Distributism; ever heard of it? (or, this is NOT a post about Joe Biden)

I hadn’t. Through three years of undergrad and four years of graduate-level economics, I had never heard of distributism. Not that I was sheltered from the odder theories from days past. Marx, the utopian socialists, Henry George, the Austrians; they are just the weird, crazy uncles in the family of economic thought, displaying an occasional modicum of sanity but mostly just being avoided despite efforts not to be.

I have to throw distributism in that category too. I’m certainly sympathetic to the Catholic underpinnings of the movement, and realize that virtually everyone, no matter how unorthodox his proposal, wants to promote both material and spiritual well-being among mankind. And, sure, Chesterton and Belloc are great writers; but economists they ain’t. Ultimately, theory has to meet reality.

From what I can gather, distributism basically envisions a system of smallness and (therefore) self-sufficiency. So, in that sense distributists can attract followers weary of political mudslinging since they rise above modern liberal-conservative clashes with their dislike of both big business and big government. They can also cater to the American desire for self-determination and autonomy.

I have to pause here and wonder why distributism is so favored among Catholics. Distributists don’t like Big Business or Big Government, so why would they like Big Church? If they don’t like all businesses being monopolized or state power being centralized, it seems that they shouldn’t want there to be one flock and one shepherd. Also, when our faith stresses our complete and total dependence on God and His grace, it seems odd to hold up self-sufficiency as the highest ideal. Would monks who seek alms on which to live be the antithesis of distributism?

If we do recognize our dependency on God, it would seem that two more appropriate philosophical outlets would be either an authoritarian state or free markets. With those, our needs are provided interdependently with others either by force via the state, or voluntarily via markets.

But, onto the practical problems with smallness and self-sufficiency. If smallness is sought for both business and government, I don’t see how this could be enforced. To prevent small businesses from becoming big, some state-level enforcement apparatus would have to exist to monitor company size and impose penalties. This would necessitate an agency at least larger than the Census Bureau or Bureau of Labor Statistics, which now only samples a portion of businesses. You would inevitably run into problems of lobbying and special interests seeking to allow one’s own business to grow a little bigger than usual, and to prevent competitors from growing too big.

But maybe not, because enforced smallness would eliminate many things that businesses now do, lobbying being one. While society likely wouldn’t suffer much with fewer lobbyists in the world, enforced smallness would likely decimate private research and development. If Merck or Pfizer are forced to reduce their size and sales, from where would money come to research new drugs? There would be a rapid reduction in technological improvements and economic growth, but maybe that’s the point of the movement.

Distributist literature emphasizes guilds as a way to monitor industries and their firms and protect consumers. They may, but industry groups and occupational licensing have a long track record of discouraging new (and small!) entrants. In Louisiana, you need a license to be a florist or sell caskets; if the goal is many small firms, it isn’t clear how erecting barriers to entry will accomplish this.

The larger flaw in the “smallness” approach is a lack of appreciation of what are called “economies of scale.” Sure, some businesses and industries do very well when each firm is quite small: barber shops, law firms, accountants, real estate agents, etc. But envision what it would mean to have a firm of that size that produced, say, cars. Could a 20-employee car company exist? Sure, and the cars it produced would be astronomically expensive. Why are car companies so big? Because they can take advantage of large-scale production techniques that are efficient and feasible in car production but not in cutting hair. Not allowing firms in particular industries to take advantage of economies of scale would result in much more expensive products, but maybe that’s the point of the movement.

To encourage self-sufficiency, distributists advocate a wide distribution of private property, and discourage accumulation of property in too few hands (they wanted to occupy Wall Street before it was cool!). It isn’t clear, though, that most people even want to be self-sufficient, regardless of the high esteem that some people accord this virtue. I’m not talking about welfare recipients either; we dislike self-sufficiency because it’s so difficult and inefficient. The distributist mentality flies in the face of the concept of specialization, the idea that you do what you’re good at, I’ll do what I’m good at, and we can trade to obtain things we’re not good at individually. In a distributist world, would I have to make my own food? If I could rely on others, is there a geographic limit within which I am allowed? If I tried to buy Florida orange juice but lived in Montana, would I have to get it on the black market? Presumably a large company like Tropicana or Minute Maid would not be allowed due to their bigness.

I enjoy not being self-sufficient. Instead of having to spend time and effort farming my family’s food (which I would be terrible at), I can spend a relatively little amount of time and effort doing what I’m highly skilled at and enjoy, get paid for it, and have way more than enough money to afford my family’s food. I don’t see how life can in any way be made better by preventing people from doing what they enjoy, and forcing them to do what they detest. There is a reason why material well-being increases with the division of labor.

From what I can see, distributism not only lacks a knowledge of economic fundamentals, it seems to pride itself on this. Seen as a product of the Enlightenment liberalism, distributism rejects the free market philosophy that has, since Adam Smith, improved the lives and health of billions of people. If distributists don’t like the morality demonstrated by people in free markets, they need to address people’s morality, not try to tear down the market. Doing the latter will only make us all poorer. But maybe that’s the point of the movement.

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17 thoughts on “Distributism; ever heard of it? (or, this is NOT a post about Joe Biden)

  1. I don’t know how to respond to this in charity.

    Mr. Shaughnessy, I used to be Presbyterian, before i converted to the Catholic faith. During my transition, many people, many well intentioned people, tried to convince me against this. However, their arguments were entirely based on misunderstandings of the Catholic faith, and in the end, so easily refuted that i found myself more and more drawn to the Catholicism.

    This post made me a distributist.

    Two examples-

    -If distributists don’t like Big Business or Big Government, why would they like Big Church?

    I would ask, which is more likely: that no distributist has ever thought of this, or that you have misunderstood distributism?

    The Catholic Church is organized along lines that no distributist would object to. We aren’t opposed to Big Business or Big Government. We want power held at whatever level of governance in it can be best wielded. Although the Pope has virtually unlimited authority, in practice, the vast majority of decisions are made at the parish level. That is distributism. It is about empowering the lowest level of government to make as many decisions as is practical and having bishops and popes in place for when it is not.

    -”To encourage self-sufficiency, distributists advocate a wide
    distribution of private property, and discourage accumulation of
    property in too few hands”

    This is a true statement, this is the heart of distributism. How does this lead into distributists hate big business? Sometimes small companies are insufficient for a specific task, like car manufacturing. Do you really think we never thought of this?
    The Mondragon Cooperative Corporation has already been mentioned but its very existence completely disproves your entire argument. Mondragon is a distributist corporation employing nearly 84,000 people and has nearly $20 billion in revenue. In your next post on the subject, could you please explain how this does not qualify as “big business”. What makes them distributists? 100% of the company is owned by 80% of their workers. That’s real distributism in practice.

    I recommend you read this, it does a very good job of explaining how distributism plays out in the real world.
    http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2009/06/the-economics-of-distributism-v-the-practice-of-distributism/

    Peace and love my friend,
    Jim

  2. But we have witnessed the negative impact of opposite, and dominant, economic realities. The United States is frightfully dependent on foreign nations for countless basic living goods. Look at the tag affixed to most products, and they originate from foreign lands, especially China.

    The ability to produce goods and food is a vital sign of self-reliance and independence, of Freedom. There is a reason that America rose to prominence and greatness and Somalia fell far short. The United States is now rapidly approaching third world status in major cities, and I see the dearth of entrepreneurship and creativity as one of many reasons.

    There will come a reckoning when we will regret the loss of valuable agricultural land and skill sets. The wise will live on small farms outside of the cities, and those in the cities will go hungry.

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