I believe Br. Gregory Pine’s piece, “Why Is Distributism So Intolerable?”, was meant to be a defense of distributismbut it is exactly the kind of defense that has made distributism seem like nothing more than charming nostalgia. Pine’s piece aims to answer why distributism is so unconvincing a theory that even its proponents don’t live the ‘simpler life’ it calls for. The reason, it seems, is that distributism is very difficult to live out because it is about nothing less than ordering man to his final end in contemplating God. Therefore we should expect people to ignore it and fail it in the same way they might ignore and fail Christianity.
There are echoes here of the distributist hero G.K. Chesterton (“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried”), but I think we can find an explanation nearer at hand. If distributism is unpersuasive it is in part because its defenders have so often conflated it with agrarianism.
Distributism in its essence has nothing to do with farming or any aversion to technology. If at all, it only relates to a ‘simpler life’ accidentally. Distributism is purely a doctrine about the loci of economic power in any society, whether rural, industrial, urban, or suburban. It calls for economic power to be as widely dispersed as possiblenot out of any aesthetics or lifestyle preferences, but out of concern for justice and the common good. In its concern for justice, distributism itself is largely agnostic between different types of capital. Thus a coder with his own coding business and his own computer could, in certain contexts, be as much an example of distributed economic power as a farmer who owns his own land. There is nothing whatsoever embarrassing for distributists to be found, as Pine puts it, “at the center of the world’s cities.”
There’s a lot more to say about all thisabout why justice demands wider distributism, about the possible mechanisms of more just distribution, and about whether those mechanisms would interfere with the very innovation that gave us, for example, computers in the first place. I’m not concerned with those questions heretopics for other piecesbut only with the core claim of distributism. We have to get that claim right before we can ever have a productive discussion about it.
This core claim of distributism has been obscured because its most famous proponents haven’t yet unlearned their reliance on those old romantics, Chesterton and Belloc. While Chesterton’s famous summary of distributism “The problem with capitalism is not that there are too many capitalists but too few”says nothing about the kind of capital we should care about, in his work it is bound up with all sorts of extraneous reactionary material.
There are better texts and resources to turn to, ones where the ‘simple life’ and agrarianism receive no mention. For instance, Mortimer Adler co-wrote a book with Louis Kelso, which, though it is called The Capitalist Manifesto, is an attempt to apply distributist principles to a financialized economy. Gar Alperovitz’s American Beyond Capitalism takes a similar tack, though its focus is broader (and, occasionally, more questionable). Even an activist as associated with the Green movement as Bill McKibben praises the roles computers could play in his take on distributism, Deep Economy. Marilynne Robinson’s more theoretical Mother Country is a distributist text that avoids the language of distributism all together, but helpfully shows how both Adam Smith and Karl Marx could fit into the distributive framework.
The list could go on. If they wish to be taken seriously, it is past time for distributists to lay off the agrarianism, and to present distributism as a sensible, viable theory of distributed economic power.