20 April, 2010

Distributism and Government Entitlement Programs

One important aspect of any economic view is how to meet the needs of those who, for some reason, cannot meet their own needs. The views on this subject vary, not only within society, but even within individual economic views. However within the economic views, there is generally a common philosophy that determines the direction of how to address such things. Those who hold more of a socialist view advocate the government's direct involvement in just about anything. Those who hold the more “conservative” or libertarian view advocate as little government involvement as possible. One aspect of the philosophy which forms the basis of Distributism is the principal of subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity favors individual and local solutions to problems, but doesn't deny the potential role of various levels of government when the more local level is not capable of adequately addressing them. However, even when the higher level of government gets involved, the local level has the best understanding of the local impact and is therefore the best manager of the situation. Because of this, the support from a higher level of government does not necessarily equate to total control by that level. The involvement of the higher level only includes those aspects that cannot be handled locally; the higher level is there to assist the lower, not to take over. For example, if the local level cannot provide sufficient funding for a particular need, the higher level of government could provide the funding, but the local level would maintain control of the use of those funds. If funding was provided to two local communities, each could use the funding in the way they deem best to meet the needs of their own community. Based on this, it can be seen that many government entitlement programs, as currently implemented in the U.S., are not really compatible with distributism. Programs like Welfare, Medicare, and Social Security are not compatible because the highest level of government has control over what is essentially a personal or local issue. Additionally, participation in Medicare and Social Security are mandatory; which is also not compatible with the philosophy of distributism.

Therefore, distributists must not only promote a more economically just approach to fulfilling the needs of these government entitlement programs, but must also present ideas on how we can move from the systems that are currently in place to more just systems compatible with Distributism. It is no good to simply say that we would end Social Security. There are many people who have paid into that system for decades and are now dependent on that income. We cannot simply take away the program for which they have paid; that would be unjust. We also need to take into consideration those who are not yet on Social Security, but who have been paying into the system for years. After all, it's not like they have had the option to invest that money in an alternate means of providing for retirement.

A discussion to find an acceptable point where we could cut off the system needs to be had. A point where those who have not yet invested into the system won't be required to pay into it as part of their own retirement. The system needs to be brought to an end, but it must be done in a responsible and just manner. For those who still have sufficient years before retirement to make alternate provisions, the money already contributed (by them and their employers' matching funds) could be refunded to them for their own investment. Those who remain in the program will get the benefit of it until there are no more people in the system. Any additional funds needed to carry the system to its completion could be part of the general tax (instead of the separate off-budget tax it is now).

So, what would replace systems like Medicare and Social Security (and now the new federal health insurance plan)? These systems attempt to address real needs. If we are proposing to take them away people will want to know we intend those needs to be met. That decision would be brought to the most local level possible.

* The individual should always have the option of taking complete control of planning for his own needs.
* Individuals could group together in groups (unions, guilds, and other forms of voluntary society) to collectively contribute and provide for one another.
* Worker cooperatives typically include programs to take care of their members in need.
* Contributions to charitable organizations that provide for those in need could be encouraged, and any legal or economic obstacles to these contributions and the work of the charities be eliminated.

These changes would allow individuals and communities to decide how to best meet their local needs. They would not prohibit the possibility of government involvement when it is necessary, but that involvement would not mean government takeover.


  1. It seems to me that any implementation of the principle of subsidiarity will require, as a precondition, a general agreement about what "first things" really are.

    We live in a time when it is generally believed that distant experts are more qualified to care for us than we are. I would say this is true to the extent that the belief has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I fear that many of us would not know what to do with the freedom of subsidiarity if we had it.

    If individuals, families, and communities regained primary responsibility for their own well-being, what would prevent them from neglecting the principle of subsidiarity? It is sometimes easier to leave the management of our needs in the hands of others. When that happens, we again enter the path of dependency.

  2. Very true. This is why many distributists realize that distributism cannot be simply implemented over night. It requires society in general to undergo a philosophical shift, much as it did during the shift to our current monopolistic capitalism. Mr. Belloc points this out in his Essay on the Restoration of Property. Changes need to start small and allow the people to decide if they like the benefits.

    It is always easier to leave our needs in the hands of others, but that is the path to slavery. Whether that slavery is manifested in the form the term invokes in our minds or not. Freedom requires work and risk. Freedom is more than the ability to choose where we want to live or go on vacation. It is even more than the ability to choose our employers who basically become our masters. This is the point of the Servile State.

    Therefore, the question at hand is whether or not we truly want to be free.


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