The political philosophy of distributism: a very short introduction

What is distributism?

Distributism is a political ideal according to which property ownership should be as widely distributed as feasible.

How does distributism differ from capitalism?

Taken broadly, ‘capitalism’ refers to an economic system wherein property ownership is private. Its opposite is socialism, a system in which private ownership does not exist. In this sense, distributism is a political ideal that may be achieved within a capitalist system.

In practice, the term ‘capitalism’ often has a more specific meaning than that above, referring to a
system wherein property is concentrated in the hands of a few, and markets purportedly operate with little or no government interference. In this more restricted sense, distributism differs from capitalism, in that its policies aim at the establishment of property in more hands.

Notwithstanding political mythology to the contrary, capitalism and distributism don’t differ with respect to quantity of government interference: they differ with respect to its aims.

In capitalism, government intervention often occurs in order to enforce the rights of the few over the many (e.g. property and patent laws), to coerce the many to work for the few (e.g. laws connecting welfare to seeking employment), and to set up the few as the caretakers of the many (e.g. laws exempting workers from liability, and requiring liability of employers). That is, capitalist use of government intervention tends towards the establishment of what Hilaire Belloc called the Servile State – an arrangement of society according to which the masses are granted a minimal level of security and care, but lack substantial wealth or political capital, and are under the mercy of those few rich persons granted legal responsibility over them in various ways.

How does distributism differ from socialism?

Though the term has come to have a broad range in popular discourse, ‘socialism’ strictly refers to a system in which the right to private property is abolished. Distributism is one wherein it is affirmed. The difference is that the one affirms, the other denies, a right to private property.

In practice, socialist policies tend towards the establishment not of social ownership, but – like
capitalism – of the Servile State. That is, they tend towards the establishment of control of property in the hands of a few, who are granted the responsibility to care for the masses at the behest of the state. So distributism differs practically from socialism in exactly the way that it differs from capitalism, because these latter tend in practice to the same thing.

Is distributism a hybrid of left and right thought on economics?

No. It is better to regard the left and the right as closer to each other than usually suggested.
Government interference on both the left and the right tends toward the establishment of the Servile State. Distributist economic interventions aim at its abolition.

One important way socialist and distributist economic regulations often differ is in that the former tend to be ‘positive’ interventions, while the latter are more often ‘negative’ interventions.

Positive interventions include things like the establishment of bureaucracies to handle economic
necessities for the poor, health care, college costs etc. When these exist in a mixed capitalist-socialist economy, big businesses often leverage market forces to effectively turn these subsidies into a new ‘floor’ relative to product demand, and product costs go up. In this way, positive interventions both create large managerial bureaucracies and often translate in practice into indirect subsidization of large corporations. In the absence of corresponding negative interventions, they also tend toward the ballooning of government debt.

Negative interventions advocated by distributists include things like differential taxation relative to the number of stores owned or number of areas in which a ‘big-box’ company trades, the enforcement of anti-trust legislation, the taxation of ‘externalities’ like highways and pollution, and generally, various uses of taxation to directly prevent companies from serving too many sectors or too much of one sector. To the degree that negative interventions tend to involve less bureaucracy than positive interventions where the transfer of wealth must be directly managed, distributist interventions tend to be fewer, less invasive, and more efficient. Their difficulty is a purely political one: it is politically easier to advocate for subsidies than penalties, even when penalties would be of greater benefit to the class targeted for benefit than direct subsidization.

How does distributism handle the distribution of goods?

It doesn’t. That’s the beauty of it. In an economy where wealth is well-distributed, and the laws tend to prevent its concentration, this is accomplished by what Smith called ‘the invisible hand of the market’.

In this connection, it is important to see just how often this myth of the invisible hand fails to apply in typical capitalist economies. In practice, capitalism doesn’t use markets to manage everything: prices are often set in various ways by large monopolies, in a way not substantially different than in a socialist planned economy. For instance, a large supermarket chain that owns the store fronts, the factories that make the bread sold in the stores, the trucks used to transport the product, etc. does not determine the prices of its internal transactions by the market. Likewise, fisheries dependent on having their products sold by large chains aren’t in a position to sell their goods at a better price to different stores: the price for their labor are effectively dictated to them by those who control the means of distribution. Hence, product cost in archetypical capitalist economies is often determined much more bureaucratically than capitalist rhetoric would suggest.

By advocating policies that weaken and sometimes directly break up these large conglomerates,
distributists allow the costs of goods to more accurately reflect their true market price, and hence to achieve the equality requisite for a genuinely free and competitive market.

Previously published at https://www.imagodeipolitics.org/2017/08/16/the-political-philosophy-of-distributism-a-very-short-introduction/

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