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An Introduction to Distributism II

The widespread distribution of productive property is the primary goal of Distributism; however, other principles also inform Distributism’s pursuit of this goal. The first of these is the principle of subsidiarity. Pope Leo XIII speaks little about it; however, Pope Pius XI, in a daughter encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, teaches it very clearly. The principle of subsidiarity is the simple notion that

[J]ust as it is a crime to take away and hand over to the community those things which can be done with proper struggle and industry by single men, so also it is an injury, a grave fault, and a disruption of right order to summon to the larger and higher society those things which can be done and excelled by smaller and lower communities.[35]

Put simply, subsidiarity dictates that whatever can be done by a smaller unit should not be done by a larger one. This principle clearly leads to the greater distribution of productive property. There is no reason for much of our production of wealth to be so concentrated; Distributism would encourage this overconcentration to be remedied, spreading ownership of productive property more broadly throughout the populace.

It’s important to remember that this principle works both ways. Pius XI notes that “it is rightly argued that certain types of goods must be reserved to the republic since they bear such great power with them, [power] so great that it cannot be permitted to private men by a sound republic.”[36] Nuclear power, an extensive train system, or communications systems might fall into this category. Subsidiarity does not exclude higher authorities from all functioning in society; it simply ensures that lower authorities are not deprived of their rightful role. Distributists respect both sides of the subsidiarity coin; they seek to trust to the state those industries which are so powerful that they carry the potential to dominate the state, while at the same time ensuring that productive property is kept in the smallest possible units, which means that it is as widely distributed among families as possible.

It is true that modern industries are often not amenable to wide scale distribution in the traditional sense; after all, an aircraft factory is not a shoemaker’s shop. But this does not mean that the workers in such factories cannot become owners. Despite our living in a capitalist society, many workers have managed to gain a share in the productive property which they work, and these workers have often been very successful. Spain’s Mondragon[37] and the many cooperatives in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region[38] have proven to the world that worker-owned cooperative production can be just as successful, or even more successful, than the highly centralized production that has unfortunately characterized the industrial age. These and other models of worker ownership can allow productive property to be widely distributed throughout the citizenry even in industries which necessarily require large and centralized works.

The other vital principle which forms Distributism’s pursuit of widely distributed productive property issolidarity. Solidarity is the recognition that a state is a single whole that is possessed not only of many individual goods, but also a single common good.[39] It recognizes the fundamental precept of traditional and Catholic social thinking that the man “who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is… either a beast or a god.”[40] Leo XIII taught that “[c]ivil society exists for the common good, and hence is concerned with the interests of all in general, albeit with individual interests also in their due place and degree.”[41] The organization entrusted with ensuring that particular goods are kept within proper limits and directed toward the common good is the state.[42] Therefore, keeping in mind the principle of subsidiarity, the state guides economic life, including its subsidiary corporations (such as workingmen’s associations[43]), toward the common good, while individual corporations pursue their own particular goods within that framework. This notion of many particular goods subordinated to and cooperating toward a single common good is what we mean by solidarity.

Solidarity has many repercussions in economic thought. It means, for example, that competition, though just within certain limits,[44] cannot serve as the basis for a just economic order[45]; in other words, whatever benefit that businesses seek to obtain by competition cannot come at the cost of the public good. Truly, this is anathema in an age when corporations routinely justify their butchering of the national and even international economies by their obligations to make profits for their shareholders, but it is nevertheless the case. When we remember the singular nature of the state, and the fact that we are all parts of a whole seeking our particular goods within a whole seeking its common good, the proposition that competition is a valid defining principle for economic interaction is clearly untenable.

Furthermore, what has traditionally been known as the preferential option for the poor follows directly from the notion of solidarity. Leo XIII stated that “when there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration… wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.”[46] The Church has always taught that “in protecting these rights of private citizens, [the state] must have especially in mind those of the weak and the poor.”[47] The state is one, and all parts of the state are parts of a whole working toward the same common good; it only makes sense, then, that special care should be taken by the whole for those parts which are least able to help themselves.

So how is a Distributist society to be established? That question is impossible to answer generally. What works perfectly in Rochester may be a disaster in Rome, Italy; indeed, what works perfectly in Rochester may be a disaster in Rome, New York. Means for encouraging widespread ownership of productive property, always respectful of the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, will vary by place, condition, climate, economy, culture, government, and innumerable other variables. Catholics need to dedicate themselves to consideration of these measures in their own areas and situations, tailoring them to specific conditions. One condition, however, will be the same always and everywhere, a condition identified by Pope Leo well over a century ago:

[S]ince religion alone, as We said at the beginning, can avail to destroy the evil at its root, all men should rest persuaded that [the] main thing needful is to re-establish Christian morals, apart from which all the plans and devices of the wisest will prove of little avail.[48]

We cannot reclaim society for Christ unless we first reclaim ourselves. To that task, first and foremost, distributists, like all men, must devote all their strength.

[1] St. Luke 10:7.
[2] Didache: The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles(Peter Kirby, trans.; 2001), available at http://earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html.
[3] Id.
[4] A superb example of such thinking is St. Thomas AquinasDe Regimine Principumvel De Regno, available at http://gorpub.freeshell.org/books.html#deregno.
[5] See, e.g., Dr. William Luckey, The Intellectual Origins of Modern Catholic Social Teaching on Economics: An Extension of a Theme of Jesus Huerta de Soto 9 (speech given to the Austrian Scholars Conference at Auburn University, 23-25 March 2000) (arguing that given research “which ought to have been available to [the pope],” “it is hard to excuse Leo XIII”).
[6] See, e.g., id. at 1; see also Rev. Maciej Zieba, O. P., From Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum to John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus 5:1 Journal of Markets & Morality 159 (Spring 2002) (arguing that part ofRerum novarum‘s “tendency is brought to a halt and partly turned around in the first two social encyclicals of John Paul II”).
[7] Pope St. Pius X, Singulari quadam (24 September 1912) (“[i]taque primo loco edicimus catholicorum omnium ocium esse. . . tenere rmiter pro terique non timide christian veritatis principia, Ecclesi catholic magisterio tradita, ea prsertim qu Decessor Noster sapientissime in Encyclicis Literris Rerum novarum exposuit”). All translations from the Latin in this work are the author’s, unless otherwise noted.
[8] Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, no. 47 (teaching that “[t]he right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man”). All citations from Rerum novarum are from the English translation available at http://www.vatican.va.
[9] Id. (teaching that “the State has the right to control its [private property’s] use in the interests of the public good”).
[10] Id. at no. 45.
[11] Id. at no. 20 (teaching that “before deciding whether wages [are] fair… wealthy owners and all masters of labor should be mindful… that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profi t out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine”); see also nos. 43{45.
[12] Id. at no. 37.
[13] Id. (teaching that “[t]he richer class have many ways of shielding themselves,… whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own… for this reason [ ] wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government”).
[14] Id. at no. 39.
[15] Id. at no. 41.
[16] Id. at no. 3.
[17] Id. at no. 42.
[18] Id. at no. 45.
[19] Id. at no. 3.
[20] John Medaille, Neo-Feudalism and the Invisible Fist in The Distributist Review, available at http://www.distributistreview.com/mag.
[21 Duane D. Stanford, InBev to Buy Anheuser-Busch, Gains Top Market Share in Bloomberg (14 July 2008), available at http://\-www.\-bloomberg.\-com/\-apps/\-news?pid=newsarchive\&sid=aDm1PPbwrdHc.
[22] Tom Daykin, InBev looks at SABMiller in JSOnline (May 29, 2008), available at http://www.jsonline.com/business/29568214.html.
[23] Dmitry Krasny, And Then There were Eight: 25 Years of Media Mergers, from GE-NBC in Mother Jones (March/April 2007).
[24] James Niccolai, Intel grabs server market share from AMD, says IDC in Network World (19 August 2010), available at http://www.networkworld.com.
[25] Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, no. 3.
[26] Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (The Liberty Fund, 1977).
[27] Id. at no. 62.
[28] Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea in The Basic Works of Aristotle 1003 (Benjamin Jowett trans., Richard McKeon ed., Random House 1941).
[29] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia, Q. 21, Art. 1 (“secundum quam aliquis gubernator vel dispensator dat unicuique secundum suam dignitatem”).
[30] Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, no. 33.
[31] Id. at no. 46.
[32] Id. at no. 47.
[33] Id.
[34] Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (The Liberty Fund 1977).
[35] Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, no. 79 (“sicut qu a singularibus hominibus proprio marte et propria industria possunt per ci, nefas est eisdem eripere et communitati demandare, ita qu a minoribus et inferioribus communitatibus eci prstarique possunt, ea ad maiorem et altiorem societatem avocare iniuria est simulque grave damnum ac recti ordinis perturbatio”.
[36] Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, no. 114 (“Etenim certa qudam bonorum genera rei public reservanda merito contenditur, cum tam magnum secum ferant potentatum, quantus pravatis hominibus, salva re publica, permitti non possit”)
[37] See, e.g., Dr. Race Matthews, Mondragon and the Global Economic Meltdown in The Distributist Review (6 June 2010), available at http://distributistreview.com/mag.
[38] See, e.g., John Restakis, The Lessons of Emilia Romagna (30 April 2005), available at http://www.geo.coop/ les/BolognaVisits Lessons ER.pdf.
[39] For a lengthier discussion of this, see the author’s Individualism and the State (23 July 2010), available at http://distributistreview.com/mag.
[40] Aristotle, Politics 1131{32 (Benjamin Jowett trans.) in The Basic Works of
Aristotle (Richard McKeon ed., New York: 1941).
[41] Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, no. 51.
[42] Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, no. 49 (“[o]cia vero hc singillatim de nire, ubi id necessitas postulaverit neque ipsa lex naturalis prstiterit, eorum est qui rei public prsunt”).
[43] Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, no. 49.
[44] Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, no. 88 (“[a]t liberum certamen, quamquam dum certis nibus contineatur, quum sit et sane utile”).
[45] Id. (“rei conomic rectus ordo non potest permitti libero virium certamini”).
[46] Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, no. 37.
[47] Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, no. 25 (“in ipsis protegendis privatorum iuribus, prcipue in rmorum atque inopum rationem esse habendam”).




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