Monday, June 30, 2014

Distributism 101

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 35
John C. Médaille, Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More

You can spot what values political types favor by what words they use frequently. Conservative capitalists make “freedom” their mantra, while progressives have recently harped on “inequality.” John Médaille insists both dominant positions get it wrong, that our magic watchword should be “justice.” Médaille’s concise, plain-English introduction to Distributism, a morally motivated economics, upends facile college bromides and forces us to ask what purpose economics serves.

Distributist economic theory begins with a deceptively simple premise: if citizens are nominally free, but lack the means of living independently, that freedom is an illusion. Systems which concentrate land, labor, and money in a scant few bureaucrats’ hands rip life’s means from citizens’ control, moving power up the political pyramid. Importantly, every “mainstream” economic system does this; capitalism and socialism make taxpayers choose which servitude system we prefer.

If your undergraduate economics course resembled mine, you spent countless hours graphing the supply-demand arc or mimicking the NYSE with monopoly money. Médaille demonstrates how these exercises represent ideals, measurable only in retrospect, seldom actually representing minute-by-minute decisions in constantly shifting circumstances. Real economics rarely behaves like textbook exercises, because we make decisions in conditions of incomplete knowledge. Thus we allocate our resources based on values, not mathematics.

These values include a belief that all commodities are equal; that economic forces are self-correcting and ultimately tend toward equilibrium; and that economics has objective scientific weight, like physics. These values all assume individuals exist separately and make wise decisions. Distributist theory, however, holds that individuals are sterile: I may make money, but cannot leave any posterity separate from others. For distributists, the fundamental economic unit is the family.

Distributism, Médaille writes in his second half, makes those values transparent. The illusion of market absolutism obscures the fact that markets arise from laws, traditions, and decisions made long before we had any choice. We make choices daily, unaware how prior actions circumscribe our options. If we privilege individuals over families, economics becomes a mere algebraic representation of our consumption, reducing humans to Pac-Man-like instruments of appetite.

Médaille pinches words familiar to both conservative and progressive readers, but repurposes them to serve his justice-based principles. For instance, he discusses “the ownership society,” a key libertarian precept. But libertarianism, Médaille writes, makes little sense in today’s concentrated wealth conditions. Distributed property ownership authorizes citizens to make wise decisions in consumption, employment, and investment. People without property cannot make free decisions, because they lack means to say no.

Likewise, Medaille lambastes Big Government. But he asserts that Big Industry requires government to stabilize market forces; Médaille’s foe isn’t government, but bigness. Before the New Deal, concentrated capital made economic instability and crippling recession violently commonplace. “Those who wish to scale back the extent of government involvement in the economy,” he writes, “must first analyze the failures in the economy that make heavy government involvement necessary.”

Perhaps most shocking, Médaille demonstrates how concentrated capital creates conditions exactly like notorious Communist systems. By keeping labor divided, but capital connected, workers will accept any work, however meaningless. But without meaning, workers require constant goading. Viewed from within, transnational mega-corporations resemble Soviet labor camps, where good work isn’t rewarded, nor bad work punished, so little work gets done. I can verify this from personal experience.

Dedicated readers will find inevitably find something to hate, especially when Médaille makes proactive suggestions for Distributist reform. He’ll recommend cutting some program you cherish, or shifting tax burdens in ways that bother you, or belittle some public figure you admire. His characterization of federal education policy as “useless” bugged this ex-teacher. But he forced me to examine why I hold that position, refining my position and removing the chaff.

Where capitalists and Marxists maunder over hypothetical ideals, Médaille describes actual distributed economics that could model real-world goals. His favorites, the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation and the regional economy in Emilia-Romagna, show actual distributist precepts in action. Médaille’s vision isn’t some abstract system of goals we might achieve, under mathematically precise conditions. He describes economics that currently exist, that we could apply here and now. And that makes his ideas exciting.

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