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December 29, 2011

Distributism, Slow Food, and the New Urbanism

Earlier in the month Rick Garnett and Patrick Brennan commented on "distributism."  Rick wrote:

I'm really torn -- or maybe just mixed up -- about "distributism," in many of the same ways I'm torn (or mixed up) about "new urbanism" and the "slow food" movement.  I am attracted to the aesthetics, and even to the underlying anthropology, but put off by the lack of interest these ideas' advocates often seem to display with respect to details about transitions, legal structures, practicalities, coercion, and costs.  I love Chesterton and Berry and all that but, dang it, markets and incentives and trade-offs are (this side of Heaven) permanent realities. 

If we take a state-centric approach to distributism, slow food, and the new urbanism, all of Rick's concerns require answers.  But, Chesterton takes a different approach.  In Two Difficulties, an essay that prophetically reads like it was written post-2008, Chesterton says: 

It has taken many years for the false system in which we live to develop to the point at which it became topheavy and collapsed. It may take many more years to make good the damage. Rome was not rebuilt in a day. ... The industrialized countries, because of the effects of industrialism, are unlikely to witness any sudden return to normality by Government action. There is more likelihood of slow but steady recovery continued perhaps for generations, through the efforts of individuals in practical work and in the exertion of whatever influence they can have on their neighbours.

With Chesterton's approach the problems associated with "transitions, legal structures, practicalities, coercion, and costs" fade into the background, not erased but much less important.  But, Chesterton's approach poses a different problem for lawyers and law professors, especially those exploring Catholic legal theory - what role do we (can we, should we) play in offering correctives to current economic, legal, political, and social structures?  I see 3.1 roles we can play. 

First and foremost, as emphasized since the inception of MOJ nearly 8 years ago (see e.g. here and here), we can continually critique the prevailing anthropology, which incoherently reduces human persons to workers, consumers, and autonomous self-choosers/self-creators (this anthropology manifests itself albeit differently in both the left and the right) and offer an alternative rooted in natural law and revelation.  Second, given that human weakness and sinfullness are permanent realities "this side of Heaven," we can remind ourselves and others of the limits of the legal and political orders.  Third, we can work to ensure that the law leaves speace in society for followers of G.K. Chesterton, Wendell Barry, Alasdair McIntyre, Dorothy Day, the new urbanists, etc.  Fourth, and this only gets a .1 given my second point on law's need for modesty, the law might play some small role in creating incentives for building a society more conducive to authentic human flourishing.  But, like Chesterton, I remain highly skeptical of this fourth role. 

Posted by Michael Scaperlanda on December 29, 2011 at 10:38 AM in Scaperlanda, Mike | Permalink

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But will just "leaving space" for alternatives be enough to prevent the injustices done by the predominant system? A family might be able, legally, to own a farm in state dominated by corporate agribusiness, but will they be able to be sustainable economically? Wouldn't it be more in line with principles of justice and further distributism if the state leveled the playing field more by prohibiting investor-owned farms and requiring that all farmland be owned by family residents?

Posted by: ctd | Dec 29, 2011 2:10:21 PM

Ctd, it might be more just to proceed as you suggest. But, we would need to collectively think through the potential unintended consequences of such a move. And, such a move will not solve the problem because corporate agribusiness will (and has) inject itself into the system at other points such as seed ownership (Monsanto) or outputs contracts (Tysons). I am not saying that there is no role for the government to play in affirmatively preventing the types of injustices you describe, I am just skeptical of the government's ability to affirmatively address injustice.

Posted by: Michael Scaperlanda | Dec 29, 2011 2:21:41 PM

Excellent post, and you know my respect for Prof. Garnett. What I would point out is that just as socialism went through a utopian phase (Fourier, etc.) before gaining policy heft through the Fabian Society and eventually maturing into soc...ial democracy, so too does Distributism need some maturation policy-wise. However, it is not as if one needs to start from scratch as Distributism is inherently counter-revolutionary, there are plenty of policy examples in the past. For instance, one of the most Distributist policies in American history is the Sherman anti-trust act. In some versions of capitalist utopianism (of the Austrian variety), the government would allow whatever combinations arise and eliminate governmental interference with the same. However, we see the benefits of government intervention in order to preserve a free market, that is free of both governmental control or monopolistic/oligopolistic control. Having read deeply of the Distributist thinkers, my policy inclinations are to favor the small over the large wherever practicable. The key is noticing that government provides incentives by what it does and what it fails to do. The hard question of governance is what outcome do we prefer. Pragmatism arises when we have valid questions regarding how to move closer to a given ideal. That does not mean that we ought not have an ideal.

Posted by: Jason Reese | Dec 29, 2011 2:28:31 PM

The problem with the example in your comment, Michael, is that the government has contributed to the injustice by granting Monsanto a patent on its soybean and corn seeds, allowing it to control virtually all soybean and corn production in this country. And there are other examples of where government policy stacks things in favor of agribusiness and other corporate actors. It seems to me a lot harder to me to argue against the government leveling the playing field when it has had such a large hand in tilting it in the first place.

Posted by: Susan Stabile | Dec 30, 2011 7:44:02 AM

Susan, I agree completely with you. The point of the example - perhaps not stated clearly enough - is that the powerful have and will always have multiple points of entry into any market, including the political market. If the distributists, local food proponents, and new urbanists attempt to remake society with positive legislation promoting their agendas several problems arise. First, the problems that Rick identifies. Second, likely cooption by the monied and powerful. Third, the problems associated with lack of wisdom, vision, and prudence, which can lead to all sorts of unintended consequences. That is why I am skeptical of the fourth role of law. The third role of law - negative legislation protecting space is more modest and targeted to specific problems like the seed problem we are discussing.

Posted by: Michael Scaperlanda | Dec 30, 2011 11:03:54 AM

There is a role for positive law by way of incentives. For example the government could offer attractive tax incentives to organize large business ventures under a cooperative structure of worker-owners (like Mondragon in Spain) vs organizing as a publicly traded corporation.

Posted by: Michael Sullivan | Dec 31, 2011 2:53:26 PM

Prof. Scaperlanda, I agree with your skepticism about the ability of positive law to "assist" distributism along, but I echo and add to Prof. Stabile in pointing to the many areas in which the State assists the "pro-big" entities and blocks small entities and families from living in distributist ways.

We need much more of what you rightly call "negative legislation protecting space" for smallness. In one sense, such legislation is rightly called "modest," as you call it, in that it is much more modest than "pro-smallness" state action. In another sense, though, such legislation is incredibly ambitious, measured relative to to the massive State-corporate structures now in place. It would be a huge effort to recreate the space we've lost. It's even a huge -- and losing -- effort to preserve the space that's diminishing day by day.

That's where today's distributists face an even more daunting challenge than Chesterton. He already faced the growing statism of his day, but today, we've got over a century's worth of anti-small legal structures built into the DNA of the modern State. It'd take a massive effort to re-open the space you speak of.

Posted by: joe reader | Jan 5, 2012 1:01:43 PM

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