As any old newspaperman can tell you, crafting headlines is a rare skill quite distinct from ordinary good writing. A New York Post example, “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” is a work of art. Or when rural American audiences felt insulted by hillbilly comedy films, and Variety proclaimed: “Stix Nix Hix Flix.” Or a long-forgotten upstate New York daily, when a church wedding paused for the bride to give birth in the aisle, declared: “Baby Gives Bride Away.” A few individuals can achieve such greatness, and the Distributists need to find one.
After my decades of periodic puzzlement over Distributism, the great Joseph Pearce removed a major stumbling block on these very pages. Distributism, which he called “an awkward name and an awkward label,” did not intend to distribute anything. It was all a misunderstanding. I was gob-smacked. This is very good news. It means that we bog-standard Kirkian conservatives no longer need to raise our eyebrows knowingly, and cough to signify quotation marks before and after saying the word “Distributism.” We need not go to the far end of the bar when the Distributists come bellying in waving their blackthorn sticks, bellowing for ale and tooting pipe-ash over everything. We can stop apologising for Distributism every time that we mention our hero Chesterton, as though he had eructation “issues” at Buckingham Palace.
We followers of Russell Kirk are not the only people to realise that, in order to distribute something, one must either already have, or else acquire, goods to be distributed. In my limited experience, Distributists rarely have the wherewithal to buy their round of drinks, and so we quickly work out that what gets distributed must come from someone else. Moreover, people suspect that once the aristos and the industrialists and the financiers get cleaned out, their own humble possessions may be next. After everyone else’s gold and bonds, it could be your irreplaceable Led Zeppelin albums.
The process was best described by an elderly British communist interviewed in the mid-20th Century on BBC radio. There was “them wot ‘as, and them wot ‘asn’t,” the rustic radical explained, and Communism would divide it all equally, whereupon he would spend his portion. The interviewer fumbled for words: but…but then his share would be gone and others would have it. “Well, we’ll do it all over again, mate, won’t we?” chirped the communist. When redistribution is discussed, many people can see this coming.
This raises our initial question of why Chesterton and Belloc named it Distributism in the first place, particularly if they had no plans to distribute or redistribute anything. The answer, although lost in the mists of time, probably had to do with quantities of alcohol being consumed. The next question is why anyone turned up at a Distributist rally. First off, people might have believed that they had be given someone else’s stuff: in America this attracts many to the Democrat Party and to looting opportunities during riots. Secondly, remember that there was a Depression between the World Wars, television had hardly been invented and the British had little to do apart from standing on rain-drenched streets to hear someone talk. Thirdly, a surprising amount of alcohol was consumed. Naming a movement Distributism, and then explaining that it, um, won’t actually distribute anything, and asking a damp crowd to support it, probably requires a few drinks beforehand. And during and afterward.
As I said, in odd moments I had puzzled over this for years. The wise and most Chestertonian Mister Pearce actually did one better than GKC himself, and explained what our caped crusader could not. Distributism is actually subsidiarity. Suddenly, to mangle metaphors, the cat was in a different bag! Subsidiarity, beloved by true conservatives, even mediocre Catholics and both, merely distains high-handed bureaucracy and remote policy-making, insisting that decisions are made as close as possible to those whom they affect. Simple.
A Classical Liberal atheist philosopher, Sir Karl Popper, defended the concept as pluralism, noting that when many experiments are permitted, the chance of satisfaction increases – no matter what makes you satisfied. If I prefer roomy cars for big families, and you crave zippy little runabouts, one of many products by many car companies may fulfil our different wishes, while one state-owned car monopoly may grant neither. So under subsidiarity, as a form of pluralism, our different villages can take different approaches to solving problems – and each succeed by satisfying us each in different ways. One cannot wait to get to Heaven, find the pub and give the Chesterbelloc a good shaking: why couldn’t they say that in the first place? Pope Leo XIII managed in 1891 with Rerum Novarum.
Suddenly it gets much simpler. Subsidiarity, in its economic incarnation, has no “hard sell” ahead; well-known examples abound. Land O’Lakes, the mighty American dairy corporation, is owned by its farmer-suppliers. US co-operatives include farmers, millers, grocers, bankers, brewers, health care, cafes, radio networks, electricity companies, housing, etc. Britain’s beloved John Lewis chain of department stores is owned by its workers. Various co-ops existed in Britain since 1844, and today they range from morticians and credit unions to the decidedly up-market Wine Society. While the UK’s biggest co-op, owning thousands of grocery stores and plenty else, is going famously bust, its failure is partly a result of lax party-political management and also competing ideologies, for as one of its directors complained, some shareholders want the cheapest fruit and vegetables, others want fair-trade organics, others demand the smallest possible carbon footprint, some want lucrative dividends and so forth. It is instructive for conventionally capitalist corporations as well as for co-ops.
As village level merchandising, subsidiarity has been practiced in Germany since the imaginative conservative economist Wilhelm Roepke helped to design their post-war Economic Miracle. A former Cold War fighter pilot, living near Dusseldorf, told me that his family and neighbours would avoid a chain-store even if town planners allowed it, preferring to spend a little more money on a local small business, even for rather less choice: “the owner of the menswear shop is a friend of ours,” he explained, “and how many different sport-coats does a person need anyway?” A social and economic preference for smallness and community is now written into local cultures across Germany.
Subsidiarity earned its place even in massive infrastructure projects, including a century ago in Belgium. At enormous cost and with brilliant foresight, the Belgians laid railway track and erected stations in hundreds of tiny rural towns. Today there are far fewer industrial slums, less crime and fewer social problems, because Belgians can remain in their ancestral villages and commute short distances to modern factory jobs.
Globalisation can, or could, promote subsidiarity as more and more places manufacture components of complex products. Beginning 25 years ago, no American car qualified under US Government regulations as American-made, because so many parts were already built abroad. Looking into the future, some foreign factories will be nationalised by Chavez look-alikes, and then inevitably fail. Others may begin as co-ops, and compete with corporate subsidiaries across the street. Others may win their freedom, resulting from local legislation and/or shareholder pressure overseas, just as fair-trade products became fashionable. Subsidiarity can, I think, work well under every aspect of a modern economy.
However, for some people economic reform is just a fig-leaf for jealousy. Because any major reform cannot happen overnight, it postpones the day when they must reveal their motives as the mask, or the fig-leaf, drops. It remains to be seen how much economic jealousy contaminates the Catholic Church. More or less to a man, the Pope, the cardinals and bishops seem utterly unaware that global poverty has dropped more over the past 20 years than over the last two millennia. Unsurpassed on science and economics, Matt (Lord) Ridley writes: “…nowhere in the world, with the possible exceptions of North Korea and Somalia, are the poor getting poorer.” Moreover, he explains, trends in income inequality are exaggerated and misperceived.
Many Churchmen do, and should, oppose the sin of greed on community and individual levels. But none seems to understand Adam Smith’s subtle masterpiece – not that selfishness is good, a mistake made earlier by Bernard de Mandeville and corrected by Smith – but that morally neutral self-interest, under rule of law, employs multitudes and makes nations prosper.
Pope Francis rails against food speculators, including presumably those who buy grain during gluts and resell it during famines and keep people alive. Should they keep buying grain to give away, or risk their money for no return, or go to the beach and let the food be dissipated long before the supply runs short? Or does Pope Francis just condemn fictional investors such as Gordon Gekko, but do a bad job of explaining himself? He never mentions how big governments and their industrial cronies subsidise food-based fuels which raise prices for the world’s hungry; he only complains about speculators. Can we oppose greed and a throw-away culture without returning to Monty Python medieval squalor? So far, the Catholic Church is not helping us to understand.
Meanwhile we never hear a peep of complaint about intrusive government or stultifying bureaucracy, not from the Pope or anyone else near the top of their, um, gigantic, 2,000-year-old, over-manned and often semi-paralysed institution, which was once the only Western government allowed. Wonder why?
Lest we blame it on media anti-clericalism or sensationalism, the Church’s conceptual lacuna is best revealed in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, following the Holy Father’s May 9th meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He writes:
“From media reports, one might think that the only thing on the pope’s mind was government redistribution of property, as if he were denouncing capitalism and endorsing some form of socialism. This is unfortunate, because it overlooks the principal focus of Pope Francis‘ economic teaching—that economic and social activity must be based on the virtues of compassion and generosity.”
Ah! Does His Eminence mean that we are individually responsible or it is government’s job? Unfortunately, Cardinal Dolan continues: “…the church certainly disapproves of any system of unregulated economic amorality, which leaves people at the mercy of impersonal market forces…”
He does not mean self-regulation, kids. He does not even mean immorality – he says “amorality.” He does not mean self-regulation. “Impersonal market forces” presumably include the billions of human preferences contained in global pricing. He protests the “spontaneous order” born of supply and demand, on which Hayek echoed Burke in saying that it was greater than any living human mind (even a pope’s).
Sorry, but “endorsing some form of socialism” is precisely what is happening here, and the cardinal is tragically clear about the lack of limitations. Regulating all “economic and social activity” leaves us little freedom but our thoughts: he is not dressed in Red for nothing. Moreover, he is effectively opposing economic subsidiarity across various localities, clearly preferring centralised state control — and it is hard to argue that Dolan is a rogue cardinal blathering without the agreement of his pope. The Holy Father wants subsidiarity within Church affairs, but seems to want draconian economic state control otherwise. How far they do wish to go – to Obama, to Bill Ayres, to Brezhnev or all the way to Lenin or Pol Pot? While I doubt that Pope Francis longs for death camps, bureaucrats will, once they command the all-powerful, all-intrusive state that these clerics wish to build – if the clergymen have a clue about what they are saying.
Honestly, I believe that the Vatican is silent on the miracle of global poverty reduction because its denizens are generally uninformed on economics, and sublimely pig-ignorant of growth and why it occurs. That is okay, because they have a lot else on their minds. Or it would be okay, if they remained economically ambiguous and left it to our imaginations whether they were only talking about an individual’s struggle against temptation and sin. But I could be wrong, and many of them may be guilty of poisonous jealousy. More certainly, if socialism warrants suspending subsidiarity once, will it happen more oiften? The chances of Catholic institutional support for a renamed Distributism must get a question-mark.
Finally, we might ask why modern Distributists persist on calling it Distributism when they have not the foggiest intention of distributing anything. Why would you give a false and misleading name to that which you supposedly care about? Why would you hang up a sign saying “Cheeseburgers” if you sold plumbing supplies? If you truly love Nellie, would you lie and tell her that you love Marie? Two possibilities: Distributists are idiots, or promoting Distributism is low on their list of priorities compared to other things.
Like what? Well, small is beautiful for conservatives, who never tire of subdivision as a means of putting down their peers. It the snub is recondite all the better. Thus we are traditionalists and he is a monarchist, but I am a Jacobite member of a secret society dedicated to putting useless Stuarts back on the throne. We are Whigs, he is a Rockingham Whig, I am an anti-Federalist in support of Federalism. Yawn. So, presumably, calling one’s self something as obscure as a Distributist has a certain snob appeal (perhaps only among other Distributists), and maybe a pitch to rich donors.
Alternately, judging by the writings of modern Distributists apart from Mister Pearce, it is an excuse to avoid specifics of politics and economics, and merely pine for some inchoate, undefined, lost, ancient idyll. Then, like a California leftist who has nothing but “feelings,” your superiority is beyond anyone’s reach. When such people go for a “two-fer” they describe themselves as Distributists and Southern Agrarians, cleverly dispensing with any need to say what their utopia looks like or how to get there from here. Instead, they just mumble about sacred land, pellagra and banjos at tobacco-pickin’ time, as they stumble back and forth between the front porch, the bourbon jug and the outdoor lavatory.
Hence the genuinely great Mister Pearce, a confessed Distributist, has done his fellow Distributists a disservice. He has defined them as what they really are, in favour of subsidiarity, and some will hate him for it. Now that they know where they are going, maybe they can get there from here based on a few newly defined thoughts and policies. Maybe more of us will join them, including a few recently enlightened lefties, even if it forces some Distributists to think and then articulate; even if it dispels some beloved conservative mystery and snob appeal.
Thanks to the good Mister Pearce, maybe we can even find a name that makes sense, instead of Distributism or the even more clunky but more accurate Subsidiarism. But to do that we will need a headline writer.
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