Wednesday, December 30, 2020


Because it came up in the Chesterton comments, I bring this forward from June 2011. I was going to make some of these points in the comments, but see that I was smarter ten years ago.


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 elves 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 less 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 redistributed, 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 further upstate” 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, is very intelligent, works very hard, and is supporting only himself. He still needs outside work to get by. So this original distributism might allow one to subsist – which is historically accurate 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 actually do 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 still 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 that never was of manufacturing jobs dominating, 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 than 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.


james said...

Of course the "3 acres and a cow" proposal is even more implausible in our political/economic system that wants every citizen to be a revenue stream. You can try to "live off the grid" but you can't escape the taxman. Unless you become a ward of the state and a revenue sink, but that's even farther from the Distributist ideal.

I don't think Chesterton ever thought this through in great detail, or went out to try to find out how the bucolic folk actually managed to worry along.

I call myself a "Godelian": pick any set of political and economic rules (axioms), and there will be some situation (logical statement) that can't be dealt with justly (proved). Add a new law to cover that, and some new problems will crop up. Multiply laws too much and friction and uncertainty reign. Some governing constructs are worse than others, but nothing is going to be perfect.

And by "not perfect" I mean terribly unjust to somebody(s). The only way I know to deal with that sort of problem is one on one help-your-neighbor. If the neighbor in question is in the ghetto in a different city there's probably not much help forthcoming.

Of course there can be infinite arguments about whether tweaking law X by \epsilon will produce \delta increase in the general good, so this isn't a recipe for clear policy. But it is a recipe for discounting 99% of what politicians promise. Or authors :-)

Der Hahn said...

By most measures the optimists are winning.

Even by comparison to the standards of our childhood we've got far more lesiure and luxury than our parents at the same stage in their lives.

At times I wondered if I was going to see as much change in my lifetime as my father did in his. Then about a year ago I picked up a smart phone that looks like a communicator/tricorder from Star Trek and has more computing power than the Macintosh I bought in 1984(at about 1/10 the price) and realized I'll probably see more.

Texan99 said...

I know this is no way to read and enjoy a delightful fantasy epic, but I sometimes find my mind wandering to questions of how the economy was supposed to be working in Middle Earth. Our heroes rarely had recourse to paid employment or merchants. Who was growing all the food, making all the stuff? Where were the markets? A fantasy of Merrie England indeed: everything was fine as long as someone occasionally stumbled on a dragon's treasure, which itself had been assembled in distant times from a wealthier and more elaborate society that had since disappeared. Very much like children living on their parents.

Ymar Sakar said...

There's a natural ploy that works in distributing land. It only works when you have more land than you have farmers able to work it, so you have to give it out for free because nobody is willing to just voluntarily go out there and farm it just because.

If you tell them the land is theirs, they now have a reason to go out there and farm it.

This benefits everyone. Because the people who didn't own the land, lost nothing when the land started being farmed. It's not like they would have gotten anything from land in Indian country that nobody was farming. No food, no trade goods, no nothing.

So it is positive sum distribution, rather than negative sum or zero sum redistribution.

Redistribution of wealth from one group to another definitely has 'losers'. The people who lose money become bitter and the people who gain the money become co-dependents and slaves.

Who does that benefit? No one, except the Slave Master.

Unknown said...

Texan99 - I always wondered what Game of Thrones would look like if Neal Stephenson had written it: it would be all about how Westeros developed technology. How could they have institutions that had served "for thousand of years" but stick with medieval iron and steel industries? Especially when years of conflict have historically prodded technological progress to gain an edge. Sure, dragons (etc), but I don't buy it. It's a question I would like to see someone ask George RR Martin.
On "three acres and a cow" - I know a family who owns 160 acres, in Richmond, BC - some of the most productive land on the planet. They run it as a dairy farm (like dad and grandad before him - and it was probably a full section before it was divided on inheritances). It's a lovely place, and well kept - but Dad actually makes his living as a long-haul truck driver. He laughed when I asked if he could survive as a farmer - he said it was only the trucking that let him keep the farm as a hobby