Distributism as a Problem
When people think of Distributism, even people who know a little about it, they tend to see it as something problematic, something more akin to agrarianism and a naïve nostalgia for a rural past, a search for a “golden age” that never existed. In this, they are not entirely mistaken, for distributists frequently present themselves this way, and there is no fault in taking somebody at their word. But if there is to be any real advance, then distributism must make a better presentation of itself. And in this task, I see two great problems. The first is the misunderstanding (even among distributists) of the nature of property and the second is the misunderstanding (especially among distributists) of the role of politics. That is to say, we have a theoretical and a political problem.
Distributism as a Theoretical Problem
The primary concern of distributism is distributive justice, judged largely by the distribution of property. For there are but two sources of wealth: The gifts of God and the labor of man. By “the gifts of God” we mean those things which man can neither make nor do without, things like land, air, water, broadcast spectrum, and the like. And in accord with nearly all religious systems, distributists regard these gifts as given by God (or by Nature, if you have doubts about the divine) to all men for their common use. But these gifts can only be made useful to man when we apply our labor, whether physical, intellectual, spiritual, managerial, etc., and without this labor, the gifts remain hidden, useless. So, we take a tree and make a chair, because people prefer to sit in chairs rather than in trees; the labor of man applied to the gift of God makes the gifts available in a form we can use, and all wealth is produced like that.
But a problem arises immediately, because although the gifts of God are meant for all, actual use must be allocated to individuals, or to cooperating groups such as families, tribes or other types of communities. Two farmers cannot plow the same field, one for wheat and the other for corn; two radio programs cannot use the same frequency. There must be some means of allocating the use of these gifts, and it is in this allocation process that problems arise.
There are any number of historical methods for allocating use of the gifts of God, but the primary method in our age is that of private property. Or rather, that is the claim; the facts are otherwise. One great problem with the conversation today is that the question of property has been flattened to a question of “private property” vs. “public property.” Private property exists as an unlimited right; one may own as much as one’s wits and cunning can amass and in theory one person could own everything. As things actually stand, a comparatively few entities own most properties, or at least the most productive properties. But the great irony is that they do not own them as “private property,” but in the form of corporate collectives. For property itself exists along a continuum that begins with the communal (the foundation of all property) and moves to the personal, the cooperative, the private, and finally the collective or corporate, at which point the idea of “property” is negated, as control passes to a group of professional managers who are deemed to be “experts” no matter how incompetent they show themselves to be.
Distributism emphasizes the personal and cooperative aspects of property. The personal is distinguished from the “private” by being limited to the obligations one has. The head of a family needs enough property to support that family, but a person charged with defense of the community might require a good deal more property. Distributism is generally suspicious of unlimited positive rights which are divorced from duties; we need property to support a family, and hence the duty both dictates and limits the right. But the “unlimited” rights of private property for the few are viewed with suspicion because they necessarily limit the opportunities for personal property for the many.
Cooperative property is distinguished from collective property by the direction of control. In a collective, control flows from the top down and is generally exercised by managers who are remote from the property and who, in the course of their careers, will flit from one corporate collective to another, without any particular attachment to any of them. But in a cooperative, control is vested in all the members of the coop, people who are involved in the enterprise and have the greatest stake in its success. Distributism is justly suspicious of collectives, whether in their “soviet” or corporate forms, but highly supportive of cooperatives.
Distributism as a Political Problem
The primary political problem distributism faces is that when people first hear of it, they tend to ask, “Is this just socialism?” On one level, this is a naïve question, but on another, it gets to the heart of the matter. It is naïve because socialism (of the sort the questioner understands) posits that no one should own any property or—what is much the same thing—that everybody will own every property. But distributism posits that everybody should own some property as their personal possession and for their personal use. So distributism would seem to be the exact opposite of socialism.
But on another level, the naïve question is also the correct question, for distributism involves the recognition of the profoundly social nature of property; we are “socialists” in recognizing the communal origins of all property, even private property. Indeed, a purely “private” notion of property is dubious; property depends on a framework of laws and on the willingness of the community to defend the property. That is, if you can’t call the cops you can’t have property, private or otherwise. Property is a social question, and it is therefore a political question.
At this point, it is not distributism, but the distributists that have become problematic. For the truth is this: distributists tend to separate their “distributist” and political selves. That is to say, as distributists they may found a business or a coop, or dream of doing so, but as voters they are nothing in particular; they are Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, progressives, and what have you. We are literally all over the map. That is to say, we are nowhere at all. But if distributism is a real possibility, it needs to have a political program and one with a clear and definable purpose and goal. And I suggest that the goal should be two-fold, one part which might be termed “subversive” and one part which might be termed “patriotic.”
First the subversive part. Here, we are always trying to widen the spaces wherein a man or a woman might use their own personal or cooperative property to make their own way in the world. Here we are trying to create cracks in the concrete hegemony of capitalism so that some distributist flowers might grow. And foremost is the broadening and enforcement of anti-trust laws. For while capitalist propaganda advertises itself as “free market,” in reality it is opposed to the market. In a free market, there is vigorous competition and no firm is large enough to dominate the market and keep competition out. But what has actually happened is anti-market. When we look at practically any segment of the economy, we find that it is dominated by two or three firms. From beer to banking, from eye care to oil to entertainment, we find not a free market but a cartelized economy which sucks all the life out of the market and diminishes the space for the economic use of personal and cooperative property.
Foremost among the hegemonic institutions is the big-box store, itself largely the creation of the highway subsidy. These stores have done more than any other to wipe out the small businessman and destroy the commercial and communal life of towns and cities. But their “competitive” advantage does not arise from any supposed “efficiency,” but from subsidy. For it is not more efficient—but less so—to manufacture low-value goods in the interior of China, ship it to the coast, ship it across the sea to Long Beach, California, ship it by truck to Bentonville, Arkansas, and then ship it to regional distribution centers and stores. The only way this is practical is because the transportation system is subsidized at every stage. If, for example, the interstate highway system was financed by weight and distance tolls, the big-box store would be seen for what it is—the least efficient way of distributing goods—and local manufacturers and retailers, with shorter supply lines, would have the cost advantage.
Along with undermining the hegemonic aspects of capitalism, we must build up the legal and regulatory basis for distributist enterprises. Cooperatives need to have their own space in law, a space that provides for regulatory and even tax relief. There are good reasons to highly regulate vast global enterprises, and regulate them at the national and international level. An ADM pig barn that slaughters 4,000 pigs a day for shipment across the country needs one kind of regulatory regime, but when these safeguards are applied to the small farmer slaughtering a dozen pigs a week, the enterprise becomes uneconomic; ADM actually benefits from a regulatory regime that only big firms can afford.
Likewise, firms where the employees have effective control of their own work rules need little in the way of public regulation; the workers can protect their own interests. But in firms where the workers have no power, they require the power of the state to protect them from exploitative work rules and dangerous and toxic work environments. Hence the small and worker-owned firm, freed from the regulatory burdens that properly belong to mega-firms, will have an advantage over the globalist collectives.
Distributism as Patriotic Subversion
This short list is not meant to be exhaustive, but suggestive. Starting from the principle of widening the economic space for distributism and undermining capitalist hegemony, many other things will suggest themselves. But along with this subversive goal of undermining the system, there is a second and paradoxical goal: We must uphold the system. That is, we must participate in the political process with the goal of getting people the best deal that can be obtained under liberal capitalism. This is largely a matter of recognizing that alongside of market goods, there are common and socialized goods that are necessary for the stability and flourishing of families and communities. Everyone recognizes this in the case of such things as national defense, roads, police and fire protection, and the like, but do not the same considerations apply to healthcare, unemployment insurance, housing supports in over-crowded cites, and similar goods, goods without which family and community life becomes precarious.
There are, of course, distributists who take the opposite tack, such as the so-called “Benedict Option,” which advises political quietism while building up counter-cultural enterprises. The hope is that the liberal world order will simply collapse, and then as Patrick Deneen put it, “such countercultures will come to be seen not as ‘options’ but as necessities.” This tends to result in a politics suspicious of any actions of the nation-state in behalf of families, a politics which is theoretically libertarian but functionally corporatist. At this point, distributism negates itself politically to become its own opposite.
There are at least two problems with this. The first is that it’s the kind of thing said mainly by tenured professors and political pundits whose needs are well met by the system of liberal capitalism; they have their university’s Gold Plan insurance for their family and be insouciant about public healthcare for everybody else. Hence, they can painlessly advocate for collapse since the system already meets their needs and they are unlikely to actually see the collapse. They are divorced from the problems of the mass of men and women who have neither tenure nor health insurance. As such, the “Benedict Option” is simply a violation of solidarity.
The second problem is that just distribution does not arise from disorder, but from order. Liberal order has collapsed in Honduras; their major exports are now drugs and refugees. The Middle East is in flames; the only thing well-distributed is militias. It would be the same here; were America to collapse, the Amish farmers so admired by the “benedictines” would find themselves paying tribute to local warlords, presuming that they would be allowed to keep their farms at all.
So then, we are presented with a complex and even contradictory task. In the name of subsidiarity, we must work to undermine liberal capitalism and create alternative spaces for production and exchange, art and leisure, community and independence. But in the name of solidarity, we must work to ameliorate the system and socialize such common goods as health care, unemployment insurance, education, etc. In this, we can think of ourselves as “patriotic subversives,” working simultaneously to undermine and uphold the system of liberal capitalism so as to provide space and time for something better and more humane.