Although I have a deep-rooted aversion to utopian ideologies (Seriously dudes, stop trying to immanentize the eschaton!), I recognize that all utopianists are not equally annoying.
Personally, I prefer the type of utopianist who has read so much fantasy by J.R.R. Tolkien or sci-fi by Verner Vinge that it has infected their views about the polis. This is why I have a mild affection for agrarians and transhumanists.
Agrarian conservatives are charmingly anachronistic and mostly harmless since even they don’t take their ideas too seriously. (When the agrarian professors give up their tenure at Ivy League U, move back to the farm, and teach at Wendell Berry Community College, I’ll believe they mean what they say). Transhumanist liberals, on the other hand, are confusing, weird, and would be scary if their ideas weren’t so silly. (Do they really think we’ll upload ourselves to machines as if our souls were a copy of Windows Vista? Really? Really?)
Based on this criterion I should be most favorable to a utopian scheme—Distributism—that was inspired by my hero G.K. Chesterton. But while I am deeply sympathetic to distributists, they have the annoying habit of taking their philosophy very, very seriously. They are True Believers, which, when found in utopianists, is always a bad thing.
A prime example is a commenter at the Acton Institute’s blog who writes,
Because distributism is people-centred, things like medicine would be a priority. There’d need to be infrastructure for that, but nothing like the grotesque infrastructure we presently have for shipping frivolous imported goods around the country.
John Couretas provides a fitting and funny reply:
I know it’s futile to point out obvious things to a distributist. The fixed, false beliefs undergirding distributism are impervious to reason and experience. But let me try one more time, perhaps for the benefit of those new to this nonsense.
Wishing a “people-centred” economy into existence is integral to the distributist fantasy. But how does its magical, humane “infrastructure” come into being? Would you have the steelworker who loads the arc furnace at the mill that supplies the metal for the dentist’s drill become more “people-centred”? How? Maybe he is ordered to pause every 30 minutes to read Wendell Berry poems to his co-workers as the furnace melts its batch of scrap? Or perhaps the fellow on the diesel engine line gets a union-mandated break to strum folk music on his banjo? Or maybe the jumbo jet assembly plant can set aside plots of land for organic gardening?
These examples are as absurd as distributism. Which is more of an aesthetic, a sensibility, a nostalgia for a bygone era that conveniently ignores pervasive wretchedness, than an economic possibility. And at the heart of distributism is the hidden coercive impulse that would prohibit ordinary folk from behaving and consuming, as pauldanon says, in “frivolous” ways.
That’s the key isn’t it? In a distributist economy, we’ll need a Czar of Aesthetic Consumption to decree what is “frivolous” and what is not. That’s how you order “priorities.” Perhaps the Czar would publish a regular Compendium of Consumer Errors, updated to thwart any new and distasteful consumer demand. But pauldanon’s frivolity and mine won’t always line up. Imagine all the frivolous things and past times that actually make life tolerable for masses of people who care nothing about the distributist program. Would the Czar of Aesthetic Consumption allow a person to walk into Walmart and buy a box set of some really bad TV show for viewing on a monstrously large flat panel HD screen? Horrors! How about a weekend bus trip to Branson to take in the latest Elvis tribute? Are you kidding? Playing golf on a summer afternoon? The Czar would not be amused.
This gets to the heart of my concern about distributionism. I’m afraid that if they ever got their way they would enthrone a Czar of Aesthetic Consumption whose first decree would be to banish LOLCats. I can live with most of the effects of a distributistism (more guilds, calluses, and self-employment taxes), but I don’t want to live in a world without LOLCats.