Distributism: A Third Way
"Food insecurity cannot be solved by the food and agriculture system alone; it is a larger economic question.” – Mark Lapping, Distinguished Professor, Muskie School, University of Southern Maine, spring 2013
By Doug Fox
Long days, hard work. Efficiency of mind and body. Good soil, developed over time. Knowledge of plants, soils, insects, fungi. Community benefits beyond good, healthy food.
All this, and yet net farm incomes are so low – small farms net about 15 percent of gross – that farmers cannot reduce their selling price to make their food more affordable to low-income earners. Even farmers themselves struggle to purchase some food that they do not produce. Clearly, increased revenue from future advances in farm efficiency needs to go to increasing net farm income, not into lowering food prices. Food security as well as support for farm viability will need to come from changes in the larger economic system.
How do we make food more affordable and farms more viable? Most commentators look to solutions embedded in either capitalism (neo-classical or Keynesian) or socialism for the answers, and neither of these seems promising. I suggest that the agricultural sustainability movement seeks a third way, and for starters, that it looks closely at distributism, a free market alternative to capitalism first developed in the early 20th century by G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc.
A scan of the distributist literature reveals much common ground between promoters of agricultural sustainability and distributists. Modern distributists promote local agriculture, small farms (especially organic farms), CSAs, farmers’ markets, worker-owned cooperatives, micro-lending, credit unions, and associations of producers and of consumers. Like MOFGA’s farmer training programs, distributists favor a modern guild system of apprenticeships and journeypersons.
On the other hand, Monsanto is one of the most vilified companies in distributist literature on the basis that it undermines access to the means of production, which should be made as accessible as possible to those who wish to use their own capital to support themselves.
Heroes cited frequently and widely by the modern distributist movement include Wendell Berry and E. F. Schumacher.
Distributism as an Alternative to Capitalism and Socialism
In the local, organic movement, discussions about economic theory seem to be limited to criticisms of capitalism. We hear about the evils of capitalism, but we see from the same workers an independent spirit that would not thrive under a socialist yoke any more than a corporate one. What is lacking in local, organic farming discussions of economics is an overall framework of economic theory in which free and independent families working cooperatively within healthy communities are foundational.
Distributists favor free markets but claim that neoclassical capitalism destroys rather than supports free markets. Distributism seeks to distribute capital – the means of production such as land, tools, equipment and skills – as widely as possible, and to do so through voluntary means facilitated by government policies and grassroots choices (as opposed to “redistribution.”) Distributists condemn corporate models that separate the means of production from the producers themselves, whether in a socialist model of big government or a capitalist model of big corporations.
Distribution of Means of Production
Distributism favors widespread distribution of the means of production needed by labor to be productive. A free people, neither slaves to government nor to corporations, depends on bringing labor and capital together in worker-owners. In capitalism, labor is seen as a cost of production and is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold; people are considered interchangeable with machinery.
Early 20th century distributists saw land as the primary capital source of family income, and the primary means for people to avoid becoming cogs in a machine, so their vision was, and still is, quite agrarian, but distributism also recommends worker-owned cooperatives for any manufacturing that cannot be achieved at a home business scale. Wide distribution of capital in family-scale units is consistent with human dignity, encourages stewardship of land, builds community and makes sound macro-economic sense.
Distributism is no utopian scheme. It nudges us toward justice and community. Distributists claim that when a “determining number” (not necessarily a majority) of economic activities in a community comes from small businesses, generally family-owned, a certain “mood” or “attitude of mind” begins to enhance the whole community. I believe we are beginning to sense this in many places around Maine as the density of organic farms has increased. Distributists imagine a virtuous cycle between this spirit and cooperative initiatives, such as associations of consumers sitting down with associations of producers to discuss fair purchasing contracts, micro-lending and so on.
The notion of justice is a theme running through distributist literature, which identifies its roots in Catholic social teaching. While a discussion of distributist recommendations for setting wages is beyond the scope of this article, the reasoning behind setting a minimum wage illustrates distributist thinking. For adults outside of a training program, the minimum wage, whether set by government or by worker associations, should allow for “frugal comfort.” The rationale is that every healthy adult is endowed by his or her Creator with the capacity to generate more wealth than is needed to support him or herself, given the land, tools and skills to do so.
Therefore, if someone is being paid less than a livable wage, something is wrong. One possibility is that the employer is greedily taking more than his or her fair share of the wealth generated. Another is that the employer is incompetently equipping the individual with the right tools or skills needed for the employee to work to his or her innate capacity, or that the product is too shoddy to demand a decent price. A third is that the value of the product is greater than the market price, so neither the owners of capital nor their hired labor is generating enough income. In all of these cases, a system-level flaw needs to be addressed.
The Current Macro-Economic Picture
Distributism addresses flaws in our current capitalistic system that result in low farm viability and high food insecurity. Neoclassical capitalism claims that, left alone, aggregate demand and aggregate supply will maintain a rough equilibrium (Say’s Law). In reality, though, income to those with capital will generally be higher than to those who gain their income from their labor alone. When the income to those who own capital rises high enough, this income accumulates rather than creating aggregate demand, leading to an imbalance between supply and demand and to economic downturn and unemployment. As G.K Chesterton said,
“When most men are wage-earners, it is more and more difficult for most men to be customers. For the capitalist is always trying to cut down what his servant demands, and in doing so is cutting down what his customer can spend.”
Before 1930 or so, when neoclassical conditions predominated, the business cycle resulted in frequent, long recessions. After 1930, Keynesian capitalist theory predominated, and through this system government used deficit spending during downturns to increase aggregate demand, thus tempering the business cycle. This government spending has not been able to keep up with productivity growth and therefore supply, however, so consumer credit has been encouraged as a way to further balance consumer demand with excess supply. As many Americans have painfully discovered, planning to pay for current purchases plus interest with future wage increases leads to trouble when wages do not increase or when they decrease.
While Keynesians address the disparity between supply and demand through income redistribution (taxes and spending), distributists argue that distributing capital rather than income creates a healthier economy. Keynesian policies inevitably lead to unhealthy ties between business and government that favor large corporations and the financial sector over small businesses. Many of the negative externalities associated with industrial agriculture can be traced to subsidies that favor big business.
In addition, government debt increases because politicians are reluctant to repay debts when times are flush (the other half of the Keynesian prescription). Distributists argue that the wider the distribution of capital in small farms and businesses, the more money flows, and the better the balance between aggregate supply and demand is maintained, thus adding resilience to the system.
I believe most of us in the local, organic movement see our relationship to our capitalist economy as trying to carve out a protected space for ourselves and our families within a capitalist system that threatens to undermine our values, and as trying to soften some of capitalism’s harmful effects here and there. This is rewarding but also discouraging, and provides little hope of increasing farm viability to the point where the average person could choose farming as a lifestyle or for increasing food security for low-income citizens.
The local, organic movement could benefit tremendously by understanding how our activities – as producers or consumers, organizers or micro-lenders – may accomplish more than is immediately recognizable. Instead, we could see the economic structures we set up as models for other parts of the economy, and our work and our consumer choices as pro-active contributions to a new economic reality more consistent with our values. This enlarged perspective can provide further motivation, beyond good food and supporting local farmers, for joining a CSA or making the extra stop at the farmers’ market.
When distributist Dr. William Fahey was asked where he could feel the spirit of distributism, his reply included, “... in the planting of a cucumber seed, the slicing of a cucumber, and the sharing of it.” I would add, “… and in leaving the small seedlings in my garden on a Saturday morning to purchase early cucumbers at the farmers’ market.”
Chesterton, G.K. (1926, republished 2011) The Outline of Sanity. Read Books.
Fahey, William. (2012) Towards a Description of Distributism. In R. Aleman (Ed.) The Hound of Distributism. ACS Books.
Lapping, Mark. “The Maine Food System.” Belfast Free Library. April 29, 2013. (Quote in epigraph used with permission.)
Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, On the Condition of Labour, March 15, 1891
Medaille, John. Practical Distributivism: The Just Wage vs. The Just Income. Retrieved from www.medaille.com/pracdist
Medaille, John. (2010) Towards a Truly Free Market. ISI Books.
Pierce, Joseph. (2006) Small is Still Beautiful. ISI Books.
Doug Fox is director of the Center for Sustainability and Global Change at Unity College.