I know little about Alan Jacobs other than the fact he teaches, writes a number of books that draw glowing reviews from evangelicals, and has a blog. Oh, and he also pens pieces for The American Conservative, such as his ongoing “Dialogue on Democracy” series which officially jumped the rails today when the topic of distributism came up. Here’s an excerpt:
A. Are you serious about distributism? You’re really envisioning some beautiful quasi-medieval world of local pubs that brew their own beer, mom-and-pop shops featuring homespun woolens and tallow candles made according to an ancient recipe handed down through the generations?
B. To be honest, that’s always been my problem with distributism: its absurdly nostalgic character, its idealizing of an often dirty and unpleasant past, its refusal to acknowledge what modernity has done for us. Too often the distributist vision is like a historical theme park, fun to visit as long as at the end of the day we can have hot showers and central heating.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s possible to have distributism and subsidiarity without nostalgia. It’s possible to argue that a concerted program of devolution was not as good an idea in the time of Chesterton and Belloc as it is in ours.
It’s difficult not to yawn at these sorts of false generalizations, ones which have been bandied about by pro-capitalist types for decades. While some distributists do wax romantic now and again, that hardly means that distributism as a whole is beholden to a creative articulation of history without sure footing in either empirical reality or universal principles. Jacobs also makes the error of assuming that all of the material prosperity we have today would be nonexistent but for free-market capitalism, as if the distributist vision precludes advances in science, production, and resource management. What Jacobs fails to account for is how destructive the “advances” of capitalism have been, not just to the integrity of the planet and its population, but to public welfare and morals. Wealth-creation, though laudable, is not the supreme good (even in an earthly sense) nor has it come about without serious consequences. Distributists know this. Does Jacobs?
At the end of the day Jacobs isn’t interested in distributism at all, nor does he advocate for meaningful reforms to global capitalism. Mixed into his “dialogue” are some lines about limits, restraints, and management, but nothing you wouldn’t find mixed into the political platforms of both the Democratic and Republican parties. This leads me to wonder why Jacobs bothered to bring up distributism at all. There is no evidence in his “dialogue” that he has either read any distributists carefully or bothered to consider seriously their ideas. Perhaps Jacobs, like many conventional conservatives, believes that distributism is the alternative to which we cannot be allowed to turn, not if we want to keep our iPhones, YouPorn, and SUVs.