What is the economy for? On the surface, the answer is easy. The economy is the production and distribution of the goods and services that people want or need to live. The term may be politically loaded nowadays, but the concept is basic. Even hunter/gatherers have an economy, though it might be very different from the economy of a modern industrialized country. The economic systems with which most readers are probably familiar are Capitalism and Socialism, but just like a two major party political system that also sports small, third-party choices, there are other economic systems out there that may serve our needs better. Distributism is one of these relatively unknown options, but borrowing some ideas from this overlooked source may make our economy work better for the many instead of the few.
Ask most Americans which economic system is “best” and I have no doubt that the majority of them would say Capitalism. To which I ask, “best for what purpose?” The rote answer is that Capitalism allows for the profit incentive, which harnesses greed as a way to reward entrepreneurial, bootstrapping individuals for producing useful products or clever innovations that improve the quality of life for all. Capitalism does do that, to a degree. But any economic system, especially one that is practiced in its purest form, will eventually go past solving the problems it was set in place to solve, and move into unbalanced territory. One of the worst excesses of Capitalism is that it’s a pretty efficient way of siphoning wealth upwards as people who possess wealth (capital) use it to obtain even more wealth. Since money and power can be thought of as the particle and wave forms of each other, an increasing amount of wealth in ever fewer hands seems to inevitably result in a similar consolidation of power, and this force is deadly to a democracy. The endgame of Capitalism practically demands a jubilee of redistribution (or its more desperate cousin, bankruptcy) at some point to get the system moving again.
Wealth Inequality in America, courtesy of politizane
Because humans in western culture are used to thinking in dualities such as light/dark or good/evil, it comes as no surprise that to many, the flip side of Capitalism is Socialism. It is often confused with communism in a slippery slope that passes straight through the European-style social democracy and lands straight in the lap of Stalin, and if you have ever questioned Capitalism’s legitimacy in a public forum, you’ve probably attracted a bunch of naysayers who accused you of wanting to destroy freedom, cause famines, and probably kick a puppy or two for good measure. Leaving aside the way people confuse economic and political systems all willy-nilly like that, a little reflection shows that the social welfare states of Europe had to become better, stronger Capitalists in some ways to be able to afford the social safety nets they employ to offset the worst effects of the very Capitalism that drives the economic engine of Socialism… you get the point. In practice, Socialism embraces the same industrial modes of production that tend to concentrate wealth, with a difference in how that wealth is owned and distributed. And as was already mentioned, any pure economic system can become oppressive once it cures the problem it was meant to solve. If everything you have belongs to the collective, what incentive is there to produce when it will just be taken away? This fear has turned Socialism into a kind of scare word in the United States.
Not between these two options, but in a kind of opposition to both of them, lies Distributism. If Capitalism is about investing the money/power in large, relatively self-regulated business, and Socialism is about investing money/power in large, relatively self-regulated government, Distributism is about investing money/power in what can be considered large, relatively self-regulated community. Distributism is less about centralizing resources and power in any one institution, and spreading it out among as many owners as possible. The main economic units are families and guilds. Reaching back to older times in traditional societies, everybody had a place. The “job” as we know it today didn’t really exist, but we still had farmers, weavers, shoemakers, and other people who engaged in economic activity because the means of production were more widely owned. Distributism seeks to take this model into the modern world.
As befits its origin in Catholic theological teaching, there is a focus on social justice, but it is possible to take a religious idea and apply it to a more secular world. Modern examples of Distributist ideas include smallholdings and minifarms, credit unions, co-operatively owned businesses, CSA (community-supported agriculture) subscriptions, and any effort at building strong local economies through human connection and shared resources.
Distributism: Welcome Home, a speech by Colin Kovarik
To roll back centralized power of any kind and reclaim the economy as a way for people to produce and access the goods and services they need to live, instead of a way for those with resources and power to obtain more resources and power, it will take a considerable amount of grassroots effort. By its very nature, however, Distributism is a grassroots way of living. When we teach each other our skills as would happen in guilds, we rely less on centralized educational systems (which did serve a valuable purpose until they began to break down). When we buy what we need from each other, we give more power to people in our communities and less to centralized corporations that suck communities dry. Government is at its most responsive and relevant at the local level, where votes count for more and the issues directly affect the communities that vote on them. I would even favor a kind of land reform that put more productive acreage into the hands of individuals and families who would take better care of it and produce more food calories per acre, over keeping it in monocropped megafarms that erode soil faster than it can be replaced, but that’s a subject for another time.
Distributism, quite literally, has something for everybody. I would rather see the power that we’ve yielded to the centralized forces of big business and big government returned to families and communities where at all possible. As “work” goes away through automation and outsourcing to countries with cheaper labor and weaker regulation, Distributism may be the best hope for most people to be able to engage in the economy of the future.