Distributism – You can catch wikipedia here. A more informal, modern take here.
All I had remembered about Distributism is that it had been championed by Chesterton, and its slogan was “three acres and a cow.” I hadn’t even gotten that right, actually, as I had misremembered it in an American fashion, “forty acres and a cow.” It was an individualist twist on the marxist idea of workers owning the means of production, in that individual workers would own their means of production, not The Workers as a group. Which is certainly an improvement, as The Workers always turns out to be a front for New Bosses. Hillaire Belloc was also a proponent (no surprise), and much of Catholic social action of the 30’s, including the Antigonish Movement, was influenced by the idea. My grandfather left Nova Scotia before the Antigonish Movement, and I don’t know if any siblings or other relatives he left behind were participants. But he moved to Massachusetts, and after some grim times and false starts, moved to Westford and eked out a living the rest of his days on…three acres and a flock of chickens. He usually needed another job as well, beyond selling eggs and strawberries. It’s an important addition to the discussion, as it was to Carl’s income.
Nestled in Chesterton’s thought was the belief that not only could a man support a family if he were given such means of production, but that a certain type of historical Englishness would be preserved. “Three acres and a cow” were not the only possible means of production distributism might provide, but the example was meaningfully chosen. He desired a return to bucolic England. So did Tolkien, if his Shire is any indication. There is certainly some element of unhealthy fantasy here – not the eleves and magic-imbued artifacts, but the memory of England as it never was, only as it seemed to a child’s eyes. That the fantasy was sustained by continuing examples of charming smallholders even in their adult experience can be attributed to convenient data selection – confirmation bias.
It’s easy to see how the idea arose. Small farmers rented from large landowners, often hereditary, and often contributing nothing of obvious value to society. An observer might well think “if these farmers owned that land and didn’t have to support this ridiculous aristocracy, they could do much better.” By the late 19th C this was already under correction and breaking down, but that might have not been easy to see while living through it. Changes in the law made aristocrats les and less eligible for those rents, and they had to resort to other means of support. Investments was one, and the financiers and money-movers were reaping that reward. Perhaps this is what galled Chesterton and contributed to his early antisemitism – that the money was finally being distributed, but not in a way that would preserve his myth of Merrie England. Someone else had cut in line, somehow.
Imagine if such a system had come in. It has a certain attractiveness to it, that an impoverished person in Detroit might be able to make a claim on the government and say “give me three acres and a cow” as a way of getting a leg up. Except you likely couldn’t live on that. A young man I have known since his childhood has forty acres, very intelligent, works very hard, and is supporting only himself. He needs outside work to get by. So this original distributism might allow one to subsist – which is historically accurated for preindustrial England but not what Chesterton was envisioning. If we had gone that route, we would be a poor nation. Americans in many cases own their means of production now – a computer and a cell phone being the most obvious examples.
In the debate about job creation a similar, though updated myth has come in. The 1950’s of our imagination, where a man could go to work at a good union manufacturing job and make his way in the world is the same sort of fantasy: not only a type of job, but a type of life that should be available, dammit! What’s wrong with America that we can’t do this anymore? Well first, we never did. The poverty rate was almost 25% for the 1950’s. My uncle whines about this all the time, and he’s not the only one, dreaming of a world of manufacturing jobs that never was, not in any era. Second, even for those who had it, it is a life that people wouldn’t go back to. How do we know? Because even when it was still available, people got out of it unless they were in the most favored of manufacturing situations. When I was in school, no one waxed eloquent about the great joys of manufacturing jobs – they were referred to as soul-deadening assembly-line, or shoe factory, or electronic assembling employment. It was no more the great nostalgic time of American greatness that Chesterton’s bucolic fantasies were in his day. As Garrison Keillor wisely pointed out. “We think of those as simpler times, because we were children, and our needs were looked after by others.”
But third, and most important, even if we could, we can’t. We may think it a tragedy that manufacturing has gone elsewhere, or think it a great blessing, but either way, that world is not in any possible future. We may be pessimists who believe that 50% of us will be unemployed in 2040 or optimists who believe a technology-supported, human value-added economy is going to be the great liberator, but either way the change is coming.