Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Some recent posts about "Distributism"

Here's Thaddeus Kozinski; Joe Carter; John Couretas; and Patrick Deneen.  Read 'em all. 

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.  What I really appreciate is when I read someone who's working on what we might call "applied" and "modest" distributism or new urbanism, someone who proposes reasonably efficient and realistic "nudges" we might use to help people move along the trajectory of real flourishing.      


Garnett, Rick | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Some recent posts about "Distributism" :


                                                        Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


The urban "renewal" monstrosities to which new urbanism responds, the modern food economy to which slow food responds, and big-business big-government to which distributism responds were all largely the creation of the state via subsidies and other spurs and not really "market incentives."

Suburbia itself was largely spurred by government built super highways and HUD (or whatever the equivalent in the 40s/50s was) guidelines on how to build new developments. You mention costs, but suburbia ain't cheap. All of the road/sewer/power infrastructure is much more expensive for urban sprawl than a more "human scale" town or urban center that is largely walkable and cars are superfluous. I think you can see many new urbanist projects flourishing in "in-fill" projects across the country.

The modern agroconomy is largely the result of government subsidies that favor mono-culture which is why the State of Indiana is variously a corn field or soy-bean field.

And Walmart is heavily subsidized whereas mom and pop shops ain't. I would take some of the stuff on this website with a grain of salt, but it illustrates in part how state and local governments heap money on Walmart, giving the retailer a huge competitive advantage over mom and pop: http://www.walmartsubsidywatch.org/

I would wager that if we stopped subsidizing and bailing out the big guys, we would be "nudging" things in the right direction.

Sorry about the rant, but I think that for people like Chesterton and Berry statism is the problem not the solution.

Posted by: AML | Dec 12, 2011 6:57:45 PM

Austin, I (of course) know all that. But, the kind of talk that bugs me is not limited to careful calls to reduce subsidies for sprawl.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 12, 2011 8:10:24 PM


I (mistakenly) took your line, "markets and incentives and trade-offs are (this side of Heaven) permanent realities," implied that you thought that what distributism, new urbanism, etc. criticize were the result of markets and incentives.

-AML (Ahem... ;) )

Posted by: AML | Dec 13, 2011 11:19:22 AM

Austin, sorry to be testy. Here's my thought: Of course it's true that some of what the new urbanists complain about (and that I do, too!) are the result of responses to incentives (e.g., incentives created by subsidies, for example); my point is that it is *also* true that *a lot* of what the new urbanists (and distributists) propose fail to take adequate account of the costs (broadly speaking to include all "downsides", including -- in a democracy -- the cost of coercion) associated with their proposals, and also fail to take account of the fact that, often, suburbs (and Wall Mart, etc.) are the result of rational responses by consumers / citizens to the facts on the ground (e.g., urban corruption, crime, mal-administration, etc.) To be clear: I *like* (and choose) good food and walkable mixed-use neighborhoods. What I want from distributists and new urbanists are more modest and practical proposals -- proposals that do not involve (often hidden) assumptions about family size, and that are non-coercive, and that do not set themselves against rational responses to the facts on the ground mentioned above -- for how to move our lives in the direction they envision.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 13, 2011 11:49:34 AM

I share Prof. Garnett's mix of attraction/confusion/frustration. Many of the linked articles respond to the key critique -- that distributists promote an ethos but no program of legal rules -- by dodging the question. Ferrara, to his credit, seems to say that the distributist society would have the same laws as the libertarian state next door, but the distributist citizens would simply use their freedom to buy less pornography and more locally-grown tomatoes. If that's so, the distributists need to make common cause with the libertarians in the voting booth and in lawmaking bodies, even if some of their cultural and social preferences might seem closer to the left than to their libertarian allies of convenience.

But I don't think the other distributist writers are committing to that view, but are not opposing it, either. It's all well and good to say that you prefer the local hardware store to Wal-mart. But what do you want to DO about it? Restrict Wal-mart by force, or, as many suggest, remove all of the statism that promotes Wal-mart, with confidence that the small shops could hold their own against Wal-mart with a truly level playing field?

Even if one commits to an immediate libertarian-leaning program, it still leaves the hard question: If you remove the state's pro-Wal-mart tilt and that doesn't achieve your goal, do you tilt the other way coercively, and if so, how, and how much? But, given that we're so far from libertarianism now, and that it's near-impossible to predict the empirical results of moves in that direction (even part-way), I'm willing to grant the distributists a free pass on answering what they'd do down the road.

However, I would like to know whether, at this point, they support or oppose moves in that direction, on the idea that reducing the state would have pro-distributist effects.

On the other hand, I am not satisfied by (1) support of increasing statism on select measures, hoping to outweigh anti-distributist statist effects with purportedly countervailing statism in a pro-distributist direction, or (2) refusal to answer, and mere repetition of amorphous goals ("more owners") with no policy program. The second, I fear, ends up de facto support of the first, and that is why many libertarian-leaning Catholics -- even the ones sympathetic to distributist goals -- suspect that distributists are de facto socialist helpers, for lack of joining in the opposition to the ever-growing state.

Posted by: joe reader | Dec 13, 2011 3:57:37 PM