And right now, except for my one commenter who is also reading Belloc’s Crisis of Civilization, nearly all of you are saying, “What the heck is distributism?”
For quite some time, I had heard that G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were considered leading proponents of a “third way” of economics, neither capitalism nor communism. The problem was, I didn’t really understand it. It finally clicked a bit for me while reading Belloc’s book on the history of Christendom, Crisis of Civilization. To be more accurate, Belloc starts with Christendom, moves into the Reformation and the previously tethered forces it unleashed (not, in Belloc’s perspective, as good as most of us were told in history class), and finishes with the state of the world in his day and how to fix it.
If you’ve heard Prof. Joseph Pearce’s conversion story, you’ve also heard of distributism. As a young, functionally atheist, radical, racist, anti-Catholic, nationalist activist in Great Britain, he hated the communists, but didn’t have much of an answer to their charges that the nationalists were just doing the capitalists’ dirty work on the streeets. A friend suggested to Pearce that he read G.K. Chesterton’s essay on distributism in The Well and the Shallows. Well, the one essay was about distributism, but the rest of the book was a defence of the Catholic Church. As Pearce notes, adapting a quote from C.S. Lewis regarding atheists, “A sound racist can’t be too careful of what he reads.” Pearce became Catholic, and is now a professor at Ave Maria University, married to an American Catholic. God, Pearce reminds us, has a sense of humor.
Anyways, back to distributism.
The problem with distributism is that it relies on a moral restraint that our modern society is sadly lacking. (Frankly, if that moral restraint had remained strong, we wouldn’t be in nearly the financial mess we currently are.) In some sense, distributism hearkens back to the early Middle Ages: trade was active and widespread, usury was forbidden, excessive competition was frowned upon, and massive accumulations of wealth were discouraged. Those with some wealth (often in the form of land rents or taxes) had it because they were expected to be the front-line defenses for their area; the money came with the expectation of service. Later, as the threat of warfare receeded, wealth was expected to be used to fund charitable activities (schools, churches, religious orders (who then taught schools, served the poor, cared for orphans, etc.)).
Sounds… old fashioned. Hopelessly so.
I think another of my favorite authors knew a bit about the thing, though, because his vision helped me understand distributism. Hobbits, I think, show a distributist system in action.
You would’ve had to have read the books to really get it, because, like so many other important details that the movie makers either thought viewers wouldn’t “get” or didn’t “get” themselves, these aspects of hobbit life were largely lost or re-written in the movies.
Think about it:
- Hobbits frown upon excessive wealth. It’s considered, at best, to be in seriously poor taste.
- Those who are better off share generously with everyone around them. Bilbo is known for handing out toys to children and being rather free with his money. In fact (and the movies totally botched this), Frodo gives his large family home over to Sam’s growing family, saying that he’d rather see the home full of children again, and he doesn’t need Bag End all to himself.
- Even less-well-off hobbits, including Sam Gamgee’s family before being given Bag End, have their own homes and gardens, however modest they may be.
- Grubbing after money is seen as a nasty eccentricity. Think of the Sackville-Bagginses. They’re always envying Bilbo and Frodo for having Bag End, which they want for themselves. Apparently, everyone else in the area knows it, too, and doesn’t much like the Sackville-Bagginses for it.
- There is communal property, most notably including the Party Field.
- There are very few instances of anyone working for anyone else, and, when they do occur, it’s a very friendly relationship. Sam and his father consider themselves as friends and defenders of Bilbo and Frodo, who they work for as gardeners.
It isn’t communism, as some people have claimed. Unlike communists (or at least communist theory), hobbits definitely have different levels of wealth, although nobody is in dire poverty and nobody is filthy rich. Also, and this is a key distributist point, property is widespread; everyone has at least a home and a bit of garden to call their own.
Of course, when things go wrong, it also shows what the Shire’s economics are not meant to be. When evil men take over the Shire, they start by playing on the miller’s greed for importance and the Sackville-Bagginses greed for power and money. (And all those idiots out there who say the Shire was the ideal communist society should note that the Shire most mimics communism when the evil men take over and force everyone to work for the Boss, saying it’s for their own good. Except it obviously isn’t.) The hobbits are so surprised at the turn of events and the tightening noose of draconian rules that nobody tries to overpower the men in charge.
The Party Tree is chopped down, left to rot, and not even used for firewood. Firewood is strictly rationed by the men, as is food, most of which has been collected to pay for the “services” of the new bullies. When Frodo and his friends return to the Shire, they are greeted by desolation and scared, freezing, starving hobbits. Yeah, communism is just great… if you’re part of the group in power. The men don’t work, except for ordering hobbits about, and they’re comfortable and well-fed, unlike the hobbits, who they claim to be “helping.”
The problem with distributism is the problem Belloc notes with several declining societies: we’ve lost our moral underpinnings. We no longer have the self-discipline to say, “This is enough money, property, house, etc.” As a nation, we have indebted ourselves up to our eyebrows to get more house, more stuff, more junk we don’t need and hardly even want anymore. Consequently, the government has been called in to tell us when we have enough money by heavily taxing the “extra.”
Self-discipline is not the same thing as government-enforced discipline, just as paying your taxes is not the same thing as giving to charity.
I’m not sure we are at a point when we could institute any form of distributism. I would say that at least the idea of encouraging property ownership would be good… but we just tried that through a bunch of risky home loans that crashed our economy. The distributists’ cry was, “Three acres and a cow,” but I just drove through some of the semi-rural areas around me. Acres of front yard, and what do people do? With very few exceptions, there were no family cows, large vegetable gardens, or even fruit trees. Almost everyone put in a lawn and mowed it to a perfect, golf-course flat, useless green expanse, which made the acerage a financial liability instead of an asset.
And now we’re right back to the problem of not wanting normal things again.