Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A World of Artisans: Distributionism as an Economic Third Way

This is the fourth in a series of articles about Distributionism. You can read the earlier pieces here, here and here.

I will attempt to draw the various ideas together to show not just how to encourage Distributionism, but what I think a Distributivist society would look like and some of the effects I think it would have on other societies. To make this as clear as possible I will attempt to do this in a single post, so I apologize in advance for its length.

In the views of Distributivist thinkers (and in my own opinion) Fascism, Communism, Socialism, and laissez-faire Capitalism all result from the same mistake. And that mistake is to misapprehend the goal of economic activity. For laissez-faire Capitalists, the error is thinking that the goal is to maximize profits with the goal of accumulating the greatest possible capital; for Communists the goal is transformation of Mankind into a new sort of person with a different nature; for Fascists the goal is social order and stability; for Socialists the goal is perfect equality of outcome (which they mistake for justice). Belloc and Chesterton point out where these errors can lead, and history has shown them to be pretty accurate. In every case the essential needs of Man are in at least some ways neglected, leading to unhappiness, abuse, and, eventually, tyranny.

The real answer is surprising in its simplicity; the goal of economic activity is the same as the goal of society. The goal is happiness. In ‘The Outline of Sanity ‘Chesterton wrote,
“There is no obligation on us to be richer, or busier, or more efficient, or more productive, or more progressive, or in any way worldlier or wealthier, if it does not make us happier”

We seek happiness in society through friendship, family, the development of character, and the improvement of our fellow man. We seek happiness through economics by acquiring the essentials of stability, the leisure of self-improvement and beauty, and the improvement of our fellow man. As the principle of solidarity points out, society and economics cannot be divorced from one another. This means that we must engage in economics with our neighbors and cannot forget that we are as dependent upon them as they are upon us. The principle of subsidiarity points out that, just as the most important element of society is the smallest and closest (the family), so our economics should look to smaller, closer ventures to maximize happiness.

There can be no true happiness in the absence of security. The first goal of society is security (from outside invaders, from crime, from abuses of rights) and the first goal of economics should be security (from hunger, homelessness, and exploitation). But just as a society that does not need to fear crime is not necessarily fair or open, a society where all are fed is not necessarily just or free. Security is the foundation, not the end, and this must always be kept in mind.

Many Distributionists argue that concentration of capital into the hands of too few people leads to a decline in liberty that can lead to a state resembling slavery for those who lack capital. The proposed solution is to strive to distribute capital as much as possible (hence Distributionism) so that most, if not all, families are capable of self-sufficiency. This leaves a wide range of possibilities; farmers that have enough land to provide for themselves both directly and through the sale of ‘excess’ produce; skilled tradesmen with their own tools and enough skill that they can be either self-employed or find employment both readily available and their jobs portable (such as a carpenter or computer programmer); factory workers who are part-owners of their factory with sufficient equity that they are involved in issues of capital expenditures and share the reqards and risks of production; retail employee/owners who make cooperative purchases of stock, participate in sales, and either lease or co-own their facility.

As you can see, the ideas of self-sufficiency, solidarity, subsidiarity, an aversion to wage slavery, and social justice tend to point along a particular path, one that rejects Communism, Socialism, and Fascism and is opposed to corporate consolidation and monopolies. The result, where as many people as possible are professionals that own all the tools required for their work and deal as directly as possible with each other, could be called a world of artisans.

A world of artisans would nullify the tendencies of industrial and post-industrial nations to slip into authoritarianism, regardless of their ‘flavor’. The economic displacement of both industrialization and the transformation to post-industrialism creates feelings of fear and insecurity amongst many people who are incapable of self-sufficiency do to a lack of personal capital; they need wages to live and are incapable of generating them without access to someone else’s capital. Changes in the structure are coming that means that they are unsure of continuing access to capital. A simple example is a worker at an auto-plant. He cannot make cars himself; he owns none of the tools, materials, or facilities to make cars himself; his skills are specialized to the point that no other employment but car-making affords him the potential of a living wage. As plants are closed or moved, he is (naturally) afraid of losing his home, even of losing his life to hunger.

Capitalist economies will always lead to some level of insecurity; it is their nature. The feelings of fear created by those lacking capital will be utilized by those who desire change. They may be Machiavellian, they may be benign, but someone will harness the insecurities to effect change. If the desire is to do away with the insecurities of Capitalism altogether, the goal of change will be Communism. If the goal is to use the power of the central government to take capital from one group and give it to another to ameliorate insecurity, the goal is Socialism. If the goal is to make Capitalism more efficient in the desire to accelerate economic growth and reduce insecurity through expansion, the goal is laissez-faire Capitalism in its ‘purest’ form. If the goal is to stabilize society while maintaining Capitalism (and the largest Capitalists), the goal is Fascism.

I am aware that some will argue with my definitions, above. These are my own very broadly-brushed opinions, nit an in-depth analysis of political methods other than Distributionism.
Distributionism argues that Communism and Socialism are wrong (and lead to oppression) because they make the mistake of blaming Capitalism. They further argue that Fascisms and ‘invisible handers’ are similarly wrong for blaming people. You cannot reject economics, nor reject people – you must integrate them. This is done by making as many people as possible independent economic actors – in other words, capitalists.

But how do we get there?

As I mentioned in Part II, the shift to Distributionism cannot be coerced or via ‘negative’ means. You cannot seize land from those that have ‘too much’ and give it to those who have ‘too little’; who would decide? Who would enforce such decisions? Both obviously require – a massive, powerful central government, the very antithesis of Distributivist thought. Likewise, imposing higher taxes on people earning ‘too much’ and giving this money to those earning ‘too little’ result in the same formula – injustice enacted by remote, faceless entities. In addition to leading to resentment (from all sides as to what is ‘just’), alienation (of different groups from one another), dependency (of those who gain with no effort), and lawlessness (by those wishing to either avoid being taxed or who wish to profit unjustly) the power of the central government will continue to expand at the expense of local leadership, the family, and the individual.

The path must be positive. Some steps are relatively obvious and even partially in place. Small businesses should be encouraged with tax breaks and loans. Similarly, cooperatives, credit unions, and similar solidarity groups should also receive tax breaks. Microloans to such organizations could be subsidized by government agencies for a strictly limited time to encourage transition. The removal of farm subsidies and their replacement with tax incentives would go a long way toward creating Distributionist farms. Local, regional, state, etc. funding for training, especially in trades and professions, would encourage the creation of more artisans. Laws that encourage guilds should also be created.

And here we come to another key element in early Distributionist thought; the guild. Similar to unions, similar to professional associations, and similar to consortiums, guilds are still unique. The European guilds of the medieval period are, as noted in the link, the source of most modern concepts of intellectual property, business ethics, trade, and social security. The were formed by members of the same or closely-related trades or professions, generally as independent, self-employed artisans and professionals working together for their own greater good. They set standards of education for their members (and prospective members), codes of conduct, quality standards for products, even rules for contents, size of products, etc. Virtually all of them also organized funds and systems to care for the widows and orphans of members, for members no longer able to work due to disability, and the retired/elderly members of the guild.

Historically a number of guilds negotiated exclusive contracts with cities, preventing non-guild members from practicing their professions there. This eventually led to their concentration in such cities and, ultimately, their downfall as they became isolated and hidebound fraternal institutions. Their counterparts outside the cities often refused to join organizations they saw as urban and both were more able to change quickly and, interestingly, were easier prey for large capital concerns who wished to consolidate. Distributionist thought is to learn from history and employ the best of guilds while rejecting their tendencies to become focused on defending exclusive territories and protecting trade secrets. Under this model Guilds are to have an almost dual nature; internal and external. Internally they act like fraternal societies and professional boards/consortiums. They ensure training and performance standards, enforce ethics, provide insurance services for members, manage pensions and trusts, engage in cooperative enterprises with other guilds, etc. Externally, they are almost like a brand. Consumers that deal with members of, for example, the baker’s guild know that they can trust the contents of the baker’s goods, his level of training, the standards of cleanliness of the bakery, his business ethics, etc.

Guilds differ from unions in a very important element – all levels of the profession or trade are in the same organization. While unions tend to pit employee against employer, guilds force them to work together. Since guild members have the skills, tools, and other capital needed to make them ‘portable’ (they can work for themselves or another master of their profession with ease) there is less insecurity on the part of wage earners. Employers within the guild ‘worked their way up’ through the guild and are very clearly aligned with their workers in the joint venture of success for all members of the guild. Since many guilds historically had rules on the election of guild members to local leadership councils and guild assemblies, the voice of the employed has as much weight as the voice of employers in large decisions, as well. The preferred management of Guilds is at the level of individual self-employed worker, then small shops, then a neighborhood, etc. The involvement of workers ensures such things as a living wage, decent social benefits, and a voice in larger decisions. The non-exclusive nature of a guild means that guilds that become corrupt, exclusive, coercive, etc. will simply have their members melt away/ It is almost like the Wobblies, but with the managers and owners involved, too!

More seriously, the Guild system is a microcosm of Distributionism; the line between employer and employee is virtually eliminated since the employee has the means to become self-employed or an employer himself; the organization is founded on the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, and justice. The goal of guilds is not to erase Capitalism (which was the goal of many early trade unionists), but to embrace it, to take the best of Capitalism and share it through the free actions of voluntary members. At the same time, guilds share the risks and dangers of Capitalism and ameliorate them through acting with and for each other. Their goal is to create a community where the members avoid the excesses of materialism through close association with their peers, a focus on the needs of their community, and a desire to contribute to the society that makes their success possible. These voluntary organizations succeeded not by rejecting Capitalism, but by sharing the Capitalism, the risks and insecurities as much as, or even more than, the rewards. This is an emulation of civilization itself; the protection of society by sharing risks and hardship is the cornerstone of the advance from barbarism. The voluntary sharing of the benefits of security is the cornerstone of a just civilization.

I can almost hear you now,
“Hold it!” you say, “Deep, you aren’t describing Distributionism as a ‘Third Way’, are you?”

No, I’m not. Mainly because I don’t think that it is a third way. Communism has always been a pipe-dream of people whose arguments begin and end with ‘once we change Man’s essential nature…”; Socialism is an argument that concludes “…and thus we will give Man more freedom by carefully controlling him.”; Fascism is an argument that “We know what is best for you!”; Laissez-faire Capitalism is an argument that “Selfish, unjust actions lead to altruistic, just results… eventually.” Distributionism rejects Communism, Socialism, and Fascism as unjust and immoral in their very conceptualization. It also rejects laissez-faire Capitalism as a wrong-headed attempt to separate ends from means. So, in the end, it is not a Third Way, it is simply the acknowledgement that Capitalism is the best known economic system, and that very minor, voluntary controls can prevent Capitalism from becoming a tool for injustice.

Since Distributivist writers and thinkers spend a lot of time explaining what is wrong with the world, and what Distributionism is against, it has been argued that Distributionism is no more than a reaction, a denial, a ‘no’. In short, it is impractical, even evil. The arguments against Distributionism range from ‘it prohibits international trade’ to ‘it cannot compete with huge multinationals’ to ‘it has no political platform for politicians to use in advocating it’. I find the concept that Distributivist are against international trade when virtually all of them point to the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation as an example not only of international trade, but successful competition with huge multinationals. Or that small firms cannot compete with large ones when small ‘mom and pop’ shops have successfully limited WalMart in China and carved out serious market share in America in recent years. I must also confess that I was surprised when Fr. Neuhaus, whom I normally find to have a very informed opinion, dismisses Distributionism as not having anything to which to attach policies or platforms in the political arena. America has; a Small Business Administration that promotes small business; farm co-ops, credit unions, consumer co-ops, and business co-ops like ACE hardware on almost every corner; a history where the Grange movement held strong, if brief, political influence over national politics; a growing concern over the impact of large enterprises like Wal-Mart and Microsoft of the well-being of the average person; and a rather large (and growing) government job training program. With all respect to Fr. Neuhaus, but I suspect his obliviousness to possible political planks supporting Distributionism may have more to do with his own ignorance of Distributionism, politics and American business than any weakness of Distributionist thought.

Indeed, it would be a rather simple matter to craft political positions that would have a broad appeal and promote Distributionism in a non-coercive manner. As I mentioned earlier, tax breaks for small businesses would be well-received by many. Pointing out that the vast majority of new jobs in America are generated by small businesses would go a long way to making it more popular. Tax incentives for co-ops would face similar approval across a broad segment of society, and it would be a simple matter to increase support for credit unions and similar activities. Reduction of levies and tariffs for small business and co-ops would also help. An increase in awareness of the value of trades would be of great benefit, too.

That seems pretty simple, really; the engine of job growth in America (and the world) is small business; tradesmen are critical for small business; co-ops of all sorts are efficient, competitive organizations that provide solid business benefits to their participants. I am not sure what Fr. Neuhaus and his fellow detractors are missing, but these seem easy sells as political positions. Conservatives can focus on tax relief for business owners and job creation, Liberals can focus on job creation and tax relief for students, blue collar workers, and mom & pop shops. Both can appeal to farmers and rural voters by supporting co-ops.

Seems like a win-win to me.

Next time: more on Distributionism, but on a more personal level.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


A recent blog update seems to have wiped out comments - I hope to have them restored in a few days.
A Primer on Distributionism II: More Details on What It Is

This is the third in a series of articles about Distributionism. You can read the earlier pieces here and here.

In the previous piece A Primer on Distributionism I listed a number of concepts that are either generally accepted by Distributist writers as essential to the concept or ideas that are in dispute that I support as part of Distributionism. I’d like to go into each of those points in greater detail.

1. All men have a right to private property, just compensation for their goods and labor, and to enter into business agreements of their own free will:

In Rerum Novarum Pope Leo XIII anticipated the idea of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ which is, simply – things owned by everyone (like communal farms, fisheries, etc.) are depleted because no one is responsible for them and, more critically, no one sees them as critical to their own future or the future of their family. Private property is, overall, better cared for and developed than communal property. It is also generally more productive, creating a larger surplus. These are the basic reasons to approve of and promote private property.
Another reason to promote private property is justice; a man is entitled to appropriate compensation for his work. Whether a laborer or a highly-specialized technician, wages should be appropriate and just. This means a living wage is to be paid except in unusual circumstances (a part-time job, for example, may be exempt from the requirement of a living wage). For the compensation to be just, the wage earner must be free to spend his wages as he wishes (within the bounds of moral law, of course) and if he is frugal, hard-working, etc. and accumulates capital, it is his to keep.
Similarly, a man who produces goods or commodities must be paid a just amount for those items. This actually may not generate a living wage, but as long as the payment is just, that is acceptable. The concern here is the use of price controls and tariffs to push the margins of producers so low they can no longer afford to produce and sell their goods.
One of the elements I find most important is the fact that business agreements, including employment, must be made of free will. While this is often pointed out as meaning that a starving man cannot be forced to sign a lousy deal, it has broader implications. A mandatory-union shop, for example, might be seen as an imposition of coercion. While Catholic social teaching is very clear that people have a right to join organizations such as trade unions, it also states that people must also be free to avoid them, as well.

2. Private ownership of property and work are good for the individual and society as a whole:

This is simply the argument that being productive is good for the person doing it. More critically, it points out that the goal of being productive is not just for one’s own benefit, but for the benefit of of the family, community and, thereby, society as a whole.

3. Responsibility and decision-making should be ‘pushed down’ as low as possible; private organizations are better at getting things done than governments; the more local, the better:

This is the most direct implication (and application!) of the concept of subsidiarity. While I have made arguments (see the early articles linked at the top) that this is a practical issue because of efficiency, it is more critically an issue of justice. People have a right to determine their own destinies and should be given every opportunity to do so as long as the ‘greater good’ is not at risk. This is an extension of the concept that people need to do things of their own free will – the more removed the decision making is from the person affected, the more of an imposition on there free will is involved. Same with private groups being preferable to governmental groups and local being preferable to distant – it grants greater autonomy to the individual as well as providing the best and most direct benefit to the individual’s immediate community.
This can be taken too far! There is a need for, as an example, a national military. And I don’t think too many people would disagree with me when I state a military force should be under the control of a legitimate government, not private owners. While people should look for local solutions, this does not mean that there is a prohibition on distant opportunities. If you are a businessman and the only source for widgets is on the other side of the world, go ahead and buy them. You might want to mention to local entrepreneurs, however, your need for widgets! The statement is that local and smaller are better, not that large and distant are evil.

4. All families should be as self-sufficient as possible:

There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, of course, is the fact that self-sufficient families do not go hungry. They may not have 3 cars and a boat, but they are also spared the fear of insecurity. It also means that the members of the family have fewer constraints on their free will; if they do not have to worry about the necessities of life they are less likely to be exploited by others. Self-sufficiency is likely to lead to more free time that can be spent on education, art, music, and the other things that make life richer. The idea that every family becoming self-sufficient would lead to a truly just, equal, and happy society with an absence of poverty, is the heart of early Distributivist thought and is still the cornerstone of Distributionism’s plans and goals. G. K. Chesterton summed it up in a single quote, “The problem with Capitalism is not too much Capitalism, but too few Capitalists
The preferred method of being self-sufficient is to own your own business. For early Distributivists this goal meant that they were agrarians and felt each family should have enough land to grown their own food and generate enough income to meet their other needs. Later Distributists argued that the head of each family should have the tools and training to be an independent tradesman (such as a carpenter), and current Distributists acknowledge that certain professions, such as computer programmer, have the potential to meet this goal through specialized skills and knowledge alone.

5. Coops and Guilds are preferred over corporations and unions. This also means credit unions are to be preferred over banks:

Just as with the preference for local over remote and private over governmental, Distributionism has a preference for coops and guilds to corporations and unions. Where corporations are legal individuals that have owners and employees, coops are employee-owned, meaning there is no differentiation between capitalist and laborer. Consumer coops allow many individuals to act as a community and gain all the advantages of scale by buying in bulk as a community. While unions are the sole domain of employees, pitting the employed against the employer, guilds are ‘vertical’ organizations that include managers, employers, and employees together, erasing the differences between the various people. While a bank is a private or corporate venture aimed at maximizing profits for owners, credit unions are, essentially, coops aimed at maximizing utility of the owner/users. In each case the goal is to provide maximum benefits overall to all participants (who are usually co-owners or have a vested interest in the venture), not maximize profits for a limited group of owners (who are often completely divorced from the actions of the venture other than the collection of profits).
Another point in favor of coops and credit unions is that the employee-owners/customer-owners are local, not remote, the vast majority of the time. Coops are employees working with and for each other; farm coops are local or regional farmers pooling resources and sharing production; consumer coops are local to regional people working together to get better prices, better quality, difficult to obtain goods, or some combination. In all cases people are drawn together, not separated, by work and commerce.

6. Deal as directly as possible with the producer/end user:

Closely related to all of the above, avoiding middlemen is a goal of Distributionism. In many cases middlemen add no value to goods or services, they simply add costs. There are even cases where middlemen use their access to resources to artificially control markets. In addition to these ‘negative’ reasons, there are good positive reasons; direct sales allows for the development of a personal relationship between buyer and seller/supplier and consumer/etc. Even if the widget factory is in Ghana and your sprocket shop is in Seattle, there is a chance that a direct sales relationship can build community through commerce.

7. Government welfare programs are to be eliminated or at least reduced with elimination the goal:

Government welfare is in some ways the antithesis of Distributionism. Welfare programs are funded by taxes [which take away from the just earnings of workers and add to the costs of all communities], are administered by bureaucrats [remote, unconnected government agencies with no real interest in either those taxed or those receiving benefits], have no real hope of meeting the actual needs of recipients [those same distant bureaucrats must come up with a generic, one size fits all plan, attempt to implement it on a grand scale, and are further constrained at all times by political issues], and actively degrade communities [non-recipients assume recipients are OK; the recipients are alienated from others by being marked as ‘different’ with no human compassion associated, etc].
Distributionism would repeal all such programs as could be repealed without harm immediately and push the rest as far down the ladder (state, county, local government, etc.) as possible and begin phasing the remainder out. Charity should be a matter for communities, not bureaucracies.

9. Usury is to be avoided:

Usury” means “interest on loaned money, or excessive interest”. Traditionally, charging interest on money loaned to another was seen as taking advantage of another person, if not downright theft. It was almost universally condemned in the West until the Reformation and still has detractors. St. Thomas Aquinas argues that charging interest for a loan is the same as charging a person for a thing (after all, you must pay back the principle) and charging for the use of a thing, too; like selling a man a cake and then charging him additionally for each bite he takes.
The Catholic position on usury is, bluntly, very complex. A number of theologians have approached the idea of interest on loans from a variety of viewpoints for, essentially, 2,000 years. Although there is disagreement on particulars (how much interest is ‘excessive’?) the basic ideas of just lending are fairly well defined. I will start with what is allowed.
A lender may charge reasonable fees for a loan or for exchanging money. A lender may charge a reasonable penalty for a late payment. Interest that is profit-based (i.e., the ‘loan’ is to purchase a share in a venture) is acceptable, especially if there is an ‘upper cap’ to the earned interest. Investment into public funds (like savings bonds, or t-bills) is acceptable. Loans where the lender shares in risk allow the lender to charge reasonable interest.
What is not allowed is to charge unreasonable interest in any form of loan. You may not charge interest on fee amounts or penalties. The more secure the loan, the less you may charge. If there is collateral held ‘in pledge’ you may not charge interest. You may not charge interest if the borrower is driven to a lender by necessity.
The preferred manner of lending money that earns interest has always been for a productive venture where the lender shares the risk, such as buying a share in a new business. In this model interest is a share of profits, not a fee for the use of money. The modern stock market is seen by some as a violation of this, however, because investors often buy and sell stocks so rapidly that there is, effectively, very little shared risk. Under the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, the ‘best’ loan for interest would be a joint venture of local or regional investors (or global investors with shared values and a personal relationship) for a productive venture (a farm or factory, real estate development, mine, etc.) where the investors receive a fixed portion of net profits as interest and all share in the risk so that if the venture struggles they earn no interest and if it fails they do not regain their capital. Also, if there is a primary investor/owner, he should have the option of ‘buying out’ shareholders by repaying them their full initial investment.. Similarly, interest-earning investments into public bonds, t-bills, and similar instruments is generally acceptable under the concept that the investment is funding the community as a whole. Certain cases (such as a municipal bond to fund the construction of a casino, or for a privately owned ballpark) are more problematic and require individual scrutiny.
The strongest debate on interest/usury is on loans for consumption. The primary examples of these sorts of loans are form family homes and cars. While homes increase in value, a person’s home does so so slowly (in general) and the need for a home is so great that the increase in value is certainly not the primary reason for investing – that reason is to live there. A car decreases in value over time and is certainly not a productive purchase on its own (with a few exceptions). In almost all cases the lender has provisions to seize the home or car if payments are not made, making their risk very low; in the case of home loans, their risk can often be zero. Many theologians and ethicists that examine such loans argue that interest rates should be extremely low (on the order of 1-2% at most) and, especially for home loans, others argue that no interest is acceptable at all, only fees.
The most despised form of loan with interest is for necessities or passions. These are the use of credit cards to buy groceries, or a loan to a gambler. Their impaired will often leads such borrowers to ‘ruinous circumstances’, situations that usurious loans only make worse.

10. The key to developing Distributionism is positive reinforcement:

Based as it is upon justice and the exercise of free will, Distributionism cannot be imposed. Some advocates of Distributionism argue that land should be seized and reapportioned equally; others want strong taxes on corporations and the wealthy with the tac receipts given to the poor. Both are against the core concepts of private property and free exercise of the will, respectively. Further, such actions would only break down or remove any feelings of solidarity between those who have their property and wages taken from them and those that receive them from no inherent virtue. Lastly, such actions would, by necessity, have to be performed by a national government, violating the spirit of subsidiarity. No, if you believe, as I do, that Distributionism is a more-just system, it must be encouraged by just means. My next piece will discuss my ideas on how to do this in greater detail.

And what may be the most important point of this primer-

There is no utopia:

No earthly system is perfect, nor will there ever be one. Distributionism is not a ‘magic bullet’ that will cause the world to spontaneously break into universal peace, the immediate cessation of crime, or the permanent elimination of want and fear. It is an attempt to dampen the harmful excesses of laissez-faire Capitalism without resorting to plans that require the violation of human rights (Socialism) or the conjectured alteration of basic human nature (Communism), all while avoiding the tendency powerful central governments have of deciding that they know what is best for their citizens (Fascism).
The tendencies of societies to shift to predatory Capitalism, confiscatory Socialism, authoritarian Fascism, or dictatorial Communism should be obvious. Forging a Distributionist society will take time, effort, and some pain. Mistakes will be made, adjustments will be needed, and results will vary.
The thing to remember is that the core ideas of Distributionism are the ones that matter; justice, solidarity, subsidiarity, and personal responsibility are the key elements. The details of how to reach a society that embodies those principles will certainly change over time.

Next time I will discuss my ideas on how to build a Distributionist society and what it would look like.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Indeed, I do support His Holiness. The fact that the media are repeating his quote of an ancient source as if he said it, and that this is an excuse for Muslims to threaten assassination, burn churches, and murder innocent people tells me that Pope Benedict's topic, Faith and Reason are united, and both reject "holy war", struck a nerve.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Primer on Distributionism: The Origin, Influence, and Basic Ideas of Distributionism

As I mentioned in We’re all in this Together, Catholic social teaching rejects Communism as denying individual rights (or even individuality). This teaching also rejects Socialism for treating people as merely means to the end of production while also restricting their autonomy. And it further rejects laissez-faire capitalism as treating people as means to the end of profit and removing moral decisions from the economic sphere. This rejection of the Left’s Communism/Socialism and the Right’s unfettered Capitalism is why a number of economists and Catholic thinkers from the 1880 to today have used Catholic teachings in an attempt to build a Third Way.

Modern Catholic social teaching really began with the encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. A response (as all good theology is a response to questions or problems) to the failures of Capitalism and spreading revolutions of anarchy, Communism and Socialism, Rerum Novarum was immediately seen as a new way of looking at the world of work and money. It was hugely influential within the Church and beyond. In 1931 Pope Pius XI released Quadragesimo Anno (Forty Years After) a more detailed discussion of the idea of subsidiarity that was first expressed forty years previously in Rerum Novarum. Pope Pius XI gave a more detailed ‘map’ of how subsidiarity could be used to create labor structures akin to guilds, expressed a deeper definition of subsidiarity in government and organizations, and reiterated that the chief duty of both is to protect the sick and the poor. In 1961 Pope John XXIII released the encyclical Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher). Mater et Magistra continued to stress the dignity of the person, the need for justice in all human interactions, the inability of material goods to provide people with fulfillment, and repeated the emphasis on subsidiarity and solidarity. Most recently Pope John Paul II released Centesimus Annus (Hundredth Year) which pointed to the fall of the Soviet Union and how Rerum Novarum had predicted the results of the implementation of Socialism more than 20 years before the Societ Union was founded. It goes on to point to the continued failings of unfettered Capitalism and the need to always remember the inherent worth of the individual and the need for solidarity. Centesimus Annus also points out that skills and ability have taken an even greater prominence than they had in the late 1800’s (when Rerum Novarum was issued) or the mid-1900’s (when Mater et Magistra was issued). This completes the transisiton from Rerum Novarum, which mentions all three but focused on land as the center of economic life through Mater et Magistra that acknowledged the then-central role of monetary capital, to the current day when knowledge had taken the center place. This not only reflects the changes in society and economics from the various times, but also the flexibility and applicability of the core tenets of Catholic social teachings – they are, literally, timeless.

This emphasis on the Papal source of the Third Way may seem a little, well, inward-looking. Most modern people think of papal encyclicals (if they are aware of them at all) as theologians talking to each other, or the Pope giving orders to the bishops. The impact of these works, however, was and is profound. Rerum Novarum in particular has had a tremendous impact on economic and political thought for 115 years. As David Boyle very succinctly points out, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical was the font for the revival of the British Liberal party and movement, became an influential economic force and, very recently, His Holiiness' concept of subsidiarity is now a critical element of the European Union’s constitution. The various political parties in Europe and South America that call themselves Christian Democrats or Christian Social Unionists acknowledge Rerum Novarum as their ‘founding document’ and use Catholic social teachings as one of the bases for their political platforms; the current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, is a Christian Democrat. Obviously, Catholic social thought is very influential right now.

The transition from Catholic theory to political party had a few intermediary steps, of course. Since we live in an imperfect world there were some missteps on the way, too. The primary initial theorists of what became Distributism (also called Distributivism and, my favorite, Distributionism) were Hillaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. These two men, both prolific writers and keen thinkers, were wrestling with the problems of their age (and ours); the necessity of people to live with dignity in a world gripped by violent struggles between ideologies. The effects of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of Socialism were the key stressors of their day, so they turned their faculties toward solving the problems of Socialism and Capitalism.

Although largely forgotten today (I suspect because they were neither to the Right or the Left) both men had huge influence in their time. Belloc was nicknamed “Old Thunder” and was considered a formidable opponent in an argument by such men as George Bernard Shaw. In his first year at Oxford he was so appalled at the poor showing of one half of a debate that he spontaneously rose from the audience, launched into an impromptu attack, and won the debate. After Oxford he became a writer and a Minister of Parliament. Later in life he was the editor of the Eye Witness which he took to a weekly readership of 100,000 by attracting writers such as Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. He was one of the earliest voices to warn of Hitler and Fascism.

G. K. Chesterton was the equal to Belloc intellectually and a better writer in many ways. The influence of his writings are, to me at least, shocking for a man virtually ignored today; Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man was a key element in C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity; his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill inspired Michael Collins into striving for Irish freedom and thus contributed to Irish independence; a newspaper essay Chesterton wrote had an energizing effect on an British citizen of Indian birth that helped galvanize this man who was grappling with racism in South Africa as he transformed from an apolitical professional into a professional politician – a man named Gandhi. During his life Chesterton was famous for his debates with other thinkers, writers, and speakers of his day. Like Belloc, he was so skillful at debate, so prepared with facts, and so organized in his approach that he rarely lost. Unlike Belloc, Chesterton was so jovial and good natured in debate that he was warmly regarded by virtually everyone, even those he trounced in a public forum. With all of this, it is hard to believe that today, not 80 years from his death, Chesterton is an enigma while men that he soundly defeated at debate, such as Clarence Darrow, are still household names.

Belloc and Chesterton entered into a very fruitful collaboration, jokingly called chesterbelloc, concerning their outlooks and suggested solutions for what they felt was wrong with the world. Belloc’s works Essay on the Restoration of Property, The Crisis of Civilization and The Servile State and Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World, Utopia of Usurers, and The Outline of Sanity, all combined with their numerous essays evolved into the basics of Distributionism. Additional input by many others, including the former guild socialist Arthur Penty and Catholic priest Vincent McNabb broadened the scope and reach of Distributionist thought. The impact of Distributist thought never really ended, even after the death of its founders. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement embraced Distributionism, especially as a means of self-sufficiency. E. F. Schumacher, creator of such ideas as appropriate technology and author of the hugely influential Small is Beautiful, claimed he owed a huge debt to early Distributists and was so compelled by Catholic social teachings and Distributionism that he converted to Catholicism. The impact of Small is Beautiful on the early ecology and environmentalism movement shows a lineage from Chesterton to the modern Simple Living and Sustainable Development movements. Indeed, the current “Crunchy Con” idea is really just a form of Distributionism with a shorter bibliography and more faith in laissez-faire.

Now that I have spent so much time talking about where Distributionism comes from, the impact it has had, and the people involved in it we move one to…

…what in the heck is it, really?

The discussion about what Distributionism is and isn’t, as well as how to accomplish it (and how not too) is still going on. Just like any other politico-economic idea, growth over time is probably a sign of vigor. But there are certain ideas that are core to the idea of Distributionism:

1. All men have a right to private property, to just compensation for their goods and labor, and to enter into business agreements – including employment – of their own free will.

2. aPrivate ownership of property and work (whether physical, artistic, or intellectual) are good both for the individual and society as a whole.

3. That responsibility and decision-making should be ‘pushed down’ as low as possible; the federal government is less efficient at and less capable of making good decisions than the state government, the state less so than the county, etc. down to the family itself.

4. Closely related to #3; private organizations are better at getting things done than governments; smaller groups are generally better than larger; individuals and families over all are the best.

5. The more local, the better.

6. All families should be as self-sufficient as possible.

7. Coops and Guilds are preferred over corporations and unions. This also means credit unions are to be preferred over banks.

8. When engaged in business-to-business ventures, avoid middle-men and deal as directly as possible with the end client/end user.

9. Government welfare programs are to be eliminated whenever possible, reduced or avoided otherwise.

10. There is no utopia, and there never will be.

Some points that I believe are Distributist, but some others do not:

A. Usury is to be avoided.

B. The key to developing Distributionism is positive reinforcement.

In the next article, I will go over each of these points in greater detail and try to draw the various strands together into a larger whole.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

2,996: Janice Ashley

2,996 is an attempt to have bloggers place a separate tribute for each of the people who were killed on September 11th, 2001 on the internet. When I heard of the project, I signed up immediately. Not because knew anyone personally, nor because I thought it would make me a hero, but for more complicated reasons.

As a veteran I had hoped that the random assignment of victim to blogger might allow me to write about a soldier in the pentagon, letting me use a quasi-personal connection to add depth. I was not assigned a soldier; I was assigned a young woman. A young woman with a connection a bit closer than any soldier I never met. A young woman that made me struggle with this tribute for weeks.

My struggle was about the focus of this tribute. At first, I wanted to avoid any mention of me, or my vague connection to some of the victims. I thought that this would make it more centered on the tragedy. No matter how I tried, though, it just sounded flat and dull. I realized that, for me at least, this tribute is about not “just” one of the 2,996 that died, but how we were all and affected. How each of these deaths touched each of us who lived. How the murder of these innocent people was an attack on each and every one of us, an attack that did harm by removing so many good people from our midst.

My job at the time of 9/11 meant that I had business to business dealings with literally thousands of firms all over the world. While most of these clients were rather distant and impersonal, some of these connections led to friendships that last to this day. One of the firms I dealt with, if rarely, was Fred Alger Management in Tower One of the World Trade Center complex. On the 93rd floor, Fred Alger Management was in the area of the impact, blast, and initial fire of the first plane impact.

Of the 36 employees at Fred Alger Management at that time, none survived.

For the next few weeks a great deal of my life was helping firms in the WTC complex rebuild. One of those firms was Fred Alger Management. We did everything we could, as did thousands (if not millions) of other people at hundreds of other firms.

After it was all over, I moved on to another job at another firm. In 2004 and 2005 I traveled to New York and visited Ground Zero. On a small handful of occasions I spoke of the work I did, and about the firms I worked with where everyone there that day died in the attacks. I realized last Summer that the attacks sometimes seemed more immediate to me than my own, personal, brush with death in April 2001, just a few months before.

So, back to the beginning, when I heard of 2,996 I signed up right away. I did it because I know that there are many others who feel 9/11 and its impact every day. I need to talk about it, and you probably need to listen.

The person randomly assigned to me that day was Janice Ashley, a research assistant with Fred Alger Management.

As I began my research I immediately hoped to speak to her parents. I was able to identify her mother and, with a long chain of friends-of-friends, I was given her mother’s home number. I called it, spoke to a person who identified herself as having the same name as Janice Ashley’s mother and had the same address – and insisted she was no relation.

I spent two days thinking about this as I left messages with groups Janice’s mother is or was involved in, asking for contact. I left similar messages for friends and other relatives, all asking for some personal insight into Janice and her life. I was never called. As a result, I will respect the apparent desire for her family and friends for privacy [and I hope you will, too]. As the entire world fills itself with reminders 9/11 I am sure that the Ashley family is not alone in wishing to be left in peace while they mourn their loved ones.

As a result, I know the following about Janice Ashley. She was 25 years old. She graduated from Oceanside High School in 1994. She graduated from Cornell with a degree in English. She was an artist. She had many friends. She hoped to, some day, open a florist gift shop. She had a nice smile and was pretty in a wholesome, girl-next-door way.

These little details are just that – the little, important details, the stuff you would put in a bio about a promotion to vice-president, or a quick ‘please introduce yourself” speech at a three-day seminar. Where we were, where we are, where we want to go will always be the important details. But it still somehow misses so much. It doesn’t tell us if she liked dangly earrings, or if she hated lipstick. I don’t know if she liked caramel more than fudge, or butterscotch best of all. Did she have running gags with her friends, the sort of familiar, well-worn joke that could elicit a smile with just a word and a cocked eyebrow? I don’t know. And I never will.

Janice Ashley would be 30 years old right now, if she had not been murdered. In the five years that have elapsed since 9/11 she would have certainly met new people, made new friends, tried new things, and forgotten her keys once or twice. She didn’t get to do those things. All of the people she would have touched were prevented from doing so. All of the people she would have become close to have been robbed of a friend. Janice Ashley will never marry, she will never give her parents grandchildren, and she will never look forward to grandchildren of her own. She was denied the chance to have these things.

To the best of my knowledge, I never spoke with Janice when I called (or was called by) Fred Alger Management. Based upon what her family and friends say in other tributes and interviews, I think I would remember if I had. Much of the sorrow I feel about the death of Janice is for her family and friends, people who knew her and cared for her. But some of the sorrow I feel when I think of Janice, or of any of those killed that day, are for me and the rest of us who are still here. The attackers have denied us the chance to meet them, to learn from them, to love them. All of those people, 2,996 of them, were taken from us and we are poorer for it. I will never meet Janice when I am in New York talking to financial companies. I have no chance to see her on the street, or read about her promotion. I will never buy flowers for my wife in her store.

All of these rich, wonderful, frustrating, sometimes-boring, sometimes-sublime people have been taken from us. And we cannot get them back. The tragedy was a human one. The tragedy and the loss are ours and we are still learning just how big the loss was.

Good-bye, Janice. We all miss you.

The Wall of Americans tribute to Janice Ashley is here.

Chez Diva’s tribute is here.

The tribute is here.

The legacy is here.

The tribute is here.

A picture of the United in Memory quilt section for Janice can be seen here.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A Quick Interlude

I am going to briefly interrupt the most recent series on Social Justice to, well, point and laugh. I have been known to pickup the local "Indy Media" rag from time to time, in whatever city I happen to be in, to look for good food (why are there so many food reviews in those things?!). I tend to ignore the political article which all seem to be very urgent! About a problem! A big problem!! With the local zoning board! That thinks our local performance art theater may be unsafe! And they want us to spend money on a fire system! And the poor kids don't have to pay admission, so we don’t have the money!! These articles tend to boil down to "The Man is keeping us down, man", which is cool, if a bit too ZNet for me.

Today, though, someone placed one such piece on their blog’s ‘obligatory reading’ post and I dropped by. I found this. It is the typical “White male conservatives sure are evil, aren’t they?” rant, complete with jabs at the ‘male hegemony’ and ‘Jim Crow laws’ pandering to the guilt-ridden middle-class urban White crowd that tends to read these things. But I only got to that stuff after I stopped laughing at the huge errors in the first four paragraphs or so. If you need a laugh or (heaven forbid!) believe the stuff he wrote, let me give you some details.

The author, a Bob Geary, starts with this paragraph:

“Is there an example in American history of the police reacting to a radical threat and not making things worse? From the abolitionists to the anarchists to the communists, and in more recent memory from the Black Liberation Army to the Symbionese Liberation Army to the Weather Underground, we've never lacked for a few revolutionaries willing to kill people and blow up buildings to make their point about how corrupt the country was. After which, the inevitable government crackdown--carried out to the applause of a grateful, fearful nation--did far more damage than the revolutionaries ever could've, making their point about corruption for them.”

Bob seems to think that the Weather Underground (most of whom blew themselves to kingdom come by accident while the majority of the survivors suffer mightily as – tenured professors at prestigious universities) and the SLA (whose revolutionary activities were comprised mainly of robbing banks, taking drugs, and kidnapping people – but they were wearing berets!) are great examples of how the police over-reacted with, I guess, investigations into other groups that used the same language and were comprised of the same sorts as the Weathermen and SLA members. Oooh! Chilling!

More importantly, he seems to have completely forgotten something. White Supremacists and the various Militia groups. Once a source of great apprehension (especially for the Left, who seemed really worried about *Right-wing* militants compared to the Left-wing militants they support, like Che). These groups were quietly investigated, evidence was compiled, and the ones that were engaged in or planning illegal or violent activities were steadily arrested and shipped off to the hoosegaw. No over-reaction, no massive shootouts. Oh, sure, a stand-off or two (like the Montana Feemen), but nothing too serious. Today, the militias are jokes and groups like White Aryan Resistance are more interested in selling music than with the violent overthrow of the ZOG.

Bob doesn’t seem to realize this. Maybe he’s too young to remember all of those news reports on the Militias in the ‘90’s.

But wait! After this we get to the real howler:

“The worst radical threat in U.S. history, though, is the one the government did almost nothing about. The KKK lynched people by the hundreds, burned buildings and churches, and generally terrorized America for decades in the 19th and 20th centuries. At its peak in 1925, it claimed 4 million members, and 30,000 marched proudly in Washington, in a show of how clueless your government can be about who's dangerous and who isn't.
The KKK wasn't stopped by the police or prosecutors, as an important new exhibit in Raleigh makes clear. Civil rights leaders and ordinary people are what brought it to its knees.”

Really, Bob? So the destruction of the first Klan in the 1860’s-1870’s had nothing to do with the so-called “Ku Klux Klan Act” law and President Grant’s use of federal troops? Not to mention the various Southern leaders and politicians who denounced it a scant 2 years after its founding and persecuted its members after they turned to violence? Aren’t you aware, Bob, that the police and politicians of Alabama were so successful at stamping out the second Klan that by 1930, barely 15 years after the founding of the second Klan, it was virtually non-existent in that state? Are you also aware of the major success of police and politicians throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s that reduced the Klan to such lows that they were barely able to claim 5,000 members in 1960? And that governmental program you mention, COINTELPRO – didn’t you know that it was hugely successful in infiltrating and destroying the KKK in the 1970’s?

I guess Bob is totally ignorant of the great success the federal government has had in stopping terrorism in the US, including the very violent Aryan Nations, SLA, KKK, and Weathermen – even though he mentions them specifically.

Its errors like these that keep me from reading the political opinions in the Indy Media.

h/t to Coturnix

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

We're All in this Together: Basic Concepts of Catholic Social Justice

This is a continuation of the series that began with The Efficiencies of Charity

We are going to change tacks just a bit after the last post on the efficiencies of the local over the national and talk about Solidarity as a core concept of social justice. A Catholic concept for many years, Socialist tried to co-opt the meaning of solidarity to mean ‘the working classes banded together against the rich’. In reality, solidarity means “the distribution of goods and remuneration for work”, or (more directly) ‘earning a wage and being able to buy things’. It also ‘presupposes the effort for a more just social order’, or ‘the wages should be just and the prices of goods should be just’. Much more importantly than material goods, however, solidarity means friendship and social charity – caring for your fellow men as individuals and working together as a family at the same time. It means not just the poor cooperating with the poor, but with the rich as well – employees and employers banding together to make the workplace a better place. Indeed, at its heart, the concept of solidarity is a rejection of class – there are no rich, no poor, no employer or employee as classes; just people who happen to do different things, but who share the same needs.

Solidarity is the realization that no one in any society is alone. The factory owner depends upon the metal worker who makes the forms for the product being made; the metal worker depends upon the toolmaker, who depends upon the smelter, to the miner, who uses the machines made in the owner’s factory. Just like a family, society is a web of interdependencies. When this is forgotten, the result is tension, strife, and misunderstanding. This aspect of Catholic solidarity was explicitly referenced in Poland (a very Catholic nation) when the movement for justice that arose among the working men of the factories named itself ‘Solidarity’. It is also important to note that solidarity is more about the spiritual and emotional than it is about the material. The goal is justice, not wealth (although greater wealth is often a side effect).

This is a direct contradiction of many ideologies that are seen as ‘Right Wing’; Libertarians and Objectivists, in particular, reject this notion. This admission of the fact of inter-connectedness directly opposes their beliefs (‘there is no society, just individuals’ for Libertarians and ‘there are a few demi-gods that everyone else mooches from’ for Objectivists) that they must either reject it or reject their own beliefs. Yet it is not Leftist, either. There is no compulsion in solidarity and, more critically, no collectivization. Ideas such as compulsory union membership or the seizure of land to make collective farms are alien to this vision of solidarity. It is a voluntary union, a decision made by choice, that forges the friendship that is the core of solidarity.

Another key concept in Catholic social justice is Subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is defined as the principle that "a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1883). The OED defines it to mean “the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks that cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate, local level”. In other words – the smaller and more local, the better. This is a moral choice for two reasons. The first reason, as we saw in the Efficiencies of Charity, is that local efforts are both more likely to be appropriate (charity reaches those in need, business plans match the local economy, etc.) and more efficient (less is wasted on administration, distribution, etc.). This is a moral impetus to local control because it means that there is less waste and wasted effort. The second, more important, moral reason is that the loss of personal autonomy can be dehumanizing. When people have less control of their own lives theologians call this an ‘impairment of the will’. Our sense of worth (when we are mentally and spiritually healthy) comes not from material things, but from the choices we make. The exercise of free will is the motor for our choice. When our choices are constrained, we lose some free will. Although there will always be constraints on will and action, those imposed by others for reasons other than moral ones are the most deleterious to the will. This means that impairment of the will can lead to feelings of disconnection from others, depression, and despair. While efficiency alone is a compelling argument for subsidiarity, the addition of the moral pressure to avoid impairment of the will makes it the standard of the Catholic Church.

Catholic social teaching also emphasizes that people have a right to private property (Catechism, para. 2402), but cautions that this comes with responsibilities. As stewards of the earth, owners of property have a responsibility to properly manage their property so that it not only secures them and their families from poverty and violence, but also so that the rights and well being of others are not harmed. Indeed, the Church teaches that property is ‘to be made fruitful’ so that after the owner’s first duty (to his own family) is met, the products of property can be freely shared with others, especially the sick and the poor. Indeed, the catechism states that waste and excessive expense are immoral and that willfully damaging one’s own property in a way that makes it less fruitful is ‘contrary to moral law’ and requires that reparation be made to the community (Catechism, para. 2409).

The inevitable conclusion of the ideas of solidarity, subsidiarity, and the right to private property while recognizing the social responsibilities of ownership is the rejection of Communism and Socialism. Communism denies the existence of private property, making people dependent upon others for their livelihood, denying them the security of property, and reducing them to means of the end of production. Socialism uses central planning and ‘the state’ to make economic decisions for all, removing their free will and denying them security and property.

However, another inevitable conclusion is the rejection of laissez-faire capitalism or ‘pure market’ economics. The strict individualism of laissez-faire capitalism rejects the idea of solidarity and the primacy of ‘the market’ reduces humans to means of the end of profit. In both cases things (either goods or profits) are placed in a position of greater importance than people, a clearly immoral position.

Clearly, Catholic Social Justice rejects Communism/Socialism and free-market Capitalism. As a result of this, the Catholic Church’s teachings on moral economic activity is sometimes called a “Third Way”, or an alternative to the two competing paradigms of political economics of the last 150+ years.

In the next article I will discuss this ‘Third Way’, what it would look like, and where its being used today.