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Author Topic: Distributivism - A Brief Essay
JoshuaD
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"Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists."
- G. K. Chesterton

In distributivism, the moral aspirations of socialism are joined with the practical considerations of capitalism to create a innovative and promising economic philosophy. Originating with the teachings of Pope Leo XIII, expanded upon by Pope Pius XI, and championed by early 20th century thinkers like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, distributivism represents a third axis in the socialism-capitalism spectrum. Distributivism depend on and strives towards two principles: Distribution of Ownership, where the means of production are owned by the many rather than the few; and Subsidiarity, which insists that every economic and social function be completed by the smallest social unit possible.

Distribution of Ownership
At distributivism’s core lies a unique approach to the ownership of the means of production. Where in socialism the means of production are owned by one entity (the government) and where in capitalism the means of production are owned by the few, distributivism strives to spread as widely as possible the ownership of productive property, thereby giving individuals a direct and personal stake in the work they do. This ownership in employment makes men more likely to work harder and with greater fervor than they might have otherwise. Pope Leo XIII expounds this concept in Rerum Novarum:

“Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which is their own; nay, they learn to love the very soil which yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of the good things for themselves and those that are dear to them. (no. 35)”

While in past centuries the ideals of distributivism were embodied by families or other small social units providing for themselves by farming their own land or performing a trade with their own tools, today the ideals of distributivism are best found in co-operatives, democratic and jointly owned business organizations in which individuals voluntarily work together for their mutual benefit. These co-operatives are able thrive as companies or corporations within existing capitalist economies.

The collective and democratic ownership of the means of production can also reduce the destructive class-warfare that can occur in capitalist systems. Waste and inefficiency often arise from the conflict between companies and their trade unions, two co-dependent entities entrenched in a system in which they are rewarded for bellicose and short-sighted policies. Often times the worker’s unions are able to leverage their power into pay and benefits packages that are unsustainable for the company, and the company’s contorted policies often result in alienating the workforce while at the same time the union encourages them to work slower and less efficiently. Eventually you get what we saw in the American car industry; high wages for the production of sub-par products – the definition of unsustainable enterprise.

In a distributivist system, the workers are directly incentivized to care not just for their own compensation, but also for the longevity and well-being of the company as a whole. In an astounding case, the workers of the successful Spanish co-operative corporation, Mondragòn, voted themselves an 8% pay-cut in order to adjust to the economic downturn. Where a trade union would most likely have prevented any decrease in pay for the workers (to the long-term detriment of both the workers and the company), a democratic, distributivist company was able to react to the market better than a modern capitalist system might have.



Subsidiarity
Subsidiarity is a principle of work organization that insists all matters be handled by the smallest or least centralized authority. Subsidiarity asserts that the larger entity ought to have a subsidiary function to the smaller entities, doing only those things that can’t otherwise be done by the smaller entities. Having manifestations in everything from political theory to computer science, subsidiarity plays a central role in the organization of responsibilities in distributivism. Distributivism believes that allowing a larger entity to usurp the rightful ability of a smaller entity to perform a function is bad for society and the market. This concept of the smaller entities having priority originates in Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno:

“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also is it an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.”

The concept of subsidiarity can also be found in a number of constitutions and political movements around the world. In the United States we find subsidiarity’s core concept outlined in the Tenth Amendment, which strives to assert states rights over federal powers. Until the American Civil war, this concept was a strong influence on American politics, and its principles are still advocated by the modern American conservative and libertarian movements. It is also a central tenant of the European Union; which is unable to pass a law unless the action of individual member countries would be insufficient.

Examples of Distributivism in the Modern World
There are examples of Distributivism in today’s modern political world: both American and European capitalist systems have anti-monopoly and anti-trust legislation that work to prevent the means of production from being held solely by one or only a few companies or cartels. Behind these laws is the principle of subsidiarity, which asserts that having many different participants in an industry will be better for the economy rather than having one monolithic participant.

The distributivism philosophy has also seen its most noteworthy successes in modern co-operatives. One of which, already briefly discussed, is the Spanish co-operative corporation Mondragòn, a set of successful international manufacturing, financial, and retail companies that extends over Spain and abroad. It is managed entirely by its own workers, is the largest co-operative in the world, comprised of over 150 companies, and is responsible for generating 3.8% of the GDP of Basque. There are also many other, smaller co-operatives which embody distributivist ideals in operation throughout the United States and the world.


Disadvantages
In a distributivist based economy, in order to promote the wide distribution of productive resources, some believe it would be necessary to cap the amount of productive private property one could amass. In the case of Mondragòn, the highest paid employees can only make eight times what the lowest paid employee makes, and each employee is only afforded one vote in the general assembly. Acceptable by most as a company’s policy, it would be absolutely unacceptable in modern democracies to implement state or federal laws which accomplished similar limitations to the institution of private property. When thinking about this concept, the words of G. K. Chesterton may be helpful:

“…the institution of private property no more means the right to unlimited property than the institution of marriage means the right to unlimited wives!”

There have also been relatively few cases of enacting the concepts of distributivism in a legal system. Just as the real world implementations of capitalism and socialism are significantly different from their theoretical versions, it must be conceded that distributivism may have similar shortcomings. To its advantage, however, where capitalism and socialism both required significant political upheavel to be implemented, distributivism doesn’t require an overhaul of the political or economic landscape; rather it can be implemented within current capitalist structures, and even compete directly with successful capitalist companies.

Another common criticism of distributivism is that it depends on the cooperation of its participants and requires that they subject their immediate self interest to the self interest of the group. While this will often serve the individual best in the long-run, short sighted individuals may attempt to game the system to their own immediate benefit. Anyone familiar with the prisoners dilemma may have trouble believing man can cooperate for their own collective good. The words of Machiavelli must not be forgotten:

“for how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather bring about his own ruin than his preservation.”
– The Prince, Chapter 15

Conclusion
While distributivism may not be a global panacea, it does contain some interesting and powerful ideas that should be explored further. I think Machiavelli sold man short when he resigned himself to accept the worse aspects of human nature. Although the dark side of human nature is strong, our will for cooperation and growth is stronger; and just as we have calmed the selfish violence that made civilization impossible for tens of thousands of years, I believe one day we will be able to temper the limitless greed and egotism which stand as a barrier to better civilization. When that day comes, perhaps man will find a distributivist system serves best.

[ December 10, 2009, 09:27 AM: Message edited by: OrneryMod ]

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kenmeer livermaile
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I love G.K.I'd give up seeing Lester Young live to spend an evening with him around his fireplace circa 1908.
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edgmatt
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From what you have posted here, Joshua, distributivism describes pretty much what William Bradford ended up instituting when he was Governor of the first Pilgrim colony. When I had first read that story, and some of his diary writings, I took it as a capitalistic point of view. But I think distributivism might be a better description, no?

[ December 10, 2009, 12:35 AM: Message edited by: edgmatt ]

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Viking_Longship
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Thanks, I'm quite fond of this approach
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JoshuaD
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quote:
Originally posted by edgmatt:
From what you have posted here, Joshua, distributivism describes pretty much what William Bradford ended up instituting when he was Governor of the first Pilgrim colony. When I had first read that story, and some of his diary writings, I took it as a capitalistic point of view. But I think distributivism might be a better description, no?

From what I read of your link, yea it looks like it. It seems that small communities will tend towards a distributivist model. The trick is trying to get it implemented on a large scale, and somehow preventing economies of scale from killing off the principles of subidiarity.

I recently finished Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World Revisited", which is a collection of essay on tyranny, propaganda, government, and human nature. These writings convinced me even more of what he described as the "evil of over-organization". The book wasn't an advocacy book for distributivism, but it did draw some of the same conclusions as the Popes above, Chesterton, and Belloc. Well worth a read.

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Kent
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JoshuaD,

This post in 2007 and this post of mine earlier this year both discuss Distributism and links to the work of John Médaille (who was hugely influenced by Chesterton and Belloc). John's newest book should be out very soon, and it is a book that does some heavy lifting on the economics of the practice rather than just the philosophy of the practice. If you want a PDF of the rough copy, email me. I've pieced it together from his posts at The Distributist Review.

Recently, The United Steel Workers Union joined up with Mondragon, which is the poster child of effective Distributism in practice.

The "Red Tory" Phillip Blond is taking that conservative party (in the UK) by storm lately with his Distributist ideals. His Think Tank ResPublica is changing the way the dialog is framed and I find his ideas to resonate with me particularly well.

In my mind, Distributist ideals are populist ideals and they represent the only proven and viable alternative to Big Business and Big Government (which grow hand in hand).

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ken_in_sc
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How is Distributiveism different from Syndicalism?
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Kent
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ken,

I don't know a lot about Syndicalism, but under the entry "Economic System" in Wikipedia it lists Distributism in the "Compromise mixed systems" with Syndicalism in a "Hands-off Communal oriented system."

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Athelstan
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To my mind Distributivism is the Catholic Church’s attempt to rebrand the Medieval Monastic System. Monasteries were the industrial complexes of their day, dealing in wool, wood, iron and coal. To be a Monk you had to buy into the system, usually a donation from the novice’s family. Theoretically you had a say in the running of the business but you were given a set of rules when you started so your hands were pretty much tied. The monks looked inwards and got on with their work while the elected managerial Abbot took a larger cut and got very rich. Eventually the English system failed from pressures from inside and outside. It would be my opinion that all enclosed systems are bound to fail as the outside world changes around them. Perhaps I’ll investigate the concepts of Failurism and Muddle-throughism.
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Kent
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Athelstan, I don't know where you're getting this from but to put it simply: labor and capital should be united. Society works best when individuals have ownership in their endeavors and are not clients of either the government or a corporation. They should rather see themselves as citizens who contribute to the services they receive. This is the main idea of distributism. Capital in the hands of labor is power and freedom. Labor in the hands of capital is slavery.
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Athelstan
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Well Kent to put it simply, I don’t agree with you. I don’t believe in slogan solutions. Every society should perform in a way that’s suitable for them. If in the case of the Basques it is Distributism then so be it but, as I’ve said before, if Distributism is the answer then why hasn’t Mondragon exported the idea. Was every stakeholder consulted before Mondragon bought the French company Brandt? Don’t get me wrong. I like the idea of worker control and in my youth believed in the idea of monthly worker elected management. I don’t like religion in business. It always seemed to be in the co-operative movements of the nineteenth century and they all failed in their original intent. In a personal example I had three uncles who were farmers. Two of them owned their farms but the most successful, in terms of cash, was the third uncle who rented his farm. Personal Ownership, in my opinion, is not essential for success. Heck I’ve just made a slogan but it does keep me in touch with my Socialist roots.
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JoshuaD
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Kent: Thanks for the links
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Kent
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Joshua, you are welcome. By the way, Mondragon has exported itself all over the world; pretty much a non-catholic entity as far as it goes outside of Spain. The United Steelworkers Union here in the U.S. has just collaborated with Mondragon to establish cooperative manufacturing plants in the U.S. The jobs ain't coming back by hoping for outside investors; the workers themselves are going to make it happen.
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ken_in_sc
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Athelstan, you forgot to mention the monasteries that produced wine, beer, and liqueur—and still do. There is a monastery in Belgium that still produces premium ale. They have a vow of silence for six days a week and have a large bowl of ale at every meal. I told my wife if anything ever happened to her, I would go there and apply as a novitiate.

Kent, syndicalism involves the workers running the company, which sounded like Distributiveism. I first heard about it in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. However, that was in the middle of the Spanish Civil war and the waterworks workers who ran the waterworks were sometimes shooting at the telephone workers who ran the telephone company—not a good example of how to improve things.

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ken_in_sc
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I forgot to add, about Syndicalism in Spain in the 1930s--if you were on the wrong side, or worse, couldn’t prove you were not on the wrong side, you could have both your telephone and your water shut off, plus be shot at.
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