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The whole notion of a global problem requiring a global solution is rooted in a false logic. Effectively it is saying that because bigness causes problems we need even more bigness to solve them. Distributism as a derivative of the principle of subsidiarity offers the only real alternative to the cult of bigness in the modern world…

Editor’s Note: On February 18, 2016, at the Acton Institute’s Mark Murray Auditorium, Joseph Pearce took part in a Gentlemen’s Debate with Jay Richards, mediated by Fr. Robert Sirico. Below is the text of Joseph Pearce’s opening salvo in what proved to be a very lively discussion.

First, I’d like to thank Fr. Sirico and the folks at the Acton Institute for inviting me to this debate with Mr. Jay Richards on tonight’s topic of Distributism versus the Free Markets. I will confess that I feel a little like Daniel in the lion’s den, but I’m comforted by the knowledge that the good father and the noble Mr. Richards are Christian gentlemen. I’m confident, therefore, that even if the evening becomes a little pugilistic, we will not lose our heads and, indeed, I’m confident that even if the gloves come off at some point, we will continue to fight by the Marquess of Queensberry rules.

In any discussion it’s always good to define our terms. I shall proceed, therefore, by defining what I understand to be distributism, for which I will be arguing. I do not propose in this brief introduction to address the topic of “free markets,” leaving Mr. Richards to do this in his own introduction. I will then address his understanding of the freedom of the market in my response to him.

If, as I suspect, Mr. Richards and I do not agree with our respective understanding of either of these things, we will have the foundations for a good debate. If, at the conclusion of tonight’s discussion, we both understand each other better, the evening will have been a success; if I can convince Mr. Richards that he is wrong and I am right, I will be delighted, but I’m not holding my breath! If the audience understands both of our respective positions better the evening will likewise be a success.

So, to a definition of distributism.

It is important, first and foremost to see distributism as a derivative of the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that political, economic, and social problems are resolved best and most justly when dealt with at the most immediate level consistent with their solution.

Distributists draw the vital connection between the freedom of labour and its relationship with the other factors of production, i.e. land, capital, and the entrepreneurial spirit. The more that labour is divorced from the other factors of production the more it is enslaved to the will of powers beyond its control. In an ideal world every man would own the land on which, and the tools with which, he worked.

In an ideal world he would control his own destiny by having control over the means to his livelihood. This is the most important economic freedom, the freedom beside which all other economic freedoms are relatively trivial. If a man has this freedom he will not so easily succumb to encroachments upon his other freedoms.

I am, however, a realist. We do not live in an ideal world and the ideal, in the absolute sense, is unattainable. Yet, as a Christian, I believe we are called to strive for perfection. We are called to imitate Christ, even if we cannot be perfect as Christ is perfect. And what is true of man in his relationship with

God is true of man in his relationship with his neighbour, i.e. we are called to strive towards a better and more just society, even if it will never be perfect. Therefore, in practical terms, every policy or every practice that leads to a reuniting of man with the land and capital on which he depends for his sustenance is a step in the right direction. Every policy or practice that puts him more at the mercy of those who control the land and the capital on which he depends, and therefore who control his labour also, is a step in the wrong direction. Practical politics is about moving in the right direction, however slowly.

In practical terms, the following would all be distributist solutions to current problems: policies that establish a favourable climate for the establishment and subsequent thriving of small businesses; policies that discourage mergers, takeovers, and monopolies; policies that allow for the break-up of monopolies or larger companies into smaller businesses; policies that encourage employee stock ownership; policies that privatize nationalized industries; policies that bring real political power closer to the family by decentralizing power from central government to local government, from big government to small government. All these are practical examples of applied distributism.

As the foregoing practical examples would suggest, distributism/subsidiarity is not an esoteric ideal without any practical applicability in everyday political and economic life. On the contrary, it is at the heart of politics and economics. In all politics and economics there is the tendency for power to become centralized into the hands of fewer and fewer people. Subsidiarity can be seen as the antidote to this centralization, i.e. it is the principle at the heart of the forces of decentralization, the principle that demands the rights and protection of smaller political and economic units against the encroachments of central government and big business.

Distributism is the only alternative to proletarianism, the latter of which comes in two forms, one of which is sometimes called “capitalism,” a word I usually try to avoid using, and the other is sometimes called “socialism.” Socialism is strikingly similar in practice to “capitalism” insofar as both systems place the means of production into the hands of a privileged few at the expense of the proletarianized masses. Whereas “capitalism” or what might more fruitfully be called economic proletarianism centralizes the ownership of land and capital into the hands of a small number of powerful businessmen, socialism centralizes or collectivizes it into the hands of a small number of powerful politicians. In both cases the vast majority of ordinary people remains without either land or capital and are therefore proletarianized. As such, the choice between “capitalism” (as Belloc and Chesterton define it) and socialism is a choice between economic proletarianism and political proletarianism. It is a choice between being ruled by Big Business or Big Brother, a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, or between Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber!

The real irony is that these two forms or proletarianism, economic and political (“capitalist” and socialist), are not going to fight to the death, with one or the other ultimately emerging triumphant, but are melding into a single politico-economic proletarianism, in which Big Business and Big Brother reach a mutually agreeable modus operandi. One thinks perhaps of the cooperation between global corporations and communist China, or of the Confederation of British Industry’s opposition to Brexit and its support for the socialist European Union. This understanding between Big Business and Big Government at the expense of the perennially powerless majority will herald what Belloc calls the servile state and which we might prefer to call the welfare state.

The whole of human society, politically, economically, and culturally, is being remoulded by powerful international and transnational bodies and networks in order to pursue and actualize the globalist agenda. This remoulding and remodeling of human society is being pursued without a democratic mandate and without the interests of the peoples of the world in mind. It is being pursued by the richest and most powerful people in the world to serve their own interests, riding roughshod over the interests of the vast majority of mankind. The system being put in place by the globalists is nothing less than the largest plutocracy in human history.

Indeed it is ironic that the global plutocrats have the same agenda of social engineering as do the socialists. It is no coincidence that Bill Gates and Barack Obama share essentially the same views on birth control, eugenics, and abortion, or that they are both pursuing the agenda of the culture of death with the same proselytizing zeal.

Instead of government becoming bigger and ultimately global, moving further and further away from the ordinary people it is theoretically meant to serve, we need the reinvigoration of small government and the devolving of power away from central government, thereby bringing government closer to the people. This is showing proper respect for the dignity of the human person and the political freedom that this dignity demands.

Instead of economic structures becoming bigger and ultimately global, with globalized corporate management moving further and further away from individual employees, we need the revitalization of small businesses. This is showing proper respect for the dignity of the human person and the economic freedom that this dignity demands.

Furthermore, the whole notion of a global problem requiring a global solution is rooted in a false logic. Effectively it is saying that because bigness causes problems we need even more bigness to solve them. This is the error of both socialism and corporate globalism. The problems caused by big government and big business are not solved by making the cause of the problem bigger!

The very idea that any form of global government can be democratic in any meaningful sense is preposterous. The centralization of more and more power into fewer and fewer hands is not democratic. Global government will be tyrannical. Make no mistake about it. Globalism necessitates the destruction of freedom and must, therefore, be opposed by all those who value human liberty. We must combat the centralist tendency of globalism by doing all that we can to restore the decentralist tendency of localism. In practical terms, this means that we must resist the surrender of national sovereignty to globalist entities. It also means that, within nations, we should work towards the reinvigoration of local and regional government. In terms of economics, we should understand that every dollar that we spend is an economic “vote” that will bring globalism to power, if we spend our money on globalist products, but will help restore healthy local economies if we spend our money on local products. The environmentalist mantra “think globally, act locally” is true insofar that globalism is so unthinkably evil that we have to resist it where we can, which is where we are, on our own doorsteps and with our own pocketbooks.

In short, and in sum, distributism as a derivative of the principle of subsidiarity offers the only real alternative to the cult of bigness, the macrophilia, and macromania of the modern world.

I would conclude by insisting that the fundamental principles of distributism are rooted in the Catholic Church’s social doctrine. The social encyclicals of Leo XIII, Pius XI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI espouse the principle of subsidiarity and insist upon the dignity of the human person. The sanity of the Church’s teaching, of which distributism is an expression, is the solution to the madness of globalism.

The ultimate bottom line is that a society without faith is a society without a future.

The full debate can be viewed here:

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3 replies to this post
  1. I’d actually go so far as to say that distributism is based on natural systems and natural systems of organisation. And so far natural systems have proved to be far more resilient and sustainable compared to centralised human systems.

  2. Thanks for posting this debate between two respectful and informed participants, guided by a thoughtful moderator. While I’m very drawn to the general principles of distributism, I’m not an expert on economics and I appreciate hearing well-reasoned critiques; Jay Richards is quite articulate and knowledgeable.

    However, Joseph Pearce’s attribution of the American craft beer revolution to English distributism moved me into his camp!

  3. I’m completely on the side of Joseph Pearce, however, it is too late to ever imagine that the tyranny of globalization can be stopped. It is much too late for that. The only thing that can be done is to slow it down but even that would take heroic measures from millions of people who don’t exist.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: