Lifting Society from the Bottom Up: A Distributist Agenda for the American Solidarity Party

by John Médaille

While many members of the ASP are distributists, many more are unfamiliar with the term. To give a one sentence definition of distributism, it is the belief, supported by centuries of practice, that families are better off when they have their own property sufficient to allow them to choose how to make their own way in the world. Property should not ordinarily be gathered into vast collectives, whether corporate or Soviet, but rather spread as widely as possible. In what follows, I draw out some of the practical implications of this for the ASP platform.

I outline the economics of distributism in my book Toward a Truly Free Market. For those who would rather not buy the book, I give some further information here, here, and in many other articles which you can read on my page.

By way of introduction, I am a retired businessman and, for the last fifteen years, an adjunct instructor at the University of Dallas, where I teach the courses Introduction to the Bible and Catholic Social Teaching for Business Students. I hope that what follows may prove useful in the platform committee’s deliberations.

Respectfully submitted, what follows is an outline of a distributist agenda for the American Solidarity Party. I recognize that not all members of the ASP are distributists, but many distributists seem to be members of the ASP. This is good, because it seems to me that distributists need a political home, since at present we tend to separate our distributist selves from our political selves. That is to say, as distributists we may found a business or a co-op, or dream of doing so, but as voters we are nothing in particular; we are Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, progressives, and what have you. We are all over the map. That is to say, we are nowhere at all. But if distributism is a real possibility, it needs to have a political program and one with a clear and definable purpose and goal. And I suggest that the goal should be two-fold, one part of which might be termed “subversive,” and one part of which might be termed “patriotic.” These two parts correspond to two dimensions of political theory: subsidiarity and solidarity.

First, the subversive part. Here, we are always trying to widen the spaces wherein people might use their own personal or cooperative property to make their own ways in the world. Here, we are trying to create cracks in the concrete hegemony of capitalism so that some distributist flowers might grow. And foremost is the broadening and enforcement of antitrust laws. For while capitalist propaganda advertises itself as a “free market,” the reality is otherwise. In a truly free market, there is vigorous competition and no firm is large enough to dominate the market and keep competition out. But what has actually happened is anti-market. When we look at practically any segment of the economy, we find that it is dominated by two or three firms. From beer to banking, from eye care to oil to entertainment, we find not a free market but a cartelized economy which sucks all the life out of the market and diminishes the space for the economic use of personal and cooperative property.

Foremost among the hegemonic institutions is the big-box store, itself largely the creation of the highway subsidy. These stores have done more than any other to wipe out the small businessman and destroy the commercial and communal lives of towns and cities. But their “competitive” advantage does not arise from any supposed “efficiency,” but from subsidy. For it is not more efficient—but less so—to manufacture low-value goods in the interior of China, ship them to the coast, ship them across the sea to Long Beach, California, ship them by truck to Bentonville, Arkansas, and then ship them to regional distribution centers and stores. The only way this is practical is because the transportation system is subsidized at every stage. If, for example, the interstate highway system were financed by weight and distance tolls, the big-box store would be seen for what it is: the least efficient way of distributing goods, and local manufacturers and retailers, with their shorter supply lines, would have the cost advantage.

Along with undermining the hegemonic aspects of capitalism, we must build up the legal and regulatory basis for distributist enterprises. Cooperatives need to have their own space in law, a space that provides for regulatory and even tax relief. There are good reasons to highly regulate vast global enterprises, and to regulate them at both the national and international levels. A Smithfield Foods pig barn that slaughters 4,000 pigs a day for shipment across the country needs one kind of regulatory regime, but when these safeguards are applied to the small farmer slaughtering a dozen pigs a week, the enterprise becomes uneconomic; Smithfield actually benefits from a regulatory regime that only big firms can afford.

Likewise, firms where the employees have effective control of their own work rules need little in the way of public regulation; the workers can protect their own interests. But in firms where the workers have no power, they require the power of the state to protect them from exploitative work rules and dangerous and toxic work environments. Hence, the small and worker-owned firm will have a regulatory advantage over the large, multinational firm.

This short list is not meant to be exhaustive, but suggestive. Starting from the principle of widening the economic space for distributism and undermining capitalist hegemony, many other things will suggest themselves. But along with this subversive goal of undermining the system, there is a second and paradoxical goal: We must uphold the system. That is, we must participate in the political process with the goal of getting people the best deal that can be obtained under liberal capitalism. There are, of course, distributists who take the opposite tack, such as many advocates of the so-called “Benedict Option,” which advises political quietism while building up counter-cultural enterprises; their hope is that the liberal world order will simply collapse, and then, as Patrick Deneen put it, “such countercultures will come to be seen not as ‘options’ but as necessities.”

There are at least two problems with this. The first is that it’s the kind of thing said mainly by tenured professors and political pundits whose needs are well met by the system of liberal capitalism; they can painlessly advocate for collapse since they are unlikely to actually see it. They are divorced from the problems of the masses of men and women who have neither tenure nor affordable health care. As such, the “Benedict Option” is simply a violation of solidarity.

The second problem is that just distribution does not arise from disorder, but from order. Liberal order has collapsed in Honduras; their major exports are now drugs and refugees. The Middle East is in flames; the only thing well-distributed is militias. It would be the same here; were America to collapse, the Amish farmers so admired by the “benedictines” would find themselves paying tribute to local warlords, presuming that they would be allowed to keep their farms at all. Yes, it can happen here, and the inflexible rule of history is that what goes around comes around.

So then, we are presented with a complex and even contradictory task. In the name of subsidiarity, we must work to undermine liberal capitalism and create alternative spaces for production and exchange, art and leisure, community and independence. But in the name of solidarity, we must work to ameliorate the system and socialize such common goods as health care, unemployment insurance, education, and so on. In this, we can think of ourselves as “patriotic subversives,” working simultaneously to undermine and uphold the system of liberal capitalism and to provide space and time for something better and more humane. I have no objection to those who would point out that socializing goods such as medicine is not the ideal solution, but I would point out that we need to evolve towards those ideals; we must start in the real situation in which we find ourselves and make the most of it, while providing spaces for alternatives to grow. That is to say, we must obtain what good we can in the present moment, and not make the remote ideal the only standard; to do so would be to make the best the enemy of the good.

Liberal capitalism in practice, whatever its theoretical claims, results in a “top-down” system. Property and power are gathered into fewer and fewer hands with the result that property is collectivized under a corporate managerial regime which quickly comes to dominate the political order. This is justified in the name of “trickle-down” theories that assert that the poor are helped primarily by aiding the rich; tax-cuts aimed at the wealthy will enable new investment to enrich the working class. But such collectivization, whether corporate or Soviet, never aids the people, save for the people who already have power. Prosperity does not trickle down, it bubbles up. Property distributed at the bottom aids all classes, for society is always lifted from the bottom up.

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