Saturday, March 19, 2011

Distributism: A Catholic Philosophy?

As I write, it is one of the most beautiful nights I've experienced in a long time. It's 3AM, the windows are open, and a chorus of Spring peepers resounds in the forest, carried into the house on a cool, soft breeze. Tea is brewing. Tonight is the kind of night so many storytellers seek to capture through the art of their pen.

Later this morning, I will be heading out to a local furniture-maker's house to work on a barnwood kitchen table for our house. As we were working last weekend, my congenial host mentioned in passing that he had started reading some works on Distributism, an economic philosophy promoted as a Catholic alternative to capitalism and socialism by great thinkers such as Hillaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton.

Wikipedia's broad definition is accurate enough for the purposes of this blog:
"The ownership of the means of production should be spread as widely as
possible among the general populace, rather than being centralized under the
control of the state (socialism) or a few large businesses or wealthy
private individuals."

Again from Wiki, Chesterton's summary:
"Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists."

It is not my intent here to refute or sell this philosophy as whole, but to offer several considerations that aren't frequently articulated in those few circles where Distributism is a known quantity of interest and discussion.

My opinion is that this economic philosophy is generally more of a romantic reaction to the abuses of unregulated capitalism and socialism than a scientific system of trade. And in some ways, that is the point: rampant materialism is eschewed, and while Chesterton and Belloc may well-be credited as Distributism's originators, they never created a manual of societal implementation that I know of, except to say that it is an economic philosophy patterned according to the Middle Ages and some of its traditions.

Those traditions would include a guild system for each craft, holding each craftsman to a common standard, conferring on him a personal idenity and involving him in the community as a whole. A focus on the family as the primary social unit responsible for the proper evolution of a sound society, working at home on one's own property, hand in hand with a Christ-centered vision of hard work and rest.

These notions have their place, and while I am no Enlightenment or materialist thinker by any stretch, as an American in the 21st century, its hard, at least for me, to see this philosophy or parts of it as more than a personal way. Yet there have been many adherents who insist that this is the most Catholic way, meaning en total. And this is where I take umbridge.

Distributism has not been responsible for feeding the world. Capitalism has.

Distributism has not been responsibile for providing medicine the world over, medical advancements, and cures for numerous sicknesses. Capitalism has.

Distributism has not been responsible for sound sanitation, plumbing, and climate control, and the protection of life associated with that. Capitalism has.

I could go on, but you see were I am going, I hope. If you don't, let me spell it out: capitalism and the technological/societal developments thereof has provided more charity and compassion, and alleviated more human suffering, through it's system of production and means of distribution than distrubutism has and undoubtedly could. There I said it.

This is not to say capitalism is without its faults. Of course not. And that brings me to my next point: there are no perfect economies in this "vale of tears." Our Lord said, "The poor you will always have with you," and he meant it.

Nevertheless, there are perfect ideas, or ideas that have the semblence of perfection, such as owning the means of your own production. That's actually as capitalist as it is distributist. But again, we abut against another human reality in this discussion and where I believe there is a deficiency in the reasoning of Distributism at this point. Namely, that not every human being is called to run a business or own the means of their own production, because not everyone can, i.e., has the talent or desire to do so.

But what of regaining the sense and bringing about a renaissance of personal craftsmanship? That is a noble and great thing. But distributism is not the only philosophy that espouses this. In the area of regaining a renewed sense of "the craftsman," The Arts and Crafts Movement, certainly sought to initiate a return of the creative human element to daily life in all it's trappings. More modern articulations of this desire exist as well, and we see it in the work of architectural and design realists (for a lack of better word; meaning people who see the human condition for what it is), such as in The Not so Big House, where the idea is not to live in a McMansion of epic proportions but a well-designed home built to a human scale.

Finally, a word about distributism's proponents. My experience is that the strongest proponents of this philosophy are semi-elitist though perhaps well-meaning intellectuals who wish they were aristocrats and living in a world where their thoughts carry more weight than they currently do.
While Chesterton fancied himself a distributist with his cute "Three acres and a cow" self-portrait, he survived not by working in the fields, but by the tip of his pen.

Nevertheless, I have friends living very admirable lives, working at home about whom the Distribitists Guilds of St. Joseph and St. Dominic would be proud, "Men rich in virtue studying beautifulness living in peace in their houses."

Perhaps one day I will be one of them.

Over and Out,


Monday, March 07, 2011

Recent Happenings on the Homefront

It's been awhile since I've hit the blog. A few things I've been doing around here of late:

Chess: I was recently asked without being asked to be the chess coach for the school where I work. Being a chess nerd, I volunteered myself to teach the kids the game and give them some structure. The first lesson went swimmingly. I spoke for 20 minutes, fielding a ton of questions, and kept the kids from going all out zoo. I am using Fred Reinfeld's book, "How to be a Winner at Chess" as my guide.

Reinfeld is a superb author, having written over a 100 books on chess in his lifetime, in addition to other works on coins, history, and checkers. His style is emminently approachable with most of his books oriented toward the beginner. The first book I read of his while in high school, "The Complete Chessplayer", completely changed the way I played the game, giving me an edge ever since.

In an effort to sharpen that edge to razor sharp in my down time, I ordered 6 more of his books, including "Winning Chess: How to See Three Moves Ahead," "1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate," and "1001 Winning Chess Sarcrifices and Combinations." I am also looking into a part time gig of coaching chess after school for other schools. We'll see what happens.

Wood: The weekend before last, I spent a large amount of time behind a chainsaw, cutting downed wood from our locust trees into digestable bits for the woodstove. The lion's share of this work is done. However, most of the remaining wood that I had delivered also needs to be down sized, as well as a good portion of the locust previously cut and split. My goal is that by the end of this sping, more or less, I will have 2 years worth of firewood, split, cut and stacked, for the upcoming winters.

To that end, I am checking into a new wood source, a local saw mill that sells 10 ft. pieces of slab wood by the truck load to the tune of $25. Yes, I will have to cut the pieces to size, but considering I have been doing that anyway in the winter, what's the difference. I will be giving the mill a call today to see how quickly I can arrange 10 truck loads. I think that will set me up nicely and keep me more busy than I want to be.

Woodworking: A couple of weeks back scored a sweet deal on a Jet jointer. I just couldn't pass up. This has given me the edge I need in woodworking, no pun intended, as now I can mate two pieces of wood properly (seemlessly). My first project is that of small stool for Anastasia and Isabel for use in the bathroom. At present, they are using their plastic princess privy as a stand. I've cut and jointed the stock for the top and I will begin doing the skirts when I come home from work. I will glue up the top and glue and pocket screw the base skirts into the top. I think.

I say that because I am still very new to woodworking, almost totally green to fine woodworking. The structures I've built that resemble furniture, such as shelves, are crude by aesthetic standards but strong. Next on my list is a kitchen table, provided I actually obtain the lumber. It's on order--it is available, but getting it planed (a service for which I am undoubtedly grateful) is taking some time at the moment. In the meanwhile, I will finish my practice stool first.

Spring: There are so many other things to put in order for the year, it's overwhelming. The garden. The compost pile. Landscaping. Remodeling. Staining. Painting. The list is endless, or close to it. Occasionally, it simply feels overwhelming and thus really hard to stay focused. I love Spring, especially in Virginia. It's magnificent. I intend to enjoy it, even while doing all of the above.

Peace Out and Prepare.