Why distributism is good for us

Distributism is an idea which is supposed to have originated from a Papal encyclical in the 1890s. Being areligious I confess this rather puts me off. But this does not mean such a declaration cannot have a valuable core. Chesterton and Belloc, both Catholics of course, saw it as a ‘third way’ (although I’m sure they didn’t use the phrase) and as an alternative to both Socialism and Capitalism. It offered a method of avoiding both bureaucratic state socialism and capitalist monopolies, which few would now dispute are indeed both best avoided.

So what is it and why should we encourage it? Perhaps we should call it the ‘New Distributist Agenda’ so that we can take the general idea rather than being wedded to all the original detail. It favours widespread and diverse ownership of things among the broadest possible range of members of a society on the assumption that it makes that society better, because it gives every individual a stake. Ownership of physical things assists ownership of mental things. As we accept that ideas influence the distribution of material things so we also accept that distribution of material things influences ideas.

Indeed the fact that ‘stakeholders’ are constantly referred to in government and corporate newspeak is tacit acknowledgement of the appeal of the idea but it is generally evident that this has little to do with the facts – it seems rarely if ever to mean ownership. It should.

An obvious example of its appeal was a skill in Thatcherism – whilst industry and the unions were being destroyed there was much fanfare about ‘cheap’ shares for all in previously nationalised utilities. And then there was the opportunity to purchase at a discount housing that had previously been rented. Thatcher’s vision could be shown to be that of a property owning democracy. And the Tory housing proposals are, albeit with minimal resources, still using this same idea.

I think progressives should take the concept of widespread ownership for themselves as a core value. I am not suggesting that popular share ownership has been a success – it hasn’t. Encouraging cooperatives would be a much better distributist idea.

Indeed Gordon Brown’s child trust funds were a start on an endeavour to the same aim – sadly dogmatically closed down by the Conservatives. Rebooting them as an investment scheme for Green investment would be a quick win.

Increasing home ownership should be favoured too, as renewing your house rental contract every six months clearly doesn’t make for a secure family life or a stable community. People need to be able to put down roots and have a stake in the community, firstly by not having to move regularly and secondly by ownership.

Ownership seems to be an Anglo Saxon (and Celtic) preference. My gut feeling is that this is an atavistic thing – because we are a small island. We are all immigrants, who either like to look beyond the seas to the world or who, having washed up here, like to have something permanent to hold on to.

So the aims of the ‘New Distributist Agenda’ should be:

  • Encourage the ownership of things to be as widely distributed as possible – including housing and business
  • Encourage localism and decentralisation – especially finance
  • Encourage cooperative ownership

The ideas could be airily dismissed as individualism for Socialists, but with these basic principles radicals would be able to show how their vision would be aimed at giving more power to the individual whilst at the same time benefiting the coherence of society. With the mention of power to the individual they would be able to counter charges of statism or accusations of anti-capitalism by the ever right leaning mainstream media. The ideas could also be called ‘aspirational’ and would enable markets to work better.

Indeed, if the distributist agenda is not properly embraced I fear that the dystopia of Ida Auken, a Danish MP, awaits: “Welcome to 2030, I own nothing, have no privacy and life has never been better.”

 

Comments

  1. Sean Danaher -

    Thanks Peter
    Big ideas are definitely needed. It is clear we need something different. Socialism at least in the Soviet sense was a failure. Neoliberalism is a disaster. A sense of collectivism and mutualism is very useful. It was certainly the case when I was growing up in Ireland; we may have been poor as a nation but we were all in it together and was one of the major factors in the tremendous success of Credit Unions http://www.progressivepulse.org/society/why-are-there-so-few-credit-unions-in-britain/ on that side of the Irish Sea.

    The “I’m all right Jack” and “Every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost” attitude is not one that appeals to me but seems to be all to common particularly with Tory voters.

  2. Mark Crown -

    Peter

    Can I compliment you on a very challenging post.

    Firstly as to my instincts: I am no political liberal – not at all. I am prone to not trust human behaviour and leave it be -especially where money is concerned. I am an interventionist by nature. I believe in order – rules and structures but only in the pursuit of fairness and equality. I also practice dialectics – as Varoufakis put it ‘everything is pregnant with its opposite’. I see both sides to things. Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT).

    My view is that only a State could deliver what you propose in the modern world. The State would need to be the enabler of such a way of being and also its protector and upholder.

    There would have to be a new contract between the State and the people. And our legal system would surely have to be updated and changed. Perhaps we really do need a new written constitution for this too.

    A major issue would be how such a society would work with the rest of the world. Because it might well be that the pressure to undermine such a State would be external and the use of treaties and laws that would be enforced by others could undermine progress. In a world dominated by American economic policy (aimed at enabling it to constantly expand its economy into other countries) a distributive country as envisaged by you would need to be protected. I’m not sure that the Eurozone would be very helpful either in its current guise.

    We have spoken about the benefits of credit unions here already but we cannot ignore how devolution or the setting up of trusts, the local management of schools (all designed to give more power to the locales) can also be used by the laissez faire State to avoid its obligations – look at the Tories and the NHS. So we need a courageous state to do this properly and design out the potential for abuse.

    The problem with just letting individuals get on with it is that their structures and activities may fall prey to more aggressive forms of capitalism. Then what legal basis do they have to protect themselves? They may look to the State as their protector when in fact it is offering no infrastructure to do so. That would be wrong in my book.

    And as for our democracy – only proportional representation could deliver the sort of political oversight to uphold this system over the generations.

    Phew! As I said there is much more to think about. And be assured the socialist in me is not offended by this prospect at all.

    I’ve always defined socialism as something whose outcomes should benefit the largest amount of people; not the generation of the largest amount of benefits – which all too often end up going to too few people anyway.

    1. Peter May -

      I entirely agree that the State must provide the structure to enable these ideas to flourish.
      We know that leaving it to the markets with the State taking a back seat leads to a society where many are unhappy.
      Giving everyone a ‘stake’ is a relatively simple step in the effort to make all society’s members feel a bit more needed, wanted and valued. and not be just consumers and advertising fodder.
      And I think I’d go with the written constitution too!

  3. Charles Adams -

    Henry Calvert Simons said that for markets to operate effectively no agent should control more than about 5%. I agree with this in the case of private goods. Monopoly power also destroys democracy, so it is bad on both economic and political grounds. However, for public goods, I think larger entities can do a good job, like energy, defence, science, and possibly education and health. However, although in terms of energy policy you have to think globally, the conclusion might be that you need a community wind and solar farm with Li+ storage. Somehow you need to embrace all scales, from local to global simultaneously. To do that education, knowledge and understanding are the key, but then I would say that!

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Agreed Charles,
      though I would probably say that as well regarding education. It is very important people be presented with the “true facts” or as a scientist our “best understanding of the truth.”

      Another “big idea” that has its origins in Catholicism is “Subsidiarity”; it holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution. It is another good principle adopted in theory by the EU though not always in practice implemented as well as it should be.

    2. Peter May -

      I certainly agree that larger entities are often good for public goods but I still think that where possible some form of joint cooperative ownership helps staff motivation. And the norm should be regional rather than national.
      So localism (Sean’s ‘subsidiarity’) may not be implemented too well by the EU but with its very limited devolution and evisceration of local authorities is barely acknowledged by the UK!

      1. Mark Crown -

        Please be assured Charles that the State I envisage is not only one that produced distributive outcomes from its services and polices but one that also enables/endorses the sort of ‘co-operativism’ you speak of in the private sector – at the micro level of economic activity.

        And you are right – places of work where the wage differentials are low or reasonable seem to be happier and more productive. Some economists (such as Richard Wolff) insist that it is the workplace that should be democratised first – giving the worker more say in what happens to a company:

        http://www.rdwolff.com/eu_why_worker_coops

  4. Alexander Kurz -

    Many thanks for bringing up distributism. But what about, instead of a new “ism” just a sober assessment of when markets work and when not? Add to this that in a system that allows inequality of incomes redistribution is necessary for a stable economy. And that democracy requires that the rich have not more influence on politics than everybody else. Would all this require radical change? I don’t think so. But there is no policial will to make the necessary changes …

Comments are closed.