Religion & Liberty Online

No, the Pope doesn’t need distributism (because nobody does)

Pope Francis needs distributism, argues Arthur W. Hunt III in the latest issue of The American Conservative. Hunt says that Americans and popes alike can embrace a humane alternative to modern capitalism:

In the midst of their scramble to claim the new Pope, many on the left missed what the Pontiff said was a nonsolution. The problems of the poor, he said, could not be solved by a “simple welfare mentality.” Well, by what then? The document is clear: “a better distribution of income.” And how might this be achieved? Through the “right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good,” to exercise some control against an “absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.”

The Pope called for a kinder and gentler capitalism. Admittedly, he did not provide many policy details other than, “We can no longer trust the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market … it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income.” It is that phrase, “distribution of income,” that struck fear into Palin and Limbaugh, and perhaps even Reno. It smacks of socialism—what Reno called the only and obvious alternative to capitalism. Reno briskly passed over any notion of a third solution, one many sons and daughters of Rome have rallied to for over a century.

The word distributism does not appear in the treatise, and nowhere does Francis fall back on his predecessors or Catholic intellectuals who have supported a third way of economic ordering. Nevertheless, policies that allow for the flourishing of smaller economic units while at the same time valuing work and broader property ownership are consistent with Catholic social teaching.

Despite not being Catholic myself, I found almost nothing in Hunt’s article all that objectionable. The only point of true disagreement is the claim that distributism is an alternative to either capitalism or socialism. Distributism is not an alternative at all, for distributism doesn’t actually exist.

Over the past hundred years there have been numerous explanations for why distributism is unrealistic and unworkable as a “third-way” alternative. Here are four that should suffice to point out why no one — whether a pope or plumber — needs distributism:

1. Distributism puts too much emphasis on physical property. – One of the key tenets of distributism is that property ownership should be extended to as many as possible. The seems rather unobjectionable until you consider that what they mean by “property” is the physical property that constitutes “means of production.” As The Distributist Review says,

The ‘means of production’ are the land, tools, and equipment needed for labor to transform raw materials into goods and services. As wealth (goods or services) is only possible by the combination of the means of production, labor, and raw materials, we believe it is best when these are owned cooperatively (worker-owned) or entirely operated by the family.

The irony is that the primary supporters of distributism are intellectuals (e.g., writers, academics, lawyers) who make their living based on their educations credentials rather than by use of “means of production.” These are people who have spent a significant portion of their lives earning advanced degrees rather than arable farmland or plumber’s tools.

While the global economy is moving to a service and knowledge-oriented model that is based on skills that can be carried around in one’s head, the distributist model prefers to transition back to the era when one needed land or a set of physical tools in order to make a living.

2. Even supporters of distributism are not distributist. – I’ve never meet a distributist that practiced distributism. You can read a lot of essays by college professors who endorse distributism, but you won’t find many (any other than Wendall Berry?) that have given up academia to push a plow or do any other labor that “transforms raw materials into goods and services.”

Some distributists will claim as examples of “functioning Distributist firms” the “thousands of home-based and employee-owned companies.” But what is the distinction between a “distributist firm” and a capitalist firm? Does “distributist firm” simply means a capitalist firm run by a person who calls themselves a distributist?

Also, most employee-owned and worker cooperative firms cannot truly be classified as distributist since the employees do not actually own the means of production. If you own property then when you leave you either get to take it with you or the remaining partners must pay you for your share of the business. That is not true for most worker co-ops. You are not an “owner” but a shareholder who gets a cut of the profits. That is profit-sharing, not distributism.

3. Distributism is a utopian scheme that has never been implemented anywhere in modern times. – The most common objection to distributism is that it is a utopian scheme. The reason this is the most common objection is because distributism has never really been tried anywhere. The only example distributists ever give — and good grief, they refer to it ad nauseam – is the Mondragon Corporation. The problem with using the Mondragon Corporation, a Spanish worker cooperative federation, as a model of distributism is that it does not fit the basic definition of a distributist firm.

Mondragon has 80,321 employees and annual revenues of 14.081 billion. The idea that individual workers are “owners” is a myth that even their employees don’t consider real. A third of their employees are not even members of the collective. And surveys have shown that relatively few workers in Mondragon firms consider themselves to be “owners” of the company. Most seem to agree with one worker who said, “I am the owner of my job. The only property I have is my job.” If the only “property” you own is your job, then you do not own property. You don’t even own your job as much as your job owns you.

4. There is no demand for distributism. – G.K. Chesterton, one of the founding fathers of distributism, quipped that, “The problem with capitalism is not too many capitalists, but not enough capitalists.” If that is a problem for capitalism, it is the fatal blow to distributism. The single biggest reason why distributism has not yet, nor ever will, become a mainstream “third way” is because relatively few people want to rely on their own private property to provide their income. Few people have the capacity, much less the willingness, to be self-sufficient capitalists in the mode that true distributism requires.

If pressed, I suspect many distributists would admit that for distributism to work you’d need to force it on people. The government would not only need to seize the means of production from the people who currently own capital, but force people who do not have any to take it and become self-sufficient. How this could possibly work in the real world is never explained. Even if gentle Pope Francis were to advocate such draconian measures it’s unlikely anyone would rush to implement such an unpopular plan.

Fortunately, most distributists aren’t advocating for their schemes be implemented by the State at gunpoint. They tend to be mostly genial, thoroughly non-threating advocates for an unrealistic form or economics. Like Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, and other form of fantasy role-playing, their hobby is mostly harmless. It would be petty to begrudge them their innocuous avocation — at least it would be if it wasn’t for the fact that we need their help.

As David Deavel has explained, there are a number of areas in which distributists offer some wisdom: 1) objections to the divorce of economics and ethics, 2) objections to the collusion of large business and government and the resultant concentration of power, 3) advocacy for entrepreneurism and widely distributed wealth, and 4) objections to the welfare state and its effects on the citizen’s relationship to government.

Distributists have much in common with those of here at the Acton Institute. We share those concerns as well as the distributist’s focus on encouraging subsidiarity, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurship. We could use their enthusiasm and brainpower to develop and advocate for real change within the current economic system. We should be allies — or at least co-belligerents — working toward the same goals.

But that would require distributists to give up their adherence to building a fantasy world on some Tolkienesque shire and join us in engaging in the messy, fallen realm of the real world. Do they have any genuine interest in actually changing the current economic situation? Are they willing to make the necessary compromises and sacrifices in ideology to create a world that is more in line with Christian social thought? Can they be satisfied accept proximate justice within the realm of work and economics?

If so, then we need to set aside our differences and find a way to work together for the common good.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).