Monday, January 19, 2009

Why Distributism Can Work (For Us, Right Now) Part I

by Richard Aleman

John F. Triolo, Editor for The Contrarian’s Review, recently invited me to respond to his article, “Why Distributism Can’t Work (For Us, Right Now)” (click here for part 2). I want to thank him for the opportunity to respond to this very important topic and share it with our readers at The Review.

Before I begin, I wish to offer a word regarding Mr. Triolo’s perspective on Distributism. Mr. Triolo is sympathetic to Distributism and he understands it well enough to avoid the pitfalls of unmerited debate. From his perspective, Distributism may be implemented and work well. His opposition is limited to a distributist solution for our current turmoil, and his concerns over an immediate implementation of Distributism given particular complications at present.

If Mr. Triolo is so kind to indulge me, I would like to begin where Mr. Triolo ends. The second half of his article tackles the spiritual difficulties of our present societies and Mr. Triolo’s pessimism about building a new structure demanding self-restraint.

In his essay, Mr. Triolo states what I believe is the centerpiece of his argument.

He says,

“It is even true that an economic system can help to impress upon a people the special dignity enjoyed by every man as the child of a loving God. This can only be done however to a willing populace.” (Emphasis mine)

Mr. Triolo and I both agree that an abrupt and radical adoption of Distributism would harm rather than cure, and, if I understand Mr. Triolo correctly, would result in a centralized governing body forcing Distributism on the uninitiated and unconvinced. It is easy for me to concede this particular point as neither the early distributists, nor we at present, believe Distributism could be implemented through force, but instead should begin as a popular movement.

Distributism is only radical to the extent that it is fundamentally opposed to Capitalism and Socialism. We do not advocate an overnight transformation of society, as attempts to drastically remodel by any socio-economic ideal leads to tyranny. Instead our approach is one of urgency, as Distributism is a scheme we believe to be significant towards economic equilibrium and the common good. Belief in this proposition led the Distributist League to make haste during what they considered an opportune era for civilization to change course and avoid catastrophe. We too face a transitional period today as the populace hesitantly sways in the direction of globalization while attempting to make sense of bailouts for millionaires, over consumption, under production, waste, and other matters. Although there exists a growing intuition that both Capitalism and Socialism have died a natural death, we refuse to simply skate onto the scene, and instead choose to discuss what society ought to do and lead by example.

Mr. Triolo acutely recognizes the “limits of any economic system to make men better.” Once again, to his credit he avoids the Utopian accusation against Distributism often used by opponents who uncritically accept our present circumstances. The distributist’s teleological approach to economics is underlined by the belief that man, by reintegrating justice into the marketplace, will progressively improve his spiritual life and conduct within the realities and confines of his fallen nature.

During my time in the Marine Corps, I recall the saying, “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out.” Of course, this is repugnant. It is also shocking. Yet, today we endure decadent systems rewarding the gradual abandonment of virtue, applauding self-indulgence with a prevalent attitude that denies our purpose in the temporal order. In other respects, this shedding of our moral and ethical responsibilities rejects human cooperation in God’s work, and dismisses as irrelevant the supplication for graces instrumental in the alteration of civilization. Distributists recognize the limits of any material benefits to mankind because we contemplate the ends beyond this life, while the capitalist and socialist substitute the pursuit of goodness with the pursuit of happiness, whether in the form of a worker’s paradise or the acquisition of goods.

With this in mind, Mr. Triolo rightly points out the world’s obsession with unrestrained freedom and license. As if drawn from a Chestertonian paradox, man has experienced so much freedom that he has shackled himself into slavery. Distributists do not believe liberty commands the greatest distinction in society, but rather virtue does, and justice in particular. So, when a distributist speaks of liberty he means independence for the family from the concentration of power, whether bureaucratic or commercial interest. He means an interdependent community accountable to a system of law as well as individual self-limitations. We encourage this approach for the future direction of our nation, recognizing society’s present conflict and its capability to undergo cultural conversion.

Cultures have historically adapted to various modes of government and economic shifts. Indeed, as cultures have changed over the course of their histories, the Church wisely avoids embracing particular forms of government and opts instead to champion universal principles, which nations and their citizens should follow to carry out a just and ordered society. It is true that today’s Christian is typically ignorant of these teachings due to several factors. One of them is their infatuation with wealth expansion, and another is the disappointing socially minded counterrevolution, which has largely remained absent outside of the Academy for the better part of the 20th century.

Our recent cultural shift tends to obscure our memory of this nation, which was built on the small farmer and small business. People frequented mom and pop stores and carefully spent their pennies on reliable, repairable goods, which were manufactured and sold within the local community. Parents sacrificed for a stable life not so their children could have more, but so their children could be more. I’m not suggesting this nation ever was truly distributist, but it was closer in many regards than it is today. I believe distributists have successfully tapped into these recollections not only in the United States but abroad as well, especially in nations where our ideals have deep roots.

Mr. Triolo ponders the obstacles facing such a movement in a nation accustomed to instant gratification. To this I can only respond that our primary concern does not rest with those who are predictable enough to join us once the groundwork has been strewn. I say they are predictable because hindsight has shown us that progress in any movement persuades the skeptic. We are very much aware that the work ahead will be paved by the devoted and the diligent.

Consider the work of Una Voce, a lay organization whose mission, according to their website, “…has been since its founding in 1964, the promotion and support of the traditional Latin Mass within the Church, in union with Rome,” and how it played a considerable role in the liberation of the Tridentine liturgy. Una Voce succeeded because it was a populist movement. It spread across the world by recruiting, educating, and proselytizing their position among the Catholic faithful. Ordinary laypeople founded local chapters supported by the Una Voce Federation, uniting for the common good (in this case due to the perception that the older liturgy was good for the souls of Catholics). Regardless of where our readers stand regarding the Tridentine Mass, it is clear the determination and long-term vision of Una Voce paid off. It is also noticeable that what began with a pocket of members grew into a worldwide organization.

Thus far, Part II of Mr. Triolo’s article, “Why Distributism Can’t Work (For Us, Right Now) leads us both to be wrong and to be right. Mr. Triolo is correct that we won’t necessarily see, save for God’s grace, a Distributive State by the end of the fiscal year. I have no doubt Distributism will require hard work and God’s grace. My argument is that Distributism can work for us right now, because by starting our movement today we lay the building blocks for tomorrow.

In Part II of my response to him, I will discuss the particular problems he raises with the viability of a distributist economy. In the meantime, all of us should pray for the future of our society by taking the advice of an Irish priest who said, “I don’t get up in the morning, I get down...on my knees.”

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