Distributism versus Classical Liberalism: a dichotomy that needn’t be?

In the face of the great clash between Collectivism and Capitalism of the 20th and 21st century I have come to embrace the often described “third way” economic system of Distributism. At its roots Distributism is, broadly speaking, a capitalist economy – but only broadly speaking. The central theme of Distributism is the decentralization of property among the populace, so that every person in a Distributist society may privately own some part of the means of production in the economy. However, it is an obscure economic system and the theory remains largely undefined and amorphous with its greatest advocates being Catholic theologians, philosophers and writers and not economists. Thus, a great deal of confusion exists among Distributism’s intellectual community with little solidarity of ideas. Some Distributists do recognize the economic theory’s Capitalist roots and thus rightly embrace a free-market approach to Distributism while many others have, with good intention but unfortunate economic ignorance, embraced a path to Distributism dangerously akin to socialism or even corporatism.

This fallacy becomes readily apparent in the writings of Distributists like James Baresel who condemns libertarians for abandoning subsidiarity and the communal aspect of humanity, treating man as unjustifiably individualistic. Citing the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity Baresel states that the common good has priority over individual freedom while libertarians unduly hold individual freedom as the greatest good of all. This would be appalling except that Baresel engages in a false dichotomy. There is absolutely no reason why the concept of individual liberty and the common good should be categorically opposed to one another, as if the increase in one can only occur with the reduction of the other. In fact, a libertarian who remains true to his classical liberal roots values and elevates individual liberty not just as an end but as the means necessitated by the laws of economics to the common good and the betterment of society as a whole. It is precisely because individual liberty contributes to the common good of society as a whole that libertarians demand categorical laws of government protecting and promoting individual liberty above and beyond any kind of invasive government intervention or benevolence program.

Whether one values individual liberty at the expense of government programs more or direct government involvement in the name of benevolence over individual liberty largely determines the difference between, not only Capitalists and Collectivists but also between free-market Distributists like myself and socialist Distributists like Baresel. I believe that upholding and protecting individual liberty is the best way to advance society and establish the decentralization of the means of production amongst the citizenry. Barasel believes that the government must “prioritize” the common good over individual liberty so that liberty must succumb to public interest, as if the two were somehow intrinsically opposed, for those same ends to be achieved. Neither of us, however, believe that strict individualism is the highest good to be sought – it is not. Instead, it is a good that also serves as a means to a still greater good: the common good. Alone, individual liberty cannot achieve societal progress – since free will is a fickle thing – but it is a  necessary prerequisite to such progress. As one great thinker of the 20th century stated:

“For the life of the individual in society is possible only by virtue of social cooperation, and every individual would be most seriously harmed if the social organization of life and of production were to break down. In requiring of the individual that he should take society into consideration in all of his actions, that he should forgo an action that, while advantageous to him, would be detrimental to social life, society does not demand that he sacrifice himself to the interests of others. For the sacrifice that it imposes is only a provisional one: the renunciation of an immediate and relatively minor advantage in exchange for a much greater ultimate benefit. The continued existence of society as the association of persons working in cooperation and sharing a common way of life is in the interest of every individual. Whoever gives up a momentary advantage in order to avoid imperiling the continued existence of society is sacrificing a lesser gain for a greater one.”

Who said this? Was it Pope Leo XIII, champion of Catholic social justice teaching? Or was it the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton, great advocate of Distributism that he was? No, it was the renowned classical liberal (or libertarian) and Austrian economist Ludgiw von Mises who so wisely stated those words. Because, contrary to the accusations of many of classical liberalism’s critics (whether they be socialist, distributist or other) and contrary even to the beliefs of many self-described “libertarians” themselves the ultimate object of libertarianism is not individualism, where each man is merely an island, solitary and egocentric in his whims and responsibilities. No, true classical liberalism extolls the virtues of individual liberty and, especially, the private ownership of property, not so that selfish individuals may rise above their more humanitarian counterparts but so that all of society may benefit from the fruits produced and enjoyed by each individual that makes up the whole.

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One thought on “Distributism versus Classical Liberalism: a dichotomy that needn’t be?

  1. I have just seen your article in which you characterize me as a “socialist distributist”. This represents a complete misunderstanding of my position. I can leave aside for now the question of whether I have or have not understood libertarianism correctly. The pertinent fact is that I am a conservative and that my position on the economy is at least approximate to an economic application of Russell Kirk’s principle of “ordered liberty”. I would agree, however, with Kirk’s distinction between conservatism and libertarianism. I would not identify myself as a distributist but would be willing to work with them because of common concerns on various points. However I have recently asked that my articles be removed from The Distributist Review do to serious disagreements with John Medaille, who I believe had been editor. In short his preoccupations and concerns seem to be those of the left on important issues related to poverty, property rights and government intervention. I do not say he is a “socialist distributist” but only of a leftward leaning direction on the matters related to the best of my ability to judge. Last summer an article of mine from The Distributist Review was republished in the Houston Catholic Worker. I believe this was authorized by the man who at the time was web editor and not by Mr. Medaille. I informed the web editor not to allow my future work to be published in the Houston Catholic Worker and sent a letter to the editor of that publication pointing out that I had no desire to associate with their publication and that I had not given permission for the reprint. I insisted over the phone that this be published in the next issue of Houston Catholic Worker and only hope that it was. While my disagreement with libertarianism remains I do apologize if any lack of clarity or lack of prudence of expression on my part appeared to support socialism or “socialist distributism” and motivated anyone in such a direction. There are distributists (including some who write for The Distributist Review) of a basically conservative orientation whom I would be happy to continue to associate with. I hope you will correct your article.

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