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louisville-007As any old newspaperman can tell you, crafting headlines is a rare skill quite distinct from ordinary good writing. A New York Post example, “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” is a work of art. Or when rural American audiences felt insulted by hillbilly comedy films, and Variety proclaimed: “Stix Nix Hix Flix.” Or a long-forgotten upstate New York daily, when a church wedding paused for the bride to give birth in the aisle, declared: “Baby Gives Bride Away.” A few individuals can achieve such greatness, and the Distributists need to find one.

After my decades of periodic puzzlement over Distributism, the great Joseph Pearce removed a major stumbling block on these very pages. Distributism, which he called “an awkward name and an awkward label,” did not intend to distribute anything. It was all a misunderstanding. I was gob-smacked. This is very good news. It means that we bog-standard Kirkian conservatives no longer need to raise our eyebrows knowingly, and cough to signify quotation marks before and after saying the word “Distributism.” We need not go to the far end of the bar when the Distributists come bellying in waving their blackthorn sticks, bellowing for ale and tooting pipe-ash over everything. We can stop apologising for Distributism every time that we mention our hero Chesterton, as though he had eructation “issues” at Buckingham Palace.

We followers of Russell Kirk are not the only people to realise that, in order to distribute something, one must either already have, or else acquire, goods to be distributed. In my limited experience, Distributists rarely have the wherewithal to buy their round of drinks, and so we quickly work out that what gets distributed must come from someone else. Moreover, people suspect that once the aristos and the industrialists and the financiers get cleaned out, their own humble possessions may be next. After everyone else’s gold and bonds, it could be your irreplaceable Led Zeppelin albums.

The process was best described by an elderly British communist interviewed in the mid-20th Century on BBC radio. There was “them wot ‘as, and them wot ‘asn’t,” the rustic radical explained, and Communism would divide it all equally, whereupon he would spend his portion. The interviewer fumbled for words: but…but then his share would be gone and others would have it. “Well, we’ll do it all over again, mate, won’t we?” chirped the communist. When redistribution is discussed, many people can see this coming.

This raises our initial question of why Chesterton and Belloc named it Distributism in the first place, particularly if they had no plans to distribute or redistribute anything. The answer, although lost in the mists of time, probably had to do with quantities of alcohol being consumed. The next question is why anyone turned up at a Distributist rally. First off, people might have believed that they had be given someone else’s stuff: in America this attracts many to the Democrat Party and to looting opportunities during riots. Secondly, remember that there was a Depression between the World Wars, television had hardly been invented and the British had little to do apart from standing on rain-drenched streets to hear someone talk. Thirdly, a surprising amount of alcohol was consumed. Naming a movement Distributism, and then explaining that it, um, won’t actually distribute anything, and asking a damp crowd to support it, probably requires a few drinks beforehand. And during and afterward.

As I said, in odd moments I had puzzled over this for years. The wise and most Chestertonian Mister Pearce actually did one better than GKC himself, and explained what our caped crusader could not. Distributism is actually subsidiarity. Suddenly, to mangle metaphors, the cat was in a different bag! Subsidiarity, beloved by true conservatives, even mediocre Catholics and both, merely distains high-handed bureaucracy and remote policy-making, insisting that decisions are made as close as possible to those whom they affect. Simple.

A Classical Liberal atheist philosopher, Sir Karl Popper, defended the concept as pluralism, noting that when many experiments are permitted, the chance of satisfaction increases – no matter what makes you satisfied. If I prefer roomy cars for big families, and you crave zippy little runabouts, one of many products by many car companies may fulfil our different wishes, while one state-owned car monopoly may grant neither. So under subsidiarity, as a form of pluralism, our different villages can take different approaches to solving problems – and each succeed by satisfying us each in different ways. One cannot wait to get to Heaven, find the pub and give the Chesterbelloc a good shaking: why couldn’t they say that in the first place? Pope Leo XIII managed in 1891 with Rerum Novarum.

Suddenly it gets much simpler. Subsidiarity, in its economic incarnation, has no “hard sell” ahead; well-known examples abound. Land O’Lakes, the mighty American dairy corporation, is owned by its farmer-suppliers. US co-operatives include farmers, millers, grocers, bankers, brewers, health care, cafes, radio networks, electricity companies, housing, etc. Britain’s beloved John Lewis chain of department stores is owned by its workers. Various co-ops existed in Britain since 1844, and today they range from morticians and credit unions to the decidedly up-market Wine Society. While the UK’s biggest co-op, owning thousands of grocery stores and plenty else, is going famously bust, its failure is partly a result of lax party-political management and also competing ideologies, for as one of its directors complained, some shareholders want the cheapest fruit and vegetables, others want fair-trade organics, others demand the smallest possible carbon footprint, some want lucrative dividends and so forth. It is instructive for conventionally capitalist corporations as well as for co-ops.

As village level merchandising, subsidiarity has been practiced in Germany since the imaginative conservative economist Wilhelm Roepke helped to design their post-war Economic Miracle. A former Cold War fighter pilot, living near Dusseldorf, told me that his family and neighbours would avoid a chain-store even if town planners allowed it, preferring to spend a little more money on a local small business, even for rather less choice: “the owner of the menswear shop is a friend of ours,” he explained, “and how many different sport-coats does a person need anyway?” A social and economic preference for smallness and community is now written into local cultures across Germany.

Subsidiarity earned its place even in massive infrastructure projects, including a century ago in Belgium. At enormous cost and with brilliant foresight, the Belgians laid railway track and erected stations in hundreds of tiny rural towns. Today there are far fewer industrial slums, less crime and fewer social problems, because Belgians can remain in their ancestral villages and commute short distances to modern factory jobs.

 tailorGlobalisation can, or could, promote subsidiarity as more and more places manufacture components of complex products. Beginning 25 years ago, no American car qualified under US Government regulations as American-made, because so many parts were already built abroad. Looking into the future, some foreign factories will be nationalised by Chavez look-alikes, and then inevitably fail. Others may begin as co-ops, and compete with corporate subsidiaries across the street. Others may win their freedom, resulting from local legislation and/or shareholder pressure overseas, just as fair-trade products became fashionable. Subsidiarity can, I think, work well under every aspect of a modern economy.

 However, for some people economic reform is just a fig-leaf for jealousy. Because any major reform cannot happen overnight, it postpones the day when they must reveal their motives as the mask, or the fig-leaf, drops. It remains to be seen how much economic jealousy contaminates the Catholic Church. More or less to a man, the Pope, the cardinals and bishops seem utterly unaware that global poverty has dropped more over the past 20 years than over the last two millennia. Unsurpassed on science and economics, Matt (Lord) Ridley writes: “…nowhere in the world, with the possible exceptions of North Korea and Somalia, are the poor getting poorer.” Moreover, he explains, trends in income inequality are exaggerated and misperceived.

Many Churchmen do, and should, oppose the sin of greed on community and individual levels. But none seems to understand Adam Smith’s subtle masterpiece – not that selfishness is good, a mistake made earlier by Bernard de Mandeville and corrected by Smith – but that morally neutral self-interest, under rule of law, employs multitudes and makes nations prosper.

Pope Francis rails against food speculators, including presumably those who buy grain during gluts and resell it during famines and keep people alive. Should they keep buying grain to give away, or risk their money for no return, or go to the beach and let the food be dissipated long before the supply runs short? Or does Pope Francis just condemn fictional investors such as Gordon Gekko, but do a bad job of explaining himself? He never mentions how big governments and their industrial cronies subsidise food-based fuels which raise prices for the world’s hungry; he only complains about speculators. Can we oppose greed and a throw-away culture without returning to Monty Python medieval squalor? So far, the Catholic Church is not helping us to understand.

Meanwhile we never hear a peep of complaint about intrusive government or stultifying bureaucracy, not from the Pope or anyone else near the top of their, um, gigantic, 2,000-year-old, over-manned and often semi-paralysed institution, which was once the only Western government allowed. Wonder why?

Lest we blame it on media anti-clericalism or sensationalism, the Church’s conceptual lacuna is best revealed in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, following the Holy Father’s May 9th meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.  He writes:

 “From media reports, one might think that the only thing on the pope’s mind was government redistribution of property, as if he were denouncing capitalism and endorsing some form of socialism. This is unfortunate, because it overlooks the principal focus of Pope Francis‘ economic teaching—that economic and social activity must be based on the virtues of compassion and generosity.”

Ah! Does His Eminence mean that we are individually responsible or it is government’s job? Unfortunately, Cardinal Dolan continues: “…the church certainly disapproves of any system of unregulated economic amorality, which leaves people at the mercy of impersonal market forces…”

He does not mean self-regulation, kids. He does not even mean immorality – he says “amorality.” He does not mean self-regulation. “Impersonal market forces” presumably include the billions of human preferences contained in global pricing. He protests the “spontaneous order” born of supply and demand, on which Hayek echoed Burke in saying that it was greater than any living human mind (even a pope’s).

pope francisSorry, but “endorsing some form of socialism” is precisely what is happening here, and the cardinal is tragically clear about the lack of limitations. Regulating all “economic and social activity” leaves us little freedom but our thoughts: he is not dressed in Red for nothing. Moreover, he is effectively opposing economic subsidiarity across various localities, clearly preferring centralised state control — and it is hard to argue that Dolan is a rogue cardinal blathering without the agreement of his pope. The Holy Father wants subsidiarity within Church affairs, but seems to want draconian economic state control otherwise. How far they do wish to go – to Obama, to Bill Ayres, to Brezhnev or all the way to Lenin or Pol Pot? While I doubt that Pope Francis longs for death camps, bureaucrats will, once they command the all-powerful, all-intrusive state that these clerics wish to build – if the clergymen have a clue about what they are saying.

Honestly, I believe that the Vatican is silent on the miracle of global poverty reduction because its denizens are generally uninformed on economics, and sublimely pig-ignorant of growth and why it occurs. That is okay, because they have a lot else on their minds. Or it would be okay, if they remained economically ambiguous and left it to our imaginations whether they were only talking about an individual’s struggle against temptation and sin. But I could be wrong, and many of them may be guilty of poisonous jealousy. More certainly, if socialism warrants suspending subsidiarity once, will it happen more oiften? The chances of Catholic institutional support for a renamed Distributism must get a question-mark.

Finally, we might ask why modern Distributists persist on calling it Distributism when they have not the foggiest intention of distributing anything. Why would you give a false and misleading name to that which you supposedly care about? Why would you hang up a sign saying “Cheeseburgers” if you sold plumbing supplies? If you truly love Nellie, would you lie and tell her that you love Marie? Two possibilities: Distributists are idiots, or promoting Distributism is low on their list of priorities compared to other things.

Like what? Well, small is beautiful for conservatives, who never tire of subdivision as a means of putting down their peers. It the snub is recondite all the better. Thus we are traditionalists and he is a monarchist, but I am a Jacobite member of a secret society dedicated to putting useless Stuarts back on the throne. We are Whigs, he is a Rockingham Whig, I am an anti-Federalist in support of Federalism. Yawn. So, presumably, calling one’s self something as obscure as a Distributist has a certain snob appeal (perhaps only among other Distributists), and maybe a pitch to rich donors.

Alternately, judging by the writings of modern Distributists apart from Mister Pearce, it is an excuse to avoid specifics of politics and economics, and merely pine for some inchoate, undefined, lost, ancient idyll. Then, like a California leftist who has nothing but “feelings,” your superiority is beyond anyone’s reach. When such people go for a “two-fer” they describe themselves as Distributists and Southern Agrarians, cleverly dispensing with any need to say what their utopia looks like or how to get there from here. Instead, they just mumble about sacred land, pellagra and banjos at tobacco-pickin’ time, as they stumble back and forth between the front porch, the bourbon jug and the outdoor lavatory.

Hence the genuinely great Mister Pearce, a confessed Distributist, has done his fellow Distributists a disservice. He has defined them as what they really are, in favour of subsidiarity, and some will hate him for it. Now that they know where they are going, maybe they can get there from here based on a few newly defined thoughts and policies. Maybe more of us will join them, including a few recently enlightened lefties, even if it forces some Distributists to think and then articulate; even if it dispels some beloved conservative mystery and snob appeal.

Thanks to the good Mister Pearce, maybe we can even find a name that makes sense, instead of Distributism or the even more clunky but more accurate Subsidiarism.  But to do that we will need a headline writer.

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16 replies to this post
  1. This is a fascinating debate going on. One might also consider Swiss Capitalism, an interesting model. Though as with any advanced economy there are the larger firms, the monopolies, oligopolies and market dominant companies across the Swiss landscape, there is a far more impressive array of single proprietorships, which are highly encouraged. Also, each canton decides its own coporate tax rate, which keeps them quite competitive, and any change (hike) to income tax (also cantonal) must be voted on by popular referendum–direct democracy in action.

    However, what makes all this viable is the Swiss attitude towards money (highly conservative) and the traditional dislike of centralism. So, one could say there comes into play the “mentality” factor in the discussion of economic models/theories, something very difficult to “measure”, indeed….

  2. For me, “distributism” can be described, via GKC, as both subsidiarity and by his remark that the problem with capitalism “isn’t that there are too many capitalists, but too few.” “Distributism,” then, is probably a poorly-chosen adjective about wanting to “distribute” (I would replace that word with “sowing” or “diffusing”) the ability for people to become entrepreneurs and own their small part of the market. GKC and Belloc, I believe, wanted a economy that would not be ruled, top down, by either bureaucracy or by monopolistic corporations. Rather, they wanted a diverse economy where large corps would be balanced by a myriad of co-ops and small/medium enterprises. I’ve come to the conclusion that to go too far toward socialism or lassiez-faire capitalism inevitably leads to extremes, as Aristotle warns us, and thus “distributism” is a way of seeing a way away from the extremes that is rooted in service and grace. I also have respect for Ropke and Schumacher.

    So then, could we call it “diffusionism” instead?

  3. I’m no social democrat, but couldn’t the social democrat, or in U.S parlance liberal, retort to the stuff on the Pope and global poverty that this article doesn’t really show the superiority of a free market ideology to theirs? After all, there has never been a truly free market (as described by a Friedman or Hayek) or anything like it. And the third world nations that have seen their poverty decrease have made plenty of use of state intervention. Certainly, the social democrat would not disagree with the importance of markets; he would just suggest there are areas where state regulation and intervention supports economic efficiency. It is a thorny issue, but it would hard to maintain (and those who do so seem to do it out of ideology more than anything else) that the intervention in globalised capitalism has only ever been an obstacle to economic growth. And I’m talking here about the intervention that most informed people would not deny occurs in contemporary capitalism, not the claims by those like Kevin Carson that globalisation and contemporary state-capitalism wouldn’t exist without massive and increasing state intervention.

    I do agree about the name distributist. It is clumsy and has misleading connotations. I think, what is more, it focuses attention too much on one of the means that distributists believe in – widespread ownership of productive property – and not our goals, which are essentially just to have an economy that respects and supports the permanent things. The name distributism says little about faith, human scale technology, community, rural-urban balance, nature and the environment, and so on. However, I’m not sure subsidiarism is that much better, for the same reason, nor is Heinrich Pesch’s solidarism or B. Will’s suggestion here of diffusionism. Human scale economics or humane economics (to use Ropke’s phrase), might be better, although they still have problems. I think distributists stick to the name because, one, its legacy from Chesterbelloc and, two, they can’t think of a name significantly better. Personally, I think the best idea is just to treat distributism as the economic side of traditional conservatism or traditionalism, that way it doesn’t even need a name.

  4. Thank you both for your thoughts. Some unconventional “Left wing” thinkers are mining the same vein, wondering how to change culture and spur involvement in co-ops, local democracy, new modes of ownership, etc. That may be worth an article here. But while any culture can theoretically become more Swiss, I wonder if Western Europe and especially North America aren’t too fat and lazy to change. And yet, and yet…US localities are experimenting with legal local currencies for the first time in a very long time. Systemic breakdown can be a powerful agent of change.

  5. Mr. Masty: Well written piece here. But there is a most basic problem. Property and contracts. On this basis, I’d like to try to persuade you back into rejecting Distributism. Hear me out.

    In addition to the Distributists’ abject failure to explain how their economy works–perhaps in spite of it–they themselves distinguish it from capitalism. Capitalism has two elements, no more, no less: governmental non-interference in private a) property, and b) contracts. Chesterton’s “three acres and a cow for everyone” *requires*, even if he lacked the courage to say it, governmental interference in both. It’s an inarguable fact: how else would that universally propertied status be normalized?

    Whereas, on the other hand, if the Distributists would only abstain from calling it a political economy, then their conclusory descriptions of their system would merely (i.e. rightly) designate the happy consequence of a true capitalist economy effectuated within a proper, small, moral, Montesquieuan republic (which none of us occupy): e.g. coopts are a simple, salutary creature of contract *within* a capitalist system. People can do whatever they want to bind themselves to in the private sector.

    To add clout to this proposition, it bears repeating, is the stalwart fact they themselves call it “the third way.” From this, one gathers that Distributism is intended as an alternate political economy. By propositional logic, any system that violates or deviates from one of the two elements of capitalism, is one shade or another of socialism. Subsidiarity, the utter opposite of distributism, requires that the government abstain from interfering in property and contracts, as Leo implies in Rerum.

    The Catholic tradition–Aristotle, Thomas, and the Salamancans–hold that property and contract are “natural extensions of personality,” as emanating from the family. Any interference, one infers, entails an “unnatural” overreach by government.

    The point of origin here is that there are only two political economies under the sun: capitalism (gov’t non-interference in p & c) and varying degrees of socialism (interference in one or both).

  6. Mr Gordon, yes. The biggest problem with Distributists is they have small minds for economics, but big on romance. Trying to squeeze that mental Jello into a box is problematic. I think some are hucksters, others are sincere romantics, and none of them make much practical sense – which is why they rarely try. But the parallels with practical subsidiarity work well, as Mr Pearce implies; certainly contract theory under zoning explains much.

    • Given what your article expresses your fears about distributism are, and what you’ve said in reply here, I’m confident we agree on first principles. However, in the rush to embrace distributism, many fine thinkers like Pearce are skipping steps of analysis: the issue could not be any clearer, for Catholic thinkers who’ve embraced man’s free will, anyway. Subsidiarity means that a more centralized gov’t ONLY performs a task that cannot be served by the family: eg jailing criminals or prosecuting wars. Distributism (though neither your article, Pearce’s, or anyone else’s will say) demands the opposite *in any and every way it departs from capitalism.*

      • I’m really not sure that your analysis is correct here.

        The current economy, or any actual existing economy, has never been based simply on complete non-interference with private property and contracts. In fact actually existing capitalism has always been replete with such interference, now more than ever.

        Then there is the issue, of course, that private property and contracts, even if you took a completely non-interference position, have to be defined, and there is no self-evident way of doing this. On private property, does one take a non-proviso Lockean view, a proviso Lockean, a Georgist, a Mutualist/Usufruct, and so on. Even in one does believe in complete non-interference by the state in the market, the basic parameters of a market system that answers this condition can vary quite a lot.

        Contemporary distributists come in various flavours. There are certainly distributists who take distributism too close to social democracy. Thomas Storck is one such figure. I disagree with them on this score. But many of distributists, like myself, are quite radically decentralist and localist – more so than most libertarians or free market ideologues. We want a lot less government interference in the economy that we currently have and generally want a very hands off approach from the state, especially the central state. This doesn’t mean, however, that there can be absolutely no intrusion on private property and contracts by the state. Where you got this rule from, I’m not sure. It doesn’t match the current economy or any historic economy, including that of Christendom. But still, such interference should be strictly limited.

        • We don’t have a system of capitalism. (Bailouts, etc). Nothing near it. You said so yourself. True capitalism–a corollary of free will, popular morality, and subsidiarity–can only exist in a very small Montesquiean republic or a very large Augustinian polis.

          • Well, you did seem to make aspersions about the practicality of distributism, which is rather ironic if you are proposing a system that has never existed.

            Anyway, I’m not sure I accept that free will necessities an absolute non-interference in private property and the freedom of contract. Such a view seems to mirror Frank Meyers’s position that because free will and choice is important for genuine virtue, morality should be almost entirely a matter of choice and autonomy (except so far as actual violence and fraud were concerned). I’d take the more nuanced and balanced approach of Russell Kirk and not shed a tear if the choice of pornographers was not respected (I’m leaving aside practical considerations about 21st century censorship, of course).

            I mentioned the lack of a self-evident, universal definition of private property or rights and freedom of contract, but beyond that I just don’t see why we must affirm an absolute non-interference.

            I would agree with the great importance of private property and contract. Distributism is build around the importance of private property, especially real and productive property. And I would agree in strictly limiting state interference, especially of the centralised state, in the economy and in life. I think the most important distributist reform would be the rolling back and removal of corporate welfare and privileges -an anti-statist reform. But why we must embrace complete non-interference, again, I do not understand, either in principle or from the example of history. I certainly think you will struggle to find support for it in the Schoolmen or the Catholic tradition (in Quadragesimo Anno Pope Pius XI repudiates unregulated capitalism).

  7. S masty,

    I don’t think that is fair, at least when it comes to contemporary distributists. If you read, for example, the Distributist Review site (or if you did before it became dormant), they do write a lot about practical economic issues. I would say a comparison between the Distributist Review and the Mises institution is not unfavourable to the distributists. Besides, distributists today generally are quite knowledgeable on figures from Schumacher to Thomas Greco, who have studied particular, practical economic issues in depth.

    Personally, I think the attacks on the economic credentials of distributists are replete with begged questions and equivocation.

    For example, those making the accusations tend to be primarily adherents to the anti-Keynesian wing of neoclassical economics or from the Austrian school. Rightwing neoclassicals tend to treat neoclassical microeconomics as a sacred text. But the problem is that almost all that is not common sense in neoclassical microeconomics is dubiously supported. It is supported by inappropriate, arcane mathematical modelling for understanding human behaviour and by absurd assumptions, and yet in crucial areas the edifice still cannot reach the conclusions it requires not to be totally illogical (for example, demand curves, despite absurd assumptions, are still blighted by multiple equilibria, which undermines the their explanation of a single market clearing price; supply curves for aggregate goods change with each change in demand for them, again undermining a single market clearing price; the Cambridge capital controversy showed the flaws in the attempts to build a successful marginalist model of wages, profits, and interest; and so on).

    Interestingly, some of the absurd assumptions required in neoclassical microeconomics can make the economy seem rather distributist, such as the assumption that there are an infinite number of firms which can have no effect on prices (being too small to). On the other hand, Walras’ auctioneer, which is required for the theory of general equilibrium, is an omniscient central planner. which means that, ironically, this bastion of free market ideology – neoclassical microeconomics – requires a god-like central planner.

    The Austrians, whilst relying less on dubious mathematical methodology and absurd assumptions, tend to rely on a lot of armchair and ideological theorising and far less on understanding and researching the complexities of actual economics as I would say is necessary to really understand economics.

    So, it is not the most vocal, free market enemies of distributism that are basing their economic views in practical, empirical understanding of economics. It is the more mainstream and left-neoclassicals and, especially, non-neoclassical schools of economics like the Post-Keynesians and Institutionalists who ground their views heavily on real-life, practical economics. I would argue that many contemporary distributists are, in fact, keen to grapple with real-life economics and are closer to economic reality in their understanding than heavily ideological free marketeers.

    I think TGordon’s comment represents an example of a criticism of distributist economics that is undermined by a lack of tackling the real economy. Yes, I think we can all agree that private property and contracts are very important. But it is hard to match this comment’s descriptions of capitalism to real-life capitalism. It not only that it treats the freedom of contract and rights of private property as simple matters of, whereas regulation of them is complex and many-sided, but it simply makes no allusions to the conditions and institutions that dominate contemporary, globalised state-capitalism. The world of Tescos and Apple Computers can hardly be extracted simply from a vague reference to the sanctity of private property and contracts.

  8. I haven’t read Distributist websites. The EF Schumacher Center starts to get practical but not deeply, with local currencies and so forth. Moreover they are mostly leftists finding their way back to a middle, but they have problems supporting nationalised ownership and how state enterprise often collapses. Neither do they seem to fully understand the Rape of the Commons. But more is going on on the Left than the Right, to which I directed my remarks. Alas I do not see why legal issues of share ownership and the corporate person are much different for Apple than for any small public company.

    • Well, I’m not sure how much more deeply than distributists and their allies – like Schumacher and his disciples – most free market ideologues really try to understand practical economic issues. What I object to is not just that many criticisms of distributism seem to be strawmen replete with fallacies (like the oft made accusations of economic ignorance), but they are then used to as some sort of excuse to flee to free market ideology. A supposed flaw in distributism is not seen as something to work on, perhaps with input from a Mises or Friedman if necessary; rather, it is used to suggest we must embrace wholeheartedly the ideology of figures like these.

      On Apple Computers, well, it is the case that corporate personhood and the like do try to divorce ownership from control in a way that promotes accumulation of capital, whilst shielding owners – shareholders – from liabilities that they might face in smaller firms. In the common law tradition, a property owner was liable for the actions of his agents, whereas contemporary corporate law radically restricts this liability. Now, we can obviously argue about the costs and benefits to society at large that come from contemporary corporate personhood and privileges, but the corporation is not considered like a guild, where it gets state support but the state also gives to the guild deeply social aims. Though a corporation’s owners have their liabilities and a lot of risks socialised, the state refrains from forcing a social purpose on the corporation. And the whole point of corporate personhood is to escape the need to try to contractually limit liabilities, so I’m not sure how one can see contemporary corporations as simply extensions of the right of private property and contracts.

      Anyway, I was talking more generally about our economy. Even ignoring the more radical claims like those of Kevin Carson (which I largely agree with), I think it is generally admitted that there is a lot of state regulation, subsidy, and interference in contemporary and historic capitalism. Even T Gordon seems to admit he was describing something rather different to our contemporary economy. So, my point was that our contemporary economy, of Apple and Tescos, cannot simply be extracted from strict observance of the principles of private property and freedom of contract.

  9. “This raises our initial question of why Chesterton and Belloc named it Distributism in the first place, particularly if they had no plans to distribute or redistribute anything. ”

    But that is not true. In The Servile State, for example, although Belloc did not provide a blue-print for the redistribution of ownership of the means of production, he most emphatically did raise this as the standard, the level of ownership characteristic of Europe at the close of the sixteenth century. One ‘path’ to distributism is explicitly mentioned–a catastrophe of some type or another. With the concentration of ownership we are seeing now, the instability of capitalism so heightened, we are that close to a slave state, and it will take only another shove (health care may be it) to push us into end game.

  10. If I might add a late comment, I must say, well done Mr. Masty! I have read Distributists on the internet and they range from the intelligent to the silly. They are right to oppose corporatism but some are less aware than others of the state’s role in corporatist arrangements. Many are too quick to oppose the free-market proponents who are in reality their greatest potential allies.

  11. From: Perplexed of Bloomsbury

    Dear Steve Masty: now that you (and Joseph Pearce) have unravelled the notion of Distributism for us,
    do you think you could have a crack at explaining the concept of Predistribution(ism) for the rest of us?
    It seems that this is being marketed as an alternative to both Redistributionism, and Distributism; but
    is it really a new analysis of the [supposed] Original Sin of Capitalism, or is it old hat in a new wrapper?

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