Como anunciamos el otro día, tengo el gusto de presentarles a Vds. a una joven estudiante de la Universidad de Washington, en San Luis (Missouri): Lucía de Erausquin. Lucía de Erausquin escribió esta pieza sobre el distributismo para uno de sus trabajos de carrera, pero los comentarios que nos habían llegado de este artículo es que era uno muy bueno para servir a nuestros lectores como introducción al tema del distributismo, del que ya hemos resumido los artículos previos del Profesor Peter Chojnowski y del abogado Christopher Ferrara.
Por más que pueda parecer que este tema está siendo reiterativo resulta difícil encontrar ninguna otra teoría económica tan íntimamente ligada al pensamiento de la Doctrina Social de la Iglesia como es el distributismo.
Sin más, les dejo con esta espontánea colaboración.
Rafael Castela Santos
The theory of Distributism, as presented by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, especially in his book The Outline of Sanity, highlights the importance of widely distributed private property to a flourishing and happy society. It also shows the necessity of a system that will protect private property and ensure that as many people as possible are able to possess capital, or the means of production. This paper will analyze the reasons Chesterton gives for this necessity, and for the capacity of Distributism to fulfill it, by firstly defining the terms necessary for the discussion and then setting forth and analyzing the arguments one by one. Granted the theory that private property is essential for happiness and happiness is more important than the wealth of a nation, Distributism becomes a very attractive and practical system. It would greatly improve the quality of all primary and secondary goods, because the people who made them would be working for themselves and would consequently be encouraged to do their best work on every item. Also, work would be more interesting, since people would usually do many things one after the other instead of the same thing over and over in an assembly line. There would be fewer things produced at a time, but if every village provided its own that would not matter. Finally, Distributism would protect private property for all the people, and through it their happiness and liberty.
Distributism is an economic system that attempts to secure financial freedom for the mass of the people by means of the wide distribution of small property. It was first proposed in the years just before and after World War I by a small group of English writers, chief among them Chesterton, who, although at first more interested in literary, philosophical, and theological questions than in historic and political ones, became the best-known spokesman for the new theory. McCarthy, the author of a book about Hilaire Belloc (a friend of Chesterton’s who was also a writer), says that these ideas actually came from Belloc, who was more interested in history and economics, but he agrees that Chesterton “should be regarded more as the articulate disciple on these matters” (McCarthy 95). The basic tenets of Distributism are
- That as many people as possible should own capital, defined as the means necessary for the function of their trade (tools and the price of wood for a carpenter, land and farm implements for a farmer, etc.)
- That, as a corollary to this, most people should be self-employed, and small businesses should abound (other reasons for this will be explained later).
Chesterton’s definitions of the two main existing economic systems to which Distributism is in opposition are particularly clear and precise: he defines Capitalism as “that economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large proportion of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage,” and Socialism as “a system which makes the corporate unity of society responsible for all its economic processes, or all those affecting life and essential living” (Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity 2-3).
Chesterton’s arguments for Distributism are based most importantly on the idea of the goodness of private property, its necessity for a naturally happy life. Property is necessary because it is the art of the poor man; giving him a field for expressing his creativity. He can choose what to do with his own property and how to administer it; it becomes a reflection of his own personality. In speaking of peasants—people who are poor but own the land they live and work on—Chesterton says that what makes them, ordinarily, a contented group is the satisfaction of their creative instinct (Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity 48). Besides, property confers a certain amount of independence; a person who owns the tools of his trade, or land to farm, or the capital to run a small shop need not fear losing his job, and he can change the way he works as he sees fit. His independence gives his life a flexibility and potential variety unknown to those who are employed by others. Finally, man likes to work within the limits of private property. Art must be limited, it must involve choice, and the only way the ordinary person can express his creativity is through and in his own private property.
This fundamental human need of private property automatically excludes Socialism as a desirable system. However, judged on the same criteria, Capitalism is just as bad. It tries to defend private property by giving it to a few people, who concentrate it more and more, while the rest have to work for wages, deprived of all the benefits of ownership. While Socialism tries to affirm men’s independence from each other by making them all property-less and dependent on the state, Capitalism keeps property, but only for a few people and at the expense of the others’ freedom. Chesterton also argues that Capitalism should really be called Proletarianism, since it actually denies capital to the majority, who are forced to be employees dependent on wages.
Although Hilaire Belloc was an important influence on Chesterton in his ideas on Distributism, they disagreed on the end towards which Capitalism tended. Belloc, in The Servile State, contends that because so many people in the Capitalist system are dependent on wages, it will eventually evolve into a servile state, in which the many poor are compelled by law to work for the few rich in return for a minimum wage—in effect legal slavery (Belloc 39-40). He believed this because, although at that time labor unions existed and could (and did) organize strikes, he thought that the necessity to keep England’s industrial system going and the poverty of the workers themselves would soon lead to their becoming useless and to the implementation of laws requiring laborers to work if offered a certain minimum wage .
Chesterton’s view of Capitalism is just as negative, but he thought that it would either lead to Socialism or to its own destruction. As evidence for the first possibility, which Belloc agreed was possible (and even superficially probable) but not likely, he said that Capitalism tended by nature to a greater concentration of property in the hands of a few individuals, and that this would make a step to its concentration in the hands of the state seem natural to most people, and even preferable since one of the stated aims of socialism is defending the poor from oppression. As for the second, Chesterton contended that the perfection of Capitalism is its own destruction; that when an entire state became capitalist the system would automatically fail. It depends on competition between the few capitalists and the many wage earners. However, when the system is complete, all those who are not one are the other, and thus the wage-earners are also the consumers. The capitalists wish to increase profits by paying the employees as little as possible and/or making their goods as expensive as possible. Their employees, naturally, can only spend what they earn, so the capitalists will only earn as much money as they spend in paying wages. Thus, the moment Capitalism becomes most successful will be the moment of its destruction as a system. This deduction is perfectly logical and valid; so much so that (in a paradox Chesterton himself might have made) it is likely that Belloc’s theory will come true first. It seems improbable that the capitalists (or proletarians to use Chesterton’s phrase) would not foresee this end rather before its happening and enact laws bringing on the “Servile State”. In fact, it begins to seem that Chesterton’s ideas were the same as Belloc’s, but being a philosopher rather than a historian (as Belloc was) he took Capitalism to its logical, and Belloc to its probable historical, conclusion. Moreover, the validity Chesterton’s theory is being proved even today: already the most successful capitalists are employing people in third world countries in preference to local workers in an attempt to lower the cost of production. However, this expedient can only prostpone the crisis until everyone, not only in one country but in the whole world, is either a capitalist or a wage earner.
Having explained “What is Wrong” with the existing systems, Chesterton proceeds to explain his ideal. In What’s Wrong with the World, he says that the ideal is a home with land for every family, “three acres and a cow" as a popular phrase of his time went (Canovan 88). Although he does not intend all the citizens of a distributist state to be farmers, the phrase expresses well enough what he wanted: the minimum of property necessary for economic independence. Herbert Shove was co-author of a booklet on the Catholic Land Movement, which had Distributist ideals with the additional motives of following Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical on the conditions of labor, and removing from the many temptations of the modern city. In the booklet, he says that the farmer must be free form dependence on the rise and fall of a market and system of exchange over which he has no control, but on the other hand neither an individual nor a family can be really self-sufficient without experiencing as many difficulties as Robinson Crusoe, but with no necessity. Therefore, there should be local markets where people can exchange their surplus of one product for someone else’s handiwork or surplus of some other product. Because the markets would be local, they would depend on the local conditions and be more suited to the needs and circumstances of the people trading in it than those controlled by a separate group of businessmen (McNabb and Shove 24). In her book G. K. Chesterton: Radical Populist, Margaret Canovan expresses Chesterton’s Distributist ideal, “a free family in a safe home” (p. 51).
In capitalist societies, declares Chesterton, the means—work and property—are often mistaken for the end. This results in the idea that the more work that is done, the better, whereas in reality work is only necessary and good in so far as it contributes to the true end of happiness for someone, whether the worker or someone else. This disorientation of capitalism is shown by the fact that the countryside and small farms are considered an appendage or dependency of the industrial cities, although naturally industry exists to make life easier for people who work for their food. It might be objected that people in cities are also working for their food, which is true, but the basic jobs are those that provide basic necessities; the others are secondary, though of course they make life much more comfortable. The trouble, simply stated, is that too often the primary industries (if they can be called so) are considered to be servants to the secondary ones, existing only to provide the necessities of life for the secondary workers. In a distributist economy, most people would provide most of their own primary goods, and a few secondary workers would provide secondary goods to make life easier for everyone, receiving in return the primary goods they needed. In this way, once everyone had all the goods that they needed, there would be leisure, time to enjoy what they had produced, instead of the ceaseless and pointless production of more and more secondary goods that results in an industrially centered society. To quote Fr. McNabb, “a return to land work and hand work would give all men the chance, and unselfish men the inducement, to the ideal—Poverty [economy] of Work in Production—Poverty of Thrift in Consumption.”
Many people accused the Distributists of being opposed to the advance of technology. These people said, to put it baldly, that a distributist society would inhibit the development of better and better machines and that therefore, the idea must be given up. In The Outline of Sanity, Chesterton answered that machines were invented to make things easier for man and not harder, and that if keeping them interfered with an otherwise good thing, then they and not the good thing would have to go. At any rate, some machines, especially those invented to make many unnecessary consumer goods quickly, would no longer be needed if the ideal of poverty or economy was followed. Chesterton, however, had no quarrel with industrial machines as such. He was perfectly willing to have them in a distributist society, as long as they could be owned by the people who operated them either individually or cooperatively, by a system of shares, and if they helped to make people happier.
In his own books, Chesterton makes his points so wittily and entertainingly that even the most hostile reader cannot put the books down. Additionally, his arguments are logically structured and valid, as can be seen from the summaries given above. However, it is important to realize that many of them, for example the main argument toward property, are not really economic arguments. He is not trying to prove that Distributism will make people rich, but that it will make them happy. If anyone reads them from a standpoint of economic gain, it will be obvious that the very poor, at least, will be better off if they have their own land, but the country as a whole may perhaps be poorer. This did not worry Chesterton, though, for as he himself once said,
“Men talked as if there could be one essential economic good, not only more practical, but even more primary, than the good that is recognized by the soul…A man hoards in his pocket; he digests with his stomach; but he is happy with his soul. And the cheap materialism of the small economists may be turned upside-down by saying, “Would you like to be well paid, to be well fed and to be unhappy?”
Chesterton gave more than theories on Distributism in his books. He also gave certain practical measures for implementing it. He suggested buying from small, independent shops and farmers when possible, and called for laws to be passed favoring them. He also suggested that groups of families buy small plots of land close together and begin to found self-sufficient Distributist villages. Since this is rather more difficult nowadays than it was in his day, a more recent magazine article suggested that the land be bought near a town or city, so that the Distributists can also have part-time or full-time jobs to supply what cannot be grown or made (Two Pigs and a Cow). Chesterton also suggested funds or subsidies from various sources to help interested poor people to buy property in the country. Thus, although in the second chapter of What’s Wrong with the World, “Wanted, an Unpractical Man”, he defends theory and acting logically on first principles, he does not neglect to give some ideas for putting his theories into practice, this indeed being what ideas are for.
Bernard Shaw was one of the foremost opponents of the theory of Distributism, claiming that it was impossible because all small property is bound sooner or later to trickle towards large concentrations of it. Chesterton answered that this generalization was founded on situations in which a large amount of property had already been concentrated in the hands of a few individuals. He agreed that small property tends to go towards large concentrations of it, but denied that, if all property was divided into small (not necessarily equal) parcels, a pull must necessarily exist. A man with one acre might be forced to sell to a man with one hundred, but there is no reason why someone with thirty acres should sell to someone with forty. Another argument he used was that, even as Shaw condemned small property as ephemeral, he disparaged it for being old-fashioned. Evidently these are contradictory criticisms; a thing that “will never last” cannot live long enough to become antiquated! Shaw’s very argument that Distributism is backward proves that it must have existed for some time. In fact, Chesterton pointed out that it still existed in his time, in parts of France and Germany, for instance.
In summary, Chesterton believed three things about Distributism: that it was truly needed, that it would work, and that it was a good thing both for individuals and for society as a whole. It seems that now, eighty years after his time, it is needed more than ever before. All sorts of people, not only philosophers, are now complaining about the wastefulness of industrial society, with the added reason of the harm done to the environment and the waste of natural resources; all men, not only “unpractical” ones, are concerned with the growing amount of unemployment; everyone, rich and poor, complains about the stressfulness of life in this capitalist society. No one doubts that property and leisure to enjoy it (and leaving it enjoyable for our descendants) are good things, or that a system that could truly make it easy for all to have them would be an excellent one. Enough arguments have been given already in support of Distributism’s ability to provide these things; there remains only the question of possibility. Chesterton’s reply to this is unanswerable: a Distributist society has been founded and has lasted. Not, certainly, in an industrialized and thoroughly capitalist society like this one, but by perfectly ordinary people no different from those of today. Thus Distrubutism is evidently both worth while and possible, and should be considered at least an important alternative to better known systems, and hopefully, a solution to the problems of wastefulness, unemployment, and confusion of our present society.
 All information about Belloc’s ideas on Capitalism is from The Servile State.
 From Chesterton’s introduction to The Catholic Land Movement.
 From Chesterton’s introduction to The Catholic Land Movement.
 This is a summary of Chesterton’s argument in The Outline of Sanity 5.