Thursday, 14 June 2012

Small is beautiful: a latter-day saint endorsement of distributism

"Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists."

So writes the legendary Catholic writer G K Chesterton in his 1921 book The Uses of Diversity. He proceeds to explain this quote in terms of what it means to be a capitalist. For Chesterton, being a capitalist involves owning your own resources, owning private property, owning your own portion of the means of production.

Chesterton sees very little difference between free-market capitalism and state socialism - after all, both involve very large shares of the world's resources being concentrated in the hands and under the control of a very small group of people, whether that group is made up of the CEOs of a handful of multinational corporations or the handful of government ministers who control the national economy. For Chesterton, this is the root of the problem faced by every economic system - too many resources concentrated in the hands of too few people. In other words, "too few capitalists".

I have come to personally appreciate and embrace distributism as an economic philosophy. Distributism was the economic theory developed by Chesterton and his friend Hilaire Belloc to try and solve this problem faced by both socialism and capitalism. Distributism proposes that the means of production be decentralised and distributed as widely as possibly among the general population rather than being concentrated in the hands of the government or a handful of CEOs. This would mean, in effect, an economy composed of a large number of small businesses.

The reason I am so attracted to distributism from a latter-day saint perspective is its emphasis on self-sufficiency and independence. When the community's resources are concentrated in the hands of the government, you are entirely dependent upon the government for your employment and livelihood. When the resources are concentrated in the hands of mutinational corporations, you are dependent upon them for your employment and livelihood. Under a distributist system, you own a small share of the resources yourself, and are thus dependent only upon yourself for your employment and livelihood.

This is attractive to me because where there is no dependence there is no coercion. As Belloc put it: "A family possessed of the means of production—the simplest form of which is the possession of land and of the implements and capital for working the land—cannot be controlled by others. Of course, various producers specialize, and through exchange one with the other they become more or less interdependent, but still, each one can live “on his own”: each one can stand out, if necessary, from pressure exercised against him by another. He can say: “If you will not take my surplus as against your surplus I shall be the poorer; but at least I can live.”

This economy of freedom and independence is central to the mormon understanding of agency. Agency is central to latter-day saint belief. This belief has influenced our views on suffering
(see my previous post), the purpose of life and, for a good deal of our history, politics. Because of our belief in agency, we have a long history of supporting democracy and the constitution. I feel that it is about time we applied our belief in agency to the economic realm.


  1. Great post, and excellent point. I'm curious how you might suggest redistributing power and profit concentrated in a few large corporations to smaller businesses.

    You should submit this post to Millennial Star. It would get a good response there.

  2. Thanks for the kind words nate. Perhaps I will submit it to Millenial Star!

    I think producers need to start asserting their independence from the state and from big businesses. They must take the initiative in forming small businesses. Then, the public need to lend them economic support by choosing to buy their goods and services instead of the products of large multinational corporations. Finally, I do think the government has a role in enforcing tariffs between states and high tariffs on imported products. I would even go so far as to tentatively suggest that mutinational corporations be forbidden to sell goods and services in the country. They will be forced to choose between drastically reducing in size or losing a large base of customers in that country. A move to a decentralised economy seems unlikely in the near future, but I am hopeful that with the cooperation of producers, consumers and the government a more equitable and agency-friendly economy can be achieved at some point to counter some of the more unsavoury effects of globalisation.