Regina Schmiedicke defends the third way

by Regina Schmiedicke

The responses in Issue 5 to my Issue 3 article criticizing the excesses of capitalism and proposing that distributism offers a “more Catholic” alternative have made me realize that I need to explain more fully what distributism means. For instance, both Michael Welker and Martha Blandford have virtually identified it with Marxism, which it is not.

The name “distributism” is perhaps misleading. It was coined by a group of thinkers in England around the turn of the century who proposed that the government help bring about an economic recovery for the nation by passing a bill making it financially feasible for owners of large plots of land to sell them off in smaller parcels to individual families, to allow people from the underclass to become self-sufficient. In other words, distributists were calling for a voluntary distribution of land and resources, with no government coercion, just government incentives. This is nothing like communism. Bear in mind, too, that England was then still pretty much ordered according to the landowners and serfs of feudal times. Thinkers pushing to “democratize” English society recognized that political rights for the underclass would mean nothing without corresponding economic rights.

But I suppose if someone is not aware of the historical context, the term “distributism” might suggest the idea of government forcibly “re-distributing” resources, as the Marxists and welfare-state bureaucrats envision. It apparently did to Mrs. Blandford, since she reads government coercion into my proposals for subsidiarity, although I said nothing of the sort.

Government action is certainly not the only way social change can be brought about. In fact, I would argue that although a government might attempt to bring about a distributist-type society by law, such a society would be both unjust and unstable. In order to last, a distributist society must be built from the ground up—by individuals, families and businesses deciding to live out distributive principles and conducting their business accordingly. I would add here that trying to live out distributism generally involves some type of simplification of lifestyle—really, a conversion of heart away from materialism and profit motives.

Should society decide to adopt distributism, there are ways to maintain it that do not involve the government at all. Consider the medieval guilds. They were run by the business owners themselves, who set standards of quality, arranged for fair prices, and initiated apprentices into the trade through a system of training and promotion that allowed opportunities for anyone who was willing to make something of himself. The guilds protected the individual owner’s freedom and dignity by allowing him to exercise his ability to work, to create, and to build within parameters that not only set limits on individual avarice but fostered solidarity among would-be competitors. The guilds were famous for their town entertainments and parties, which were organized by all the members. As the economic foundation of the society, they accomplished their purpose admirably.

Today, guilds exist in a modified form under the name “occupational groups” in some locations. Papal encyclicals have repeatedly called for the revival of occupational groups as a way for individuals to achieve social justice in a marketplace that favors giantism.

If we were to look beyond trade groups and guilds, there is room for government legislation to encourage distributism. For example, the state government could decide to set a tax on chains—a business that owned only one store would be given a tax break, where businesses that had several stores would be taxed accordingly, making mega-chains financially punitive. The same could be done with huge agribusinesses, to make the family farm a financially viable venture once more. These sorts of laws might hamper the “liberty” of big business, but they would undoubtedly enhance the freedom of the community to live more personally and wholesomely.

But we need not wait for legislation to start living more “distributively” ourselves, that is, in ways that I think reflect our Faith and our humanity more perfectly than our unquestioning participation in the market-at-large does.

I already mentioned patronizing local businesses, which not only give more money back to the community than outsider-owned chains, but are more susceptible to local influence. For example, it would probably be easier to get the locally-owned pharmacy to stop selling Playboy than the nearest Stop n’ Go. A good rule is to avoid malls whenever possible. Malls impoverish the downtown areas of cities, which have been the traditional havens of individual owners and new businesses. The effect of the Fort Steuben mall on the downtown area is obvious to anyone who has driven through Steubenville.

I realize that, for most of us, finding a low price on an item we need tends to take priority over where it comes from. And it’s generally true (but not always true!) that prices in chain stores are lower. But the short-term benefits are miniscule compared with the long-term effects on the consumer and the economy. Wal-Mart has been praised as a “moral” and “family-friendly” company. However, the company has become notorious for its predatory underpricing. When it moves into an area, it deliberately underprices many of its goods (it can afford to), which forces the local auto parts stores, clothing stores, pharmacies, bookstores, and so on, to lower their prices, which few of them can afford to do. People (including sometimes, I admit, myself) flock to Wal-Mart to find good deals. It’s tempting to buy cheap. But when Wal-Mart has put all the competition out of business, will it remain so cheap—or so moral?

I hate to sound ominous, but the situation is rapidly getting desperate and very few people apparently see where thoughtless consumerism and praise of capitalism is leading our nation’s economy, never mind our culture. If indeed we do experience the economic collapse many think likely, will McDonalds, Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, IBM, AT&T, Lockheed Martin and the other monster corporations be able to salvage the families of all their employees? I harbor serious doubts. Many of them can’t keep their workers employed now.

It’s become almost a matter of principle to search out local farmers and buy our produce direct, to dine at the local restaurants, or only buy handmade toys from small catalog companies or craft fairs-more expensive than ToysRus, but worth the price! There are fewer unpleasant encounters with crass advertising, less canned music, more friendly exchanges with owners.

If we as Catholics value opportunity, if we value a diverse and rich marketplace, if we value our families and a family-centered culture, then we should work towards family-centered economics. It only makes sense.

Regina (Doman) Schmiedicke, Class of ‘92