The Sundays: Summertime
Toward A Truly Free Market

The Distributist Review

Sunday Night Journal — August 1, 2010

I’ve been intending to post something about this since the new Distributist Review site was unveiled a few weeks ago, and having trouble making time for it, so I think I’ll devote my Sunday writing hours to it.

The old Distributist Review site was a Blogspot blog, and was fine within those limits, but the new one is a great improvement. I’m a Facebook friend of Richard Aleman, who appears last on the new site’s staff list, but seems to have been the guy who did most of the actual construction work. He and whoever else is responsible deserve much praise for having put together a truly first-class site, with the sort of look and features that people expect from a professional site, including video (“Distributist TV”—try to get your head around that.)

Indeed, the new site is almost overwhelming, because there’s so much there, and so much being continually added. I only check in on Facebook for a short time every day or two, and when I do I usually see multiple notices from Richard Aleman about new TDR postings. I admit I have not read a great deal of the material. It’s not that I don’t think it’s worthwhile; part of the reason is the sheer quantity, and part of it is that these socio-political concerns have not been uppermost in my mind in recent years. When they are, it’s mostly in regard to current situations and controversies rather than principles. I think I’ve said most, if not all, of what I have to say on the principles in a few essays and book reviews, such as this one.

The principles of distributism are most often enunciated in a Catholic context, but the fundamentals seem to me to be pure common sense: the idea that it’s better for most people to have a small amount of property and power than for a few people to have a lot of both (as they tend to go together). It goes hand-in-hand with the principle of subsidiarity, the idea that decisions should generally be made as close as possible to the point where they have the most effect and where the most knowledge of the situation normally exists. Subsidiarity is another term heard most often in Catholic writing and supported by Catholic theology, but not dependent on it. One could argue for either idea without reference to any religious doctrine at all, on the basis of pure earthly common sense. Everyone knows, more or less instinctively, that most people most of the time will take better care of something they own than of something which belongs to someone else. Everyone knows that ownership of productive property fosters responsibility and citizenship.

But it’s not an accident that talk of distributism and subsidiarity is most often encountered in Catholic circles. Not only are the fundamental principles found in Catholic social teaching (though not necessarily under those names), but the great popularizers of distritbutist ideas have mostly been Catholic, notably of course Chesterton and Belloc.

The USA is in its foundations a Protestant country, and yet there is a great deal in distributism which seems particularly resonant with American ideas (if not current American practice). Jefferson seems to have envisioned a nation of which the backbone would be small landowners and merchants, and even today there is no more reliable way to get public sympathy for an economic program than by promising that it will move us toward that ideal. So why is distributism not more widely accepted? Especially, why is it not more widely accepted, and not only accepted but propounded, by orthodox Catholics?

Part of the answer must be a reluctance or inability to think outside the categories of capitalism and socialism. Orthodox Catholics tend to be politically conservative and pro-capitalist, and to reject as socialism any substantial challenge to our usual American conceptions of free enterprise. This in turn is, I suppose, an effect of our culture war, in which each side feels that it must reject the other’s views in toto.

Another part of the problem is that distributists tend, like any marginalized political faction, to do their part to remain marginalized. They (we) can come across as cranks, exhibiting the unattractive and unproductive tendency of those who without power and influence to sit on the sidelines and sneer at those who have it, or the fastidiousness of those who hold themselves above participation in practical politics but not above sneering at those who do participate.

And Catholic traditionalists sometimes rely heavily on appeals to papal authority, starting with Rerum novarum, to make the case for distributism, with a sort of the-pope-said-it-that-settles-it attitude which in my opinion goes a step too far, and, more importantly, neglects the practical case, which is extremely strong and likely to be more persuasive in a matter where the question of what works to produce a just and healthy prosperity is critical.

The new Distributist Review appears to be avoiding these pitfalls. The editor, John Médaille, seems to have had substantial business experience, which ought to give the magazine a good grounding in our actual contemporary situation. I hope it will be widely read.


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Why in the world does the new site have a prominent link to CounterPunch, the out-there (or worse) journal edited by Alexander Cockburn? Just last year, for instance, it ran a story on Israeli organ harvesting (see here: .

Oh great, I hadn't noticed that. As I was saying about crankery.... I'm only vaguely acquainted with CounterPunch but it does indeed appear to be, if nothing else, way over on the red end of the hysteria meter.

It certainly looks very nice. I didn't have much time to read anything. Now that I am a wage slave, I don't have much time to read about not being one.


That's how they keep us down.

That's what most frightens me about this new job.

Can it be worse than cleaning terrapins?


Probably less physically demanding, but on the other hand I'm likely to spend what little free time remains cleaning terrapins, rather than reading.

Now that I am a wage slave, I don't have much time to read about not being one.

That's pretty funny, in a disturbing kind of way. :)

Thanks for this, Maclin, I haven't had much time to check out the new site.

Re: the "cranky" link - surely a website can put up links to other groups etc without necessarily ascribing to all their views?

It is very hard not to be a crank, under such circumstances, I reckon. I'm pretty cheerful and laid back by nature, yet as time goes on, I get more and more irritated and cranky. God help me.

I like what you say about the common sense aspect of distributism. I agree. This ought to be the greatest part of its appeal. The best thing about Rerum Novarum, IMO, is that its very name highlights the fact that socialism and capitalism, far from being the only kinds of economies in existence, are actually "the new things."

Actually I meant "cranky" in the sense of "he's a crank," meaning he's eccentric. There are some fairly eccentric corners of Catholicism here, as I suppose everywhere. The thing about Israel raises eyebrows because there's a persistent presence of anti-semitism in some traditionalist Catholic circles, and some of those are also distributists or otherwise very big on the social teachings of the Church, esp. in the 19th c.

Actually I meant "cranky" in the sense of "he's a crank," meaning he's eccentric.

Yes, but being irritated regularly about things of importance to me, is not only making me cranky (i.e. angry) but potentially a bit of a crank! This is the opinion of my husband and one of my male friends who took the time to caution me re: some of my (possibly over the top) blog posts, when I was still blogging.

I'm not a crank about the Jews, however. Indeed, we hardly have any here in Tassie, so they're just not on the radar.

Alexander Cockburn does some very interesting journalism and is not tied to the orthodoxies of left or right. Really, if you follow the links on just about any legitimate site you will eventually find something crazy...
But this looks good; have you updated the links on CT? Including your blog?

No, I haven't. I need to do that--thanks for the reminder.

Prompted by my love for Chesterton, I looked into distributism a few years ago (as much as my distrust of economics as an intellectually rigorous discipline would allow me to). My problem with distributism -- or any other economic system other than laissez faire capitalism, or the "free enterprise system," or whatever euphemism you care to use -- is that it would take an oppressive degree of governmental intrusion to implement it. Sure, you could concoct a cozy little society based on guild tradesmanship and family farms and stand-alone retail shops. But what amount of governmental fiat would be required to maintain such a system? It would be in essence a Disney theme park, not an economy.

William Morris had essentially the same moral and aesthetic objections to industrial capitalism that Chesterton and Belloc had. But he was honest -- or realistic -- enough to know that only a command economy could regulate anything close to what he envisioned as the ideal society. He became an orthodox socialist and went down that dead-end road toward his dream. So far as I can see, distributists are just as idealistic as Morris but unable or unwilling to acknowledge the dire economic and political consequences of their ideals.

I think that's an extremely trenchant criticism, and one I have a lot of sympathy with. I don't think it's the last word, though. I'm in a hurry right now (shouldn't even be on the computer) but I'll try to reply more fully on my lunch break today.

I think that there are things that government could do that would make it easier for those who chose to live the life that Distributists talk about. It's been a long time since I read anything about it, but it seems like the current tax and business laws make it near impossible.


So what I'm saying is that the government could make it possible by less interference rather than more. Of course, you couldn't create a whole society along those lines this way, but small groups of people could do it.


I'm not sold entirely on distributism as a system, but I do think that a lot of the ideas are good and would be workable and beneficial. The problem with the current manifestation of free market capitalism is that the markets aren't in any sense "free" -- today's capitalism is a monstrous state/corporate hybrid.

I just recently finished reading Chesterton's The Outline of Sanity, in which he presents a haphazard case for Distributism. When reading, I raised the same objection that Jeff raised: even if one could establish the distributist ideal at a particular time, the natural dynamics of the market would tend to destroy it. Chesterton's counter-argument is that this depends on cultural factors and is not necessary. He argues -- whether rightly or not I do not know -- that something very like the distributist ideal existed in pre-industrial Europe and was stable over a long period. The tendency of the market to concentrate wealth and property in the hands of those who already have it could be countered by, for instance, a social stigma against selling one's own land. (This is Chesterton's own example.)

So, think about all this in light of the system that's laid down in the Old Testament. Every man has his property and if his crops fail, or he is otherwise in financial distress, he can sell his land or he can sell himself into slavery or something of the sort. At the time of the Jubilee, debts are forgiven and the land reverts to the original family. One of the things that's interesting to me about this is that the system acknowledges the tendency that Craig talks about of wealth to accumulate in the hands of the wealthy.


Well, I've just about run out of lunch break now, but I was going to say something along the same lines as Craig.

I get annoyed with distributists who give the impression that just itching to take total control of economic matters (in the name of the Church) and that if they could just get hold of enough power, they would immediately impose a total and fairly rigid model of distributism. I don't think that's either possible or desirable. It would have to be a cultural change. I think more of our current economic practices are rooted in culture than we are conscious of. We have a cultural prejudice, for instance, that it isn't rational or especially desirable for people to act on the basis of any consideration except immediate financial advantage in any economic transaction. That could change. I also get annoyed with free-marketers who talk as if economics were a branch of physics. There are no "laws" in economics comparable to those in physics. There are natural tendencies and patterns, but we're talking about human decisions, not physical forces.

On the other hand, I'm not so sure the example of stable pre-industrial Europe is quite as persuasive as Chesterton thinks. Most people were peasants. What did they think, I wonder?

Everyone should read the interview with John Medaille at the ISI site for the book mentioned in the next post.

Everyone should read I see you are trying to impose a total and fairly rigid reading system on us.


Yes, I had to say "should" instead of "must," because of my unfortunately limited enforcement powers.

As one small example of a way in which guvvermints could simply get out of the way - remove any laws forbidding/restricting the selling of produce etc on roadsides.

It seems from the little I've read that sometimes guvvermints promote a distributive economy (somewhat) by accident. I'll have to go find an example.

It would have to be a cultural change.

Yes I agree.

I also get annoyed with free-marketers who talk as if economics were a branch of physics.

Ditto. Just calling something a "law" doesn't make it so, or make it a law in the same sense as the laws of physics, as you note.

Most people were peasants. What did they think, I wonder?

I aspire to be the wife of a peasant one day (by my wage-slave husband becoming a peasant, rather than by marrying a peasant!)

99% of businesses are small businesses, and their main complaint is being ham-strung by bureaucracy. 1% are big businesses, and they (and their shareholders) are the ones with the big tax breaks and the easy access to policy makers.

The government could go some way to encourage small ownership just by getting out of people's way, and by not bending over quite so far backwards to make exceptions for big business (not oppressively, you understand, but just by making them subject to the same rules as the rest of us).

That's a point often made by free-market purists. Also, that big corporations are often quite comfortable with burdensome regulations that present a barrier to the entry of smaller competitors. They can afford the lawyers etc. required to navigate the system

I've not come across a trumpeter of the "free market" who really seemed to think that big business shouldn't be allowed to play by its own rules. All the ones I've come across give every appearance of rating the freedoms of big corporations higher than the freedoms of either workers or co-operatives. But I try to avoid them, so I might not have come across a representative sample.

Well, that's a slightly different point. Maybe it's a Europe-America difference, but here it's not hard to find a free-market purist who may think big business should be left pretty much alone (within the limits of fraud, piracy,etc.) but just as adamant that it shouldn't get sweet treatment from the government, especially stuff that small(er) business doesn't get--the tax breaks, the policy input, etc. that you mentioned in your earlier comment.

In Australia, I doubt very much that small business would account for a very high percentage of businesses. Sadly.

When the GFC hit, one remark made was:

"socialism for Big Business, capitalism for everyone else"

I think more even than a cultural transformation, distributism would depend for its ongoing success on a spiritual transformation of mankind -- and that expectation I would see as yet another obstacle in the way of its success.

Chesterton might say (it's been a while since I read him on this topic) that it is distributism that could BRING a spiritual transformation. Reading either Chesterton or Morris (Chesterton's philosophical godfather when it comes to economic issues) one gets an image of a society corrupted by capitalism -- capitalists and laborers both robbed in about equal measure of their humanity by the system they're both trapped in. I'm not sure that's an entirely false image, but I think the calculation of which is cause and which is effect may be more complex than most 19th-century economic reformers (including Marx) thought. Complexity, of course, being the enemy of reform.

It's not impossible that four or five centuries of capitalism have made people more materialistic, or that living for a couple of generations in a model distributist society could instill in people a sounder estimation of the value of worldly goods and the dignity of labor. But how do you get that second, counter-cultural ball rolling? To deny the ability of technology to produce wealth on an ever increasing scale and the tendency of people to sacrifice economic independence for the chance to get some of that wealth (as "wage slaves") is to challenge something that comes about as close to being a real "law" of economics as I -- or Mac, I suspect -- would be willing to acknowledge.

Beyond the limited and problematic success that some experimental utopian community could have in demonstrating the promise of distributism -- and we know what the historical track record of such communities is -- I don't see how distributism gets established as a third economic way, or even how the seeds of distributism get sown in our own economy, other than as governmental policy -- and what are the chances of that?

Which leaves some way of "baptizing" capitalism as the Catholic's only workable approach to economic philosophy and the implementation of "Rerum novarum." And that too requires spiritual transformation....

Jeff, I don't think distributism would require a wholesale spiritual transformation. I'm not convinced it's utopian, although certainly its advocates make it sound that way sometimes. A distributist order would certainly have its share of corruption and if it were the actual reigning order it would simply be part of "the world" in the biblical sense, and people like today's Catholic distributists would still denounce it. I've heard it said, for instance, that guilds, which sound so benign, also functioned as a way of limiting access and fixing prices for certain trades. Yet possibly we could have a more human order. It seems not insignificant to me that no one loves the physical or mental environment created by capitalism (using that word, rightly or wrongly, to describe our system). We like the money, we like our iPods and such, but we try to escape from the environments where they're produced and sold. We have contempt for commercials and marketing in general. There's something seriously amiss in this. And then there's the whole question of whether what we've done over the past century can be sustained within our present ideas of how things ought to be done--I think there are serious doubts about that.

I think I'm going to hold off any further comment on what I think is actually possible until I've read some of Medaille's book. I admit none of my ideas are very clear.

A distributist I know once said that although Richard Nixon was a terrible man he deserved credit for one thing: implementing wage and price controls. I was greatly taken aback by that, as I thought most knowledgeable people agreed that such controls were counter-productive. It does seem that there are in the distributist movement a certain number of people who simply want an economy commanded from the top down, and in that sense might be thought of as socialist in temperament, or like socialists. I'm pretty suspicious of that thinking, and whatever I think distributism might be, I don't think it's that.

Mac --

I think I will read the Medaille book too. As I said in my first comment, distributism was something I HOPED would turn out to be the truly workable alternative to unredeemed capitalism and unredeemable socialism, but it didn't appear to me to be so the first time I looked.

The Q&A with Medaille on the book's website is enticing. He comes across as intelligent and good-natured, if a bit doctrinaire.

Not that there's anything wrong with that....

The British government is launching a crack-down on benefit fraud, which costs the exchequer 2 billion pounds a year. As a cousin of mine just posted on Facebook - tax fraud costs the exchequer more like 15 billion a year, but if they cracked down on that they'd be embarrassing their funders, friends and colleagues.

A couple of commenters on this post noted very justly that while distributism might require some sort of governmental sponsorship to work, there were also plenty of instances in which it is our current artificial and regulatorily tarted-up version of capitalism that is getting a helping hand from government.

A perfect -- and fairly nauseous -- example just came to my attention today.


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