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.