Garrick Small is a property economist who has taught at several universities and spoken at a number of Australian Chesterton conferences
The March 2020 issue of Local Culture, a journal of Front Porch Republic, was devoted to Distributism.
Its essays approached their topic from far more perspectives than an economist might think possible for the treatment of an economic idea. The collection in total conveyed an insight about Distributism that lies outside the scope of economics: that man’s economic life is part of his social life – which is to say, it is as rich and deep as humanity itself.
The collection begins with some anticipated content. Allan C. Carlson chronicles the history of the movement, and John Médaille outlines its economic framework. These are sound reading for anyone who is unfamiliar with these more practical aspects of the movement, but what follows would curl the toes of a mainstream economist trying to make sense of what appears to the mainstream as quirky and impractical.
Cameron Moore considers Distributist Aesthetics in Chesterton’s novel, The Flying Inn, as if the dismal science could admit an aesthetic dimension. Dr. Moore is a professor of English, and he is followed by papers by other learned men in the areas of literature and the humanities and other very un-economic disciplines.
John Médaille gives a clue as to how this apparent panel of experts outside their field could come to be found in a collection on an economic idea. Médaille complains that economics has been seduced by equilibrium, when it should have been exploring equity, and equity is a social and a moral idea.
He could have said that, because of that mistake, economics is nothing but a system of mistakes out of touch with its formal object. Médaille is an economist and one of the rare ones who have kept their common sense.
To be human is to be social
Common sense is the core of Distributism, which reckons on economic life being an inseparable part of human, social life. To understand it, therefore, requires understanding what it is to be human, and that means understanding what it is to be social.
Hence the importance of the aesthetic that fascinates Cameron Moore. It means that understanding its strict economic principles is less important than understanding its anthropology, its ethics, its spirituality, its theology and its vision of human society. Some gems present themselves. John Médaille provides a penetrating outline of what economics should be to show what conventional economics is not.
Distributism has to do with justice, and some economists still recall the notion of distributive justice, though forget that means to give each man his due. In the economic system, that translates to giving each contributor to the social activity known as the production of wealth what is due to them.
Médaille shows how the tricksters in the dismal science have completed a disappearing act on distributive justice where all that remains is the market. Little wonder economics is known as the “dismal science”.
James Matthew Wilson illuminates the way that socialism and capitalism are no more than different sides of the same coin, an idea that was a commonplace for Chesterton, noted as equivalent variants of “moral, social and juridical modernism” and “Twin rocks of shipwreck for the faith” by Pope Pius XI, but an anathema to the contemporary neo-conservative Catholic right.
Wilson also explains how the Distributists had much in common with the agrarian movement, and even the ideas regarding land property found in Henry George. A surprisingly insightful set of observations from a Humanities professor.
John Glass exposes an easily ignored, or perhaps subverted, idea, that an economic idea must be based on a theological foundation. Obviously, there can only be one true theology, and upon that will be found moral, social and cultural super-structures that are the most effective and the most human.
Glass uses the agrarian, Allen Tate, to illustrate how the commentary and popularity of the various strains of the agrarian idea were intimately connected with their authors’ religious position. Tate thought himself into the Catholic Church as he refined his economics.
The agrarian idea, a largely independent eruption of the Distributist framework in North America, began without any strong connection to Catholic Social Thought.
Its brilliance lay in its recognition of human scale and human need in the economy, which it applied to rural production. Its weakness was partly its implicit dependence on Protestant theology and the American inclination towards individualism that tended to swallow the individuals who were not monied.
Jeffery Polet illustrates this principle – though largely in the negative – with the example of Eric Gill. Gill was an English artist, Distributist and the leader of three experiments in practical distributist living at Ditchling Common, Wales, and Pigotts which lies north-west of London.
Gill followed a similar path to Rome as Tate, entering the Church at age 33, and like Tate was an influential thinker. However, Gill’s theological search did not end with the Catholic Church, despite outward appearances.
Gill developed his theological perspective based on his own inner spiritual experiences, which happened to be the unrestrained indulgence of lust spanning fornication, homo- sexuality, bestiality and incest.
Fr. Paul Scalia described modernism as a theology based on inner personal experience that can sometimes manifest outwardly as orthodoxy, but at others as any aberrant behaviour or belief, all the while believing one is on good terms with God. This was Eric Gill.
Polet claims that Gill had some sort of invincible innocence, though the argument seems empty, and perhaps betraying a comparable theological logic.
Gill and the short-lived distributist field experiments poignantly illustrate an unfortunate quality of Distributism: it seldom works in our time.
We have the Mondragon Industries in Spain, and other scattered durable distributist successes, but they tend to share key elements. They tend to have been started with the inspiration of sound priests; they continue under leadership strongly committed to Catholicism as it has always been, and they are always threatened by human frailty. Civilisation, and the Catholic Faith itself, share the same qualities.
In all, this volume displays Distributism in its integrity, its complexity – but also in its exposure to human frailty.