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Generally Speaking-V1N1: The American Distributist

by Daniel Krotz

What is Distributism?

Distributism is a social philosophy whose aim or purpose is to provide a vision of the good society. That vision involves promoting small proprietorships and economies of scale that support ownership of property by the people who use property to produce goods or services. Unlike other economic theories, Distributism emphasizes the importance of coherence between Mankind's economic and moral dimensions. As such, it is perhaps the most human of the many social philosophies that involve economic ideas.

Distributism is not against private ownership of property, nor does Distributism mean that the wealth of Capitalists is taken away from them and "distributed" to the poor. Distributists, like Capitalists, strongly believe in property ownership and societal structures where people own the land and property upon which they depend for their livelihood. Capitalism, practically speaking, differs from Distributism because it promotes the fewest numbers of property owners producing the most numbers of goods. In fact, Distributists believe, as G.K. Chesterton first pointed out, that the main problem with Capitalism is that it produces so few Capitalists.

Distributism is also strongly in favor of the independence and self-reliance promoted by Capitalists, as long as independence and self-reliance are understood to be subsequent to higher values such as religious faith, responsible economies of scale, and promotion of the family. In the Distributist view, the family is the basic economic unit and God is the Head of the family.

Such a point of view, quite naturally, is the antithesis of Communism and Socialism, as is any social philosophy that promotes self-reliance and religious faith. It is important to state at the onset that Distributists strongly oppose Communism and any form of statism predicated on centralization. Subsidarity, which is the principle that problems and opportunities should be engaged at the lowest or most local level, is an essential Distributist ideal.

Distributist philosophy also underscores the point that Communism and Socialism are the consequences of free market Capitalism since it is natural for people to coalesce around a stable, even if corrupt system, if that system provides the only access to bread. Capitalism, in short, is an economic system that fosters dependence at the same time it sounds the clarion call of rugged individualism.

Although Distributism has attracted its share of cranks and mental cases, just as Henry Ford was a foremost Capitalist and crank, it is not, as George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wagon Pier, the home "of every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex maniac, pacifist, and feminist in England." Distributists, rather, come from all walks of life and all professions and are, if any one thing, practical to a fault. If they have an outstanding shared characteristic, it is perhaps a longing for balance and coherence between and among men and between man and the forces of nature and technology.

This sense of longing was articulated in the form of a question by the late Walker Percy in his essay The Delta Factor. "Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century? Why does man feel so bad when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making over the world for his own use?" A partial answer lies in the fact that modern man has chosen to experience much of life second hand because of advances in technology; we have accepted the abstractions inherent in telecommunications, jet travel, calorie free food, and so on, because such advances, largely, have made life so much easier. But even though we have freely chosen a means of access that is abstract and therefore must come to us "used", we expect a first hand, hands-on experience. Our sadness is the sadness of disappointed expectancy.

What this has to do with Distributism, which has mostly and incorrectly been considered solely in economic terms, is that Distributism is concerned with the essential purpose of work, which is keeping body and soul together. In essence, Distributism is an economic theory that understands that the nature of man requires integration between earth and its technological advances and heaven and its expectancies.

Before moving ahead, it is important to respond to the obvious objection some readers will raise in response to "yet more abstractions," the ideas of heaven and souls. Isn't heaven the ultimate abstraction? The answer is no, not for a Distributist.

Genuine Distributists, and genuine Distributism, is unapologetically dogmatic about the existence of God and rejects the notion that dogma is synonymous with close-mindedness. Distributists appreciate G.K. Chesterton's definition that "dogma means the serious satisfaction of the mind. Dogma does not mean the absence of thought, but the end of thought." There is little room for relativism in a Distributist's belief system and such a system always concludes in belief in a soul and the idea that God will not abandon man after his death.

Does this mean that a person who believes in neither God nor the eternity of souls cannot be a Distributist? We pause here for a moment of spectacular relativism, and respond by saying, "yes and no." Any thinking person may be a Distributist, so long as it is understood that the qualities invested in being a thinking person always involve a willingness to fully engage primary issues and first principles.

Finally, It is important to address Distributism's attitude toward technology, and to confront that Distributism is essentially another aspect of the "back to the land" movement. While the longing some people and most Distributists feel for coherence has sometimes expressed itself in efforts to go back to the land and live simply, if not to say primitively, Distributism rejects the cult of simplicity because it understands that life is complex and because it believes that man must be fully engaged in the political, social, and economic life of the community surrounding him.

Distributism does promote land ownership, whether it is "four acres and a cow" or a forty foot city lot fronting a busy city street. Home ownership, and active efforts toward a mortgage-free home, are key elements in a Distributist's plan for life. Distributists also believe that the home should contribute to the economic self-sufficiency of the family by providing space for a home office, a plot for a garden, or garage or basement space dedicated to the manufacture or creation of goods. While the scale of such operations may lack the romance of going back to the land, it is surprising how well most families satisfy their "manifest destiny" in such small spaces.

Distributists also embrace technology and advances in technology as long as they make economic and environmental sense, don't increase dependence, and enhance Distributism's first principles of property ownership, trust in God, and maintenance of the family. These caveats depend on the Distributist's attitude toward the uses of technology, a close evaluation of how well the technology - - and its manufacturer and distributor - - contribute to the ideal of small economies of scale. How well a product or company fits within the framework of Distributism's value system are the key volitional components the Distributist brings to all buying and investment decisions.

So far, we have discussed Distributism in very general terms and said as much about what it is not as what it is. In very broad terms, Distributism rejects Capitalism, Communism and Socialism, and embraces property ownership, small economies of scale, belief in God and maintaining families, and sensible technology. As you can see, Distributism is generally against big systems and in favor of small and private systems. In the months ahead, this column will discuss, in less general terms, the history of Distributism and how one can apply Distributist principles to the challenges of the twenty first century.
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* Daniel Krotz fully acknowledges using the work of Dermot Quinn in the Chesterton Review and John Peterson in the Midwest Chesterton News in writing this article.

©1996, The American Chesterton Society