18 June, 2015

Achieving Distributism - Part III

There are two social foundations of distributism; decentralized political authority according to the principles of subsidiarity, and the wide-spread private ownership of productive property. When established, these foundations will result in greater freedom for individuals and families throughout society in general and a more stable national economy supported by strong local economies. What is needed to actually achieve this? I believe it starts with shifting our philosophical outlook. We need to realize that economics is not the kind of science we have been told it is. We need to look beyond the immediate end of our economic activities and see how those activities fit within the overall community. If we do this, we will start to see how a local community is self-supporting in ways that corporate capitalism is not. We will start to see that, when we consider how our economic decisions can benefit or harm others in our community, we will all benefit.
Subsidiarity will empower citizens of local communities to make changes they need to fit their local circumstances. They could change zoning laws to eliminate the need to purchase multiple properties to live and work in most cases. This would eliminate the need to commute unless you didn't work at a local business. They could choose for themselves what businesses will be in the community, and protect their local businesses from anti-competitive activities by those who would seek to undermine them. They could establish their own organizations to ensure health, safety, and quality standards.

Distributism will not eliminate all economic problems or the problem of people who try to take advantage of others; it just mitigates the scope of those problems and creates an environment where people are better able to address and correct them when they arise. Much of this is based on the emphasis on the local economy and the idea that people will see that supporting the local economy is the best way to support themselves. However, this is not an exclusive preference. Distributism is not against trade or against the technological advances that have made it easier to sell products abroad. The principles of distributism are adaptable to societal and technlogical changes.

Some industries rely on a customer base that is not naturally confined to a local community. Books and video entertainment, where fans of specific genres are likely to be in many different regions, is an example of this. This can also apply to various craft work and products that can easily be shipped to the customer. The modern ability to sell over the internet and use modern government subsidized distribution methods (roads and ports) are tools that can fit within the distributist model. There are already businesses that operate in ways compatible with distributism and utilize these methods. In fact, those of us who advocate distributism can utilize these tools to support those businesses. After all, if the money is going to leave your community anyway, isn't it better to support another community's local business than some corporate entity just because it has a store in your area?

The same can be said for businesses like car manufacturers. While there is certainly no true economic reason for there to be as few manufacturers than currently exist, it is not really practical for each local community to have its own. These, more regional, businesses can also fit within the distributist model if they were cooperatives rather than corporate run entities over which many people just have the illusion of ownership

The question of regional and state natural resources becomes more complicated. When it comes to resources, like oil, that cannot be reliably restricted within property lines, there are solutions that seem to me to be compatible with distributism, but there are many questions that still need to be considered before accepting them. Likewise with reforms of the copyright and patent laws that need to be changed.

The software industry is particulary interesting. The Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement definitely has some provisions that make it compatible with distributism. The only change I would make is to the "free" requirement. I think the open-source requirement brings in at least some elements of a guild like environment for developers. It also opens the door for more developers and vendors. It seems to me that there is nothing unjust with those who want to use software that is the result of someone else's work having to buy it. It seems to me that, if the source were to remain open, but vendors were allowed to charge for the compiled, ready to run versions, the model would still work quite well. The average person would be willing to pay for it rather than have to deal with compiling it, and the presence of many independent vendors will keep prices reasonable.

As you can see, distributism does not constitute an abandonment of the advances we have made, but it is a different way of approaching matters of economics. The philosophical view required to accept these changes represents a major shift for our society, but I believe it would be a shift toward a greater good for each of us individually and for society as a whole.

What can we do in the mean time? Each of us can, according to our ability, start to support distributism by supporting locally owned businesses, and by supporting businesses that are run in ways more compatible with distributst principles over those that aren't. We can engage in conversations and other ways of sharing our ideas to show others that there is another way that can work besides those more commonly known. We can try to make changes in our local communities to better support local businesses. We can try and address zoning laws that force us to commute, or own multiple properties on which to live and work. We can advocate the devolution of centralized political authority that prevent us from making these changes. We can strive to be economically independent so that we will be truly free.


  1. Just a few comments on FOSS.

    1) The "Free" in Free and Open Source Software refers to freedom, not free-of-charge. It's quite acceptable right now for a vendor to sell a compiled version while providing access to the source code of any FOSS software. In fact, up until the mid nineties, this was how many free software authors made money. And as you said, for most consumers this would be the easier option.

    2) The fundamental issue right now with FOSS is that both the compiled version and the source-code version can be replicated basically no cost, assuming no artificial monopolies like copyrights or patents.

  2. Ryan,

    My understanding of the license is that the vendor is required to offer both the compiled version and the source code for free. It is true that the vendor is allowed to sell packaged versions, but they must also make the compiled version available for download without cost. If I am wrong about this, I will happily stand corrected, but this was always part of the meaning of "Free" in "Free and Open Source Software." This is the one point where I think that the license could change. The "freedom" aspect could be maintained by just making the source code available at no cost, but not requiring the same for the compiled version. While there was certainly some income from the sale of packaged versions, I understood that the primary source of income for producers of FOSS software has been from support contracts.

  3. Hi David,

    The vendor is *not* required to offer the binary or source free of charge. The four software freedoms described by the Free Software Foundation (who invented the term "free software") are analogous to the rights we have with physical property:

    * The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.
    * The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this [i.e. open source].
    * The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
    * The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this [i.e. open source].

    “Free software” does not mean “noncommercial”. A free program must be available for commercial use, commercial development, and commercial distribution. Commercial development of free software is no longer unusual; such free commercial software is very important. You may have paid money to get copies of free software, or you may have obtained copies at no charge. But regardless of how you got your copies, you always have the freedom to copy and change the software, even to sell copies.

    The only requirement for pricing is that source code is available at the same price or less as the binary distribution, assuming they aren't distributed together. In fact, any requirement for making binaries or source code free of charge would *not* be considered free software, because it's prohibiting a certain type of commercial use.

    Source: "What is free software?" http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.en.html

  4. Ryan,

    Thank you for the clarification. I happily stand corrected on this point.


  5. Hi David, I am new to the concept of distributism. Like a lot of Americans I'm frustrated with our current economic/political system which consists of the part of big government vs the party of big business (or more accurately the party of huge government with big business vs the party of huge business with big government). I agree conceptually that there is less corruption and more political and economic justice when both political and economic power is distributed among more people...

    One of the biggest problems I see, however, is how to practically move towards distributism in the current era of ecommerce and low-cost distribution of mass produced goods. I know you attempted to address that in this article, but it would help if we could get a lot more specific. So, here are a few specific issues/examples...

    1) Books. It's almost impossible for a local bookstore to compete with Amazon on price or convenience. Even if I am willing to drive to a local bookstore and pay more to support the bookstore owner and the principle of distributism, 99% of people in my city will not. What's the solution?
    Tax Internet purchases to help local businesses compete?

    2) Cars. You wrote "it is not really practical for each local community to have its own. These, more regional, businesses can also fit within the distributist model if they were cooperatives." Forcing car companies to become cooperatives would violate propery rights. So, how do we create incentives for car companies to become cooperatives or help to facilitate the starting of new cooperative car companies?

    I think the underlying issue is there are economies of scale that enable big businesses to beat small businesses on price. Since price is a big factor in purchasing decisions it seems like for distributism to work, there must be policies enacted on the local, state and national level to even the playing field. What do you think? If you agree, can you explain these policies in greater detail?

    1. Paul,

      Welcome to the discussion.

      You bring up several good points and I will attempt to offer examples that show distributism could work. It is not incompatible with modern technology or methods of distribution. However, the first and most important point is that we distributists need to help those who are interested to understand that much of what they believe are the successes of capitalism are the result of things most who believe in capitalism actively reject. The primary thing along these lines are government subsidies which interfere with what capitalists believe is the free market.

      You brought up the modern low-cost distribution of mass produced goods. Why do these distribution methods cost so little? The reason is government subsidies, both direct and indirect. Whether we are discussing direct payments to large industrialized farms, increasing federal regulations with which only big businesses can afford to comply, or the maintenance of an expansive federal highway system, expensive airports, railroads, and continually dredging out ports to accommodate larger and larger cargo ships, these subsidies not only hide the real costs of products from consumers but enable corporations to engage (even if indirectly) in virtual slave labor.

      I have presented this type of question before. How can it cost more for a local fishery in the Northwest United States to bring its catch in to its local port, process and pack it, and then put it on a truck for delivery to a local market than it does to put that same catch on a ship bound for China where it will be processed and packed and then shipped back to the U.S., unloaded by dock workers and brought to a local warehouse before getting delivered to the same local market? Clearly there are costs that are hidden from us. There are plenty of other examples. The price we see at the market, physical or online, is not the whole price we are paying. I discuss this a bit more in the articles titled Price.

      Moving beyond what is hidden from us, we must also address a more fundamental issue which I also discussed in Price. That is the way our society looks at economics. This is the essence of the whole distributist movement. It isn't that capitalism is necessarily bad, capitalism could be done in a way that is just. The problem is that capitalists accuse us of being Utopian when it is they who are so. We are presenting something fundamentally different, so it is not surprising that we are not quickly accepted.

      In regard to e-commerce and Amazon. There is nothing incompatible between distributism and e-commerce. I would venture to say that there is a certain level of compatibility between Amazon and distributism. Distributism would certainly allow for a producer to use internet technology to promote and sell their products. Even with Amazon, producers can independently offer their products. Amazon is e-commerce's version of what used to be the local importer of goods. The real aspect of Amazon that a lot of people don't realize is that it isn't really less expensive overall. I have a self-published book that can be purchased at a modest price from the company that prints it. I have also made this available on Amazon, but the additional cost of doing business on Amazon increases the cost of the book when buying it through them. Another example of the compatibility of distributism with e-commerce (and with the movie production) can be seen with Zombie Orpheus Entertainment.

    2. (continued)

      Finally, in regard to the automobile industry, while I would like to see the existing auto companies operate as cooperatives, the steps required to do this make it very unlikely. However, this does not mean that new automobile companies could not be established as cooperatives from the start. There are already movements in some industries toward this end. Have you heard of the recent discussions between the U.S. Steelworkers and Mondragon?


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