06 February, 2021

On the Foundations of Distributism: Property, Family, Politics, Economy. Part 3


The following is the English version of part three of an article/interview by Thomas Storck, “Sui Fondamenti del Distributismo: Propriet√†, Famiglia, Politica, Economia,” published in Bollettino di dottrina sociale della Chiesa, July/Sept. 2020, pp. 73-84.
 
For information on the Italian publication, see here.

Part 2 can be found here.
 
The natural family based on marriage between a man and a woman is one of the founding paradigms of distributism. Can you elaborate further what is the role of family in distributism?
 
For G. K. Chesterton and most of the proponents of distributism during its "classical" period, this connection with the natural family was one of its most outstanding characteristics. Chesterton was a fierce upholder of family life and saw property as one of its prime supports. It was this fierce devotion to ordinary family life, domestic life, that fueled much of Chesterton's advocacy of distributism.
As every normal man desires a woman, and children born of a woman, every normal man desires a house of his own to put them into. He does not merely want a roof above him and a chair below him; he wants an objective and visible kingdom; a fire at which he can cook what food he likes, a door he can open to what friends he chooses.[i]
And he drew a parallel between concentrations of property and attacks on the family. In a striking passage he wrote,
I am well aware that the word "property" has been defied [defiled?] in our time by the corruption of the great capitalists. One would think, to hear people talk that the Rothchilds and the Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property; because they are enemies of their own limitations. They do not want their own land; but other people's.... It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate; just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.[ii]
Hilaire Belloc similarly stressed the family's place in distributism, "When so great a number of families in the State possess Private Property in a sufficient amount as to give its colour to the whole, we speak of `widely distributed property.'"[iii] And in the best formal definition of distributism, one offered by Cecil Chesterton, younger brother of G. K., one sees the same emphasis on family:
A Distributist is a man who desires that the means of production should, generally speaking, remain private property, but that their ownership should be so distributed that the determining mass of families - ideally every family - should have an efficient share therein. That is Distributism, and nothing else is Distributism.... Distributism is quite as possible in an industrial or commercial as in an agrarian community....[iv]
This connection with the family is based on the fact that most of the early English distributists, notably both the Chesterton brothers and Belloc, were Christians. Naturally they sought the establishment of an economic system that would safeguard and foster the family, the natural and fundamental cell of society.
 
In a purely economic sense distributism protects the family because it allows economic decisions to be made while taking into account non-economic factors. Under capitalism labor costs are simply an expense item for owners of capital. But what for capitalists are labor costs, for workers is a living, their living and that of their families. Moving a factory to a cheaper location may make perfect financial sense for someone who merely supplies the capital necessary for production and whose own livelihood will not be affected, but it can hardly make sense for someone who depends on that factory for the job that supports himself and his family. When ownership of the means of production is distributed among workers and families, then other factors besides the purely economic enter into every economic decision. In an economic downturn, for example, workers who are at the same time owners will naturally look upon themselves and their families as more than mere "labor costs," and hence consider other options besides simply layoffs or plant closings. They will see the economic factors as part of a complex of factors which necessarily impact much more than questions of money. Each person's family, immediate and extended, his friendships, his parish, his attachment to his own locale, and so on, are quite as relevant considerations as the level of profit that can be made in any particular place. But as long as the capitalist economic structure is in place, the mass of workers will not even have the opportunity to consider such non-economic factors or make these kinds of decisions. But whether distributist owners are proprietors of their own micro businesses, or members of worker cooperatives that jointly own larger enterprises, they will be able to take into account more than simply profits. In making their own decisions, all of the interests of workers and their families will generally be considered in any decision of this kind. Workers will be more than merely entries on the debit side of the capitalists' account books. They will be real people with families.
 
In fact, if we look at distributism in its broadest sense, we will see that it is much more than an economic system or arrangement. I once heard distributism characterized by Fr. Ian Boyd, editor of The Chesterton Review, as a "different rhythm of life." Thus at its best it is an entire way of life, a way of life in which God, family, community, intellectual and cultural goods, are valued much more than is usual in modern society. The external goods necessary for human life will be given their due place, to be sure, but hardly the most important place. The benefits of this will be immense, beyond support for religion or family life. A general decrease in the fevered pace of twentieth-century life, including in our globalized economy, would be of considerable help in many areas, for example, in promoting consumption of local food and other goods and in contributing to environmental health. The complex structure of today's globalized economy is poorly equipped to confront disasters or catastrophes of any kind, whether environmental, economic or military, because it presupposes political stability and the smooth functioning of economic activity everywhere in the world, and depends upon fragile supply chains which can be easily disrupted.
 
Given the many advantages that a distributist economy would bring, one could imagine an attempt to isolate the purely economic principles of distributism, such as well-distributed property, and implement it in a society which had forgotten the necessity of the natural family for its well-being and was not interested in any fundamental alterations in its way of life. This would be akin to what John Paul II in Laborem Exercens identified as economism, the error "of considering human labor solely according to its economic purpose" (no. 13). In other words, if we opt for distributism solely because of the economic and social benefits which can flow from it, we fall into the trap of treating human labor, and the economy as a whole, as simply a means of supplying us with goods and services, as something apart and separate from the rest of human society and culture. It is true that the economy has as its proper purpose the production of necessary and truly useful goods, but always in subordination to the overall goals of human life and society, both in time and in eternity. For even though society and state have as their primary end goods of this world, this does not mean an entire separation from the goods of the next life. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his De Regimine Principum, "It seems moreover to be the purpose of the multitude joined together to live according to virtue...the virtuous life therefore is the purpose of the human community," and adds that "the ultimate end of the multitude joined together is not to live according to virtue, but through virtuous living to attain to enjoyment of God,"[v] Or as Pius XI wrote with specific reference to the economy,
If [the moral law] be faithfully obeyed, the result will be that particular economic aims, whether of society as a body or of individuals, will be intimately linked with the universal teleological order, and as a consequence we shall be led by progressive stages to the final end of all, God Himself, our highest and lasting good. (Quadragesimo Anno, no. 43)
Thus the economy does not exist by or for itself, but must be embedded in social life as a whole, and must not hinder the society from achieving its own proper goals both temporal and eternal, of which our economic welfare is an important, but not the most important part.
 
In order to understand this better we might look at two other economic systems, socialism and capitalism, and see how each of them, in different ways, fails to subordinate the economy to society as a whole, and thus very often harm family life and the intangible goods which family life needs.
 
Let us begin with socialism. Contrary to what many people think, the Church's well-known condemnation of socialism is based not on the specific economic proposals of socialists, but on its fundamental anthropological outlook, its philosophy of human nature and society.
The most thorough treatment of socialism by the Church's magisterium occurred in Pius XI's encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. He pointed out in the first place that socialism had undergone profound changes since the days of Leo XIII.
No less profound than the change in the general economy, has been the development occurring within socialism since the days when Leo XIII contended with this latter. At that time socialism could be termed a single system, generally speaking, and one which defended definite and coherent doctrines. Today, indeed, it has for the most part split into two opposing and hostile camps. (no. 111)
One section is Communism, clearly hostile to Christian faith, advocating "merciless class warfare and the complete abolition of private ownership" (no. 112). But the other portion of socialism, what Pius called "moderate socialism" has abandoned many of the doctrines against which Leo XIII contended.
The other section, which has retained the name of "socialism," is much less radical in its views. Not only does it condemn recourse to physical force: it even mitigates and moderates to some extent class warfare and the abolition of private property. It does not reject them entirely. It would seem as if socialism were afraid of its own principles and of the conclusions drawn therefrom by the communists, and in consequence were moving toward the truth which Christian tradition has always held in respect; for it cannot be denied that its programs often strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers. (no. 113).
 
The war declared against private ownership has also abated more and more. In such a way that nowadays it is not really the possession of the means of production which is attacked but that type of social authority, which, in violation of all justice has been seized and usurped by the owners of wealth. This authority in fact belongs not to the individual owners, but to the State. If these changes continue, it may well come about that gradually the tenets of mitigated socialism will no longer be different from the program of those who seek to reform human society according to Christian principles. (no. 114)
Because of this, some Catholics at that time wondered whether it would be possible for a Catholic to be a socialist. Pius's reply is a firm no, but the reasons for this will come as a surprise to some: "the reason being that it conceives human society in a way utterly alien to Christian truth."
According to Christian doctrine, Man, endowed with a social nature, is placed here on earth in order that he may spend his life in society,...and that, by fulfilling faithfully the duties of his station, he may attain to temporal and eternal happiness. Socialism, on the contrary, entirely ignorant of or unconcerned about this sublime end both of individuals and of society, affirms that living in community was instituted merely for the sake of advantages which it brings to mankind. (no. 118)
Hence the definitive judgment of this Pontiff, "No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist." But this is because socialists have elevated the material side of man over the spiritual side and made the production of goods the organizing principle of society. Socialism is condemned because it has never abandoned its roots in a materialistic philosophy, ultimately grounded in atheism. And as long as it remains really socialism it will always have that cast to its principles. Incidentally, this is why European socialist parties have so often jettisoned their distinctive economic programs, but do not abandon their general hostility to the Church, to protection of unborn life, to Christian marriage, and so on. The atheism and anti-Christian ideology that lies behind all true socialism remains, even when socialist politicians have found they can live with many of the exploitive economic practices of capitalism.
 
John Paul II repeated this judgment about the errors of socialism in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. He stated that
the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism. (no. 13).
And he pointed out what is at the root of these socialist errors: "we must reply that its first cause is atheism." The important thing to note about the teaching of both Pius XI and John Paul II is that neither focuses on socialist economic practices. Indeed, Pius XI explicitly approves of some of these practices, and both pontiffs identify an essentially philosophical error as the real reason why no Catholic can be a true socialist.
 
Before we examine the relevance of this to the question about distributism and the family, let us look similarly at capitalism. After pointing out that atheism is at the root of socialist materialism, John Paul notes the following:
The atheism of which we are speaking is also closely connected with the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which views human and social reality in a mechanistic way. Thus there is a denial of the supreme insight concerning man's true greatness, his transcendence in respect to earthly realities...and, above all, the need for salvation.... (ibid.)
Clearly when John Paul speaks of "the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which views human and social reality in a mechanistic way," he is referring to the eighteenth-century theoreticians of capitalism, such as the Physiocrats in France or Adam Smith in Scotland. Without necessarily being actual atheists, their mechanistic philosophy of man and society suffers from the same defects as does socialism. This is why, as John Paul further explains, some capitalist countries, in their struggle against Communism after World War II, embraced a vision of man that fundamentally was no different from that of atheistic socialism or even communism.
Another kind of response, practical in nature, is represented by the affluent society or the consumer society. It seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a free-market society can achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs than Communism, while equally excluding spiritual values. In reality, while on the one hand it is true that this social model shows the failure of Marxism to contribute to a humane and better society, on the other hand, insofar as it denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs. (no. 19)
The point of all this is that historically both socialism and capitalism have looked at the economy as something apart from, and even superior to, society as a whole, have championed their particular approaches simply as means to "achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs" than any other economic system. If distributism is looked at in such a manner, as simply a better way to achieve economic growth or avoid the social pathologies created by inequality, then the connection it has with genuine family life is lost. Therefore distributism cannot simply take for granted that it is immune from being hijacked from its proper role in creating an economic system that serves the overall purposes of human family and social life, and becoming simply a mechanism for producing and supplying material goods.
Part 4 can be found here.
Notes:

[i] What's Wrong With the World (San Francisco : Ignatius, [1910] 1994), p. 49 

[ii] What's Wrong with the World, p. 42.
 
[iii] The Restoration of Property, p. 17.  
 
[iv] Cecil Chesterton, "Shaw and My Neighbour's Chimney," The New Witness, May 3, 1917, p. 13. Quoted in Race Mathews, Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society, (Distributist Review Press : Irving, Texas, 2d ed., 2009), p. 101.  
 
[v] I, 14. This work is also known as De Regno. 
 

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