With anxiety about the U.S. economy still running high, the paramount issue in the current race for president is boosting growth and putting Americans back to work. As it usually is, the choice between competing political visions, and thus the economic future, is being cast in the worn and tired ideas of capitalism and socialism. The public is showing signs it’s fed up with this recycled dichotomy and its hollow solutions that are neither delivering economic results nor moving the country toward a more just and fulfilling society. Perhaps there is another way that has been overlooked.
At last, a small but exciting volume of recently published essays, “The Hound of Distributism,” offers a fresh and accessible alternative in a broad survey of Distributist thought spanning more than 100 years.
While the term is inclusive of a whole way of thinking about many facets of life, modern Distributism is primarily an economic philosophy that emphasizes widespread private property ownership and policies that encourage small business and the development of sustainable local economies. It also includes a philosophy of community that protects and promotes family, mutual responsibility and cooperation, peaceful coexistence and justice.
In the book, 18 leading Distributist thinkers, from Joseph Pearce and G.K. Chesterton to Catholic Workers Mark and Louise Zwick, sketch in short, digestible essays how Distributist principles apply to political and community life, banking, education, agriculture, and, of course, economics. The result is a vibrant, multidimensional introduction to the Distributist program that offers a startling contrast with our current system which exalts a distorted individualism combined with a naive confidence in the abilities of the state.
To the unfamiliar reader, the Distributist philosophy may at first appear problematic. Not a few people raise a skeptical eyebrow at the word “distributism” itself. Even Chesterton pointed out that “half our time is taken up with explaining to the Communist that we are not defending Capitalism; and explaining to the Capitalist that we are not defending Communism.”
It’s easy to see why. The Distributist argues for widespread private property ownership or partial owner-ship of some enterprise, while also insisting that responsibility for the common good is integral to that ownership. The Distributist would also argue the state has a role in creating the conditions that help bring about near universal private ownership.
But unlike the capitalist, the Distributist rejects uncontrolled economic competition, a form of social Darwinism that put profits over people. And unlike the socialist, the Distributist would never sacrifice the dignity of the individual to an impersonal and incapacitating bureaucracy so recognizable in socialist systems. Distributism, as demonstrated in the essays, strikes a balance between the two in a view of community based on love and mutual responsibility, which in its basic form is the family.
The authors explore Distributism from their unique areas of expertise and show how Distributist principles have been widely practiced historically – a brief article by Chesterton examines the merits of the Medieval guild system, for instance — while offering contemporary examples as well.
Dr. Race Mathews in “Distributism & Mutualism” shows how Distributism is widely practiced around the world, though under different names. Mutualism, a way of organizing labor and industry in use in much of northern Italy and the Basque region of Spain, is closely related to Distributism in its understanding that we act “in concert with one another to achieve objectives that are unachievable for us in isolation from one another.” Mathews also cites the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), with more than 650 million cooperative members from an array of industries, as another instance of the implementation of alternative forms of eco-nomic and social interaction that have Distributist underpinnings.
Though many of the essays in “The Hound of Distributism” take an academic view of the subject, Bill Powell’s essay “Make Your Backyard A Forest Garden” offers a lighthearted and practical guide for experimenting with Dis-tributism on your own via “permaculture,” or small scale, self-sustaining agriculture. Powell explains how permaculture reflects our natural human desire to create, to shape our environment and enjoy the fruits of our labor, themes also developed by other authors in the book. If “three acres and a cow” are unavailable to you for food self-sufficiency, as the old Distributist mantra goes, then simply “getting back to your own backyard” by planting a vegetable garden is the next best thing.
Permaculture and farming are also pillars of the Catholic Worker Movement, in which Distributist ideas played a formative role, as explained in a piece by Mark and Louise Zwick. “We need to study as far as we are able, the entire Distributist program,” Day once said. Catholic Worker farms and Houses of Hospitality, like Casa Juan Diego in Houston, are arguably among the most visible examples of Distributist living in the U.S. today; showing a way forward, much like the early Benedictine monasteries did during times of similar economic and social upheaval.
While the book provides an excellent sampling of Distributist thought, what becomes clear is that the philosophy may be in need of an update. A second edition of Distributist essays might include more contemporary, real-world projects or movements that exemplify Distributist ideals. Of those there is no shortage, including the growing popularity of locally grown, organic foods, traditional neighborhood developments, the push for more mass transit and home schooling cooperatives, among others.
A second volume might also show how Distributist ideas offer an answer to the current waves of protest against growing income inequality, apparent collusion between big business and big government, bank bailouts, and unnatural industrial farming practices.
There is a hunger for the kinds of solutions Dis-tributism might supply, and more books like “The Hound of Distributism” could help bring these ideas to a wider reading public to advance meaningful social and economic reform in our country.
Francis Dezelski is a petroleum engineer working in Houston; Monica Hatcher works in the communications field in Houston.
Houston Catholic Worker, March-April 2012