What is Distributism?

What is Distributism? September 2, 2013

Distributism is the wild idea that property, power, and wealth should not be concentrated in the hands of a few tyrants running the State, nor in the hands of a few oligarchs running a corporation, but should instead be owned by all human beings, who have a natural right to private property, work and the fruit of the labors supplying their needs and the needs of their families. It is hostile to both communism (the concentration of wealth, power and property in the hands of the State) and capitalism (the concentration of wealth, power and property in the hands of a few oligarchs). It is in favor of the ordinary person being able to use his gifts and talent to create goods and exploit resources for human flourishing. It favors private property, freedom, and human dignity that puts the person before Mammon. It prefers the small over the ginormous, the local over the multinational corporation, the family over the economic machine.

If you want to know more, go here.

Also check out Dale Ahlquist’s The Hound of Distributism.

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  • vox borealis

    Wait a second. Does “capitalism” really mean—is it necessarily defined as—“concentration of wealth, power and property in the hands of a few oligarchs”? I mean, just looking at the Collins Dictionary: “an economic system based on the private ownership ofthe means of production, distribution, and exchange, characterizedby the freedom of capitalists to operate or manage their propertyfor profit in competitive conditions.”

    The last phrase would appear to contradict MArk Shea’s definition. Like “neo-con” “capitalism” appears to be another word that does not mean what Mark Shea wants it to mean.

    • Which definition better fits capitalism as we actually have it in this country right now?

      • vox borealis

        Well, we don’t have capitalism in this country, so the definition of capitalism necessarily does not apply. What we have is a highly corrupt form of cronyism in which the competition necessary for capitalisms is tilted in favor of certain interests, usually by the political elite, typically in the name of “regulation” but in reality it is anything but.

        So, if Mark Shea is against corporate-political cronyism, I agree with him. But let’s not misapply terminology.

        • Stu

          We haven’t had capitalism since the 1920s when it failed. And we certainly don’t have socialism. Instead we have a bastardized version of Keynesianism.

          • Capitalism did not fail in the 1920s.

            • rmichaelj

              What did fail in the 1920’s? and When was the closest that the United States (or a significant portion of it) came to actual non-cronyistic capitalism?

              • For most of the decade, there was considerable success. You need to actually specify what happened and say why you believe that this is a failure of capitalism as opposed to some other facet of human nature.

                There had been a number of short, sharp crashes with quick recoveries. The 1929 crash broke pattern. Do you know why? Was it because capitalism fouled up in a new way or because the government did something different and disastrously so?

    • Jared Clark

      Both definitions are correct. Capitalism is a system based on competition. It is an economic system designed to produce winners and losers. That is what leads to Mark’s definition.

      • vox borealis

        No, not inherently. In a state of permanent competition, the ground is (theoretically) always shifting and does not allow for the accumulation of wealth, power, and property in the hands of only a few—or even if such state occurs, it (theoretically) should not be permanent.

        • even if such state occurs, it (theoretically) should not be permanent

          Do you see the flaw in your description? It starts with “t”.

        • Jared Clark

          How many people do you think can compete with, say, Walmart? Compare that to the number of people who work for them. When competition is the method, the losers work for the winners; or else, they do not work.

    • contrarian

      Hi vox,
      That’s not really Mark’s point. Let’s not get caught up in semantic quibbles. Let’s talk about things and not words.
      Jon W is right.
      A good work defending distributism to look at, in addition to the Ahlquist (et al) book mentioned, is one called ‘Toward a Truly Free Market’ by John Medaille. Medaille argues that ‘free markets’ are great, but that the current ‘capitalist’ system is not free in the least. Like the Hound book mentioned, Medaille cuts through problems of definitions and labels and gets to the issues at hand, and shows that distributism is the answer.

      • vox borealis

        These aren’t semantic quibbles at all. Words have meaning. Mark likes (it seems) alternately to shock or to play the “pox on both your houses I take the third way” gambit, but often (not always) this requires him to butcher the definition of words.

        I agree, as I commented elsewhere here that the current system is in no way “free.” In fact, it is not a capitalist system at all. So if Mark is saying that communism is bad and the current crony corporatism system that exists now in the US is bad, I agree. That has nothing to do with capitalism.

        • contrarian

          Fair enough, vox.
          Fair enough.

        • Nick Corrado

          Mark’s using the word “capitalism” in the sense that Chesterton used it. It’s no surprise that it doesn’t fit exactly with a dictionary definition (neither does the way Chesterton used “socialism” or “communism”), but I think it’s fairly clear what he is referring to regardless.

          That said, it’s too bad we often use words in a confusing way, so maybe it would have been better for Mark to use a different word. It’s just that it’s most in keeping with Distributist writings to put it the way he did–and of course it would be just as confusing for a learned Distributist to come across this description and see “unfairism” in place of capitalism or whatever.

  • AnneG

    I actually know a lot of people who own small to medium businesses or who are private contractors, basically meaning they are small businesses themselves. Variety in a dynamic economy is probably the best solution.

  • Sean P. Dailey

    Thanks for this, Mark, especially establishing the reality of what something really is, as opposed to a bloodless dictionary definition.

    Knowing that no good deed goes unpunished, brace yourself for the flurry of blowback from koolaid drinkers and other partisans as they desperately try to pretend that capitalism isn’t every bit as unjust as its bastard child, communism.

    • Dave G.

      Does distributism have any koolaid drinkers and partisans?

      • Sean P. Dailey

        Some people who tell you that, to be a good Distribusist, you have to get back to the land and off the grid: ignore them. Especially if they argue on the Internet that you have to go off the grid.

        Those people are the koolaid drinkers.

        • Dave G.

          Specifying helps. That makes sense.

      • Silly Interloper

        I’m sure many a mom and pop shop sells Kool-Aid. But it is likely outsold by local preferences.

  • Tom Locker

    Sean and Mark will call me a koolaid drinker *(and it was actually
    Flavor Aid) but I still think that the problem is the government, not
    capitalists. “We the people” gave the government too much power, which
    the wealthy buy from corrupt politicians and bureaucrats to tilt the
    rules in their favor.

    Take away the government’s power to grant these favors and you’d see something much like distributism.

    The businesses that all those “Gilded Age” robber barons owned are almost all long gone, but the government remains – and stronger and more intrusive every day.

    • Jared Clark

      I don’t think anything you said qualifies as “koolaid drinking”. The problem is both big business and big government. If we the people take away some of the government’s power, then the inability to buy favors will decrease the power of big business. I don’t think the problem will be completely solved until the government is small and we re-establish the guild (and a better system for loans), but it would be a great start!

    • Sure, but people will talk about their town and city governments with the same sneering language and assumptions about “big government” that they use for Washington. The end result is people with a terrible, libertarian metaphysic pretending to themselves that someone else … “the churches” maybe … will take care of the “poor”, who, frankly, should probably suffer the consequences of being shiftless, vicious takers anyway.

      If Conservatives in this country would make the philosophical concesion that we all really are responsible for one another and people really are owed something from the community just by virtue of being human beings and not because they worked hard and took advantage of the opportunities America gave them, then I would feel a lot more comfortable voting for them and agreeing that the current means by which we accomplish this are not particularly successful.

      • Stu

        Calvinism runs deep this protestant country.

      • You’re mixing allied but different philosophies together and getting a mess. Conservatives actually don’t have a problem saying that we all really are responsible for one another. Try looking up communitarian conservatives to find the strand you’re looking for.

        Your beef seems to be with the libertarians, who are often, but not always, political allies of US conservatives. You have a bit of a problem you have to overcome. Private charity is the libertarian response to the poor. That does not translate to “someone else” doing it necessarily. It’s an argument that you have to demonstrate not just assume.

        If anybody truly embodies what you criticize and proudly wears the label, it would be the objectivists, who do exist, but flat out objectivists are a very small demographic and not generally worth changing your vote over.

        • Nope. Conservatives do have a problem making my philosophical concession. Conservatives in this country have no real philosophical grounding, and the rhetoric of their bedfellows has confused them.

          I have been in multiple arguments, on and off line, with self-described Conservatives who theoretically reject libertarianism, and they have a very hard time making this concession.

          • People who I encounter who have behaved similarly have all turned out to be fuzzy libertarians who have encountered, and hate, the hardcore, legalize heroin types and because of that will not touch the label. I recognize what you are saying but can’t agree with the self applied label. I have a similar issue with Che loving “liberal” self identifiers. They are not actually liberal at all.

            • But that’s the thing: the Reagan Republicans have turned into fuzzy libertarians. All that rhetoric of “smaller government”, unbalanced by any real commitment to local communities, has led to a shift in their thinking.

              Their commitment to their fellow man was mostly habitual (as it is in anyone). The rhetoric undermined any theoretical basis such a commitment might have had, and the economics undermined the habit.

              • You’ve made a factual statement “the economics undermined the habit” of charitable giving and support for the poor. This is something that does get surveyed and my recollection is that the survey numbers simply do not bear you out.

                • Ah, but I’m not talking about charitable giving. I’m talking about the mobility of labor breaking up families and communities. People get shuffled around according to the needs of their company. I’m talking about giving up loyalty to a man who owns his own store in favor of a chain that hires a ton of people for just less than full time and couldn’t give a rip about anyone personally.

                  These and a thousand others are the economic pressures that make real conservative values nearly impossible. People who get called “Conservative” in this country celebrate all the material goods that free-market capitalism has given us and tend to ignore the fact that it does a very good job destroying the webs of mutual interdependence that fostered the goods of virtue that real Conservatives were trying to preserve and celebrate.

                  • You appear to be making an argument in favor of serfdom. If that is the case, please go away. You are advocating evil. If you aren’t advocating tying people to the land (ie serfdom) please explain how you’re going to block labor mobility in a free society?

                    • Oh, balls. Once again, the advocates of unbridled capitalism respond to a critique with another false dichotomy. I point out how true conservatism is seriously damaged by capitalism and your response is, “So much the worse for conservative values, then.”

                      Which is what I’ve been accusing you people of this whole time. Thank you for making my point.

                    • I noticed you did not explain your labor mobility complaint though, which is a bit concerning. This community includes at least one secessionist monarchist for the US and possibly Canada (hi Ted) so finding a serfdom advocate would not make this the strangest discovery in this community.

                      So what did you mean about complaining of labor mobility? All kidding aside, it is a serious problem that does not seem to have good solutions that are freedom friendly.

                    • I’m not talking about laws that forcefully tie people down to the land, but rather changing our tax structure and corporate regulations to reduce the intense economic incentives that we have to break up smaller communities.

                      Advocates of unbridled capitalism will point out that we’ll pay an economic price for this (which is true), and, often start a rhetorical freak-out over the fear that diminished prosperity of any material kind will destroy the next advance in [choose one: surgery, aerospace engineering, X-Box manufacturing, etc]. Basically, any attempt that conservatives make to shore up very real goods that make people really happy is shot down with the promise of the possibility of some breakthrough of material prosperity that may or may not happen at some time in the future if only companies are allowed free reign to do what they want with the American society.

                      This attitude ignores what makes people really happy (virtue) out of a vain hope that people can take care of the virtue all by themselves without the real need for these webs of interdependence (they can’t), thus freeing them up to be cogs in the engine of American material prosperity.

                      Meanwhile, as Louis C. K. once said, “Everything’s amazing. Nobody’s happy.”

                    • There is zero wrong with what you are talking about as an expense for the ultra capitalist set. You will get much further with the capitalist set if you steer clear of implicit, embedded structures like taxation which distort things and create a long list of unintended consequences.

                      Capitalists tolerate all sorts of foolish expenditures. Harness that and you can implement those community forming expenditures within capitalism just fine. You do not need distributism to do it. Shifting over to a new system, under any name leads to natural suspicion that this is just one more socialism morph. The problem is that socialists lie. It makes spotting it difficult.

                      Update: I realize that what I wrote might cause you to think that community cohesion is foolish. I do not believe that. I am trying to say that people who tolerate snooki and borat as legitimate expenditures will have no reasonable objections to your non-economy maximizing expenditures.

                    • Hmm. I’ll have to think about this. The reason I want tax structures is that I don’t want companies to be able to get out of them. I want to apply a governor to corporate expansion (and other similar behaviors). As Hilaire Belloc suggested in someone’s linked article, chain stores should have to pay way higher taxes than independents. This makes complete sense, both because we want to discourage chains and encourage private ownership, but also because bigness causes peculiar injustices that society ought to repair via taxes collected from the offenders.

                      When a company or individual is small compared to the market, the natural competitive and social forces are much more powerful in relation to it and can punish bad behavior and reward good. The bigger a company gets in the market, the more power it has and the more it can ignore social and competitive forces that might make a smaller company behave: i.e. treat its employees better, stop dumping sewage into the town’s river, etc, etc, etc.

                      Also, I think you’d be way better off treating people who are very suspicious about capitalism as if they were people of good will. Very few people in this country want full-blown socialism, but many, many people want some legitimate regulation for the common good. I’ve been a Republican all my life. I don’t have a socialist bone in my body. But I hate, hate, hate the individualistic wasteland of materialistic misery that the corporations and the labor unions have together made of this country.

                    • I’m sorry, but the graveyards of the world are full of people who were suckered by the socialists. Capitalist fear of socialist lying is rational.

                      Materialistic misery is not a desired state for anybody. If there is a pathway to a rich spiritual life without leaving openings to resurrect the socialist nonsense then that pathway is preferable to starting the socialism wars all over again by taking down the capitalist defenses.

                      For such a radical change as replacing capitalism with distributism to be justified implementing things within the capitalist framework needs to be impossible. I don’t think that’s reflective of reality.

                    • Gaa!

                      the graveyards of the world are full of people who were suckered by the socialists

                      I’m telling you: I know a ton of people who are interested in this. On my honor, NONE of us are socialists. ALL of us are extremely skeptical at ideological capitalism and see it as extremely detrimental to our society.

                      Nobody’s trying to “resurrect the socialist nonsense”. You can’t label every single little attempt at using reason to direct society and the economy for the common good and correct for the defects of capitalism, “socialism”. But if you do reject any attempt that way, then how do you avoid the charge of being an ideological capitalist?

                      You’re not living in the real world. The capitalists calling distributist reforms “unrealistic” is like the slave-owners of the antebellum South calling emancipation “unrealistic”. Of course it is, if we continue making the assumptions about human beings that we have been making. But try to see that “capitalist man” is not a real being. Real people don’t live and work like that. At least, they can’t live and work like that and be happy human beings. Pure capitalism is inhuman.

                    • You mistake me. I’m trying to help you, not accuse you. This is a bloody game that was played for 8 decades and it’s still echoing with intellectual bomb disposal still necessary.

                      The number of people who were absolutely patriotic and convinced that they opposed the Soviet Union who ended up in the USSR’s dossiers as unknowing agents really surprised a lot of folks when the archives were opened in the 1990s. In this game, your intention is irrelevant. If the effect is to resurrect socialism, then your program is to be opposed. It really is that simple.

                      A warning sign is that you believe that there are no socialists anymore trying to resurrect it. It’s reasonable to say that there’s no realistic chance of success, that socialism is not likely to make a comeback because it’s been so deeply discredited. But 2009 is not so long ago:

                      Newsweek’s cover declaring “we are all socialists now” is recent enough that it’s a bit eyebrow raising to hear that nobody’s doing what Newsweek was obviously trying to do.

                      I’m not even calling distributist reforms unrealistic. I’m saying that presenting them as a good to be bought under capitalism would accomplish your end without a lot of debate. Make distributists a market segment to be satisfied and you bypass all the debate. Doing that makes the capitalists work for you instead of against you. What’s the objection to it, a label?

                    • I think you are grossly underestimating what you’re trying to do by defining these changes as “not capitalism”. That makes it a revolution, with all the bad history of those, and not reform.

                      Pure capitalism is not totalitarian. If it’s in an otherwise human matrix, it’ll just fulfill those non-monetary goals very fast. The problem isn’t the capitalism. It’s people desiring a separation from God, desiring sin. Distributism is not going to cure that. All it will do is hide and sublimate it into forms that are less displeasing to you, but likely not God.

      • ivan_the_mad

        Russell Kirk is the conservative to look up.

      • Its sounds like your beef is with Republicans and their ilk who are essentially progressives, not conservatives. The conservative stance is one that promotes mutual obligation over the dependence vs independence debate between Republicans and Democrats. That is, we all possess an innate and mutual responsibility to each other and our social structure should reflect that reality:

        “It is not dependence per se, which is a universal fact of human life, but dependence without mutual obligation, that corrupts the soul. Such technocratic provision enables precisely the illusion of independence from the people around us and from the requirements of any moral code they might uphold. It is corrosive not because it instills a true sense of dependence but because it inspires a false sense of independence and so frees us from the sorts of moral habits of mutual obligation that alone can make us free.”


        • But you would not believe how widespread that attitude is among Republicans and other self-described “conservatives”. Next time there’s a Republican national convention, circulate my Philosophical Concession around the floor and try to get people to sign it. I think you’ll be lucky to get 33%.

          Looking over that article you linked, I think he’s 75% right. The problem is, he doesn’t seem to recognize that our economic system (the economic system the right is so in love with) is doing the exact same thing as “big government”: it’s creating the illusion of independence by cleaving smaller communities into atomized individuals who all have the same relationship to the Walmart.

          What gives liberal progressives all of their street cred is that they seem to be the only ones today acknowledging any kind of interdependence, and your average man-on-the-street, while he’s not particularly anxious to live in some worker’s paradise, does perceive the Right in this country as arguing against interdependence per se. And he recognizes that as evil.

          • You seem to be defining your terms purely according to your needs which is a gross abuse of language. Historically, Liberalism is a product of the Enlightenment in which society was “liberated” from obedience to God and duty and replaced with self-interest and the drive for progress. This individualist model, and its utter denial of any kind of duty and therefore mutual obligation, is the basis of Liberalism. It is most manifest (albeit in very different ways) in Austro-libertarianism and in the Left but also exists to a lesser extent among Republicans. This model of entitlement without duty destroys mutual obligation and interdependence which is necessary for real community and replaces it with a massive and faceless welfare state which “frees” the haves of their personal duty to their neighbors and it “saves” the have-nots by eliminating their dependence on their neighbors.

            In contrast, Conservativism, historically understood, is that view which seeks to “conserve” those values that Liberalism sought to “liberate” us from: obedience to God and duty towards a common good. Only in the context of these conservative values is mutual obligation a social possibility.

            You ignore my evidence for a very real conservative argument for mutual responsibility and interdependence, stating that the liberal progressives have street cred as the “only ones” who acknowledge interdependence. However, this interdependence is antithetical to liberal progressivism and those who adopt it, whether they self-identify as liberal or not, embrace a view that is quite conservative.

            You are certainly free to debate the means in which a truly interdependent society may be achieved. I’m not asking you to accept any solutions that may have been presented in the above article, but the ideal of the interdependent society originates in conservatism and many conservatives today do hold to that ideal – though they may disagree upon the means to achieve it.

            • I know all this, and I agree with it. I’m not the one grossly abusing the language. I’m pointing out that people who get called “Conservative” in our society are anything but, and the “Liberals” who argue for at least some form of mutual interdependence and responsibility are speaking a truth.

              My point is that the people who get called “Conservative” in this country no longer hold to that ideal in theory. They hold to it in practice, by habit, by prejudice, but not in theory.

              • Those are all important distinctions which you failed to make until pressed, and seem at odds with your previous statements, which is at the very least neglectful. I would consider that an abuse.

                Also, if conservatives hold to that ideal in every capacity except in theory then the theory doesn’t matter. Theory serves reality and not the other way around.

                • Sheesh. Ask any man on the street how he uses the words “conservative” and “liberal”. You’ll find that they do not conform to your theoretical usage. I’m talking about how American voters perceive the political landscape in this country, not how we who geek around Catholic blogs perceive them.

                  In any case, theory is just as important, though in different ways. Theory gives you reasons to strengthen certain habits while weakening others. Theory approves of certain political and economic set ups and disapproves of others. It was the theory of the equality of man that led people to abolish slavery (and, hopefully, keep it abolished, even where it might make economic sense), not habit or anything else.

    • Stu

      If you decry Big Government then I don’t see how you can be enamored with Big Business. They are both threats and they are clearly in cahoots. “We the people” gave both of them too much power.

      • Tom Locker

        I’m not enamored with Big Business. There will always be dishonest and corrupt people. Big Business is the parasite on Big Government. Kill the host and the parasite will also die.

        Excess government power will always be used to enrich someone. In our corrupt system it’s the politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. In a socialist system it’s just the politicians and bureaucrats.

        Expect those you give power to to use it for their benefit.

        • Stu

          They are parasites on each other; more of symbiosis. If you have one you will have the other. You have to go after both of them.

          • Without the guns supplied by government, big business would be nibbled to death by new entrants in markets who would serve the market better. They would have no defense. Without big business, government could still steal your property and shoot you. Big business for them is just a convenience to deal with certain economic realities.

            • Stu

              No. Big Business would prop up Big Government. You see a dichotomy between the two. I see them being in cahoots.

              • Of course they are in cahoots. The question is who is the essential actor, and who is the slimy sidekick. It is business that is the slimy sidekick. Without government’s police power to regulate and drive out the new entrant competitors, they’ve only got competence to offer and that’s not actually a problem. The government’s police power is the power to imprison, fine, and even kill. That’s always dangerous. Unfortunately we haven’t figured a way to have a civilization without this dangerous tool. It’s that fallen nature rearing its ugly head. Some people need to go to prison or die to protect society from their evil. We have no practical alternative.

                • Stu

                  Again, you see one bad actor. I see two and they are equals. If you have Big Government, you will have Big Business. If you have Big Business, then you will have Big Government. It’s a package deal.

                  • No, I see two bad actors. That’s what I meant when I said “Of course they are in cahoots”. The immoral are everywhere. My point is the immoral with guns are more dangerous and those without guns can be defeated within the system.

                    • Stu

                      They both have guns.

                    • Corporations do not have the right to do violence. You may hire a security guard to preserve your property and a thief may get a gun drawn at him. The corporate use of force that people generally are offended about always depends on the government backing them up in violation of the rule of law in my experience.

                    • Stu

                      Of course Big Business uses Big Government as their enforcer and “guns.” Why wouldn’t they? But to think that if Big Government were out the equation that Big Business wouldn’t get it’s own guns just isn’t realistic. More likely. Big Business would just set about propping up Big Government again to get those “legitimate guns”. It’s a twofer. You get one with the other no matter which way you buy them.

                    • The state reserves for itself a monopoly on violence. Big business has bought up its Pinkertons but they never would have survived any sort of conflict where the state was an honest arbiter and honestly keeping the peace. Their business licenses would be revoked, their leadership in jail, and the army called out if the constabulary wasn’t up to the job.

                      The scale of violence that the state has at its disposal almost always dwarfs what is available to private parties. In the few cases that this is not true, those areas are always called failed states. In most countries, a business that was arming up at that level would draw the attention of the generals as a national security threat, because it would be.

                      There is a lot of work to be done to disentangle big business from the state. Without crony rules inserted by pet politicians the stability of big business would only last as long as their economic competence which is generally not that long. Running your own army is generally not profitable unless you’re actively looting with it and then you’ve ceased to have a company and turned yourself into a warlord, an entirely different problem.

                      Generally corporate leadership understands this and doesn’t make plays for arms outside of the security sector where it’s bought and sold just like any other commodity. Condotteri, mercenary companies, are simply not a major economic issue in capitalism.

                    • Stu

                      You missed my point and I think we are talking past each other because of differing perspectives. You seem to see Big Government and Big Business and being different. They aren’t. It’s a package deal. So in the case of “guns”, Big Business does have them, they just reside with their other half.

                      Big Government, absent Big Business, will spawn a new Big Business. And Big Business, absent Big Government, will prop up a new Big Government.

                    • At the risk of godwining this thing, the two are both similar and different, much as Hitler and Mussolini were. Which of the two is more dangerous and how should you sequence things to fix the mess is a very worthwhile topic in both cases.

                      I have to demur at the ability of a government as the US’ ability to durably prop up big business. Obama’s tried that game but it’s just not working.

                    • Stu

                      In the long-term is has worked. In fact, by very nature we are now a Keynesian economy (although bastardized) demonstrates that it “works” because capitalism by itself is not sustainable (though our current arrangement may just be delaying the inevitable nature of collapse given we can’t keep doing the Keynesian “pump” to the economy and then “punt” on paying it back).

                      I do agree with the “similar and different” characterization(though I think saying such runs of the risk of making us look silly) but regardless they are intertwined and sequencing steps towards fixing the problem is indeed an issue. But that is an area where I think we would find some agreement. For instance, I think reversing both the 16th and 17th Amendments would be a good start. I will wager that while you may not agree with them being the first start, you would support such measures.

                    • You’re fairly accurate on the constitutional amendments and not a lot more needs saying.

                      We’re shy a tremendous number of steps in managing government. We do not know how many governments exist in the US. There is no comprehensive list.

                      The US maintains a census every five years but states have their own and the lists disagree. If you can’t list the names of all the governments, you have no hope of measuring what they do and what is beyond their proper remit.

                      But let’s say we compiled such a list (in fact, I *am* compiling such a list), then got all their charts of accounts and all their detailed budgets and made a massive database that would say here are our governments and, aside from the secret operations, here is what they do including open summaries on the black side. Top that off with all their legal and regulatory codes.

                      At that point we would have the prerequisites needed to start the conversation of what is government doing that it should not be doing, ie, properly engaging in the serious business of reigning in our out of control governments.

                      Until that point, we’re just toddlers crying and whining make the bad man stop being mean.

    • People have a fallen nature no matter what system you use. They will sin and be corrupt at times. The difference between communism and capitalism is the feedback loops of what happens when poor decisions are made. In communism, somebody gets shot. In capitalism, somebody goes broke. In crony capitalism, somebody calls up a few friends and a law is passed taxing everybody to make good the losses.

      Capitalism is a profit and loss system. Losses are applied to those who guess the future badly and profits apply to those who do it well. If that’s not happening, what you are observing is not capitalism.

      • Stu

        What then would be a good example of “capitalism?” Present day? Past?

        • Capitalism is a theoretical construct which seems to improve economic functioning the more pieces of it you adopt in your public policy mix. No nation goes whole hog on the thing. They never have. The battle in most countries is in adopting more pieces of the system or reforming pieces of the system along different lines.

          Theoretically, critics will often say that too much capitalism is a bad thing but in practice, finding the point where society is retarded by being too mercantile seems to be an elusive concept. It’s much asserted and not very often demonstrated. Technology and further theoretical development generally favor economic organization on capitalist lines. Roads, for example, were a handy club for beating capitalists up and served the purpose for many years. Then Hong Kong experimented with road privatization and we find the concept both worked and provided superior results.

  • Jacob

    The trouble I have with distributism is I have never seen a plan to implement it. It works well enough as a voluntary movement within the confines of the current economic system, but do the distributists want more?

    • Jared Clark

      I’ve never seen a plan either, but that is a problem with distributists, not distributism. I’d guess that voluntary movement is how it must begin (do you expect a vote for implementing a guild system to pass right now?), and actual, official change to the structure comes later.

      • Jacob

        My problem is that an ideal without a good way to implement it is wide open to abuse. I doubt the people who dreamed up communism had the Soviet Union in mind. I can’t really get interested in Distributism until I see actual concrete proposals that are a little more effective than “don’t shop at Walmart”

    • Stu

      By it’s nature, you aren’t going to have some centralized “master plan” to enact it. The challenge is that we have been conditioned to look for solutions to come from the highest level of government. It’s that paradigm that must be challenged (or completely fall apart on its own) first and only then will the majority of people begin look at their communities as the places for action on their part instead of Washington, DC and Wall Street.

      • By its nature, distributism is going to have dissenters because all economic systems have dissenters. What do you do with the dissenters in distributism? The vagueness of answers to that question have always given me pause about distributism.

        • Stu

          What do we do with “dissenters” now?

          • We let them raise funds to run their economic experiments on their own and have been doing so for centuries. Take a look at the history of utopian communist experiments in the US. There was no problem in accommodating their experiments.

            In less radical cases, federalism provides a plethora of governments that take different approaches. It’s a proud feature of the US system.

            • Stu

              I don’t see how distributist economy would be any different in that regard.

              • How do you enforce limits on too much wealth?

                • Stu

                  How do we enforce limits now on people or corporations controlling too much of the market? But even with that, it’s not a matter of limiting wealth, it’s about a setup that promotes a wider ownership of productive property. In that we find some agreement in that one of the first steps would be to restore the balance of government and bring much more power back to localities and communities.

                  • We don’t enforce limits on people or corporations controlling too much of the market. We enforce limits on the abuse of that control. Monopolies are legal. In some cases they are perfectly natural.

                    How does this setup promoting wider ownership work? What’s to prevent the industrious from buying the indolent’s capital with a mess of pottage time and again?

                    • Stu

                      Actually, we do both: we break up monopolies and enforce limits on them. Point is, we have laws in place to prevent individual or corporation from centralizing too much power. No reason to believe that a distributive economy can’t do the same. For instance, if we were to go to tax system based upon the value of actual land owned, we could make it very progressive to make it very difficult for single individual to accrue vast amounts of productive property. This is but one step but other measure could easily be implemented but it takes a reconceptualization of the problem instead of the normal binary choices of capitalism and socialism which are both anti-free markets and anti-private property ultimately give you the same thing: a few people controlling everything. Same coin, different sides.

                      I have to say. Your rhetoric comes across as though you believe everyone who is on the short end must therefore be “indolent” and that the guy who owns everything is just “industrious.”

                    • The IBM and Microsoft anti-trust cases were professionally important for me. I read up on the law. Since we disagree on the facts, perhaps a description with a few case studies might help.


  • cyrus

    capitalism is what promotes the freedoms you are talking about. It is corporations that hire people and pay them so they get their private property. Do you want to go back to being hunter-gatherers, where everyone fends for themselves, survival of the fittest?

    • I have never seen a falser dichotomy.

    • Corporations are not necessary for capitalism and could very well go away while still preserving a capitalist system. Corporations are a method to implement capitalism, so far a sound method, but certainly a contingent one that is subject to improvement and reform at any time when something better emerges.

      It is the contingency of any particular economic arrangement within the framework of the profit and loss system that is a major strength of Capitalism and one that should not be lightly sacrificed on some false admiration for a particular iteration of capitalism.

      Capitalism is that system which rewards success and punishes failure and does the best job to this point of predicting future economic wants and needs. All else is just an instantiation that has arrived and will eventually leave when it no longer serves.

    • “Capitalism” as used by G.K. Chesterton (Distributism’s figurehead) has a specific and lesser used meaning, referring to that very real phenomenon when wealth becomes so concentrated among a few capitalists that the majority of people are forced to work for wages in the absence of any productive capital of their own (beyond their own human capital which they “sell” as labor for their wage). This meaning is often misunderstood both by self-proclaimed Distributists and by its opponents as anti-capitalist sentiment in the sense of opposing property rights and free exchange. To the contrary, Chesterton’s position was that to be a capitalist (to be an owner of productive property) is a good thing and that the situation he perceived was bad because most people were not capitalists. Chesterton asserted that as many people should be capitalists as possible. I recently wrote an article on this subject further explaining Chesterton’s use of the word “Capitalism” and what he, and Distributism, mean by it. Here’s the link:


  • Stu

    I’m a distributist.

  • Elmwood

    An application of distributism would be a tax code which favors small and family run businesses. Taco Bell, as much as a appreciate the diarrhea it gives me, shouldn’t be able to easily out compete a local establishment. But it would take more than a smart tax code, people need to actually know what is good first. The American dream pretty much boils down to making as much money as possible rather than perusing happiness.

  • I’m still working my way through this but a first comment because it is so disturbing. It is not a good start when a supposedly Catholic source distorts a Pope. The supposed quotation of Quadregismo Anno does not pan out and does not exist in the Vatican copy. The quote uses the word jointly and claims it to exist at 100, but there is only one use of the word jointly, at 84 and does not match the quoted text.

    Don’t quote a Pope inaccurately, especially when the text is online. Is that too much to ask?

    • ivan_the_mad

      It is accurate, you are not looking at the translation from which it is quoted. The encyclical was written in Latin; there have been more than a few translations over the years. Calm yourself.

      • Since the only translation I have access to is the official one at the Vatican and they do not match, I am dubious. Here is (100) in the official version:

        “That, in the first place, the whole aspect of economic life is vastly altered, is plain to all. You know, Venerable Brethren and Beloved Children, that the Encyclical of Our Predecessor of happy memory had in view chiefly that economic system, wherein, generally, some provide capital while others provide labor for a joint economic activity. And in a happy phrase he described it thus: “Neither capital can do without labor, nor labor without capital.””

        This is not a definition or even a characterization of capitalism. It might, charitably, be described as a characterization of a piece of capitalism. It is so only because it is an accurate description of all modern economic systems that include specialization and nothing to do with what differentiates capitalism from others.

        The “happy phrase” seems to be a reference to Rerum Novarum (19) which I read to be an opposition to class warfare.

        “The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity. Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvellous and manifold. First of all, there is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice.”

        I do not think that Pope Pius XI was trying to define capitalism in Quadragesimo Anno at all but to influence people to develop the economy more in the spirit of Jesus. This is something that is perfectly compatible with capitalism through the awakening of christian conscience to choose projects to do that are christian in character and thus to accomplish those ends more efficiently and effectively.

        To use Pius XI’s encyclical to attempt to define capitalism is to miss the point of what Pius XI was trying to do which was not about defining an economic system. Irrespective of the specific words, it’s a distortion of the spirit.

        Now you asserted something as fact, that the translation is accurate, ie this is a description or characterization of capitalism. If you could give a link or a reference to this alternate translation, that would be appreciated. My original complaint is that stuffing words in the mouth of a pope is offensive. I just don’t see how you can honestly use that encyclical to define capitalism.

        • ivan_the_mad

          I’m not interested in arguing with you about a definition of capitalism, I’m merely interested in correcting your false charge of misquoting. As for an official translation, could you document where that is stated by the Church? The only English language Bible on the Vatican site is the New American, is that now the official translation of the Bible into English?

          The translation comes from the book Seven Great Encyclicals, by William J. Gibbons, S.J., 1939, The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in New York, imprimi potest by John J. McGinty, S.J.

          • I’m curious as to how you know the translation is accurate and from this particular book. That’s a very specific thing to know unless you’re the author.

            • ivan_the_mad

              Answering your second question first, that’s almost absurdly simple – I have a copy of the book at hand.

              Regarding your first question, I was never speaking to the accuracy of the translation but contending that the author of the distributist piece quoted accurately from his source material. Given that you began your original comment by noting your inability to find the matching quote in the translation on the Vatican site and then wrote “Don’t quote a Pope inaccurately, especially when the text is online”, you are rather clearly dealing with the accuracy of the quotation and not of the translation. That is the comment to which I responded.

              • The criticism was twofold, one that the words don’t match and two that he’s asserting that the Pope’s defining capitalism. Since I do not have a copy of the book at hand, I’ll concede the point on the words as too much trouble to check. The second point, the one that you don’t want to discuss at all, still stands. Defining capitalism isn’t what the pope was doing and it’s still not acceptable to pretend that the pope was doing that when he clearly wasn’t.

                Dishonestly characterizing the system you are criticizing is an early step in most hack treatments.

                • ivan_the_mad

                  Concession accepted. I have remedied your ignorance in that matter, as I set out to do.

  • The idea that the production process starts when shovel hits ground is, simply, a fallacy. The production process starts when you pick out the spot where the shovel hits the ground and decide among the myriad of competing potential holes that should be dug which ones actually do get dug. It is incredibly easy, as the communists have proven many times over, to pick the wrong spot to dig the wrong hole and there must be a way to instill prudence so that we do not waste resources because they are limited and if we waste too much, we die.

    If this article is indeed an accurate description of distributism, the system is daft because it imposes an artificial process of production that is missing its front end, planning, and its back end, imposing consequences for wise stewardship or imprudent action.

    It also ignores the reality of the human condition. Some people are well qualified at certain activity and horribly unqualified at others. In fact most people fit this profile. If you are a wonderful artist, such as Mozart, but a horrible steward of your own finances, again Mozart, you should concentrate on what you are good at and hire someone to handle your affairs. This specialization of activity is not in any way to be condemned for it provides much of the surplus we have to create good works and to reduce human misery through investment and charity.

    Capitalists are imposing rewards and consequences by increasing/reducing stock prices and moving that money away from poor management of economic affairs to their current best guess (revised by the second in some markets) as to the future prospects of success of all potential projects that they know about. Distributism, by artificially propping up the incompetent and holding back the hypercompetent, reduces these signals and thus the efficiency with which capital is deployed to actually satisfy human needs and wants.

    To emphasize, I am making this criticism contingently because someone who is lazy about cutting and pasting from a papal encyclical cannot be fully trusted to get his own theory correct, in my opinion. So if someone wants to explain how distributism’s planning and feedback loops would actually work better than the description in the PDF, I’m perfectly willing to re-evaluate.

    • Stu

      I’m not sure you are interested to begin with.

      • I assure you that I am interested.

        • Elmwood

          Do you work for the Acton Institute or something?

          • Actually, I work for myself.

    • Excellent! I am a mostly faithful Catholic who thinks distributism naive. It seems to me at it’s essence to not understand capitalism as it should be (unfettered by a completely dominant and over regulating state). It also seems to simultaneously underestimate and highly idealizes individuals as if they would be better off as one of the Amish. Distributism seems to me to imply the need for a very powerful state, with which I deeply disagree.

      BTW I am not claiming to be an expert in philosophy nor economics. I am a very small business owner for more that 30 years, and it is from that paradigm that speak.

      • Thanks for the late comment. I have not seen anything about distributism in the 8 months since I wrote that to revise my opinion. One thing that I probably wasn’t too clear on was that the concentration of capital that distributism decries is probably more concentrated today than would happen in a truly free market as corporate welfare favors concentration of wealth. Adoption of a more capitalist approach would actually achieve some of that dispersion of capital that distributism would like to see.

  • ivan_the_mad

    I’ve a copy of The Hound of Distributism and recommend it. There is some good stuff in there by notable figures like Philip Blond and Race Matthews, not to mention a veritable who’s who of American distributists. I specially enjoyed the essay tying together Day, Maurin, and distributism.

    Speaking to distributism generally, there’s been a resurgence in my area of local businesses that are realizing some principles of the social doctrine (even if not purposefully). They thrive despite larger chains in the area. The most wonderful part is the community these places foster. You get to know the merchants, to befriend them. I’ve even chanced to meet some of the farmers and a craftsman who produce goods sold in these places. Most encouraging!

    • Stu

      It’s worth buying extras and handing them out to your friends.

  • Sean P. Dailey

    G.K. Chesterton on capitalism as the enemy of the family:

    “There are two human relations which modern rulers are
    everywhere disposed to resolve. And they are the only two relations
    which ordinary people are so naturally constituted as to desire. A
    man can desire woman as a thing of beauty or woman can desire a baby
    as a thing of beauty. These two relations, that of a man and wife and
    that of a mother and child, are the only two recognized combinations
    founded on this natural satisfaction of a thing in itself – these
    are also the only two recognized combinations in a capitalist
    civilization which that system has set out to destroy. It is
    essential to note that no other relation is really being attacked.”

    You can trot out all the theoretical definitions you want to, but at the back of capitalism, there is always a Saruman, all too willing to twist nature and the natural law, and betray his neighbors, to make a buck.

  • Half Heathen

    Is it possible, in any practical sense, to have distribution of the means of production without also having distribution of the means of protecting those means, a/k/a the Second Amendment or its equivalent?

  • capaxdei

    According to Distributism, is investing in the stock market a good thing or a bad thing?

    • Silly Interloper


  • capaxdei

    I’m sorry, are there really eight people alive who think invoking Saruman in your definition of capitalism will help distributism be taken seriously?

    • chezami

      Your nerd cred is ebbing rapidly.

      • capaxdei

        I keep looking to see if there’s any there there, but when distributism’s proponents keep treating it as a fantasy role playing game, it’s hard to sustain interest.

        • LotR is not a fantasy role-playing game. It’s a work of literature. The mindset that does not take literature seriously indicates a disease of Western civilization, not its health.

          • capaxdei

            Right you are, Jon. On the subject of non sequiturs, I’m told that whale songs rhyme.

  • Res Ipsa

    The Distributist Review seems to be non functional now days. Too bad, I liked it. The old articles are still up, but nothing new seems to be getting posted.

    I tried to run a blog on Distributist topics for awhile, but a major glitch I had took most of it down and wiped it out. Having said that, I think one of the ironies of the discussion on distributism is that its opponents think they’re capitalist, which they usually are not. Distributist tend to be much more capitalist than American “capitalist”, which are actually Corporatist. They believe in the free competition of government sponsored entities (corporations), whose human members are shielded from liability by that legal fiction. Its an antisubsidarity sort of concept.

  • Half Heathen

    Question: How does one accomplish and maintain a wide distribution of the means of production without an equally wide distribution of the means of protecting the means of production?