Monday, February 9, 2015

Real Life is Small and Local

I made the following observation in a recent Facebook post:

The rich and powerful have always been in charge. Always. You say, "But what about communism?" Well, any communist dictator (and communist countries all have dictators) is powerful by definition, and it's funny how they always manage to accumulate a huge amount of wealth as well. "But how about socialism?" Again, the rulers are powerful, and socialist countries have banks. That's where their money is, and someone runs them. "But how about democracies?" (like ours) Politics is the way to power, and also the way to wealth. Wealth is the way to political power. It's a perfect symbiosis, and the bigger government gets the more extreme the power/wealth gap becomes. People think that if we only had even bigger government we could eliminate that gap; actually, it's just the opposite. We will not return to (or have, for the first time) a true democracy until we drastically reduce the size and scope of government, and start thinking in terms of distributism and subsidiarity. If we are not willing to do this, we have to live with Leviathan.

A correspondent commented thusly:

(This) led me to find and read some commentary on the encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI on subsidiarity. Also, the work of Chesterton and Belloc on distributism was a central discussion point of the recently read "Hobbit Party". Those authors...wholly Libertarian (best government)...don't like distributism, essentially seeing it as merely another form of communism/socialism.

To which I reply:

OK, let me see if I can break this down a bit. Subsidiarity, to begin with, is not about the form of government per se as it is about a concept of government – not just “that which governs least governs best” but the notion that government “of the people” should be as close to the people as possible, i.e. not thousands of miles away in some capital full of whited sepulchers. Any function appropriate to government should be performed at the lowest, i.e. most local, level possible. Among other things, this has the advantage of taking into account things like racial/ethnic composition, religious faith and observances, local economies, local customs, the history of a place, physical constraints (climate, geography, soil, etc.) -- and also makes government officials more accountable since they are known and accessible by the populace. The result should be more like true democracy, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers – not a “people's republic” where there is a remote, elite ruling class and a bunch of faceless serfs who are all treated the same way. This idea is certainly compatible with libertarianism – or can be. What it's not compatible with is tyranny and radical (i.e., enforced) collectivism, or what I call “hard socialism”. But on the other end of the scale, it is not at all the same as anarchy; there is still structure, but it's a kind of structure that is more compatible with human nature as it is, not as we might like it to be. (Even defense could be provided on different levels – defense against foreign invaders on the federal (as should be now), regional defense by state national guard units (ditto), and local defense by the “militias” of 2nd Amendment fame.)

So much for the easy part! Now, as to distributism, this is the radical notion that the laborer should own his tools, and have an economic interest or share in the success (or failure) of the enterprise. It's not the same as a “workers' paradise” where the government owns and runs all of industry in the name of the worker or of “the people”. (We already see how it's compatible with subsidiarity on the conceptual level.) Obviously, for the self-employed, the situation obtains automatically. But not everyone can be self-employed, i.e. not all industrial, commercial, or even agricultural enterprises will lend themselves to self-employment – which is to say that economic subsidiarity has its limits.

But here's where the challenge comes in, and I think this is what you were referring to. In a highly industrialized, mechanized, high-tech economy where even “traditional” occupations like agriculture have become mechanized and high-tech, there will be a tendency, over time, for economic and commercial enterprises to become more centralized, with greater numbers working for the few. This can happen (or perhaps is more likely to happen) under conditions of “free enterprise” and “capitalism” -- and this is what Marx was talking about, as perhaps the most serious drawback of the Industrial Revolution. What happens is that competition and the desire for profit tend to enforce economies of scale, and push the individual craftsmen, artisans, and small businessmen out. (Please note that Hitler had no use for the “Arts and Crafts” movement, considering it scandalously inefficient. For him, standardization and mass production were the keys to success.)

So – if distributism is a “good thing” from the point of view of the nature of man, and self-fulfillment, etc., but a “bad thing” in the strict economic sense (setting aside politics)... and if capitalism and free enterprise naturally aid and abet its opposite... what is to be done? Well, let's take a case that is by now familiar to everyone, namely the Wal-Mart syndrome, where the Wal-Mart out on the bypass “kills Main Street” (as it has in my home town, for example). It's the product of free enterprise, after all, and should be just groovy with both “conservatives” and libertarians. (And the only reason liberals dislike Wal-Mart is that it puts a lot of money into the hands of just one family. If it were a government agency they'd be happy as clams.) And the thing is, Wal-Mart didn't kill Main Street – it's the people who shopped at Wal-Mart instead of on Main Street who did that. And what converted them into big-box shoppers? Low prices, selection, bright light, mood music, etc. Do they miss the kindly old gent who knew every single item in the store? Not that I'm aware; they're perfectly content dealing with idiots at checkout and no one who really knows anything. But – bottom line -- are they to be denied the freedom to shop where they like? (Especially, should sentimental reasons and nostalgia trump free enterprise?)

And I'm not talking about the monopolies and “trust busters” of old. This is a very here-and-now question. Should the government step in and try to enforce distributism, the way Mao had everyone building back-yard iron smelters (with disastrous results, I might add)? And, are Wal-Mart workers any more “alienated” (Marx's term) than the guy who used to work at the small town shoe store? If you look at the obituaries in the Pittsburgh paper, they are full of guys who spent their entire working life at U.S. Steel or one of the other industrial monoliths, and proud of it! Did they mourn the fact that they weren't the proprietor of a one-man body shop or shoe repair? Not that I'm aware. They probably made more and had better job security (think: unions) in the gigantic mill. And would all the people who work for giant agriculture conglomerates in the Midwest want to go back to dirt farming like their grandfathers? I'm sure some would, but I'll bet a lot wouldn't. (This, by the way, is what “farm aid” is all about. The agra-business giants don't need charity; they're happier than pigs in shit. It's the small, independent farmer who, like the small businessman, is being shoved out of the economic picture by the big boys, with the government's help.)

I think the answer on the distributism question has to be, number one, don't leave it up to government to enforce things one way or the other. That is, respect economies of scale when appropriate, but also don't punish small businessmen the way they do now. But “if government doesn't do it, who will?” -- the common plaint of people who can't imagine life before the New Deal. I think what has to happen is that “capitalists” should have a more charitable attitude toward their workers – and yes, there is such a thing as profit-sharing and rewarding performance with stock in the company; this is not a Utopian pipe dream. (We have a distorted view of these things because of the adversarial history of labor/management relations in this country. But the experience in Europe and Japan is entirely different.) But at the same time, the consumer needs to have his or her consciousness raised, and again this is a matter of charity directed to the craftsman, artisan, tradesman, small farmer – a “preferential option” (to borrow a term from the popes) to, whenever possible, deal on the local, personal level even if the cost is a bit higher. It's a matter of values, in other words. And again, we see this everywhere these days, with farm markets, artisanal foods and beverages of all sorts, local crafts, etc. And it's certainly not enforced by any governmental body on any level – on the contrary, it's frequently discouraged for all kinds of bogus reasons. (The FDA has agents prowling around farmers' markets looking for “violations”.)

So... if people want to shop at the big box stores, let 'em. True societal change comes about very slowly and is typically not so much a matter of changing hearts and minds as of the older generation dying out and being replaced by people with new ideas. People gripe because they can't find “home cooking like Mom used to make” at McDonald's – well duh. They could find Mom's old recipe book and try it out themselves the way I do. A conscious attempt to shop locally will inevitably have “distributist” results. And so on. The main thing is, just keep government out of the way. I don't think you can “enforce” distributism any more than you can enforce charity; the minute coercion gets into the picture, charity no longer exists – then it morphs into politics. So yes, a libertarian will be suspicious of distributism because he thinks it means collective farms. Well, it might – if those collectives were strictly voluntary (like the hippie communes or Utopian communities of old). But I can't imagine a libertarian objecting to any of the thousands of co-ops scattered across the land.

1 comment:

Bob Anderson said...

David: Thoughtful, and, on first reading replete with nod-stimulating points. I don't think we're far apart on this, but I'd like to re-read a few times, and digest.

Thanks for all the effort in organizing your responsive thoughts. It's very cold and snowy up on our hill. a good time for pondering. The "thoughtful quiet" of a much milder winter described by Tolkien as the nine rested and refreshed in Lothlorien.