|Benjamin Watkins Leigh|
Specifically, someone in a “distributist” FaceBook group (that is sticking with the term “distributism”) asked, “During the anti-federalist versus Federalist debate in early American history, where would distributism land in the midst of that?”
To be honest, we misunderstood the question at first, and gave a great answer to a question that wasn’t asked . . . although we were pretty close. We thought the question was about whether political democracy and economic democracy necessarily go together (yes . . . or you've got the outward form of democracy with non of the substance if you give the vote without making it possible for everyone to own)::
The time period is too early. The issue of access to ownership came to the fore in the constitutional debates of 1820, when they discussed the advisability of extending the voting franchise to non-property owners. Instead of simply letting non-property owners vote as they decided, they should have instituted a program to allow all voters to become property owners. True, Benjamin Watkins Leigh assumed anyone who wanted to could qualify by taking land, but land is limited, and some people just aren’t cut out to be farmers. The 1862 Homestead Act was a step in the right direction, as was Rerum Novarum in 1891, but it was not until 1958 with the publication of Kelso and Adler’s The Capitalist Manifesto that a viable way of making everyone a capital owner was popularized.
Fortunately, the questioner came back and clarified what he said: “I see, I wasn’t necessarily asking about that (I should have phrased it differently) but with distributism would we agree with a more centralized and powerful government that the Federalists argued for or for more power concentrated in the states like the Anti-federalists wanted?” Even more fortunately, we had an answer to that, too:
Actually, neither is optimal if most people don’t own. Interestingly, Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in Democracy in America that the central government hardly seemed to function at all, as Americans preferred to do things for themselves. As “labor” began losing ground to advancing technology, government at all levels became more powerful and intrusive. This is why in their final debate in 1927, G.K. Chesterton stressed that distributism is concerned with power (which follows property), while G.B. Shaw kept insisting that income is the only thing that matters. This is why the Church (officially at least) is indifferent to the outward form of government, as long as the human person is empowered, the whole point of Catholic social teaching, not meeting people’s material needs directly (although that may be essential at times). In other words, as long as the substance of true democracy is there (individual people are empowered), it doesn’t matter if local or national government is superior, or even a world government, as real power would reside in actual human beings. If power resides elsewhere, to paraphrase the “Apostle of Distributism,” William Cobbett, you can call it what you will, but it’s slavery.
Expanding our answer, the question as to what kind of government is best to foster the Distributist State — localized or centralized — we can only say “both” and “neither.” Here’s why.
|Alexis de Tocqueville|
It hinges on the underlying understanding of the role of the State. If people view everything as coming from the State, and people owning (or not owning) capital because the State permits it, then whether or not ownership is widely distributed makes no difference . . . because it’s not real ownership. The State “gave” it to you, and the State can take it away, regardless of your wishes in the matter. Whether power is “local” in the plantation owner or the state, or “centralized” in a far-off federal government, it makes no difference to the poor man who owns nothing, or the slave who is owned.
If, on the other hand, most or all people own an adequate capital stake . . . it also makes no difference. Why? Because “power naturally and necessarily follows property.” If you own nothing or are even owned as a thing, the basic problem is you have no power, just as Chesterton stated. The person with power may be decent, even kind, or he may be heartless and cruel, but the only thing that allows him to be kind or cruel to you is the fact that he has power and you don’t.
Similarly, whither a local or national government mandates decent treatment for propertyless workers or slaves, if the local or national government doesn’t back it up, things will soon return to what they were before. They could even be worse, to keep the uppity slaves or stupid employees in their places, assuming they aren’t sold down the river or fired.
If, however, people view the State as a social tool that only comes into existence because human persons get organized and create it, then whether or not capital ownership is widely distributed makes a great deal of difference . . . but not whether government is localized or centralized. Why? Because — again — power follows property, as Daniel Webster reminded us.
If people don’t own — and own by natural right, not as a gift from the government, whether local or centralized — they have no power. The government will have all power, regardless whether it’s local or centralized. Tyranny will result.
In fact, it’s far easier to establish a tyranny when government is localized than when it is centralized. One rich man can possibly control a town or even a county. To control a state, he has to get help and organize with other rich men who want a piece of the action. To control a nation, he needs the support of the people in some fashion . . . yes, believe it or not, Hitler was democratically elected. (Once a tyrant is in power, the equation changes, but getting there in the first place means that people have to go along with it.)
If, on the other hand, people do own — and own in the full, legal sense of ownership — then it again makes no difference whether government is localized or centralized. It will have no power except what people give it, and which they can take away any time they choose. Power follows property.
So don’t ask whether government is localized or centralized. Ask instead if access to the means of acquiring and possessing private property in capital (money and credit) is available to everyone, or whether it’s concentrated in the hands of a few.
That’s the real question. Government has to be democratic both in form and in substance for a society to be just. Otherwise you’re just whitewashing problems that will only get worse.