Distributism, as originally conceived by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, has long ceased being a practical possibility for the majority of those living in the liberal democracies of the West. Yet this does not mean that the core principle of distributism—widely distributed private ownership of the means of livelihood—is wholly beyond our reach. Chesterton, Belloc, and their followers advocated distributism as a rural ideal. “Three acres and a cow,” was their rallying cry. But if we re-situate distributism within the matrix of our current technological capabilities, distributism can reassert itself as more than an agrarian wish, but as a practical possibility for a large number of people.
Distributism is all about the freedom of markets, though it never forgets that freedom is about much more than going to market. Your garden-variety free marketer is typically good at explaining why government needs to keep its mitts off free enterprise, and in describing the human potential that is released when folks are allowed to create economic value for themselves. But your garden-variety free marketer is typically less good at connecting the value of free enterprise with other aspects of human flourishing. We should always be vigilant in asking, “How can our business enterprises be more free?” But we should also be vigilant in asking questions such as the following: “Who exactly is the one going to work? Is there one breadwinner in the family or two (or more)? If there is more than one breadwinner, how does this effect the moral and spiritual life of the family, and principally the rearing of children? And where exactly is the workplace? Is it part of the neighborhood where one lives, sustaining a connection to the families of employees? Or is it so far from the home that travel to and fro takes a heavy toll on family life, not to mention the religious and other communities which also require our time and energy?”
It seems to me that the great virtue of distributism is that it is a home-centered economics. The distributist ideal keeps the means of livelihood integrated within family life. A paycheck of some kind is certainly a necessary condition for a family’s flourishing, but it is far from a sufficient one. How much better it would be if, as much as possible or desirable, an individual could own the means of his family’s livelihood, either singly or in a co-operative venture, so that he were not so dependent upon the decisions of others which may or may not take into account how his work impacts the well-being of his family?
The home computer and the Internet, whatever their drawbacks for social life, have nonetheless opened up tremendous new possibilities for privately owned, home-based businesses. Devin Rose, over at the new blog Second Nature, has recently written an interesting article exploring this phenomenon. A couple of years ago I launched my own little home-based venture, a company devoted to my fiction, journalism, and other freelance writing. I’ve had a ball pursuing this idea and exercising my entrepreneurial juices. It continues to amaze me, for example, what digital technology has made possible for me; how, from my home office, I can not only write a book, but work closely with my illustrator, digital formatter, and web design team, and then, with the push of a button, put the book up for sale on Amazon and immediately enjoy worldwide distribution. And I’ve deeply appreciated, living as I do amidst the traffic-jammed highways of Northern Virginia, not to have to slog up I-95 into D.C. every day (and back again). Not everything is idyllic, obviously, about taking one’s entire economic burden onto one’s shoulders, and the jury remains out as to whether my venture will be a long-term success. But I’m so thankful I live in a country and at a time in history in which I can at least have the chance to follow this dream.
I read a fair amount of marketing and business development gurus, folks like Seth Godin, Chris Brogan, and other “influencers” one finds featured on places like LinkedIn. It’s interesting. All of these folks are stressing the same thing, namely, the post-industrial nature of our economy, in which the individual and his or her chances of private ownership are greater now than they’ve ever been in history (here’s an infographic illustrating this transformation that I just stumbled upon today). Godin calls our current economy the “connection” economy, because he sees today’s businesses thriving more on one-to-one (though usually electronic) trust-based connections rather than on the production of “stuff” designed for anonymous consumption. And these gurus also talk about the importance of being brave, about stepping out of the comfort zone of being a passive employee with a paycheck into the new world of taking into one’s hands full ownership of one’s economic well-being.
Chris Brogan calls his company “Human Business Works,” and I think it’s fair to say that he and Godin and others are looking for ways to make business connect better with other aspects of human flourishing. They don’t have a conception of the distributist ideal in so many words—though I’ve brought it to Brogan’s attention via Twitter. But they are, I believe, groping toward something like the ideal of widely distributed private ownership advocated by Chesterton and Belloc.
It’s an ideal whose time may even now just be arriving.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.