17 July, 2014

Is Distributism Liberal or Conservative?

When hearing anyone discussing political or economic ideas, our society has been trained to look at them through one of two lenses: liberal or conservative. How you react to the ideas being expressed depends on the lens of your choice. Because of this, distributists need to be able to address the question that is foremost on people's minds when they hear about us. Even if they don't come out and ask the question, they want to know if distributism liberal or conservative?

To begin to answer this question, we must first address what we really mean by liberal and conservative. While these are opposing views, they originate from the same philosophical background. This is where discussing the true differences between liberalism and conservatism can become a bit confusing, because they are both different manifestations of liberalism.

Those whom we in the United States call "liberals" adhere to political liberalism. This is the idea that those running the government not only can, but also should do whatever they feel is best for the common good. This group not only believes in increasing the scope and power of government, they tend to consolidate political authority into the highest level of government. 

"Conservatives," on the other hand, adhere to economic liberalism. This is the idea that those running businesses not only can, but also should do whatever they feel is best. Their view tends to be that the ability to increase individual economic power will result in economic prosperity for all, and that the government should not interfere except to protect business and prevent things like fraud. This, they believe, is best for the common good. An important aspect of this group's views is that they hold that everyone should be free to accumulate as much capital and wealth as they want.

The problem is that both liberalism and conservatism are faulty, and the fault of both goes to the core of their beliefs - to the philosophical liberalism that is the foundation of both. It is only because each group emphasizes a different aspect of liberalism that we have a difference between them. Distributism is founded on a different philosophical view which sets it apart from both.

This is why distributists are just as critical of liberals as they are of conservatives. We criticize both and, as a result, we are criticized by both. Liberals accuse us of being conservative because we are against the centralization of political authority we are for less regulation and other interference by centralized government in local matters including education, health care, and business. Conservatives accuse us of being liberal (or even Marxist) because we are against the limitless accumulation of wealth and the idea of an absolute right to private property. We do think local government and guilds should regulate business, government has a role in helping people, and businesses have a social obligation to the communities and society in which they operate.

Liberals like that we promote the idea that everyone, including businesses, has a social responsibility and that government has a role in assisting those in need. We oppose the encroachment of monopolies and other big businesses in local communities. We oppose the centralization of agriculture into an industrialized format and tend to side with local small and organic farms.

Conservatives like that we promote the idea of decentralizing government authority. In fact, where many conservatives argue against federal authority encroaching on that of the state, we go even further and argue against state authority encroaching on local, and any of them encroaching on family authority. We believe that businesses should be primarily self-regulated with local community and local government oversight.

This may sound like we are trying to negotiate a "middle-ground" between the two views. We are not. While our criticisms of conservativism sound similar to those of liberals, our reasons for the criticisms are completely different. The same can be said of our criticisms of liberalism compared to those of conservatives. As a result, what we propose in opposition to liberalism and conservatism is something different than either side is truly ready to accept.

We are different, and our approach to political and economic society stands apart from both. To become a distributist is to cease being either liberal or conservative, and, consequently, to get criticized by both. So the answer to the question of whether distributism is liberal or conservative is, "neither."

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