Background on (Neo)distributism
ED’s piece yesterday calling for a neo-distributist/localist economic order is well worth the time. As coincidence (or synchronicity?) would have it, I have been reading some books on distributism and thinking a great deal about its it in relation to this current economic-social climate.
I thought I might supply some historical and theoretical background on distributism for those who are not as familiar with the concept.
Distributism is the name of a little-known, somewhat quirky, branch of political economy/philosophy founded by some early 20th century English (almost entirely Catholics), Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterson most famous among them.
Their work and distributism generally grows out of a body of knowledge known as Catholic Social Doctrine/Teaching. (The wiki here, for those with more time here from the Vatican). While Chesterson was more the evangelist for the movement, Belloc was arguably the real thinker behind the process. His text “The Servile State” is the first and in my mind pre-eminent distributist text.
The argument of The Servile State is that when capitalism meets socialism and a new third thing is born: The Servile State. It is neither fully capitalist nor fully socialist.
In ED’s words:
What strikes me about this is how similar this concept of modal monopolization is to the concept of an increasingly all-powerful centralized state. Big government and big business seem to grow apace;
This is in fact the very thing Belloc predicted in 1912 (zomg 1912!!!). Now fans of F.A. Hayek will recall hearing this argument from The Road to Serfdom. Hayekians sadly tend to forget how much Hayek himself credited Belloc with the idea for that work. Hayek undoubtedly added a mathematical and economic precision, a social scientific underpinning to Belloc’s more philosophical argument. The most important of those additions being Hayek’s insight that a central planned managerial mindset simply can not deal with the complexity of so many events occurring across space and time.
But Hayek’s alternative was free market capitalism. And here Hayek breaks radically with Belloc. Hayek only took half of Belloc’s argument. The other half of Belloc which ED picked up on and which Mark (as the Hayekian of the group) questioned in the comments. Namely that self-described free market capitalism tends towards monopoly. That monopoly will lead towads a certain kind of (usually financially driven) disaster, which will create a giant vacuum which will invitably be filled by increased governmentalization. See The Great Depression I and II for evidence to that claim.
The Road to Serfdom then includes not only the road to a governmental serfdom, but also (via periods of unregulated global capitalism) a kind of neo-feudal monopolistic rent-capitalism: e.g. Gilded Ages and Robber Baron Industrialists (and now Financialists). The insight that central planned economies or monopolies are inefficient in many regards is true, but doesn’t seem to answer the question as to why the latter particularly keep occurring–that there may be a structural imperative driving its formation, inefficient or otherwise.
The core insight of Catholic Social Doctrine is that labor is intrinsically dignified. Or should be–for it not to be is deeply sinful. While at first blush this may sound Marixst it is not. Marx’s idea of the labor theory of value makes labor instrumental to the real value of power/control of economic forces from which (in his mind) true liberation came. Marginal value theorists see labor as instrumental to capital–their mechanism to liberation/enlightenment. In that sense the Marxists and the right-wing free marketeers are not that radically different from one another. Neither sees labor as intrinsically dignified I would say, as inherently valuable. Keynes’ remark that in a situation so bad, the government should pay some to dig the hole and fill it back up again also suggests in Keynesianism a fundamental lack of the notion of dignified labor (whether or not it’s government paid or not).
The Distributists were critiquing the undignifed forms of human labor during the Industrial Revolution. The kinds of things we still see today in the 3rd world sweatshops and industrialized meat processing plants in the US (dirty, dangerous, conditions, low pay, de-humanizing mechanization and the like).
The Distributists generally favored (as ED points out) guilds, local trade relations, home-scale farming/gardening. They believed that in the absence of the distribution of property and with the dominance of capital, that when a left-wing movement inevitably came into power (as it would post a free-market monopolization crash) it would redistribute income. What we today call the Welfare State.
This latter point, in my mind, is the vulnerable spot of a Hayekian Rawlsian combo (aka liberaltarianism). What’s to stop the momentum of redistributionism and the growth of bureaucratic government which it entails? Especially when the free-market (perhaps Nozickian) side of this equation would self-reinforce the more governmental growth side?*
Or put another way, if income is forever radically connected to property, then I don’t see how the liberaltarian argument would ever really grab a hold of political power. I would see rather a move as you see in say policy ideas on both the right and the left towards linking economic programs with space/place-based policies as well. e.g. Douthat and Salam’s Grand New Party is aimed to keep suburbanism while the more left-wing view of Matthew Yglesias/Ryan Avent/Ezra Klein is to have government (at all levels) push for denser social organization combined with income redistribution.** Compared to that, liberaltarianism seems to me rather place-less and excessively abstracted and somewhat enfeebled as a result.
Distributism historically however comes in for its own critique at least as defended by Belloc and Chesterton. ED’s localist flavor is worthy of mention as a potential counterweight (along with say the Front Porchers) because Chesterton for example seriously embraced suburbanization, the highway system and the individual car. All of which technologically drove people more into isolation and therefore created more social space for government to fill the void. In other words, distributism (1.0?) didn’t have a strong ecological sense.
I have some more thinking to do about the localism side of all this and its potential contribution and potential dark sides–which I think are eminently worth exploring–to a new form of distributism. My own thinking to date so far on this subject has been to see in propertizing via a legalized Commons (see here and here for more).
* If that last sentence or two made any sense and I’m not sure it did, then this a radically different critique of liberaltarianism than Jonah Goldberg’s because if Belloc was right (in his fullness and not his Hayekian halfness), then Goldberg’s preferred philosophy creates a larger pendulum swing in the direction of monopolistic capitalism which will lead to an inevitable further entrenchment on the governmental side. It would be much worse than liberaltarianism in other words.
**An argument for another day would be to show that the redistrubtionist income policy plus social space engineering of the left is in a sense a kind of secularized Jubilee.