“They say it is Utopian, and they are right. They say it is idealistic, and they are right. They say it is quixotic, and they are right. It deserves every name that will indicate how completely they have driven justice out of the world.”
– G. K. Chesterton
This article was originally published by
on 8 October, 2012
I find it interesting when critics of Distributism claim, in essence or explicitly, that it is Utopian. Utopia is a fictional island where all of society is the ideal, where everything just works. Of course, to call something or someone Utopian is usually intended as an insult; it is saying that the ideas won’t work in the “real world.” To hear our critics talk about us, we distributists live in a world of fantasy, imagining that all will be rosey and well if only Distributism were adopted. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Distributism actually looks at society, and the people in it in a very realistic way. We look at human nature, and realize that it contains many unpredictable variables that are very real factors in society and economics. Human nature is a real economic force to be reckoned. There will always be those who fail to live up to the standard, those who fail to grasp the full consequences of their actions, and those who will deliberately choose to advance their own interests even when it is harmful to others. Society needs to be structured to mitigate their influence. It is precisely because of this that we promote subsidiarity, solidarity, and emphasize the local economy with the guild system. Distributism is not a perfect socio-economic system; it is merely one that takes account of the imperfections of people. It assumes that these imperfections will always be at play, so the socio-economic system must account for that fact.
These human imperfections can arise from different directions, from the lower orders of society and from the higher orders. When from the lower orders, businesses can seek to act in unjust ways, to charge unjust prices, to pay unjust wages, to use unjust methods to undermine competition. When from the higher orders, the government can enact unjust laws and usurp roles that are naturally the function of the lower orders, even roles that naturally belong to the family itself, like directing the education of children. The further removed the usurper is from the natural level, the less the natural level is able to effectively fight to correct the problem. If the highest level of government interferes with rights of families to direct the education of their children, those families are powerless to do anything about it unless they are part of a very vocal majority – and they might not be able to do anything about it even in that case.
Capitalism is a product of the philosophy of individualistic liberalism. Some might consider it odd that a society founded on this idea would result in the consolidation of economic and political power away from the mass of its individual citizens. To read the Founders of the United States, they considered it the most natural thing that individuals would jealously guard against it, that businesses would guard against it, that local and state governments would guard against it, and, therefore, the system would work as long as no one failed. Since, in their view, the power of any level of government is granted to it from the people, the people would always have the power to revoke any power unjustly usurped from them. The United States, from its very foundation, depended on the smaller, weaker levels of society always banding together in a perpetual defensive position against a larger aggressor. In other words, the people are to consider themselves as constantly besieged. Ironically, the U.S. Constitution, which limits the authority of the federal government, was itself an expansion of that government’s power from the U.S. Articles of Confederation. The reason is that coordination requires subordination, but applying that philosophical reality in combination with individualistic liberalism will not result in a just society.
This is very different from the view of Christendom, which believed that the power of government was determined by the need it existed to fulfill, not coming from the people, but from the nature of that level of government itself. Therefore, there is a need to acknowledge powers above and beyond ourselves, which define us and set limitations on us for the common good. These powers are God and the nature he created, including human nature. Christendom depended on a constant defending of the natural orders of society and a constant growth in understanding of human nature and its failings, but that defense came from all sides, the Church, the people, and the state.
In Christendom, the argument was that, if you failed to act justly, you would not go to heaven. This applied equally to king and peasant, pope and layman. In the eras that followed it, the argument became that, if you are not vigilant, you will be subject to tyranny. The individualistic liberals of the late 18th Century still viewed God as an important factor in guiding their daily lives, including in government, but the application of that factor was left to the individual. Those who negotiated the US Constitution knew their experiment might fail, but their expectation was that, through diligence and a natural jealous guarding of self-interest, it would succeed.
In the first century since the United States was founded, some of the principles of the US Constitution were already being abandoned with the loss of sovereignty of the individual states in the US Civil War. In the century since then, the federal government has not ceased in its continual power-grab, not merely from its subordinate states, but from every local community and family. One might consider it odd that this would happen, but the very individualism the Founders believed would protect their system is the cause of it being dismantled. The fact is that, throughout history, many of those individuals in power believe that their genius in being able to get into positions of power proves they should be allowed to exercise it as they see fit, even if it means preventing others from exercising powers that once belonged to them. Notice that this is the very same argument made to justify the never-ending consolidation of wealth among the very rich. Surely if they could get into the position of running these banks and international businesses, they are obviously smarter about business than others, and are therefore the best ones to know how business should be run and what the national economic policy should be, even if doing so puts others out of business.
Yes, that’s right, those of the so-called Left and Right in the US are actually making essentially the same arguments to justify their attempts to increase their own power, the political left to justify their increase in government power, and the political right to justify their increase in economic power. This is because, even though they have diverged in regard to how to build the ideal society, they both spring from the same faulty philosophy of individualistic liberalism. They are both like the pigs in Orwell’s, Animal Farm, believing that they are the ones who are more equal than everyone else. That same individualism left the common man defenseless when economists decided that ethics does not apply to economics, and defenseless when political theorists decided that government was the solution to just about every problem. Each of these camps believes they have the real answer to creating a truly free and prosperous society, if only all of those pesky other people would behave the way they should. You see, when their systems fail, it is either the fault of the other camp, or of the consumers themselves. It is never really the fault of their ideas; it is the fault of people who pick and choose what to believe, and then choose to act differently than the economists predicted. Distributists, on the other hand, expect failures to occur. There will be those who attempt to corrupt the system. This is why the system must be set up to mitigate the damage these people will do, and make it easier to correct the problems they create.
This is why we advocate the guild system to fight corruption in the lower orders. When a single business engages in unjust practices, the guild can remove its license to do business in the local area. This is really no different than a business losing its license for failing to abide by the laws of the city or county. However, because businesses in the guild only operate in the local community, and the guild itself only has authority in that community, even if the entire guild were to become corrupt, its sphere of influence is limited by design. Therefore the local community has a greater ability to bring it back in line than they do with the intercity, interstate, and international companies with which we have to deal in our present system. Additionally, the problem of a local company will be a local problem. It will have little impact on the overall economy of the state, the federal nation, or the world, as has been the case with the current financial crisis triggered by the failure of a small percentage of sub-prime mortgages in the USA.
Distributists advocate subsidiarity to deal with corruption in the higher orders. The principle of subsidiarity only grants authority to the different orders of society according to the need they exist to fulfill. While this can be abused, Distributism grants more power to the local level than it has under our current system, even more than it had when the USA was founded. This will make the local level more effective at correcting corruption at higher levels. Currently, the higher level is allowed to override local laws, even in things that are local issues. Distributism corrects this. For example, by including in its founding principles the idea that state assistance does not give the state the right to usurp local authority, the state may still contribute to education in a poor area, but its contribution gives it no authority to dictate what must be taught. The state may contribute to social assistance programs when the level of need warrants it, but its contribution does not give it authority to direct those programs at the local level. Admittedly, these concepts are foreign to us. Those who promote assistance by the state insist that the assistance grants the state more authority in regard to that assistance. Thus, the state can, and even must increase its power over the masses whenever its assistance is needed. Those who promote the continued authority of the local level sometimes insist that this means the state cannot even assist. This was actually the view of the American Founders in regard to the federal government they created in both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. These two extremes are natural evolutions from the philosophy of individualistic liberalism.
Distributists advocate solidarity, which is when the society, both as a whole and at each level, accepts that everyone is responsible for everyone. It is not just the responsibility of individuals who work or contribute to help those in need, and it is not just the responsibility of the government who must step in pre-emptively just in case individuals would not. It is a social responsibility shared by the society as a whole and by each member. This also has a subsidiary nature which means that it primarily falls to the local levels of society, families, churches, guilds, and other local associations, but it also means that the higher levels of society must step in, when warranted, to assist but not take over. If the higher level is needed to coordinate efforts because the need is wide-spread, it may do so until the situation will allow the more local levels to effectively resume their natural role. Yes, there will be those who will not help, but there will be a tremendous social pressure to do so, and a tremendous social stigma for refusing to do so.
These ideas, subsidiarity, solidarity, ethical economics, preference for the local economy, guilds, the common good, and the other various aspects of what a Distributist society would be like, are why those of us who advocate Distributism cannot discuss it merely on the economic or the political level. It cannot even be discussed merely on both of them combined. When Distributists discuss these ideas, we are actually discussing a different philosophical view, a view that rejects the false philosophy of individualistic liberalism that is the core of the political and financial world in which we live. Distributism seeks to return to a truly scientific philosophical foundation based on philosophical psychology, ethics, and poietics. The philosophy that was born of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, and was ultimately refined by Saints Augustine and Aquinas. A philosophy of the reality of human nature, adequately understood. These philosophical teachings, combined with the moral theological teachings of the Church are the foundation of Catholic Social Doctrine and, through that doctrine, Distributism.
Capitalists dream of a society where man, or at least certain men, will act in a perfect way. It doesn’t matter if one is discussing the Austrian, Keyensian, Chicagoan, or any other “school” championed by a specific group of capitalists. They either require that all consumers act in a predetermined way, or that those at the head of industries, or in the government will know exactly what needs to be done and will get it done. When this doesn’t happen, they say, “Well, that’s not really our system.”
Distributists don’t depend on a society where everyone acts in a perfect way. Instead, we attempt to create a society where the impact of corruption – in either the body politic or the body economic – is mitigated, and therefore more easily corrected. This will result in a society that is not perfect, but more just. When people within a distributist society fail to act according to distributist principles, it will not be because it’s not really our system. The steps necessary to correct the problem might not be perfect, but they will be distributist, and they will be made with regard to the common good and justice.
Utopia is a fantasy about a supposedly perfect society. If Distributism is Utopian and Capitalism is not, it is because Capitalism is not only a fantasy, but also a nightmare.