Distributism and the Lost Cause

I consider myself a distributist. This is odd because I do not believe that distributism is an effective economic system. I don’t even consider distributism a source of sound political principles. Distributism is a defunct idea. To be emphatic I might go further and call distributism one of the most naive philosophies ever proposed. Still, I call myself a distributist. Despite its manifest failures, distributism contains a spark of idealism absent in the contemporary world; it is this idealism that deserves to be carried forward and explored in the modern times.

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Chesterton’s third way

Inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (on Capitol and Labor), G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc formulated distributism as one of the first “third way” Christian alternatives to socialism. Chesterton and Belloc preached a return to the fundamental Christian values in order to move society away from large institutions and back towards the organic family-oriented communities of the medieval past. On the surface idyllic, distributism was in fact a revolutionary perspective that viewed the existence of largeness and efficiency as enemies to the protection of the small and beautiful. Many distributists following Chesterton and Belloc believed that only when the veneration of power and imperialism was destroyed could the poor and humble things in life be valued. Much ink was spilled on the value for the humble and Chesterton (never shying away from grand pronouncements defending the downtrodden) famously finished his distributist magnum opus What’s Wrong with the World by asserting that he would rather disband every bank, parliament, and army within England than admit that the shaving of one poor girl’s head for lice was “necessary”.

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The distributist community

But despite the romance of Chesterton’s assertions, the distributist vision was (and still is) economic nonsense. Anyone with an even rudimentary understanding of trade knows the terrible impact economic de-globalization would have on the poor. Anyone with knowledge of manufacturing knows the price de-industrialization would have for ordinary families. Moreover, Chesterton’s notion of an independent and empowered medieval peasantry is one the greatest examples of historical hogwash in the modern era. Truly it was a mercy that Chesterton’s creed was found hard and never tried. As a practical system, distributism deserved to die in a sea of well-earned laughter just as much as communism deserved to die in its sea of well-earned blood.

But I persist. Even if there is no value in implementing distributism, there is value in calling oneself a distributist. Identity should be about the ideals and, as such, one can associate with a political philosophy even as he acknowledges it to be impractical. A person’s core ideological position says something about him. If one calls themselves a libertarian or a socialist they are saying something definite about their values even if that same person acknowledges that pure libertarianism or pure socialism would be a disaster. Values are an end to themselves and therefore a truly honest ways of constructing an identity. It is in this way that calling oneself a distributist is powerful. The name stands for idealism, a futile idealism perhaps, but relevant nonetheless.

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Idealism as a guiding light

Chesterton was right in one regard, the world is not suffering from too much idealism but too little. There are too many conversations about practical reality and too few about the values needed to rule over that reality. Within all of the discussion about interventionist wars and international institutions, do people ever think about how the planet should be governed ideally? Within all the talk of funding entitlements, do people discuss how responsibility and ownership should ideally be divided between the individual and state? I find that ideology is almost never discussed in politics. And if there is a dearth of ideological discussion in politics, there is an absolute void of ideological consciousness in technology and culture.  The history of internet privacy and digital copyright abuse is one long catalog of the American people accepting incursions on their property that would have been rejected in seconds if put in stark ideological terms. Like it or not, through a series of pragmatic steps, a core American ideal is now almost removed from our everyday lives.  Admittedly, in realistic terms, privacy and property may be doomed in the digital age; but I would rather hold up the ideal and see it fail than to simply slouch into perdition unconsciously. Even if ideals are hard to realize (and especially if  ideals are impossible to realize ) we still need them if for no other reason than to measure our progress or regression.

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Humanitiy’s greatest calling

Fair enough one might say, But why distributism? Certainly there is some higher idealism than a failed socialist scheme written by uneducated novelists? Why not Marx or Nietzsche? If one is going to chase castles in the sky, why not make a grander effort and reach for the stars and the supermen?  But I disagree. Distributism does embody the grandest desire of humanity because it rightly focuses man towards the small and personal. Distributism knows that humanity’s greatest calling (and failing) is to love thy neighbor. The philosophy has no grand vision but only a dream of family and fellowship. It is a utopia that is almost familiar because it is almost reachable. The vision of distributism is therefore not just a lost cause but the ultimate and most fundamental of humanity’s lost causes. I think this is what Frank Capra might have meant in his famous scene from Mr. Smith goes to Washington: that behind all the impossible ideals that drive us, the most important is to be neighborly.

So I call myself a distributist not only because the ideal it stands for is hopeless, but also because the ideal  is truly ideal. In the dying embers of that true ideal one might see more clearly the evils done in name of practicality. That, if nothing else, is a lost cause worth fighting for.

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5 thoughts on “Distributism and the Lost Cause

  1. Well maybe I shouldn’t erode your obvious enjoyment of the romance of lost causes, but Distributism has existed, does exist, and is near enough to frequent realization to obligate those of us who believe in it to actually pursue it, as opposed to merely praising it.
    The real Distributism of the medieval era did not die in a sea of laughter, it died in a well-documented series of forcible confiscations, primarily the enclosure acts but also (as Belloc emphasizes) Henry VIII’s seizures of Church lands. In other nations Marxism did similar work (with guns), while in my own, the collusion of Government and Tycoon granted the West to the railroads while encircling the homesteads in nooses of debt. The extermination of small property has been a goal rather vigorously pursued, considering (as you say) that it was either doomed all along, or actually a fantasy.
    The Marxists did not confiscate the countryside from no-one, the Okies did not migrate from nowhere, the Enclosure Acts were not literature. The working proprietor is not a fantastic monster of the imagination, even if the only credible eyewitness accounts come from those who, in the names of Marx and Keynes, seek to hunt him to extinction.

    • Point taken. In one sense there have been small communities that one could call “distributist” throughout history. But I think I break with you on the point about how and why previous communities were destroyed. I’m not a professional historian, but as someone who studies supply chains and manufacturing, I can comment on one enduring and inescapable fact about small economic communities : they generate sub-optimal utility while exposing members to increased risk. We need look no further than agriculture, where family or subsistence farming exposes participants to lower yield (less food) and greater risk (more chance of famine) than our modern industrial system (not that this excuses our system’s manifest sins). Economists and OR people (like myself) call this general principle “economy of scale” and I suspect it is this reason most classic examples of distributist communities are no longer with us (even if their destruction may have been aided by the bad actors you mentioned)

      Now, I don’t think any of these caveats is a reason for ceasing to pursue the principles of distributism within the small battalions of our daily life. But I am not holding my breath for a distributist economics system to take the world by storm. Moreover, even if it were possible to return our global economy to that of the local yeomen of times past, I believe the process would involve such a high toll in human deprivation as to make the project cruel from its very inception. So, I reluctantly stand by the global supply chains that make up our modern world, even if, in some sense, they are the chains of mephistopheles.

      Currently, my ambitions are limited. I am interested in how one could manage large systems of organization as to not be overtly hostile to the creation and sustainability of smaller moral communities and how small distributist communities can learn to flourish among the large institutions and large data systems that will necessarily govern the society of the future. It’s not utopian, but I think it’s what the world needs. Perhaps I will write another post addressing this.

    • I appreciated the article. I certainly can’t argue with tax reform that will better represent value in the form of profit. However, I am a little bit less clear on the exact nature of the legislation that could realize this sort of reform. Perhaps this is something that might have large inter-ideological appeal?

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