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,



Sumojason said...

Best explanation on how I feel about it I have ever heard/read.

Nicholas said...

Wow! Thanks Jason. I was kinda waiting to hear some vases crashing in terms of criticism of my post, but am relieved to hear someone else actually thinks the way I do on this.

Thanks for posting. We need to get out and hang with you guys soon!


Martin Schap said...

Dude, I read this at a very opportune time. One of the nutjobs protesting in WI cited this theory and I didn't know much about it. Good summary and thanks for posting it right when this happened to be on my mind. Sorry for not commenting earlier. I am very busy and important.