Should Distributism Be Given a New Name?

A rose is a rose by any other name... if only social theories were the same.

The topic of distributism comes up frequently in my day-to-day life. The word's use in my daily conversations would land it a place it somewhere between the words "and" and "the." While I may wish to chalk it up as the result of people clamoring over my views on the political economy, I fear that it has more to do with my being a blabbermouth, unable to stop talking about those things I hold near and dear.

This pleasant addiction to discussing distributism with friends and strangers alike has been accompanied with a great deal of inquiry and feedback. I often have people accuse me of being "a socialist" or advocating "Robin Hood economics." This is all too typical, particularly from those who have never heard of, or who have never read material pertaining to, distributism. It wouldn't be a fool's wager to bet the farm that many of you have been accused of much the same.

The question, though, is why people would accuse us of such things. In my humble estimation, it has more to do with the word distributism than with the actual substance of the economic system itself. People hear the word distributism and they immediately connect it with the redistribution of wealth, particularly at a federal level.

While these people certainly miss the mark, there is little room for doubt as to why they would harbor such an assumption. Words, like slogans, are tricky. This is especially true of political and economic schools of thought. Take just two examples: Conservatism and libertarianism. People don't have to be political wonks or economic gurus to have a general impression of what these words mean. Conservatives want to conserve something, being (at least historically) traditionalist in nature. Libertarians, though far less familiar to the citizenry, would deal with liberty or freedom. Both of these words have positive associations, dealing with things people generally like to identify with. The designations Progressive or Constitutionalist is much the same.

So what of distributism? Well, for better or worse, as was stated earlier, people associate the word with redistribution of wealth. While putting an economic system in place, as well as a political structure in order, where the wealth of the nation would be redistributed away from Big Business to local businesses would be a good thing, this is not the common perception of what we are hoping to achieve. Rather, they work under the definitions and intellectual framework provided for them by pundits and talking-heads hailing from both the Left and the Right. Both sides generally refer to the concept as the federal government taking money from the little guy in order to pay for an array of social programs and line the pockets of special interests. 

All of this has led me to a few conclusions. On the one hand, distributists can retain the name, only then to spend large amounts of time clarifying themselves and attempting to tear down walls of defense and skepticism surrounding those who otherwise be open to our ideas. Or we could consider formulating a new designation that would bypass negative connotations, saving us plenty of time and making our mission all that much easier.

On a personal note, this idea is not at all foreign to me. Back in 2002 I became frustrated with designations I would use when describing my personal political and economic beliefs. At the time I was still a Protestant, and I held to a hybrid of positions commonly found within Christian Reconstructionism (Theonomy) and paleoconservatism. To say that these didn't roll off the tongue with the greatest of ease would be an understatement. Christian Reconstruction was just far too long. Theonomy placed me (wrongfully so) alongside the ecclesiocrat ayatollahs. And paleoconservatism had a number of difficulties. People typically identified my conservatism with the likes of Bush, Limbaugh, and Hannity. Furthermore, for those who had an inkling of an idea as to what it was, they associated me with racialism so often found amongst its adherents. In short, these designations would not do.

So in hope of distinguishing myself from these groups, I began using the term paleocrat. A simple combination of words. Paleo meaning old or ancient. Kratos meaning rule or law. So there it was. I was an adherent to "the old rule" or "the ancient law." 

The problem, though, was that I was left having to explain not only what the word meant, but also the substance of that philosophy. For this reason, I chose to use the designation as little more than an internet identification. It was an experiment that fell short, but an experiment nonetheless.

Whether distributists choose to retain the name or look towards formulating a new one that steers clear of negative association while also providing people with a positive and familiar connotation is yet to be seen. It appears that there are those within the movement who are willing to discuss such an idea, and their motivations may be similar to those I've discussed here. My hope, at least for now, is to have stirred the imaginations within minds much brighter than mine, so as to begin a discussion that may be long overdue.


Richard Aleman Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 4:44:00 PM CST  

I don't forsee a change for the same reason that I stopped worrying whether our imagery contained any red, green, or black in it.

Recently I stumbled across this dilemma when making a sign for a homeschool conference. I worried about making the sign red because we could be accused of being communists. I couldn't choose green because then we are tree-huggers. Not black because we are then labeled anarchists or fascists.

After my mental stress was over, I thought, "who cares?" If people don't wish to understand our position or argue on merit, why should I worry?

It may make it harder, and you certainly make a good point, but Distributism is so closely tied to Chesterton and Belloc that any other name, in my opinion, betrays their legacy, and our future.

Paleocrat Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 6:37:00 PM CST  

Having worked with campaigns and studied production design, I most certainly understand the implications color selection may have on perception. That being said, even the cultural significance of colors change. While some may associate various colors with causes (black with anarchism, green with environmentalism, red with Republicans, and blue with Democrats), these typically aren't the first thoughts to come to mind for Johnny Q or Sally Sue when they see them. Rather than political, these have taken on a far more emotive response, whether it be alarm, calm, etc.

Your last paragraph is one worth discussing. Why not frame it with the question "What would Chesterbelloc do?" Did the word cause unease to the majority of people they spoke with about it? Were people immediately turned off by the word? Was the cultural and historical context favorable (or at least indifferent) towards the designation? These are questions that ought to be seriously reflected upon.

Belloc and Chesterton was awfully pragmatic. They were incrementalists. They wrote about finding even the smallest ways by which we could advance the cause. If dropping the name Distributism, while maintaining the exact same philosophy and holding these men and their works in no less regard, would result in an increased readiness for the masses to listen, then wouldn't this be something Chesterbelloc would encourage? I guess that is the question: What would Chesterbelloc do?

Jesse Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 7:26:00 AM CST  

No luck yet, but here's my scrapped list:

Decentrabutionism -- Stresses the decentralist tendency of Distributism (but an even more clumsy word than distributism).

The Common Law party -- Speaks for itself (but sounds too familiar -- I don't think we want a "party" anyway).

Mediacrat -- As in via media, the middle way (sounds too much like we're for CNN and FOX).

Axialism -- True center; bringing to mind the axial age, and having roots therein (also, however, brings to mind "axis of evil").

Yeomenism -- (Lol)

Tom Laney Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 8:49:00 AM CST  

This is a really good question.

I just heard from another guy who says we should never use the word "Capitalism" in a negative sense since it turns people off and makes them think you're a commie.

I've heard much over the years from my Communist friends, who think any argument against their politics is red-baiting.

I think Distributism is an ok label when it is explained as a key subsection of Solidarity. Solidarity can always be explained as Friendship.

During the fight against NAFTA, activists in my Local Union described the options facing us as Solidarity vs. Competition. Friendship vs. Dog Eat Dog. We were crushed by the UAWs propaganda machine that described the "real world" as dog-eat-dog.

But if we had known then about Distributism we might have won that fight. It is not so much the word Distributism as the common sense behind it that should, eventually, carry the day.

Carrying that day, to me, means winning transparency on the evils of Capitalism and Communism; then leading to the conversation on Distributism. As more and more people see Distributism as the answer they will turn to discussing what it will take to achieve it? I don' think they will be quibbling about the title. I think they will be returning to what Aquinas said is the sole moral purpose of business: community service at a fair profit.

We need to be clear that Capitalism is a great evil; and, so is it's partner Communism. With that clarity people will see Distributism as the new paradigm and move towards it in their arguments which will ask what it will take to achieve it?

And that will quite probably be The General Strike.

Jesse Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 12:12:00 PM CST  

::I just heard from another guy who says we should never use the word "Capitalism" in a negative sense since it turns people off and makes them think you're a commie.

Hello Tom.

It's not only that though. Isn't Distributism a more widely distributed type of Capitalism? We all have the "not enough captitalists" Chesterton quote readily on our tongues, so I won't bother repeating it in full; still, even Mortimer Adler, who was on our side, wrote the Capitalist Manifesto.

I prefer saying Big Business Capitalism vs. Big Government Socialism (or Communism, if you prefer) in my conversations. I am, however, just a novice to this whole intriguing movement, and am more than willing to adapt where better minds have overcome.

Jesse Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 12:15:00 PM CST  

"I prefer saying Big Business Capitalism vs. Big Government Socialism (or Communism, if you prefer) in my conversations."

... That is, in conversations where I introduce the third way of Distributism :-)

John Médaille Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 12:34:00 PM CST  

Jesse, I think the more accurate description of our system is "state Capitalism"; the state, after all, constitutes one-third of GDP.

Perhaps the best description of distributism is "The Ownership Society"; our aim is to make as many men as possible to king of their own castles, the duke of his own little estate. These petty princes may negotiate with others in a way the wage-slaves cannot.

Viking Monday, January 19, 2009 at 3:15:00 AM CST  

John, I have trouble agreeing with your description of our current economy as "State Capitalism". If that's what this economy is, then how would you describe the former Soviet Union, where the state was close to 100% of the economy and owned all of the productive property? Besides, any society is bound to have some percentage of its GDP going to government, unless you think anarchism is a serious option. From the post you wrote in response to Kevin Carson, you apparently do not.


John Médaille Monday, January 19, 2009 at 9:47:00 AM CST  

Viking, of course these things are a matter of judgment and of degree, but when gov't spending is 1/3rd of GDP, I think there is warrant for calling it state capitalism. Is it lower than in other forms of State Capitalism? Undoubtedly, but again that is still a difference of degree rather than of kind.

Tom Laney Monday, January 19, 2009 at 10:29:00 AM CST  

Jesse wrote:Hello Tom.

"It's not only that though. Isn't Distributism a more widely distributed type of Capitalism? We all have the "not enough captitalists" Chesterton quote readily on our tongues,"

Yeah, GK said the problem with the Capitalists is that there aren't enough of them. If we had a lot more of them it would mean we had restored the small shops. But I've never heard any small shop keeper call himself a Capitalist. They usually think of themselves as Citizens.

But there are still a lot of people who equate Capitalism with Democracy.

And my union thinks all good things come from the Capitalists and the massive corps.

So I like describing Distributism as Community Commerce, as exemplified in the the U.S. in the 1950s. Only better.

Anonymous,  Tuesday, January 20, 2009 at 12:15:00 PM CST  

I'm thinking Localism or Distributed Capitalism might work unless somebody already took that name.

Anonymous,  Tuesday, January 20, 2009 at 12:18:00 PM CST  

Localism- keeping the means of production close to home.

Does that work?

Danby Tuesday, January 20, 2009 at 11:45:00 PM CST  

Sustainable Capitalism?

Anonymous,  Friday, January 23, 2009 at 4:12:00 PM CST  


This sounds a lot like the slow food movement, but with capital and money rather than with tomatoes and wine. Perhaps they have some different names.


Will Seath Saturday, January 24, 2009 at 11:01:00 AM CST  

By way of introduction, I'm a committed distributist who's been reading this blog for some months now but have yet to chime in. This topic, I believe, is of utmost important to the political, social, and economic philosophy we now call "distributism" if it is to attract greater interest and activity.
Perhaps distributist aversion to slick advertising leaves us forgetting the incredible power of connotation. The McCain campaign last year consciously used the phrase "redistribution of wealth" as an attack on the Obama campaign. While it was ultimately an electorally unsuccessful strategy, it nevertheless helped to galvanize the once wary conservative Republican base in the final weeks of the campaign. Particularly in the U.S., "distribution" and any variant have clear connotations with leftist ideology, particularly among conservative types.
I remain convinced that most average Americans are at heart distributists - we are a family-oriented bunch who prefer small government and small business in principle if not in practice. We do not realize that we are at heart distributists not only because of the implications of a two party system (a topic suitable for its own discussion), but because we don't know what distributism is - the moniker itself is too unintentionally charged for Americans to investigate because there is the automatic assumption that distributism is simply a synonym for socialism.
At the same time, there is a timidity in approaching distributism among those who would otherwise be open to it. Consider middle and high school religion texts' dilution of Dorothy Day into a pacifist bread-line organizer. There is little attention given to the political or economic implications of her philosophy (perhaps because there is also little confidence that our students could comprehend it) - but also, I believe, because discussing something called "distributism" would raise the hackles of more than a few concerned conservative parents.
Distributism clearly needs a new name which is politically uncharged, which is simple and direct, and which is approachable for those who already support its aims but because of justified prejudices have no access to the wealth of thought found in Chesterton, Belloc, Day, Maurin, etc.
My own introduction to distributism came through the undoubted orthodoxy of the socially-oriented papal encyclicals - Rerum Novarum & Quadrigessimo Anno. I suggest, then, that distributism co-opt a term which has been applied to the writings of John Paul II: Personalism - or, since this already has a broader existing philosophical meaning, Economic Personalism (though this is admittedly wordy). A new term should invoke the fullness of humanity that is the ultimate philosophical aim of distributism, while having neutral connotation.

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