Random Musings on Distributism

by Denise

After taking a handful of economics courses, my ultimate conclusion was two-fold: 1) Control of the means of production by a few is inherently unjust, and 2) Profits arising from the production of goods and services should remain with the producers of those goods and services. As we are told, “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.” (2 Timothy 2:6) Though I’ve held this view for several years now, I never knew that this perspective has a name: Distributism.  And apparently I’m in good company, as G.K. Chesterton was a proponent of it.

Before I delve into distributism as a theory, let’s talk about what the means of production are in a capitalist society and their significance. In a capitalist system, profit is earned by producing goods and services and selling them for more than it costs to produce them. The means of producing goods and services are: Land (and other natural resources), Labor, and Capital. The first two are self-explanatory, and the third refers not to money, but to things like tools and machines that are used to create goods and deliver services.  Entrepreneurs then use these three two create an enterprise that will generate profit.  

Capitalism, it seems, is in the interest of the State as a means of ensuring the most efficient, productive uses of the means of production.  By permitting the means of production to be controlled by those with the most access and the most resources, the incentive of earning profit ensures that land, labor and capital will be utilized for the most profitable outcome.  More goods and services are produced and distributed more widely, elevating the quality of life overall.  There is something to be said for the fact that poverty in the developed world is in an entirely different dimension than poverty in the third world. I tend to think that the problem of poverty in the developed world is much more a problem of socio-cultural alienation than material lack, but that is another post entirely. For the purposes of this post, it is enough to say that it is unlikely that distributism would be as economically efficient as a capitalist system, and therefore would not be as productive.

But efficiency is a quantitative good.  Whether capitalism creates a qualitative good is a moral question.  In my view, the problem with capitalism is not with the economic inequality it produces.  It is in the way it changes our priorities, encourages consumerism, discourages responsibility for our own futures, and promotes individualism in order to more efficiently use the individual as a cog in the wheel and as a consumer.

What I see as the main economic problem today that distributism addresses:
–In Western society, unless one owns fertile land, which itself is expensive, one is completely unable to labor to support oneself unless and until someone with access to land and capital chooses to enlist you as a laborer. This is highly problematic because, as we see with the current dilemma of extended unemployment and the constant political rallying cry of “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!” people are more often than not completely dependent upon the business priorities of others in order to make a living. If everyone at least had land, some timber and water, they could at the very least eek out a subsistence living as indigenous peoples did and do, and as the rural poor globally did and do.  But the urban poor cannot even do that.  Those decrying the welfare state would do well to look at the unemployment rate and ask what the alternative is. When the means of production become controlled by increasingly few people, the ability to create productive work for oneself becomes that much more difficult.

Nevertheless, now that I have read more about this theory, I do see vulnerabilities vis a vis capitalism.  Most notably, I’m not sure that distributism would actually solve the inequality that seems to be the most problematic for people.  

1) Evenly distributing the means of production is no guarantee whatsoever that any individual or group of individuals will actually be productive. While doing so at least provides greater opportunity, opportunities must be seized and made into something good.  Whether through lack of will or ability, the quality and quantity of goods and services produced will vary widely from person to person, family to family, community to community. Ancient Israel, which seemed to deal with this issue through the Year of Jubilee, nevertheless had lazies in its midst, as the Preacher observes: “I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” (Proverbs 24:30-34, ESV) In our society today, I do believe that the poor in general are often mislabeled as lazy (see above comment) when the fact is that there are simply not enough opportunities for work. However, it is true of human nature that laziness is a common vice.  Even if distributism is a more just system in principle, we would still encounter the inevitable rise of inequality of outcomes as a result of differences in the amount of effort exerted.

We also can’t assume that everyone even wants more than they currently have.  I am reminded of my first job when the receptionist mentioned that she’d passed up opportunities to move into other departments with more responsibility because she just wasn’t interested.  She was perfectly happy where she was.  I know others–different ages, races, stages of life–who more or less said the same thing.  (It was clear that things would not work out with an incredibly smart date in college when he shared that his post-college dream was to become a wandering hobo).  And my experience with the homeless population in the U.S. has shown me that there are plenty of people who have no particular inclination to become “productive members of society.”  And they are not necessarily sad about their situations, either.  That’s not a judgment; it’s a recognition that different people have different desires for their lives.  Most everyone can enjoy more material comforts if those comforts are offered, but not everyone wants more work in order to have more material comforts or even for the challenge of it.  And in those cases, it’s not about laziness, it’s about desire.  “The lazy man desires but does not have…” but the one who does not desire more than he has is content.

Then there is inequality that arises due to inherent ability rather than effort.  While I definitely do not believe that those who are wealthy are necessarily smarter or harder working than most, and there are plenty of diligent tortoises that beat out the hares, I do believe that the development of those goods and services that really add value to our society (think the invention  of the automobile, the rise of PCs, Apple, and the internet), are the result of knowledge and creativity, which fall under the category “human capital”.  While there is definitely a significant educational component to developing such traits, the brilliance required to really innovate can only be nurtured, not taught. Thus, this form of capital–brilliance–is as unevenly distributed throughout the population as fertile land, forests, and freshwater are across the planet.  Not everyone has equal access to them.  Because of this, distributism seems slightly outdated.  We are now, and increasingly so, in a knowledge economy based largely on technological innovation.  Apple has reached #5 on the Fortune 500 list not because it is controlling the means of production, but because Steve Jobs and company came up with a great concept and honed it into products services that millions around the world are willing to pay top dollar to use.  And in that case, it is consumers who are transferring money (potential capital) up the economic chain–giving Apple $500 of their hard-earned money in exchange for the benefit of having an iPhone.  This leaves the consumer with less and Apple with more.  Apple will then use this money to invest in more capital and become even more productive.  The consumer will simply enjoy his phone.  The consumer could have bought a “dumb phone” and invested the remainder of the money in stocks or saved up to start a business that would ultimately bring him profit.  But once again, human behavior interferes with an ideal economic system.  

So, insofar as distributism is an attempt to correct inequality of outcomes, it’s a lost cause.  Zippy Catholic has been writing about modernity’s misguided attempt to make freedom a political objective.  It seems that there is a corollary to economic equality.  A variety of problems arise when resources are tightly controlled by only a handful, but it is unlikely that there is a system that will itself prevent inequality.  The path of justice never rests with a system, as human actions will always reap fruit according to the action taken, whether good or bad, regardless of the context.  Rather, justice rests with virtuous men and women choosing what is good.