by Brian Coman
Perhaps, in this time of the virus, it would be of benefit to reflect upon an idea – that of distributism – which dates back over 100 years and yet is now more relevant than ever.
Distributism is one of those ideas that most people seem to have heard about but very few know what it actually is. First and foremost, we must be clear that it has nothing to do with distributing goods or money from some central source – that is, it is not like communism. Neither is it a process for the political redistribution of wealth – that is, socialism. And yet, many commentators simply equate it with socialism.
In fact, a big part of the problem has to do with the name. “Distributism” certainly does bring to mind some sort of redistribution of wealth. But that is not what the term means.
The origin of the ideas encapsulated in distributism goes back to the Papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, and subsequently reiterated in later encyclicals (Quadragesimo Anno and Centesimus Annus).
What moved Pope Leo to issue his encyclical was a concern for the worsening situation workers were facing with the spread of both revolutionary socialism and a rampant capitalism in which the dignity of the human person was subsumed by human greed.
Again, it would be wrong to suppose that the Catholic Church had a monopoly on the idea. In fact, a good many principles associated with distributism can be found in the writings of the so-called “Christian Socialists”. Here again, I need to stress that the two movements – distributism and Christian Socialism are not interchangeable. For one thing, distributists are not anti-capitalist and they are not “political” in the same sense as many of the Christian Socialists often are.
To give an example, R.H. Tawney, perhaps the most famous of the Christian Socialists in interwar England, was for some time, a member of the British Labour Party and a member of the Fabian Society. He was not a Catholic and had a rather strained relationship with the Church of England. Nonetheless, many of Tawney’s ideas, like those of Pope Leo and his successors, were based on the message of the Gospels.
For this reason, Tawney is always worth reading and one of his most famous little books, The Acquisitive Society, can be read for free online here. In fact distributism takes a “third way”, between capitalism and socialism.
So, then, what is distributism? To answer that, we first need to look at another rather awkward word – subsidiarity. For it turns out that distributism is really just a certain formulation of the principle of subsidiarity.
Put simply, the principle of subsidiarity rests on the assumption that the rights of small communities – for example, families and local neighbourhoods – should not be violated by the intervention of larger communities – for example, the state or centralised bureaucracies.
Subsidiarity calls for the devolution of political and economic power such that it is “shared out”, so to speak, down through the political and economic structures of society.
We could say, then, that distributism was that particular way in which the general principles of subsidiarity could be applied to human work and the rewards for that work. The more that labour is divorced from the other factors of production (land, capital) the more it is enslaved to the will of powers beyond its control.
If you think about it a bit, the general principles of distributism arise from a consideration of human flourishing. Under what circumstances would a human person have the best opportunity to flourish as a person? This is a very Aristotelian notion and it has underpinned a great deal of Catholic thought on political, social and economic matters down through the centuries.
Humans are hardly likely to flourish as persons when they are forced to operate as little more than slaves to machines in a giant factory. Part of the satisfaction of human work comes from that sense of pride that comes of producing and owning a product of excellence. It comes too, from a sense of close relationship with the materials of the labour – ownership and care of the tools and the raw materials.
A good cabinetmaker will be loathe to lend you his best wood chisel, not only because you might damage the edge but, more importantly, because there is a certain bond between the owner and the tool. Likewise, for the traditional artisan, there is a very Platonic/Aristotelian sort of understanding of the raw material as, in some sense, requiring a human hand to bring out some inner perfection.
For instance, on the soundboards of some ancient musical instruments, one might find the following inscription (here translated from the Latin):
I was alive in the forest
I was cut by the cruel axe
In life I was silent
In death I sweetly sing.
In its more nostalgic and fanciful versions, distributism easily slides into a sort of vision of the idealised homestead farmer, wholly self-sufficient and “king of his own domain”. This writer is old enough to remember a time when the advocates of distributism in Australia were dismissed as sort of proto-hippies: “three acres and a goat”, was a common derisory description used in those days. Others simply dismissed them as “socialist ratbags” (I have been so called).
But, of course, that is a ridiculous parody of true distributism. People like Belloc and Chesterton were well aware of the frailties of the human condition (they were under no illusion as to the reality of Original Sin), and of the impossibility of returning to some supposed idyllic condition where each family owned its little piece of land, determined its own destiny, and interacted almost entirely within a small community setting.
So, what sort of real and achievable goals might a distributist aim for today? Here, I quote directly from an article written by Joseph Pearce for The Imaginative Conservative (June, 2014):
In practical terms, the following would all be distributist solutions to current problems: policies that establish a favourable climate for the establishment and subsequent thriving of small businesses; policies that discourage mergers, takeovers and monopolies; policies that allow for the break-up of monopolies or larger companies into smaller businesses; policies that encourage producers’ cooperatives; policies that privatise nationalised industries; policies that bring real political power closer to the family by decentralising power from central government to local government, from big government to small government. All these are practical examples of applied distributism.
Long-time readers of News Weekly will, of course, realise that the NCC has long advocated for the matters referred to in the quote above. They are, first and foremost, policies centred on the flourishing of the human family, then the local community, then the wider community.
Why is the family first? Because it is the natural and proper setting in which the individual human person can achieve his or her proper end. This, of course, begins with the proper education of children and the inculcation of those virtues that will enable the child to flourish.
The family is the first teacher, not the school. Likewise, for the elderly, the family ought to be the primary choice as caregiver, not the home for the elderly.
The current socio-economic climate is such that there are enormous barriers against the achievement of such goals. These are erected by the operation of free-market capitalism in company with liberal individualism.
When both parents are forced to work in order to survive, many of the matters associated with the moral, ethical and religious education of children is relegated to the schools. Likewise, who is left at home to care for an aged parent or grandparent? One could go on to list a hundred social, political or economic pathologies that counter the aims of the distributist.