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. Joshua Wilson says:

    This is a sad article. Starting from the perspective of ignorance (stated in the title of the article) we proceed….nowhere. Why even write an article that basically states that you don’t understand something, and then criticize it based on that lack of understanding?

  2. It is frustrating to hear that we “address the economic world as it could be” rather than as it is, after citing large-scale, on the ground, long-standing, distributist systems. I would have thought that the answer to the charge that a thing could never exist is to simply say, “Yes, it does exist,” but apparently not. But I can only wonder what would count as evidence to such persons; it they doubt the evidence of actual existence, what evidence would they accept? As for the claim that every “free” exchange is “libertarian,” this proves too much, for even exchanges within a communist society would be libertarian. Of course, “free” in the market context is never defined, but if it means “free of gov’t interference,” then such exchanges have never existed; even at the village level, customs and elders regulate trade. Just as there are no games apart from rules, (the recent experience of the NFL notwithstanding), there are no markets without regulations. Despite the claim that every transaction is Libertarian, there has never been, and never will be. We have systems on the ground; you have atheist philosophers. I’ll stick with what I can see.

    1. chris c. says:

      There are some isolated success stories of cooperatives, no doubt. What works within a faithful Catholic region such as Basque Spain may not work within a socially, ethnically, and racially diverse environment such as the USA, particularly since our nation can hardly be described as in any serious sense faithful to Catholic principles. Even on a superficial level we are hardly “One nation under God.” As such how is that Distributist ideas will ever work in such a nation except by the the forcible hand of our federal government? I absolutely do not endorse Libertarian thinking. I do however recognize the Austrian system as one which can make specific predictions about economic decision making, and which has a method for analyzing cause and effect in the market place. Distributism cannot and does not. While in a philosophical sense it makes some very valid points, until it develops a clear,consistent method for analyzing economic data , subject to peer review analysis by experts in the field of economics,how can it be taken seriously as an economic school of thought?

      1. Actually, it also works in Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, and many other places I could cite, including the United States. So its not just the Basque secret sauce. Hey, I thought economics was a science, divorced from all those messy ethnic considerations. Hmmm. Maybe it is “political economy” after all.

      2. And in fact, it does make economic predictions. I myself predicted that this recession, even before it started, would be worse than anything that had occurred since WWII, and would not be cured by the fiscal and monetary magic that had worked before. The title of the article was “Not Your Father’s Recession.”

  3. chris c. says:

    Thank you Tim for a thoughtful article and one that raises many of the very questions I have long had about Distributism. It certainly has its passionate defenders such as John who comments below, but none of them actually seem to address the economic world as it is, only as they imagine it could be. It is undeniable that to achieve the dream of a distrubutist world, a strict government overseer would be needed to forcibly compel that nothing “gets too big”, leaving one to wonder how enough goods and services to supply the needs of a large population could ever be produced. Small family or neighborhood businesses are unlikely to produce autos, aircraft, roads, bridges, pharmaceuticals etc, on an efficient enough scale to meet the needs of a sizable populace. Another weakness I see in Distributism, at least as an economic theory, is that is no clear methodology by which its successes and failures can be tested. They detest Austrian economics, but exactly what model would they adopt? Whatever it is it would have to be intrusive enough to empower a government to compel everyone within its purview to accede to its demand that something akin to the medieval guild system be restored. Who exactly will enforce compliance with the rules of the guild if not a powerful central government ? And as to John’s examples of thriving cooperatives, if they are doing so well then terrific! Let those who wish to participate in cooperatives do so. I wish them the best. If it is such a great and successful idea it will catch on soon enough. Or perhaps not, in which case compulsion would seem to be the order of the day. And who has a monopoly on compulsion? Under our system, the federal government. Ultimately therefore I see Distributism, in so far as its advocates have proposed , as a philosophy in search of an economic methodological model to substantiate it for a large national or international economy; and as an idea that failing to persuade through reason, will have to be imposed by force. I will continue to listen and read whatever its advocates propose, but at this point I am a skeptic.

  4. Troy says:

    “, unlike his own Libertarian views, which have not one successful implementation in all of human history”

    Right. Except every time two people made a voluntary exchange, free of coercion and without needing to get permission from the state. Every time that happens, the basic libertarian idea is implemented.

  5. John200 says:

    Dear Tim,

    Soon enough you will wish you had never heard of distributism, the dryest of dry holes drilled by the dreamers who do not like economic reality.

    I am not inclined to smash dist’sm, stomp its head, kick its heinie, or give the book-length refutation. Consider Tom Woods — google his name, there are many others who have shown dist’sm for a chimera.

    It is worth your while to read ChesterBelloc, but here they have dug a dry hole.

    At least we know enough to reject socialism.

  6. Teep says:

    Once again, Tim Shaughnessy proves that he is not ready to actually have a “faith seeking understanding” when it comes to being Catholic and supportive of a free market economy. As if capitalism and free markets were synonymous. As if John Paul II didn’t lambaste capitalism as an ideology just as pernicious as communism. As if he’d never ever heard of the idea of a straw man argument before. Last time I reacted to his picayune and pecuniary meanderings it was because he made a comment to the tune of ‘economics is separable from ethics’ or the like. Who let this guy on this website anyway? His schtick is, more often than not, NeoCon drivel from 1998. Its as if he got out of college not reading Aristotle or something. Ah, I don’t know why I even bother reading his comments any more.

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