Let's debate "distributism"

Eh, certainly disagree there, and I’m an atheist. Would you consider WWII a religious battle? I think that’d be hard to prove. Hell, post-Crusades, although many wars certainly have their religious colorings, it ends up beings about land or hubris or imagined superiority of an arbitrary nation more than religion.

Yes, religion certainly does cause some people to engage in blinkered, dogmatic thinking.

Sounds like supply-side communism to me.

and, of course, the Church gets it’s ten-percent cut.

And ironically, so does the lack thereof. :smiley:

I was wondering how this philosophy differs from communism. (I’m speaking of communism as an economic theory, not Communism the wet-your-pants bugaboo of the right.)

You’ve basically answered your own question. Economies of scale. There’s nothing particulaly “un-American” about what you described. It’s just horribly innefficient. If your goal is to provide the maximum amount of goods and services that meet the maximum number of people’s wants and needs, it makes sense to consolidate them.

Think of it this way - how would you create your own laptop computer? The machines that print the circuitry and the injection molding machines that build the case and all the other little parts are capital intensive. They are big, expensive, and require specially trained operators. They are good at creating 10000 laptops, not one or two.

In the era in which the idea was developed, it wasn’t particularly impossible; very few large-scale concerns existed, and those were mostly trading companies (which owned ships) and a very few factories (non-mechanical). So, it did not consider the idea of economy of scale. It was, in fact, an attempt to break up things like giant estates and plantations. Those who owned said estates and plantations tended to enforce a quasi-feudal structure on the world, and generally kept productivity and efficiency down across the board. They certainly were not good at investing and promoting growth.

It was not particularly aimed at preventing manufactures in the modern sense; it simply didn’t envision them. Who could? Obviously, economy of scale makes that way of life highly improbable today, but it isn’t clear that it was a bad idea at the start. In fact, just the opposite: it was a fairly sensible idea in its basic form.

In fact, we can probably chart the progress of most of the Catholic countries of the world by their similarity to the ideal. (I am not talking here of utopian plan, but simply the ability of evceryday workers to make a living independantly). We see on one hand Italy, which had a long tradition of idependant manufactures, craftsmanship, and reasonably small farms (at least in the north). It did fairly well, and was mostly held back by near-constant political infighting and conflict. In the later 19th century, Italy began to fll behind in industrialization, but it was not until the early 20th that it fell into obsolescence, partly again because of its unproductive government.

OTOH, South America, with its tendency towards ossified men of leisure as its elites, each holding vast farming estates, saw nearly no growth at all. In fact, some areas (including Argentina) were still importing basic manufactured goods like horseshoes from Europe in the 18th century! Slavery encouraged the system and sustained it; the system discouraged craftsmanship; the lack of crasftmanship (with its middle class) and investment from men of means meant a lack of development.

Just my 3 & 1/2 cents.

What the US has probably virtually eliminated is starvation-level poverty. Almost nobody, however destitute, actually dies of famine in this country (although there are quite a few very low-income people, particularly some immigrants and eldery, who have a hard time getting enough to eat on a regular basis).

But there are still lots of Americans too poor to afford housing or needed medications or other medical treatment, which I would think ought to qualify as “desperate poverty” by the standards of the richest nation in the world. The fact that some poor people, or even “many”, can afford technological gadgets doesn’t mean that there aren’t also many poor people who can’t afford even some basic needs like shelter or medicine.

The societies that by “objective global standards” really have come a lot closer to “eliminating desperate poverty”, even though they’re less wealthy than the US, are in other industrialized countries, particularly in Northern Europe. But they owe it not so much to “distributism” of productive assets as to a strong social safety net.

Okay, so what about the OP’s question?

I think that a moderate amount of “distributism” is probably a good idea even in a modern industrial or post-industrial society, for reasons of both environmental sustainability and national security. It makes sense to have certain baseline amounts of certain basic commodities (e.g., food, clean water, electricity, etc.) sourced locally, or as locally as possible.

If everybody depends on distant production by large-scale centralized industries for even their most basic necessities, then they are extremely vulnerable in lots of ways. The centralized production site is much more vulnerable to, e.g., natural disaster or terrorist attack than a distributed network is. And so far, there doesn’t seem to be any form of long-distance large-scale transportation that isn’t significantly expensive and destructive in terms of environmental resources.

So yeah, there’s something to be set for a certain baseline amount of distributed production. And it probably would have the side-effect of increasing economic independence for many people, which would probably also be a good thing.

As for completely eliminating large-scale industrial capitalist production of all goods, though, I can’t imagine that it would be possible in a free society, nor do I really see why it would be desirable.

From what I can tell, if you replace “products of labor” with “means of production,” it’s the same thing.

This would destroy the economy, and create more poverty. The underlying assumption here seems to be that everyone is equally talented, equally driven, equally educated, have equal work ethics, etc.

In a capitalist society, capital flows to those who best know how to use it. The hardest working, the smartest, the ones with the best ideas. They can leverage their vision and their skills by hiring people, raising venture capital, etc. If you introduce some redistributionist wage cap, these people will have a very limited ability to use their talents.

In any population of people, you will find some that are simply much more productive than others. In a capitalist system, they begin to accrue wealth faster than others, because they are creating more wealth. Take away the incentive to do so, and you’ll destroy the engine of productivity. At the same time, you’re going to give huge swaths of the country’s productive capability over to people who aren’t particularly productive.

Then there’s the disincentive effect: If the best you can do is 100K a year, and you can achieve that with 1/10 of your efforts, there’s no incentive to engage the other 90%.

Finally, this seems to be based on the belief that small enterprises are just as efficient as large ones, and this just isn’t the case. Do you know how much a car would cost if cars were built by a nation of artisans? How do you built a multi-million dollar manufacturing plant? How about bulk shipping? Who builds the freight haulers, the supertankers, the oil platforms, and other hugely expensive trappings of industrial society?

This is just communism under a prettier name, attempting a flight under the radar. It’s a monumentally stupid idea.

This strikes me as a blanket statement that a family farm would never go out of business. I don’t think that is necessarily true. :slight_smile:

ISTM that distributism is missing one of the factors in many industries, which is economy of scale. Maybe you own “productive property”. If your neighbor owns property which is more efficient, he is going to drive you out of business.

I don’t see how anyone, let alone the government, is going to prevent that. To quote a certain famous economic thinker,


What percentage of the population has a hard time getting enough to eat? Looking at my fellow American’s, even the poor, I’m not seeing a lack of food at any economic level as a major problem. The US is classified as THEY fattest nation on earth. Now, you could argue about the quality of food…but the percentage of the population that ‘have a hard time getting enough to eat’ has got to be pretty damn small.

The key here is ‘by the standards of the richest nation in the world’…Furt wasn’t using a dual standard system. By our standards (and those in Europe), the poor having to go to an emergency room for urgent medical care (and not getting wellness care on a regular basis) is a bad thing. By the standard of a peasant in Mexico (or myriad other nations) who can’t get ANY care, urgent or otherwise though, the poor here are pretty well off. THATS ‘desparate poverty’. Same with the housing. What we would consider poor housing would look pretty good to someone living in a wooden shack on the edge of Mexico City. And again, what percentage of American’s can’t afford (with government assistance) any housing at all? I’d say the raw percentage is going to be pretty damn small…as opposed to other nations out there.

From my perspective ‘desparate poverty’ means something very different than you are defining it.

As for the OP I think its been pretty well answered by several posters here. Such a system would stifle productivity and actually make everyone poorer instead of having the desired effect to leveling society. In the end those folks who are good at making or doing things would rise to the top…and because of how you locked things down they would find other ways to be compensated for their better skills. They would probably have a tighter strangle hold on the economy and its resources than the current system you are trying to ‘fix’. Goods and services would actually cost more…and there would be less ‘wealth’ in society to actually buy them. Things like computers or cell phones would be only for the elite…because only they could afford them. Everyone else would be trying to figure out how to afford luxury items such as bread made one loaf at a time by whoever felt like getting into the bread business.

I could think of several ways to abuse such a system and ‘game’ it right off the top of my head (as well as the Utopia example from the book BG mentioned). Thats the problem when folks who don’t understand how a real world economy works try to create their utopia…guys like me (and I’m hardly the sharpest tool in the shed as far as this goes…if I can come up with loophole, you can bet that others will find things they could drive trucks through) come along and see all the holes and angles that can be worked for our own selfish benifits. :wink:


This is true to some extent, but paints a very idealistic and one-sided picture. In a capitalist society, capital also flows to those who already have lots of it, and those who can influence the powerful to favor their interests, and those who are powerful enough to undermine legal or regulatory challenges to their power. None of this activity is especially “productive”.

I could make up a similarly idealistic and one-sided picture of a distributist society to argue that it would work much better than the realities of life under capitalism. If we’re going to compare economic systems, we have to do so honestly, without glossing over the built-in flaws and inefficiencies on either side.

Okay. In that case, though, I have to say that eliminating what you call “desperate poverty” is definitely no big whoop, socially and economically speaking. Hell, even Cuba’s managed to achieve that. So the fact that the US has, by your definition, virtually eliminated “desperate poverty” doesn’t really constitute much of an argument for the superiority of the current US economic system over a “distributist” one.

Stuff I was going to point out has already been made, I’ll try to highlight some other things:

Yes, we and other nations do this via taxes (the best and most efficient way to redistribute). The best and most efficient way to create wealth (GDP) is through a capitalist system. Tax too much, and you impair the ability for the nation to create wealth.

Talent and ambition are characteristics, not virtues. Characteristics, like being tall, are not equally distributed. Education is not equally distributed either, it remains largely a function of economic standing of one’s parents. A moderately gifted student of upper-class parents is more likely to receive a college education than a moderately gifted student of lower standing.

As to “work ethics”, that is another thing altogether. We can have a whole conversation about the meaning of that term. Suffice to say it is tossed about too lightly altogether. Your garbageman does more “ethical” work than the man who writes ads to convince you to buy a superior brand of dog food.

Balderdash, sir! Tommyrot! Capital flows to those who already have it. The recurring spectacle of investor panic should dissuade your from any such a notion that capital accumulates into the hands of the gifted and competent. Tulips, anyone?

Yes, but their motivation varies. Some people are industrious by their very nature, others, motivated to do good for their fellows. Others are greedy. You imply an equivalence that does not apply.

Unless you want to. Unless you like what you do. What was Dr. Schwietzer’s “incentive”? MLK? A capitalist, like a communist, tends to assume that materialism is the central fact of human existence. It Ain’t Neccesarily So.

Exactly so! The larger and more ruthless the enterprise, the more the capitalist system rewards it. My local organic food co-op will never challenge Wal-Mart. Happily, they don’t want to. Let us be hesitant to apply some special admiration for “efficiency”.

Out in the leftward direction, there are any number of ideas, only one of which is “communism”. No one would be quicker to agree with you that “communism” is nonsense. It is a theory cooked up in a political science lab, like libertarianism, and has little if any direct connection with human beings.

There is no such thing as “human nature”. I defy you to prove otherwise.

True enough…if one of the major goals of the US was to eliminate ‘desparate poverty’. Its not. Conversely, it IS a major goal of Cuba. I would say that the difference isn’t trying to address the low end at the expense of the middle and upper, but to provide prosperity for the maximum number of folks. By any definition Cuba is not comparable to the US as far as this aspect goes.

You are right though…its no ‘big whoop’. Lots of nations have achieved what the US has economically to a greater or lesser degree. We aren’t unique in that respect. Interestingly enough, none of them used “Distributism” to do it. I’d say with pretty good confidence in fact that ALL of them used a variant on good old ‘Capitalism’ to do it…and those countries who have tried various forms of what the OP is getting at have been, er, less than successful historically speaking.


But note that when I advocated “a moderate amount of distributism”, I wasn’t only talking about redistributing wealth, but about having somewhat less centralized productive assets. And not just for the sake of economic fairness, but for reasons of economic sustainability and national security.

Relying on economies of scale and other efficiencies of large-scale centralized capitalist industrial production is definitely advantageous in some ways. But my point was that it also has some disadvantages that might be offset by a certain minimum level of distributism.

Not sure I’d agree with that. Certainly none of them have gone with a totally distributist economy, but they’ve all used some distributist policies at some point(s) in their history. The OP’s example of public distribution of land via the Homesteading Act in the US is one instance.

Bah. Make that “environmental sustainability”, please. Sorry 'bout that.

Sam’s vision of capitalism as a meritocracy is pretty but inaccurate. People start off with unequal levels of wealth and the ones who start off with more wealth have a huge advantage over those who don’t. What’s more, in any society those who have wealth and power will attempt to bend society’s rules to ensure that they are able to maintain and increase their wealth and power, generally at the expense of those who compete with them.

Notice, for example, that in good-ol’ free market America, the richest 1/2 of one percent of americans controlled 26 percent of America’s wealth, the top ten percent controlled 62 percent of America’s wealth. (Go ahead, ask for a cite, I dare ya!) They didn’t do it entirely, or even mostly, on merit. They did it by gaming the system so that they and their children could more easily keep and add to their wealth.

See, what’s overlooked is that guys like xtisme will game the system no matter HOW it’s constructed, even if it’s a wonderful pretty meritocracy as envisioned by Sam. xtisme and guys like him are in fact the greatest danger to capitalism, because their relentless efforts to accumulate more wealth once they reach the top almost invariably leads to the creation of a capitalist oligarchy (see Enron, see Adelphia, see the constant insider trading in the stock market). The only thing that can keep them from succeeding and created a new stratified society where a capitalist society once stood is a vigilant regulatory watchdog that keeps them from locking up the whole of America’s wealth. Judging by the numbers, that’s not happening right now, the oligarchs appear to have much of our wealth wrapped up. That’s because the guys like xtisme game the regulators, too. They are relentless and unthinking as sharks, and will destroy the economic vitality of any society in which they get the unfettered upper hand.

Cutesy-poo dreams about capitalist meritocracy are just what they love … they keep folks from thinking hard about what’s going on around them.