Distributist vs. Libertarian Throwdown: But Free for What?


Jonathan Witt’s recent post on the Acton Institute blog brings up a really good question, actually, about what we mean when we talk about distributism. Is being a distributist rather than a libertarian an aesthetic choice, a matter of taste, a decision to buy the slubby handspun wool rather than the smooth machine-spun? If so, there’s no reason that the Acton folk shouldn’t start calling themselves distributists this afternoon.

Kenneth Spence, after all, likes heirloom tomatoes.  He eats them, he tells me, in big bites, as though they were apples; this, I think, is a fairly distributist way to eat a tomato. Is a crunchy tendency, expressed through consumer preference, what we’re arguing for?  Should we all just vote with our dollars for locally-grown wheat, or something? Witt would be fine with this. “Sometimes,” he writes, “when Distributism is described, you get the sense that Distributism and one of its leading early proponents, Hilaire Belloc, have always been committed to a largely grass roots, bottom-up strategy of change.”  For a libertarian, grassroots change usually starts with markets.

Well, it’s not a bad idea. If for some reason you’re going to buy a sack of wheat, I mean, go the extra mile and make it a local sack.  But no, I don’t think distributism can end here.  To start with, for a distributist, economic liberty, while a genuine human good, is not the only good.  To say so would be to promote an impoverished anthropology.  Consumer choice and contract-making without violence or fraud are good, but they are not enough to promote human thriving.

Now, the Acton types don’t really want to expose people nakedly to the market.  They know from subsidiarity, and they’re passionate in promoting the kind of intermediate institutions– churches, and, I don’t know, Elks Club lodges, and above all the family– that do cushion people from the blows of commerce.  I’m not actually sure this is true of the Mises Instiutute people: for Tom Woods, for example, the market is such a powerful good that other institutions, even non-state institutions, are just not really players.  Or rather, they are pawns: guilds and cities and maybe even states are good if they are loosely organized enough for the market to act on them as it acts on individuals.  They are not good, for Woods, when they start enforcing things against the dictates of the market, that is, against the dictates of a certain kind of human desire.  For hardshell libertarians like Woods, institutions are all right as long as they are, so to speak, dissolved in the liquid medium of the market.

And the market is a very solvent medium.  It’s not actually ideologically neutral: that’s one reason why I would have to say no, when Witt asks whether distributists  “merely want people and companies to model best-Distributist practices voluntarily, so as to propagate Distributist ideas and behaviors in a free marketplace of ideas.”

I don’t know what other distributists believe; I think we can differ in the degree of activity that we would allow the state.  That’s because distributism is not a procedural ideology, like libertarianism, but a teleological one.  We have an end state that we want to work towards: “every man under his own vine and under his own fig tree,” as the prophet Micah described.

We don’t expect to get there in this present world, and, not being utopians, we are not willing to sacrifice absolutely everything, social order and freedom and everything, to try to achieve such a social vision.  But the vision is there, and it is a vision, not just of procedural liberty and will, but of distributed, family-based economic activity.

So how much governmental intervention is too much? Do we– do I– as Witt asks, “want to vote in politicians who will arrogate to the federal government expanded powers to seize and redistribute private property and keep it more evenly distributed?”

Good gracious, not MORE government powers than are exercised now– not on my watch.  After all, it’s the servile state that Belloc cast as his villain, not the servile market.  Distributists are not statists.  What I would hope for is a central state that is smaller and less intrusive than it is now, but which, when it does intrude, at least intrudes in favor of the small: tax policies that favor small capital rather than large, for example.  Above all, state policies that actively promote actual stakeholding ownership for most people in society, instead of actively promoting the concentration of such ownership.  This is, I think, the approach taken by Phillip Blond in the “Red Tory” paradigm he’s been promoting in England.  Something similar would be the approach I’d like to see in the States as well; Mike Stafford has recently put forward a proposal for precisely this.

Such a program would be too statist for Witt and Woods, and too individualist and conservative for any socialists out there.  This in-between place is the hobbit-hole where distributists often find themselves.  Which is absolutely fine with us.

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3 responses to “Distributist vs. Libertarian Throwdown: But Free for What?

  1. Excellent article. I’ve been following much of the discussion here in the states of Phillip Blonde’s work, and I’ve found it encouraging. As you hinted to, I think the historiography of liberalism that he gives provides a pretty solid explanation for why both economic and political power have continually centralized in the West. It’s an explanation that weaves together regulatory capture, rent-seeking, and public choice theory when discussing the centralization of economic power as enabled by government. I don’t understand why the economically sophisticated Acton camp doesn’t seem to grasp this (at root) Distributist critique of Corporate Capitalism. They seem to be stuck in the binary where they see any critique of our CURRENT arrangement of capitalism as either an attack on capitalism itself or a mere aesthetic preference that’s not offering a coherent argument.

    • Weirdly, I think some of the lefty Misesians get some of this historical dynamic more than the Acton people. The Acton people still seem more humane to me, but the Mises people were the ones who, at Occupy Wall Street, started making signs that said “Corporatism is Not Capitalism.” At least I assume it was them; I didn’t catch any of them with an actual sharpie in their hands. There’s a paper out there (that I don’t think I ever finished reading actually) called The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand, by Kevin Carson, that talks about this history from a mutualist/left-libertarian stance. I’m no libertarian, but it’s an interesting approach.

  2. Kevin represents the best of the libertarians; he work is often useful and always interesting.

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