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Distributism and the Current Crisis, Part 1: The Scale of Government

Discussions of what to do about the current crisis commonly take the form of an argument between “socialism” and “capitalism.” However, such a discussion is flawed in both of its terms. Real socialism collapsed in 1989, and few would want to return to that horrific system. What is less well understood is that pure capitalism itself collapsed in 1929, never to rise again anywhere in the world. There are few citizens with any living memory of real capitalism, and the memories they have are generally unfavorable.

Capitalism collapsed for the same reason as communism, a victim of its own internal contradictions that caused chronic instability. Workers found the system unacceptable, to be sure, but so did the capitalists themselves, and few were very sorry to see it go. Pure capitalism had proved itself toxic to both capital and labor, just as Belloc predicted it would in 1913.

The first task in reforming the system to understand the system that we have, the system that is in full failure, and understand apart from the ideological terms commonly used to describe it. The system that replaced capitalism was first a hyper-active Keynesianism, brought about by World War II and which lasted until the late 70?s; Keynesianism itself was then replaced by a pure mercantilism, the system which combines private privilege with public power and which so incited the wrath of Adam Smith. It is this mercantilism which finds itself in the midst of a full-blown collapse. Both the Keynesianism which replaced capitalism, and the mercantilism which replaced Keynesianism, depend on massive government controls and subsidies which are no longer practicable or sustainable. Nor can we go back to the capitalism of the 1920?s without reliving the instability of that turbulent period.

If capitalism is not a viable alternative, if it represents a system that no living man has seen, why then do the arguments in its favor carry such weight? I believe the reasons are mostly ideological. Capitalists are quite willing to trot out libertarian arguments when dealing with some regulation or tax that they find odious, but they are just as willing to put such arguments aside when they seek some privilege or subsidy from the government. In this way, the most well-meaning of the libertarians serve as the fellow-travelers and useful idiots of the mercantilists. And although I have a great deal of respect for the libertarian arguments in general, in practice these arguments do not function apart from well divided property, as the older, pre-Austrian libertarians realized.

However, it would be totally unjust to critique the libertarians if the distributists did not have something of their own to offer, and something more than mere platitudes or even principles. Something programmatic and concrete, and applicable to our actual situation is required. Distributists have an advantage in this regard, since, unlike capitalism or libertarianism, there are actual Distributist systems on the ground and working, and we can examine them for practical lessons to apply to our own troubles.

Distributism and Government

Critics of Distributism often charge that the theory is no more than a variety of socialism. This charge is odd for two reasons: One, socialism is the theory that there should be no private property, while Distributism is the theory that property ought to be spread as broadly as possible; the two are precisely opposite. Two, the actual practice of Distributism, in Mondragón and other places, is more “libertarian” than anything the libertarians have been able to accomplish. Nevertheless, the critique cannot be passed off lightly because the very term “distributism” conjures up the specter of “re-distribution,” the idea that some committee of bureaucrats will decide who will, and who will not, own property.

But in the main, Distributism is not so much about what the government ought to do as about what it ought to stop doing. The claim of the Distributist in this regard is not much different from the claim of the pure libertarian: It is government which fosters the accumulation of property into fewer and fewer hands. Indeed, without the aid and protection of government, the piles of capital could not have grown as high as they have. And the higher the piles of private capital grow, the thicker the walls of public power necessary to protect them. Big government and big capital go together, and this is a simple fact of our history, beyond all reasonable dispute.

That being said, there are clearly cases where government must, in fact, redistribute property. The case of Taiwan comes to mind, where the population was held in virtual slavery to a few landowners. The remarkable prosperity of that island is traceable to the decisive action of the land-to-the-tiller program, which made most of the sharecroppers into independent farmers. Those who would defend the landowners and the sanctity of property over the misery and poverty of the people corrupt the very notion of property. Property is a sacred right, but not an absolute one. Every proper right is known by its limits, and an absolute right is not a right at all, but the seedbed of tyranny. Property that depends on the slavery of others is certainly not legitimate property. And in such egregious cases, the government can indeed take egregious action.

And then there is the case of the entities deemed “too big to fail,” or more accurately, too big to succeed without generous drafts from the public purse. It is quite legitimate to break up such companies and to distribute them either to the local or regional banks or to the employees. The same principle applies to the failed industrial giants that require public life support. They can be broken up and turned over to the workers through the simple expedient of placing contractual obligations for pay and pensions on the same level as the contractual obligations to the bondholders. Then we can see if the workers can run these factories any better than the geniuses in Detroit. If the similar experience in Argentina is any guide, they might do very well indeed.

Finally, we can note that as long as capitalism endures, distributists may legitimately call on the power of government to limit its manifold excesses. For example, so long as there are monopolies, price-controls are a legitimate public response. Ideally, we would want to eliminate such monopolies that are not strictly necessary, but as long as the government protects monopolies, it is reasonable to ask for protection from monopolies.

All that being said, our main interest in dealing with government is to deal it out of the game. It is not that there would be no government—we are not anarchists—but compared to the size and scale of the current mercantilism, it would look a lot like “no government.” Still there are functions which are properly left to the community and these would be left in place. Anyone who objects to any government whatsoever as a form of socialism ought not to pull that socialist lever in their home, the one that makes their waste disappear in a whirlpool into the socialized sewage treatment plant.

Building an ownership society involves both political and economic goals. The political goals are based on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. The economic goals are built on the principle that justice is intrinsic to economic order, and not some added extra or exogenous feature.


John Médaille is an adjunct instructor of Theology at the University of Dallas, and a businessman in Irving, Texas. He has authored the book The Vocation of Business, edited Economic Liberty: A Profound Romanian Renaissance and just completed Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More.

This article courtesy of The Distributist Review.


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  • http://www.schefter.org PrairieHawk

    To paraphrase Chesterton, there is one “ism” that has been found difficult and has not been tried – “Catholicism.” I think Medaille is right, and subsidiarity and solidarity are the key to our future.