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.
March 18, 2016
I have long had both a soft spot in my heart, and definitely a place among the furniture of my mind, for Distributism, even in the far past of my foolish youth when I passed through such phases of folly as Randroidism (aka Objectivism) and anarcho-capitalism. Distributism alone remains, together with the suggestions of Jane Jacobs as to the ways of the building up of a city, or the economic theories of E. F. Schumacher, and most recently, with the offerings of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. They seem to agree better with the teachings of the Church Fathers, or the more recent teachings of Catholic Social Doctrine.
I have also come to the conclusion that St. John Chrysostom was right, and that most wealth is the product of theft. Whenever I have actually traced back most ‘wealth producers’ and examined the means by which they gained their wealth, I am confirmed in my conclusion. A one or so hour walk from my home leads me to Trump International Golf Course, which the eponymous thief got cheap when the two brothers who bickered over their parents’ estate drove themselves into bankruptcy. Bill Gates built Microsoft on the theft of the operating system which he stole from Apple. And Apple, while it has grown rich by providing useful gadgets, has had those gadgets built on slave labor from China, and materials gotten from the exploitation of native Africans. So it goes.
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