05 June, 2014

Is Distributism Agrarianism?


A response to Peter Blair's article in First Things.

I think that Peter Blair's article, Distributism is not Agrarianism, is a very important article for continuing the discussion on how to resolve our economic problems. Please read it. Please share it. If necessary, please learn from it.

If I may offer one criticism, it would be that he is incorrect that the tendency of some distributists to advocate a return to an agrarian society is due to the fact that they "haven’t yet unlearned their reliance on those old romantics, Chesterton and Belloc." While Chesterton and Belloc appreciated the importance of agriculture, their writings also clearly demonstrated an appreciation of technology and they wrote of applying the principles of distributism to newly emerging technology. We must remember that large scale industrialization was just emerging when they were writing, and many countries actually did have a primarily agrarian economy. However, my reading of their writings did not suggest a rejection of technology, but of the way the capitalists were monopolizing it. They also criticized how capitalism was transforming and industrializing agriculture. These were the early days of such activities. I believe that they were decrying the loss of wide spread, family owned, farms to large industrialized ones rather than advocating that the economy should be agrarian.

I would argue that what Chesterton and Belloc were advocating is a proper balance of technology and agriculture within local communities, all with wide spread private ownership, for the purpose of making those communities economically viable and vibrant. Belloc spoke of the cooperative ownership of large industries that, at that time, could not feasibly be implemented on a smaller scale. He also spoke positively of technological advances that had made it possible for some industries - like the production of electricity - to be less centralized that it had previously been. These are not the words of someone advocating the abandonment of technological advances and a return to the "simpler" agrarian societies of the past.

That aside, I believe that Mr. Blair's article is very important. It cannot be denied that there are agrarian advocates in distributist ranks. As a group, we should approach discussions with them on the grounds that an agrarian life style is one way, but not the only way, that people may choose to live according to distributist principles.

The Importance of Agriculture in a Distributist Society

I have long advocated that, in order for a state's economy to be healthy and strong, its local economies must first be healthy and strong. I have also argued that, in order for a local economy to be healthy and strong, the local economy must be as self-sufficient as it can practically be. This self-sufficiency is based on the idea that a local community must be able to produce as much of its basic needs as possible. This certainly includes certain industries like construction, textiles, metal crafts, and many other things needed to produce housing, clothing, and other things. When considering basic needs, however, we must not forget one of the most basic of all - food.

It is self defeating to argue for the wide-spread ownership of industry without simultaneously advocating the wide-spread ownership of agriculture. It is self defeating to advocate the support of local manufacturers and businesses without simultaneously advocating the support of local farmers. The point is that modern distributism must embrace these things side by side. Those who advocate a return to agriculture should not be shunned, but they should be willing to acknowledge that technology and city life are not the enemies of agriculture or distributism - the consolidation of the ownership of productive capital is. 

What this means is that, when we explain that distributism means more ownership, more providers, more producers, we are talking about the whole of the economy. Increasing the wide-spread ownership of agriculture and industry must occur side-by-side if distributism is to be a reality. One may proceed faster than the other, but both must take the journey together or we will have failed.

So, what does a distributist society look like? Will it be a return to plows pulled by horse and oxen? While some may make that choice, most will opt for tractors. Will it mean that each and every one of you must start living on a homestead with "three acres and a cow?" No. Some may choose to do so, but most will not. Does it mean abandoning the cities and technology to return to a primarily agrarian society? No.

Distributism does mean that there will be more people who will make their living in agriculture. This is because each community is a local market for its product. The larger the local community is, the more demand for agricultural products there will be and the more need for people producing those products. However, those products will be delivered to people who work in cities, who produce non agricultural products, who provide services, who operate computers, etc. 

Peter Blair is right. Distributism is not Agrarianism. Distributism does not depend on a society returning to an agriculture based economy. Distributism is about the widely distributed ownership of all productive capital. There is nothing wrong with agrarianism, or with a community choosing to be primarily agrarian - economically speaking, but that is not a requirement for distributism. Distributism would have that community next to a city where technology was developed and advanced. Each would support the other because no matter how advanced the technology, people still need to eat, and good technology can improve agricultural production.

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