Rethinking Christian Economics, Part 3: False Distributism

The following piece is republished from In Praise of Folly. It is part of a short series on Christian economics. Footnotes will be provided with the final installment.

Distributism is the ideal that the economic goal of society should be to obtain the widest distribution of property amongst the most people. The end I agree to, but the means typically proposed to achieve that end I do not. Distributists in theory are almost libertarian in their desire to decentralize society, but in fact are more often than not crypto-socialists. If one visits the Distributist Review you will see the same flawed Marxist theories used ostensibly to decentralize property. But one cannot purse Christian ends by Marxist means, as I will discuss in depth later. We see John Médaille[10], David W. Cooney[11], Hilaire Belloc[12], and Thomas Storck[13] all arguing for the grossly unjust notion of a graduated income tax. In Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, his second plank was the implementation of a progressive income tax. This is unjust in that it charges the rich man more than the poor and privileges the poor over the rich. We see in Exodus 30:15 that when YHWH required the Children of Israel to pay for the offering it was a flat rate of a half-shekel. The rich were not to pay more than the poor nor the poor more than the rich. When Samuel describes to the Israelites what the tyranny of a king would look like, he stated in 1st Samuel 8:15: “He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants.” It is interesting to note the Children of Israel were required to tithe a tenth of their goods to God in Leviticus 18:26. We see that when a state seeks to take more than a tenth of our earnings it is usurping God’s sovereignty. If God demanded a tenth of Israel’s produce, then the upper cap of taxation is set. If a state seeks a tenth or more of a person’s income, it is claiming that itself is greater than God. When Distributists endorse plunder under the guise of a progressive income tax they are rebelling against God’s justice and claim to be gods themselves.

We see in Exodus 23:3, Leviticus 19:15, and Deuteronomy 16:19 that justice is blind and one is not to be partial to a poor man. According to Scripture, the Distributists are not inclined to justice, but to unrighteousness for they pervert justice toward the poor and take the blindfold off the eyes of justice. Why should a person be excessively taxed for having more than others? How wealthy are some of the proponents of Distributism? Why don’t they sell of all their superfluities of life and live a spartan existence and give the surplus to the poor? Rather than personally acting out what they claim to believe, they instead plunder the rest of us through the violence of the state. In his debate with George Bernard Shaw entitled “Do We Agree”[14], Chesterton foolishly argues that the coal industry should be nationalized by the British government. Mr. Chesterton’s arguments look quite silly after seeing the mismanagement of coal under English nationalization in 1946, which was undone through privatization in 1994 under the Coal Industry Act of 1994. This debate shows us again the crypto-socialist nature of Distributism.

The other pseudo-socialist aspect of Distributism can be found in the works of David V. Cooney[15], Stratford Caldecott[16], Hilaire Belloc[17], Thomas Stork[18], and Angus Sibley[19] who argue for Marx’s Eighth Plank: “Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies especially for agriculture.”

I am not opposed to Church influencing economic action and exerting a Godly influence in the marketplace, but I am opposed to economic charlatans who complain about corporate monopolies, granted by government, and seek to solve the problem by imposing government-granted monopolies of unions and guilds to resolve the resulting inequity.

In the Old Catholic encyclopedia, two types of guilds are mentioned: Merchant and Craftsmen Guilds. Merchant guilds were monopolies as described here:

“These differed from their predecessors, the religious or frith guilds, by being established primarily for the purpose of obtaining and maintaining the privilege of carrying on trade. Having secured this privilege the guilds guarded their monopoly jealously.”[20]

“The merchant guilds possessed extensive powers, including the control and monopoly of all the trades in the town, which involved the power of fining all traders who were not members of the guild for illicit trading, and of inflicting punishment for all breaches of honesty or offenses against the regulations of the guild.”[21]

“The merchants’ guilds aimed at securing commercial advantages for their members and obtaining the monopoly of the trade of some country or some particular class of goods. Not alone in the German cities, but also in all foreign countries where German commerce prevailed, corporations of this sort, guilds, or Hansa (the word Hansa has the same signification as guild)”[22]

The craftsmen guilds sought to break down monopolies:

“Seeing that the merchant guilds had become identical with the municipality, the craftsmen, ever increasing in numbers, struggled to break down the trading monopoly of the merchant guilds and to win for themselves the right of supervision over their own body. The weavers and fullers were the first crafts to obtain royal recognition of their guilds, and by 1130 they had guilds established in London, Lincoln, and Oxford. Little by little through the next two centuries they broke down the power of the merchant guilds, which received their death-blow by the statute of Edward III which in 1335 allowed foreign merchants to trade freely in England.”[23]

Given that craftsmen guilds lead to the breakdown of the guild system in favor of free trade, I doubt the Distributists have any love lost for them. The Distributist answer to corporate monopolies is to have more corporate monopolies, only these corporate monopolies are good because the “good” Catholics run them. Yet, if guilds were so great why did Pope Pius VII abolish guilds in the Papal States in 1807?[24]

Laborers forming fraternities or charities to take care of each other’s interests is not an un-Christian idea, but coercive and monopolistic enterprises are exactly what needs to be avoided, and to believe that another set of coercive monopolistic enterprises will counter the inequity is like believing that two wrongs can make a right.

Aristotle and Proto-Distributism

The positive argument for private property can be found in Book 1 of Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle argues that man will work harder for the sake of what he owns. If all his possessions are held in collectively, then the tragedy of the commons will arise whereby resources and infrastructure are depleted but not replenished. This exploitation occurs because no one can lay claim to any of the produce of the land exclusively and each individual is given incentives to extract as much benefit as he can as quickly as he can. Furthermore, the virtues of continence and liberality cannot possibly be developed in a communist society. If all women are held in common, then the virtue of continence cannot be developed and if all land is held in common than liberality cannot be developed. The virtue of continence in general is related to self-control and in particular to sexual self-control. The virtue of liberality is giving from one’s own store to another at the right time, to the right person, for the right reason. Obviously both virtues would be impossible in a state of communism. Aristotle argues, correctly, that man’s desires are ultimately insatiable because they are unlimited, and thus they must be restrained by reason and force of habit, both of which being derived from education and the law. Widely distributed property is desirable because having a middle class is desirable. Aristotle points out in Book IV that the middle class is the mean between rich and poor, the former being in excess of wealth and the latter in a deficiency of wealth. The former seek to acquire total control over society, while the latter being envious are ungovernable. The middle class is thus in a position to serve as an impartial judge in disputes between the rich and poor. For a middle class to exist it stands to reason that property must not be concentrated in the hands of a few, but be widely distributed. The middle class has just enough property to avoid poverty, but not so much property that they can act despotically against the less fortunate while avoiding and perverting the law.

Having outlined the secular argument for widely distributed property, I will now turn to Holy Scripture. We see in the Pentateuch that God feared the concentration of power in general and the concentration of property in particular. In Leviticus 25:10-13 we are told that Israel was required after every fifty years to return the land to its original owner. This mechanism was set in place by God to keep property from gathering into the hands of a few men. God’s law against usury serves the same purpose. We see in Leviticus 25:23-28 that if a man has to sell his property to pay some debt, then 1) his nearest of kin is to buy the land back or 2) the man who received the property as a pledge of debt should, once the means of the indebted man have recovered, sell the land back to him or 3) if both means fail the land is to be returned during the year of Jubilee. We see in Numbers 36:1-13 while Zelophehad’s daughters were married into the tribe of their cousins, Zelophehad’s property remained in his tribe and was not transferred to his brother. God did not want property to switch hands from tribe to tribe. We also see the same principle at work in Judges 21:17 where for the sake of an inheritance the errant tribe of Benjamin is allowed to essentially kidnap the daughters of Shiloh at Schecem to be their wives. It was considered so important that the land apportioned to Benjamin not leave their control it was necessary to ensure the tribe’s survival.

The basic principle of distributed property is clearly seen in the OT. Therefore, given the best secular wisdom found in Aristotle and in divine wisdom in Holy Scripture, the moral and utilitarian reasons for distributed property can be clearly seen.

The Commons

I also contend that the medieval concept of the commons should be restored, at least in spirit. For in the words of Ivan Illich:

“People called commons those parts of the environment for which customary law exacted specific forms of community respect. People called commons that part of the environment which lay beyond their own thresholds and outside of their own possessions, to which, however, they had recognized claims of usage, not to produce commodities but to provide for the subsistence of their households.”[25]

The commons are a place that is not commoditized or bought or sold, but is set in place for the sustenance of family life for those suffering from either chronic or terminal poverty (due to illness or injury or physical disability). It is a sacred place where sacred time and work is kept. It is an attempt to be faithful to the divine command of the gleanings or, in Aristotelian terms, to the public land of a well-balanced commonwealth, which ideally contains both public and private land.

The danger of having people being employed by corporations or government is that when they are fired or their wages are cut they usually have no alternative to fall back on. If a man had his “three acres and a cow,” to quote Chesterton, he would have something to fall back on so as to endure the vicissitudes of life. Or, to quote Lewis:

“I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the freeborn mind’. But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of Government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne, that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?”[26]

To be a free man, one must own the land he stands on and be able to leave an inheritance for his children (Proverbs 13:22). All forms of property tax, inheritance tax, and death tax are unbiblical, for the state has no claim to a man’s property (1st Kings 21:1-29).