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.