Dear Occupy Wall Street: More on Distributism

by Circle or Line

I wrote about distributism and the Occupy Wall Street movement last week and mentioned that distributism is really common sense. Concentrating wealth leads to power imbalances, injustice, and instability – both economic and social – as we are witnessing right now.

While distributism tends to be found among a certain subset of GK Chesterton-loving Catholics, distributism is not inherently Catholic or religious (though I happen to be Catholic, I think the case for distributism can be – and often should be – made on purely secular grounds).

So in this post I want to explore some secular aspects of distributism. I should say at the start that I am an ethicist, not an economist, but I know some of the places where distributism engages ethics and social philosophy, so that is what I will concentrate on. And please leave a comment if you know something I don’t. I like to learn.

As I said before, the idea that it is good to have a large middle class goes back to Aristotle, who said so in his Politics (Book 4, Ch. 11; Book 5, Ch. 1). Having a large middle class creates camaraderie and stability, and if they are also the ruling class (just by their large numbers) then they lend legitimacy to the government because they represent a majority of the population. A pretty basic idea from 23 centuries ago, and it still makes sense.

Moving 21 centuries into the future from Aristotle, Alexis de Tocqueville, the brilliant French social philosopher who ventured across the US in the 1830s, was fascinated by early America’s political and economic decentralization (in the North, not the South). He compared American’s can-do and independent local spirit with the French people’s feelings of powerlessness due to centralization, where no one would do anything without central approval.

Decentralization led to an empowered and participatory citizenry who were willing to get things done both politically and economically.

Centralization weakened local initiative and sapped the nation of talent overall, because it forced people to obey a few central authorities, making the citizenry into mindless followers with no feelings of hope for their own futures, only feelings of need for others to come help them.

This is the current situation in the United States, even moreso economically than politically (though both are heavily centralizing). Wal-Mart moves in and destroys dozens of small entrepreneurs. Local talent is lost, central planning gains. The same is repeated over and over again.

Centralization has some advantages, namely economies of scale. But these advantages assume that money is more important than people. Economic efficiency is defined as saving money, not as developing talented humans. This is a crucial difference: cutting costs hurts people, and the assumption is that it is good anyway. This is bad, short-term thinking.

Because in the long-term lost human talent is dramatically worse than “lost” (read: wages paid, etc., not lost at all) wealth. A helpless citizenry creates a helpless nation. Think of Japan and Germany after World War Two: both nations were economically devastated but managed to rebuild because they had talented, educated citizens. Compare that to many impoverished nations today: many of their citizens simply have not had the opportunity to learn the basic skills necessary to succeed. This is why developing human talent is so crucial to any country.

But this is not just a matter of talent and education; it is a matter of psychological motivation and self-respect. Working for another person’s gain does not instill satisfaction like working for oneself. On the small scale it can be bearable, because one can still see the importance of one’s own work. But on the large scale it can be soul-killing; even moreso if there are simply no jobs to be found at all. People lose direction and motivation; they lack hope in their own ability to do anything worthwhile. But there is hope, because social institutions can be changed.

How could distributism come about as an economic system? John Searle, philosophy professor at UC Berkeley since 1959, has witnessed a fair number of protests. I’m going to ineloquently paraphrase him on how you create your own social institutions:

“You just do it. If you want to start a new social institution you and enough other people just start living it, as though the old institution were no longer there, and your new institution is just how things are.”

In other words, if you don’t like oligarchic capitalism with its exploitative banks and other practices, just set up new, or support already-existing alternative social institutions and go with them. Divest from the old banks. Join a credit union. Divest from the old business structures everywhere. Support or start your own small business. Anything you reject on moral grounds, really reject it! To get it to work, all you need are enough people to accept the new reality. (And a government willing to give you a fair playing-field – and that is another issue)

Now this is easier for some things and harder for others. So start small: you can shop at the local small store or cooperative store. You can move your money to a credit union. You can support local agriculture.

These are tiny steps, but taken together they can change the economy. You may object that it costs more to shop at a small local store than the local big-box store. And you may be right and you may not be able to afford it. Just do what you can.

The financial system which we are a part of is only a reality if we all choose to agree that it is. We can choose otherwise. Money is just a piece of paper with symbols on it (as the hilarious faux-news source The Onion knows), though we think of it as real like a rock. Well, it is not. Some aspects of reality are physical, but others are social and the social ones can be changed if enough people want to do so. So do it.

Nothing I said here was based on religion, just some philosophy and common sense. If you want the full story of distributism look into Catholic social teaching, or read these guys: The Distributist Review. They are tough and dedicated, but friendly. And tough and friendly is what we need right now; toughness and cooperation. As I said before, distributism is economics, not metaphysics. What distributism needs so it can work is a social consensus, not a religious one. Together we can make things can happen, divided nothing changes.

The Moral Mindfield