Acton Attacks Distributism (Again)

The Acton Institute’s web-log has been serializing Jonathan Witt’s forthcoming chapter from a book on Christian critiques of capitalism. Today’s installment, “The Distributist Alternative,” purports to demonstrate that Distributism is just another highway to the hell of concentrated government authority over the economy — the sort which leads to “crony capitalism.” Without involving myself right now in an excurses on Distributism, let me point out what should be glaringly obvious to anyone who peruses Witt’s takedown with even a half-critical eye: He’s attacking a strawman. That’s nothing new for the Acton Institute and its cohorts. Just last week, during its so-called “university,” Acton offered a course on Distributism taught not by card-carrying Distributists such as John Medaille or Thomas Storck, but rather by an economic liberal, Todd Flanders.

As for Witt’s engagement with Distributism, the only kind thing I can say is that it must be amateur night over at Acton since Witt demonstrates no sophistication whatsoever with what Distributism is, nor does he seem cognizant of the fact that the field of Distributist theory has widened considerably since the days of Chesterton and Belloc. This leads Witt to tether himself to a particular passage from Belloc’s An Essay on the Restoration of Property and, in pure libertarian fashion, panic that Distributism means the use of government power to assist in the dispersal of the means of production. How much power — and what that power would look like — is not discussed, perhaps because Witt wants his readers to let their imaginations run wild with visions of a socialist dystopia where people are under-supplied the necessities of life and nobody has any fun. The truth is that Belloc’s suggestion — or rather realization — that some government authority will be necessary to maintain a Distributist ordo does not automatically entail mass property seizures  or a gargantuan administrative state. But I suppose when one’s ideology holds that all government power is ipso facto evil, Belloc’s views are certainly toxic.

The next mistake Witt falls into is conflating Distributism with Agrarianism. While it is true that many Distributists, particularly the first wave of British Distributists, are Agrarians, not all of them are. Witt would have his readers believe that the Distributist vision is one of compelling people to get “back to the land” and nothing more. That is manifestly untrue. Distributism would certainly open up more possibilities for people to go that route if they wanted to, but it would not spell the end of cities, industrial production, high-technology firms, and so forth. Witt expends no effort getting to the heart of Distributism. Instead he dwells on the particular vision of one Distributist — Belloc — and assumes (or falsely promotes) that vision is inextricably linked with Distributism itself.

Moving on, Witt continues to attack Distributism on the grounds that it must result in a concentration of government power, with regulators determining the proper size of farms and the acceptable scope of business operations. That, too, is a falsehood. Belloc’s suggestion of government authority intervening in economic life needn’t be taken too far; a proper set of private-law rules and causes of action could do a lot of the heavy lifting. Witt, for instance, cannot contemplate how a firm’s scope and scale could be curtailed without regulatory interventions. Has he never heard of the Sherman Act or any other competition code which provides private rights of action to individuals? While it is sometimes more efficient and expedient for firms to receive ex ante antitrust review from a designated authority such as the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division’s pre-merger review, more localized options are — and can continue to be — readily available.

With respect to distributing property and the means of production in society, Distributism does not hold that the market mechanism has no role to play. Instead of relying on a schema whereby the government (arbitrarily?) parcels out property and redistributes wealth, Distributists argue for the establishment of just wages across all sectors and firms in order to allow workers to acquire the savings necessary to purchase property and the means of production. That way, individuals are free to direct their earnings toward those means which best suit their temperaments, skills, initiative, and so forth. (For example, what would I — a trained lawyer who knows nothing about planting or livestock — possibly do with a farm besides ruin it?) Witt isn’t dealing with reality here; he’s dealing — poorly — with a mischaracterization of what many Distributists argue for with respect to how the economy ought to be ordered. Free exchange is not off the table, so long as that freedom is properly ordered and does not violate principles of natural justice with respect to wages.

In rejecting Distributism as a proper “third way” between collectivism and cronyism (libertarianism’s favorite hobgoblin next to “statism”), Witt, unsurprisingly, offers this: “a free society marked by political, religious and economic freedom, robust civil institutions guided by natural law, a widespread belief that all humans are made in the image of God, and rule of law for rich and poor alike—justice for all.” What Witt means by “political, religious, and economic freedom” is vague and contestable; as for the rest of it, if he understood the target of his misplaced ire as that target understands itself, he would know that’s exactly what Distributism aims for.