living in hives. :)

avatar Wessexman March 19, 2010 at 11:12 pm

Well I do generally disagree with “big gov’t distributism”, I think those who believe in it need to read Kevin Carson’s work and those who have influenced him like Rothbard and Marx’s history(I don’t think much of most of the rest of their work except Marx’s business cycle theory.), the New left historians like Gabriel Kolko who write on big business and the state, the likes of Joseph Stromberg and Roy Child who write on similar topics but from the American style libertarian angle as well as J.A Hobson, the Hammonds, Kirkpatrick Sale and others. This basically shows capitalism and corporate-capitalism are and always have been massively statist and rely on the state and therefore it is better to dismantle this apparatus than try and take it over.

If you’ve never heard of Carson here’s his site:

http://www.mutualist.org.

Check in particular these works:

http://www.mutualist.org./id4.html
http://www.mutualist.org./id47.html (the second part of this is the important one.)
http://www.mutualist.org./id114.html

However there is a difference between small gov’t distributism and the complete laissez faire or free market ideal. I don’t believe in the free market as an autonomous thing but I do think overbearing, centralised gov’t is not a good thing either and share a general small gov’t ethos but that doesn’t mean I will not be prepared to use measured, cautious and as far as possible decentralised state policies to further distributism.

On Agrarianism I partly agree with you although the work on biodynamic, organic farming by the likes of John Jeavons can seeminlgy get amazing results from very little land. However the ideal of Agrarianism and the yeomanry is one I consider key, even today. This does not mean, I stress again, Ludditism or a complete back to the land movement but it does mean a much larger place for the small farmer, a strong and numerous yeoman farmer class and a better rural-urban balance. This seems very much necessary for a strong, healthy and traditional society as far as I can see as many great statesman from Solon to PiusXI have pointed out.

avatar Wessexman March 19, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Well I do generally disagree with “big gov’t distributism”, I think those who believe in it need to read Kevin Carson’s work and those who have influenced him like Rothbard and Marx’s history(I don’t think much of most of the rest of their work except Marx’s business cycle theory.), the New left historians like Gabriel Kolko who write on big business and the state, the likes of Joseph Stromberg and Roy Child who write on similar topics but from the American style libertarian angle as well as J.A Hobson, the Hammonds, Kirkpatrick Sale and others. This basically shows capitalism and corporate-capitalism are and always have been massively statist and rely on the state and therefore it is better to dismantle this apparatus than try and take it over.

However there is a difference between small gov’t distributism and the complete laissez faire or free market ideal. I don’t believe in the free market as an autonomous thing but I do think overbearing, centralised gov’t is not a good thing either and share a general small gov’t ethos but that doesn’t mean I will not be prepared to use measured, cautious and as far as possible decentralised state policies to further distributism.

On Agrarianism I partly agree with you although the work on biodynamic, organic farming by the likes of John Jeavons can seeminlgy get amazing results from very little land. However the ideal of Agrarianism and the yeomanry is one I consider key, even today. This does not mean, I stress again, Ludditism or a complete back to the land movement but it does mean a much larger place for the small farmer, a strong and numerous yeoman farmer class and a better rural-urban balance. This seems very much necessary for a strong, healthy and traditional society as far as I can see as many great statesman from Solon to PiusXI have pointed out.

avatar Elizabeth October 7, 2010 at 3:44 pm

This does not excite me but this is what the IRS has to say.

The tax statutes were re-codified by an Act of Congress on February 10, 1939 as the “Internal Revenue Code” (later known as the “Internal Revenue Code of 1939″). The 1939 Code was published as volume 53, Part I, of the United States Statutes at Large and as title 26 of the United States Code. Subsequent permanent tax laws enacted by the United States Congress updated and amended the 1939 Code.

ALL taxes are theft. The government will continue to take more money from the rich AND middle class as long as we are okay with the idea of services provided at the barrel of a gun. Propaganda is the only thing propping up the idea of government.

avatar Maria Donaldson October 9, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Is their any business that will not require us to pay taxes? On every business that number one concern is taxes.

– Maria Donaldson

avatar John Médaille October 9, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Maria, I don’t know. Is there any business you can practice without using public services? Police, fire, roads, courts, the army, food inspection, money, etc.? Such a business should be exempt from any and all taxation.

avatar Edwards Higgins October 20, 2010 at 2:04 am

If you want to eliminate taxes, start your business with an offshore corp and Foundation. Then set up offshore bank accounts. If you set this up correctly you will have little or no tax liability.

avatar Williamsyolanda82 February 20, 2011 at 1:19 am

This whole article is very informative. In fact I want to write a report on it for school. I totally agree with everything that is stated her in this article. The question is what can we as a people do about it? If enough people uphol these true beliefs there won’t be much the Buisness Government can do to change the minds of many Americans who demand a change.

avatar John R. Sudsbury August 7, 2012 at 8:40 am

I consider myself a “Brooks Adams Distirbutist”, having read THE LAW OF CIVILIZATION AND DECAY before anything by Messrs. Belloc, Chesterton and Schumacher. I have also read and studie works by Henry George and found his views and theories, in many ways in agreement with Belloc et al. These sources enabled me, during the recent Occupy rallies, to critique the movement for being not too radical, bur not being radical enought! Their policies, if carried out, would take wealth and property out of the hands of the few and put them into the hands of the fewer!

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