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Distributism (wikipedia.org)
209 points by geowwy on April 1, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 113 comments



Based on personal impressions, I think Switzerland is a good example of distributism. Much attention is given to the Swiss banks and the "gold" but in reality, IMO, the strength of the Swiss economy lies in the small & medium business sector.

There are over 300K businesses classes as SMBs in Switzerland, many of them family owned. For a country of 8 million people that means one SMB per 26 people. There are few "high street chains" aside from the supermarkets - unlike the UK for example where the high street of most towns and cities looks the same.

According to this article - https://www.thelocal.ch/20171114/report-swiss-are-richer-tha... - 63 percent of Swiss adults have financial assets above $100,000 which means, although there is a small percent of extremely wealthy people, there's a good distribution of wealth.

That in turn means if you want to start a business here, there are plenty of potential customers with disposable income they might be willing to risk on your product or service.


Also reminds me of mittelstand companies in Germany which often favour independence over growth. So, for example, they avoid borrowing too much in order to retain complete control over their destiny.


There is also much more focus on sustainability, atleast in the mittelstand companies I encountered, it was common to target a certain customer base size and maintain it, reducing churn and making customers happy. Growth is often slowed artificially to prevent problems when scaling up, etc.


Come to think of it a lot of the motivation for start ups seems to be distributive - not working for the man, etc. The problem is that borrowing puts on pressure to be aquired or to aquire until you become the man. Maybe Joel Spolsky and DHH have the right idea. To remain a startup and keep that buzz you have to forego the Megabucks.


You seem to be confusing startups with small businesses. They are not the same thing. The former is often motivated by the desire to make enormous amounts of money eventually. Most startup founders probably want to be acquired.


> "Distributism favors the dissolution of the current private bank system, or more specifically its profit-making basis in charging interest"

Does not sound very Swiss to me.


It could be totally Swiss, as long as the banks are used to cater to a global clientele first and foremost, rather than lord over Swiss people themselves.


The distributist writers held deep religiously-driven moral concerns about equitable property distribution, so I'm not sure the notion of "yes, we will build our economy around a banking system which helps people from other countries hide their sometimes dubiously-obtained immense wealth and charge them handsomely for the privilege" is really compatible with it.


Exactly the thought that people here might risk on a "new" vendor made me start a small recruitment firm, and I still run it (coderfit.com). I think this wouldn't have been possible in Germany, where I am from because Germans care much more about price rather than quality/good service and it is much harder to start something as a single founder. Germany is optimized for big industry not for solo founders.


I've been to Mondragon which is the biggest co-op federation in the world - at something like 74K people and $25B of revenue. They've been around since the 1950's and have their own banking, healthcare, university, etc.

It seems to be working pretty well and the area seems to have little poverty or wealth - very equal. I believe they do run into the same issues other big co-ops (and any big orgs really) which is after 70 years, the culture (which is so key to good co-ops) didn't maintain, and people in effect took the easy way out which led to the bankruptcy of their biggest co-op: Fagor. Still though, apparently most of the laid-off employees found work in other Mondragon co-ops - pretty cool.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondragon_Corporation


Distributism kinda sounds like what we had when we were first building the Internet (and what we still have): we all owned the means of production (a computer) and everyone contributed their own ideas freely and as they saw fit (frameworks, coding languages, software etc) and we all loosely banded together to come up with our own "rules" to run things, which we now call protocols. Later on, yes..we monetized the brains by hiring them and creating FB, Google, etc, but in a way, it seems like a rough idea of "distributism" built the internet. I think those catholic popes were on to something.


There's apparently still a Distributist Club at Glasgow University that participated in the political debates held in Glasgow University Union: https://universityofglasgowlibrary.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/...


Tumblar House recently did a podcast on distributism too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMMpjApwfGA&t=748s


Just curious, are they in favor of Brexit, or against it?


If it's Glasgow they're probably more focused on campaigning for Scottish independence!


I would have assumed for it as the EU is clearly another form of centralised government and favours businesses that trade across borders so are larger. But when it comes to Brexit all bets are off.


I run a 200,000€ revenue company that sells physical goods across the EU. Large companies have the resources to do the paperwork to sell across customs borders, I don’t.

In this sense, the EU is more helpful to small companies than large ones. It effectively removes borders.


On the other hand, without the unified market, governments can engage in protectionism, and if they do, there's less of a chance that a small business will be crushed by a giant global competitor.


That's too simplistic. There are large differences between countries in the East and the West. Western corporations have had a field day in the EU's Eastern members precisely because of the relative economic advantages they have built up over 50 years following WWII and the massive restructuring of the economies of the Eastern members following the fall of communism. Free trade really only works when countries have some kind of parity (something Friedrich List argues). However, to the East's advantage, their economies are much more dynamic and the West is increasingly stagnating.


> favours businesses that trade across borders so are larger

You are right about the first part of that sentence, but wrong about the second. In many contexts the EU makes the international market more accessible for small businesses - it greatly reduces overhead that large companies can afford and small companies cannot.

For example, having one central safety or health standard for all countries is a lot cheaper than qualifying for each country on an individual basis. That benefits every business involved, but for smaller ones this fixed overhead is a much more significant hurdle than for big ones.


While this is all true, there is a tendency that big markets create big players. Eg. in the 1950s/60s, many European countries had several independent car manufacturers. The cheap car in your country may have been worse than a cheap car of your neighboring country, but it cost less for the lack of tariffs. The local manufacturer had your business. When the borders came down, the smaller companies could no longer compete.


The general pattern is that big markets create big players, but also increase the amount of "effective" diversity and competition at the local level. The smaller automakers of the 1950s and 1960s were essentially monopolies in their own countries; whereas with the borders coming down, manufacturers are incented to both compete and diversify in a meaningful way, so that some fraction of them can hold on to their share of the bigger, unified market.


>> Eg. in the 1950s/60s, many European countries had several independent car manufacturers.

The chance is that your point has nothing to do with the borders being open though.


Borders were certainly not the only factor. As car development became more expensive, only bigger players had the capital to do it. But different national regulations (eg in France head lights had to be yellow instead of white) and tariffs played a role.


Not sure that was necessarily a good thing. Were I a consumer in a country with a crappy car manufacturer, I'd definitely not be pleased that I couldn't buy a better car simply because my government was protecting the crappy car manufacturer's business.


OTOH, subsidiarity is explicitly a foundational principle of both the EU and Distributism.


Sounds a bit like wildlife Conservancies found dotted across the developing world[0]. While the rules and some funding come from centralised authorities, the land that is put aside for wildlife conservation is done so by local peoples at their own discretion, and the management and work in each conservancy are conducted by the locals. I guess Conservancies in the developing world contrast with the organised national parks and state run conservation areas of countries like the USA and New Zealand.

But both forms of organsation can work together. If you look at the map of Namibia in this reference [1], you can see how conservancies offer a buffer zone to that country's national parks.

0. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communal_Wildlife_Conservancie... 1. http://www.met.gov.na/services/conservancies/193/


The nearest implementation of this I can think of is the Seigneurial System in early Canada (then, New France), that we used to learn about in history classes as kids.

https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/seigneuria...

It is criticized and largely dismissed in the article and memory as feudal, but a Distributist interpretation of it might grasp its benefits with more nuance.


I originally thought this was going to be an April fool's satire on using Microservices as a religion.


I assumed it was a similar joke for classifying people who worship the block chain


I love Distributism. As G.K. Chesterton said, "The problem with Capitalism is not that there are too many but too few" Distributism seeks the maximum number of families and individuals privately owning a small bit of capital. Imagine every family with a small business, and these businesses sometimes cooperating to do greater things. Distributism seeks to avoid massive capital in the hands of a few oligarchs. It also seeks to avoid the means of production belonging to the people in a vague and non-specific way -- such as communism with its abolition of private property (No one really owns anything in that vague abstraction -- the State owns all). When everyone (or at least most) has a modest business, they can support their community and keep it intact. Subsidiarity is localism through and through -- not just in food but everything else. I think we all want our work to make the places we live better. We all want the power to help our friends get jobs so they do not have to move far away (Have a small business and you can hire them).


The problem with this vision is that economies of scale exist. I have been involved in a manufacturing business for a while. Scale solves lots of problems. It spreads overhead over more units. It incentivizes spending resources to hyper optimize material and labor usage. Etc.


That's what makes cooperation an important aspect of these types of ideologies. In Humanizing The Economy[0], the author describes successful cooperative movements from around the world that are based on localized democratic principles but leverage large-scale cooperation to organize at scale.

[0]: https://www.newsociety.com/Books/H/Humanizing-the-Economy


Thank you for this tip. I'm eager to read this book.

While I'm a big fan of Richard D Wolff's efforts, he fails to examine the governance models of co-ops. What works, what doesn't. Models of incorporation. Case studies.

Governance is key.

--

Some years ago, I joined a non-profit OSS team, part of the Kuali Consortium, with the primary intent to see how it worked first hand.

Sadly, it didn't.

Even more sadly, I still have little clue what could work, what to advocate.

I am inspired by Pieter Hintjens' Social Architecture as model for successful OSS:

http://hintjens.com/books

But have yet to practice it myself.

--

Sorry, I always conflate ideas. My end goal is to figure out how to make useful, meaningful software while still paying my mortgage and feeding my family.


Agree with your critique of Wolff. I’m on a similar quest and have some resources you might find interesting. Feel free to reach out on gmail–same handle.


In the software world, we solved economies of scale without centralization with open source. Everyone contributes a little bit to Linux, which soundly beat all the commercial Unixes without putting power in the hands of a few.

It's an interesting question whether this can be generalized, especially to industries with physical products. Can you have a group of several independent farmers work together on farming technology and avoid having to join a large corporate farming company? Can you have a collaboration between independent coffee shops so they get all the benefits of being Starbucks franchisees while remaining independent?


There are also downsides to economies of scale, besides those seen in capitalism. For example: monoculturalism (all products are the same; little variation; products target only the greatest common denominator); and negative externalities as seen in the bioindustry.


This model was maybe viable in XIX century when our economy was simpler, but it's impossible to produce anything really complex (like a modern x86 CPU) like that. A network of thousands tiny, family-owned businesses will never self-organise to produce such CPU.


But thousands of vendors and suppliers need to organize to produce a CPU, or an airplane, or a car. Self-organization is indeed utopic, but let's not pretend raw materials enter some Intel factory and Xeons come out the other end.


This is true for a cpu, but is it true for a phone or a car?


I believe Distributist ideas such as Syndicalist worker cooperatives have been thrown by the way-side by the modern Left. Tackling the looming ecological disasters require centralized control. For example, the Paris Agreement is a Centralist policy, as is the world-wide Carbon tax.


The leftist media (at least the parts that I know) frequently applaud small cooperatives and other grassroots-level economic activity. But I don't see anyone who translates these local efforts into policy.


Both sides of the media do, as to the politicians they seem to favour either big business or unions.


Distributism is great because it is a third way; some are afraid of too much corporate power, some are afraid of too much government power, but distributists are wary of anyone having too much power and are able to provide a solution for that.

However, there has to be a shift in consumers' mindsets for distributism to be embraced. One of the great things that capitalism/economies of scale does is drive prices down. A $100 grocery bill at Walmart could be $120 or more at the local grocery store, and for a lot of people that $20 makes a real difference. People rail against big banks, but don't mind the cheaper mortgages. And so on.

Distributism has a lot of benefits, but in most of the cases that matter, price, selection, and oftentimes convenience are not benefits, and that's what we seem to optimize for. It requires a different set of priorities.


The annoying bit is that people as a whole don't seem to account for all variables all that well.

Sure, your weekly grocery bill may be $20 higher, but due to better wealth distribution, your salary might be $50/week higher. Most people just see "it costs more" without recognizing that they still benefit, if they could only make the deeper analysis.


What about large-scale projects which aren't possible without concentration of productive assets and capital? Does this doctrine addresses that?

Can we have sustained energy production or trans-Atlantic internet cables or satellites or Teslas with it?


From the article:

  > Distributism puts great emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity. This
  > principle holds that no larger unit (whether social, economic, or political)
  > should perform a function which can be performed by a smaller unit.
The point is that you should try and keep things as small as feasible. When it's not feasible you use bigger institutions.


When I read the comment, I thought about companies like Boeing, Airbus, Intel, ARM, Bayer... They sound very capital intensive but I think they could still be more efficient if they were broken up.

If you were to analyse these companies, they are already in fact be broken up into hundreds or thousands of small teams. The difference is that these small teams are not separate businesses; they are often not held directly accountable for their work and they do not reap the rewards of their own work (incentive is missing) and so the company has to spend a huge amount of resources to implement checks and balances to make sure that everyone stays in line and this slows everything down to a crawl.

Most people who work for big companies are focused on office politics instead of value production.

People who work for corporations are subjected to coercion (and managed through fear) on a daily basis under the pretext that it's more efficient in terms of value production... But in reality, corporate coercion is only useful as a mechanism for capturing value, not to produce it. The real goal of corporate structures is to channel existing output value into a small number of shareholder hands but it causes a reduction in the total output value and greatly reduces workers' ability to capture the value that they produce.


How would that interact with the situation where a smaller system just about works OK, but a larger system works better?

For example, we could devolve wireless spectrum management to cities. But it would be jolly inconvenient if San Francisco and San Jose required mutually incompatible wifi hardware.


It seems like you could have a government that was primarily focused on standards and contract enforcement, so companies could build any kind of hardware they liked, but the government would be able to push them to build it according to a broader standard.


It does raise an interesting question though. If the system kept a lid on the size of the computer companies in the nineties how would a business like Apple accumulate enough capital to fund the development of a product like the iPhone. We might all still be playing Snake on our dumb phones.


So, no FB, Twitter, walled gardens, BS apps, rat race to replace, and 3 hours per day staring at a mobile screen? Sounds like a deal!

Where can I get this Snake thing (Google Maps aside)?


Music, maps and route finding, weather forecasts, password management, calculator, email on the go, library loans, camera, calendar, chats with my friends and family, all on the first page of my phone. I wouldn't want to give it up now.


Music that still mattered culturally and need some minimal menial effort to consume (and not just overconsume and mostly skip), more adventurous route finding, weather forecasts one could still have (and still be wrong most of the time) back in the day, no need for password management or calculators most of the time (and when one needs the latter, there's Casio awesome calculator watches, liberty from email and chats on the go, real camera for people actually invested in the art and less photo and selfie pollution, --

yep, I'll have that Snake game!


You are jumping to a lot of conclusions about my consumptive habits there :)


Was talking about mine, but probably they match :)

E.g. I did large roadtrips (e.g. Route 66 style) in 2000-2005 (before I got a GPS) and I do roadtrips now every year (well, never stopped). I far more prefer the experience before I could just take out my iPhone and check everything on the map.


One of the accomplishments distributions point to are European cathedrals, which were built by hundreds/thousands of self-employed craftsman who owned their own tools. A modern equivalent would be a company like Google paying thousands of full-time freelancers to bring their own computers and work on large systems together. Or in the case of a Trans-Atlantic cable, paying independent electrical engineers, electricians, boat owners, etc. to work together to lay the cable. Distribution doesn’t rule out forming collectives, corporations or joint ventures to accomplish tasks, either, and a professional might be part of more than one “employer” in this sense.


Mondragon is an example of a large-scale Distributist enterprise:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondragon_Corporation


In a certain sense, large companies are a failure of market economies. Because the rules and mechanism of a market are often suspended within the firm.

It’s not impossible to imagine something like Tesla being organized as a loose set of specialized craftspeople, although I would agree that it would likely be less efficient.


It's about distributed _ownership_ not necessarily physical distribution


Well, there's an idea that we shouldn't have those things in the first place ("sustained energy production") for environmental reasons, which would go well with distributism.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degrowth


I'm inclined to like this idea, but it seems to be framed in a way that centralizes a lot of governmental power.

Why not look for ways to decentralize power and also decentralize resources? For instance, removing or limiting various privileges of large corporations that individuals don't have.


My understanding of distributism has been that it has among its aims to localize governmental power. I don't mind strengthening a government where my vote actually makes a difference.

Especially in the incarnations of distributism that have a large overlap with Georgism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgism) you see this sort of thing manifest in e.g. the land tax (strengthens local governments who are the assessors of said tax -- and if land tax is your society's primary tax, then power naturally devolves from the center to the local).


Where do things like written rights come in to play?

What is the difference between dostributism and federalism?


Distributism, being a Catholic belief, is ultimately based on the principal of subsidiarity, which is a Catholic social doctrine stating that all matters of government ought to be handled at the most local level competent and able enough to deal with the matter. Thus, while national defense may best lay with the national government, the trash pickup schedule is best decided by local processes.


I don’t see why Catholism is emphasized so much in your answer. The concepts discussed exist independently of Catholism, have their roots before Catholism and looking at them from a religious angle confounds more than it clarifies.


It’s based on the writings of Catholic popes. I think calling it Catholic merely gives credit to its recent originators.

It’s just the same as calling a school of economics Austrian, or a branch of psychology Freudian.


Additionally the foremost apologists for Distributism, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, were Catholic writers.


Becahse distributism was first explained by catholic scholars. In order to understand them you must understand their catholicism


But you can translate this to corporations, and consider that large corporations are more efficient than small ones. But large corporations have downsides, so the optimum is somewhere in the middle (?)


This is the anarchy road. I am with you on this one. Power corrupts. Hierachies enslave. We need a more horizontal society. We need more decentralization.


I wonder how you avoid it devolving into feudalism, it doesn't seem like a system that can hold itself in place.


You can't. Removing rigid social structures, authorities, and hierarchy only results in those structures being slowly and informally reproduced once again, until someone once again formalizes and crystallizes a semi-authoritarian, hierarchical structure. Everything slowly centralizes itself to the maximum extent that the technology and economics of that time allows. Places where this does not happen in large scales are exceptional; the sheer logistical capability of a centralized system blows most decentralized systems out of the water once it finds its proper implementation. Systems of high freedom and low centralization can only exist fleetingly, in times where resources are plentiful and there is wide expanse, where the roots of authority have not yet had time to grow. At best you can delay the process with education and good civics, but eventually no matter how well you draft your founding documents, no matter how good your teachers are, crisis, fragmentation, and desperation will eventually invite the authoritarian again.

If you reran history ten thousand times and adjusted the positions of 10 thousand butterflies, the Mahknos of history will never prevail against the Lenins, the people will crown and laud their Caesars and Napoleons and Frederick William IVs, etc. That we will ever get a luxury space communism is a fantasy.


Capital democratization is a topic I've been researching for a while now with regards to new tech startup corporate structure, especially things that fall into the public good category like FOSS.

Co-op's and ESOPs are just one way, but it's about time that we start to experiment with new ownership and governance structures that don't just create more Facebook's and Amazon's.

Louis Kelso is the one who notoriously invented and popularized worker-ownership plans in the US, taking inspiration from the US Homestead Act with spreading capital ownership across society. During the cold war, he also used to characterize 'capital democratization' as a third way, separate from capitalism and communism, but mainly just because then neoclassical economists like Samuelson derided his ideas at the time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUf51M9D6sw


This is a really interesting thing to think about. If we pick on Facebook as an example, most people look at FB and see that it has 2.3 billion customers, then go on to assume it's an amazing and innovative company filled with great people who make the best product in the industry.

An alternative point of view is that there are 2.3 billion customers out there for this type of product, and the financial systems and incentives present in our society resulted in Facebook owning all of those customers.

FB actually is exemplary of the flaws present in the first mode of thinking. I don't doubt there are many brilliant people working there, but their product is crappy and even user hostile on many levels. Biggest absolutely doesn't translate to best all the time.

More likely FB got to where it is because the rules of our society concentrate capital and control (which is exactly what we see going on when we look at data such as wealth disparity, shrinking # of new businesses etc. in the USA over time).


> I don't doubt there are many brilliant people working there, but their product is crappy and even user hostile on many levels.

The alternative interpretation is that there are brilliant people working on it and their product is great, the user just isn't the customer. Brilliance doesn't imply ethical behavior ;)


That's true for sure, but it's worth noting that Facebook's actual customers (advertisers) don't like it much either--many outright hate FB for its business practices.


>During the cold war, he also used to characterize 'capital democratization' as a third way, separate from capitalism and communism

Decentralized workplace democracy was the model in Yugoslavia under communism and in much of China during the Mao era. It was also briefly attempted in the early Soviet Union.


Maybe it's because I'm a Protestant who's not particularly invested in Roman Catholic social teaching and so I haven't learned the nuances, but it seems to me that when you apply distributism to an industrial or post-industrial society and work out the kinks you end up with either capitalism or socialism.

It's straightforward to apply distributism to an agrarian society where land is the main source of wealth: split up the farmland among a bunch of smallholding farmers.¹ But once a meaningful part of your economy is in capital-intensive industries, you have a decision to make: do you allow private individuals to accumulate capital or not? If you do, you soon have a capitalist society. If you do not, or you allow them to accumulate capital but not to benefit from it, you end up with a socialist society. The examples in the Wikipedia article confirm this impression.

Distributism looks to me like someone took the principle of subsidiarity and the role of the family, saw that they got more respect in the late middle ages, and pined for the economic system of that era. It would be interesting and productive to re-examine some of the underlying assumptions there.

¹ Whether land reform is just is a separate issue; at least it is possible.


Interestingly, Protestantism is tied up with the history of capitalism.

I think it's worthwhile to think about systems that don't reduce to either capitalism or socialism.

(Though, in the spirit of reductionism, one can imagine capitalism as reducing to socialism in the long term: you can allow private individuals to accumulate capital, but ultimately it'll end up in the hands of a few individuals, who will be a de facto government.)


It's not an either-or thing, where if you allow people to accumulate productive resources, you inevitably get capitalism, and if you don't, you inevitably get socialism.

This is tremendously simplified, but I would say that if you allow people to accumulate productive resources and your economic policies prioritize market efficiency above all else, then you're likely to end up with laissez-faire capitalism.

However, if you have economic policies in place that prioritize widespread ownership (for instance, by incentivizing small-business ownership or cooperatives), that might lead to some short-term market inefficiencies but may promote beneficial long-term effects. For instance, it might help them compete against larger corporations whose only advantage is economies of scale, but which wipe out otherwise healthy small businesses and then enjoy near-monopoly status.


While not explicitly distributist in their thinking, many of the so-called Kuyperian or Neocalvinist theologians pick up the strands of Catholic subsidiarity (a critical piece of distributist thought) and call it sphere sovereignty. That said, many Neocalvinists end up becoming rather ardent supporters of Catholic-tinted capitalism, such as the Acton Institute.


You end up with OPEN SOURCE


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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dengism proved to be successful


Richard D Wolff advocates a socialism that sounds something like this, centered around worker cooperatives rather than state control of everything.


Any large examples of this? Only one I can think of is Mondragon Corporation

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondragon_Corporation


In the UK, John Lewis / Waitrose (a big supermarket and department store group) is owned by its employees.


I suppose the mutual building societies in the UK aren't very far from this idea as well, although there aren't many left now. Also Vanguard.


"Further, some distributists argue that socialism is the logical conclusion of capitalism, as capitalism's concentrated powers eventually capture the state, resulting in a form of socialism."

This is pretty wild, could someone please explain this argument for me?


Yes... Communism means the communal ownership of goods. In practice, some process needs to be in place to decide how the goods are used. Usually, this is some kind of democratic institution -- a government or small committee that nominally looks after the interests of the people. Historically, the issue with communism is the inability for this small group to truly benefit all the workers.

Corporate capitalism is the same system under another name. Instead of governments controlling the capital in the name of the workers, employers own the capital in the name of the workers. Workers themselves in both systems do not often own their own means of production (although capitalism at least allows for this).

For example, a distributist model of furniture manufacture involves thousands of local woodworkers each making furniture, selling them, profiting in a small way -- at least enough to raise their family. A corporate capitalist model is one large company which owns all the tools and wood that the individual employee-workers utilize to make a good that is sold to profit the corporation. A communist model is the 'people' own the tools and the wood that some citizens make into furniture for the benefit of all the community. Because the worker gets everything they need anyway, their income isn't actually a function of their labor.

In both the case of corporate capitalism and communism, the worker does not own the means of production and the profit and value they create via the utilization of the tools and raw materials owned by some other more remote group is mostly alienated from their behavior. Only in the distributist model are people actually paid exactly for what value their labor provided.

In other words, monopolistic publicly owned corporations are basically communism, but with the board of directors (on behalf of the 'people' -- the shareholders, basically the public for large corporations) substituting for the communist government. All economic decisions are made centrally, and any competition between these large firms in an oligopoly is more akin to the competition between communist governments than the competition envisioned by capitalists


Thank you for such a clear explanation. As somebody that clearly knows their onions on this topic, are you able to answer a couple more questions?

1. Under distributism, what happens to people who can’t produce valuable economic output - the old, disabled, infirm?

2. How does distributism deal with externalities, both positive and negative. What incentive is there for charity or creative work where results benefit the whole group, so nobody wants to pay?


Didn't see this, sorry! I'm not much of an expert, but I'll try.

1. Distributism is not opposed to tax. However, the tax ought to be collected by the smallest and most local authority who can competently handle the situation. Thus, a federal tax is likely overkill for disabled and elderly care, since these things can operate at a much lower level.

2. Again, distributism doesn't object to governmental intervention, as long as the intervention is at the right level. In fact, it's often in favor of intervention for things like this .


Well, how do those things happen today?


A combination of tax and regulation to redistribute income, cover the cost of negative externalities, and encourage activities with a positive externality. I’m grossly oversimplifying, and obviously it’s neither 100% efficient nor effective.

I’m genuinely intrigued by distributism, so please don’t think I’m making snarky comments.


Since capitalism does those things in an ad-hoc way, I don't see why it would have to be any different under distributionism; if anything it would most likely be a non-change; it certainly doesn't seem to preclude those activities - my impression is you have to implement some form of mixed economy no matter what backing ideology you try to guide with.


So distributism isn’t opposed to tax? Could the government then subsidise some types of work that it wanted to encourage, or tax those it wanted to discourage?


In this taxonomy, what is Uber's model? Its drivers provide both capital and labor.

Further, Richard D Wolff's makes the distinction between private capitalism (eg USA) and state capitalism (eg USSR) by who keeps the surplus (profit).

"Gig economy" companies like Uber keep the surplus. What's that called?


Private capitalism


The sentence is probably using “socialism” to refer specifically to social democracy (capitalism with strong state interventions to regulate firms and provide welfare) rather than the broader historical definition (social ownership of the means of production).


> "Further, some distributists argue that socialism is the logical conclusion of capitalism, as capitalism's concentrated powers eventually capture the state, resulting in a form of socialism"

This greatly resembles Karl Marx's criticism of capitalism, which has failed to hold up to reality so far.

Frankly, this sounds a lot like repackaged socialism using labor unions and guilds rather than a central government. Might not be as bad a state socialism (i.e. they might actually be able to manage the businesses better), but I sincerely doubt it would solve any of the major problems we see today.

While you do have inequality in capitalist systems the "elites" tend to rotate, with empires falling apart and new ones taking their place. Wealthy families maintaining their wealth and power are the exception and not the norm.

Introducing guilds or more unions will likely make it much harder for competition and innovation to thrive, introducing a huge barrier of bureaucracy interested only in maintaining the status quo for their own benefit.


The capture the state part seems to be spot on. You just need to take a look at how much lobbying goes on and our inability to deal with issues like climate change thanks to the big oil companies.


They can apply large pressure on the state, true. But so can labour unions (and probably so would guilds). It is still not true state ownership as competition does thrive (even if they still have obstacles).

Edit: There are probably even better examples of lobbying than climate change as that has a ton of confounding factors that make it hard to deal with besides just oil companies. But I see no reason to assume distributism would make the issue better. Taxi drivers protesting against Uber comes to mind.


> which has failed to hold up to reality so far

It's held up for most of history. The US can probably avoid full socialism for just under 400 years (hopefully), as the brief ~250 years so far, is not a proof in context. What any 2 people consider socialist may be very different.


Any real implementation of Distributism would require a strong state and police force to enforce it and in practice would look identical to socialism.


All robust implementations of capitalism require state and police force to enforce property rights.

Property is monopoly to assets given by the government.


You can certainly have property rights without a government, they just may not be “fair” according to some definitions (of course, specific implementations of government protection of property rights also may not be “fair” according to some definitions).


That's just might makes right, there's no property there since you can take what you want.

Property implies you use the state (an external entity) to enforce your rights, providing checks on individual power, not that you enforce it yourself.


Are you implying regulation/anti-trust/anti-monopoly/anti-plutocracy is socialism?

Do you understand the difference between state/corporate socialism, and regulations?


The problem with this is it can only work by imposing arbitrary restrictions on everyone. Under free market capitalism if you want to run a family business you can. If you want to run a multinational corporation you can. Nobody is rigging the system to force one outcome or the other and there are good economic reasons why both can be appropriate and successful in different circumstances. Distributism arbitrarily labels one of those wrong and the other right on ideological grounds, leading to an inflexible, inefficient and ultimately coercive economy because the 'right' answer has to be imposed somehow.

I think what is often missed about capitalism is that essentially it is based on individual freedom. The freedom to own property, to own capital, to deploy that capital as one sees fit, to take responsibility and the benefits from the outcome, to act individually if you wish or in concert in groups or organisations of any size.

In capitalist liberal democracies, if you want to create and run a workers cooperative, you certainly can and people have. You can run a family business, or a huge corporation. It doesn't really mandate a particular organisational structure, at least at that level. There are rules about how business entities are run to an extent, such as rules about boards of directors and financial reporting, but they don't actually stop you building an enterprise built on distributist or even Marxist principles.

The problem is these arbitrary systems of organisation, while they can be effective in some limited situations, just aren't flexible and efficient enough to be extensible to a whole economy. In mandating a particular organisational structure, and in distributism even a preferred scale, they also obstruct innovation. The old distributionist mantra 'three acres and a cow' sums this up nicely, it's an essentially static view of society. Again Marxism suffers from the same disease, never really developing good answers to how enterprises are founded, innovate, evolve and wind down in a natural way. Instead it has always had to resort to state executive fiat because there is no organic process for innovation and these life-cycle transformations in Marxism. In contrast under Capitalism, people and organisations simply do these things through the exercise of their individual freedom and discretion.


> Nobody is rigging the system to force one outcome or the other and there are good economic reasons why both can be appropriate and successful in different circumstances.

I would consider myself a capitalist, but you have to be pretty naive to think that corporations haven’t captured our governing class and rigged the system in their favor.

This Wikipedia article makes this point very early as a critique of capitalism, which is fair.


They have in some countries and not so much in others depending on the regulatory system. In the US yes corporations have enormous direct political influence due to the campaign finance and lobbying system, but other liberal democracies have very strict campaign finance laws that make that much harder. It's not an inherent or inevitable attribute of the system.

There are also plenty of examples of governments breaking up, trust-busting and punitively regulating big corporations so they clearly don't always get their own way.

In contrast I would argue that ossification and stagnation are inherent features of distributism and a lot of alternative economic systems that don't have good answers to the problem on innovation and economic dynamism.


Lobbying America is a good history of corporate USA's transition from serving the public good to whatever we have today.

https://www.amazon.com/Lobbying-America-Politics-Business-So...

Amazon's blurb:

"Lobbying America tells the story of the political mobilization of American business in the 1970s and 1980s. Benjamin Waterhouse traces the rise and ultimate fragmentation of a broad-based effort to unify the business community and promote a fiscally conservative, antiregulatory, and market-oriented policy agenda to Congress and the country at large. Arguing that business's political involvement was historically distinctive during this period, Waterhouse illustrates the changing power and goals of America's top corporate leaders.

Examining the rise of the Business Roundtable and the revitalization of older business associations such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Waterhouse takes readers inside the mind-set of the powerful CEOs who responded to the crises of inflation, recession, and declining industrial productivity by organizing an effective and disciplined lobbying force. By the mid-1970s, that coalition transformed the economic power of the capitalist class into a broad-reaching political movement with real policy consequences. Ironically, the cohesion that characterized organized business failed to survive the ascent of conservative politics during the 1980s, and many of the coalition's top goals on regulatory and fiscal policies remained unfulfilled. The industrial CEOs who fancied themselves the "voice of business" found themselves one voice among many vying for influence in an increasingly turbulent and unsettled economic landscape."




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