Saturday, 13 July 2024

Distributism As A Means of Achieving Third Way Economics (Part 5)

THIS IS the fifth and final part of our serialisation of Richard Howard’s essay Distributism As A Means of Achieving Third Way Economics which first appeared in 2005 on the web-site – of the Humanist Society of New South Wales..

National Liberals believe in Self-Determination for all. This includes personal Self-Determination as well, as the more familiar national Self-Determination. It’s been noted that in order to achieve true personal Self-Determination one must first achieve economic Self-Determination. However, economic Self-Determination cannot be achieved via Capitalism nor Socialism. Both are collectivist in nature. Here the individual is either ruled (and thus effectively owned) by large corporations – Capitalism – or the State – Socialism. Distributism is different as it advocates a society marked by widespread property ownership. This is the mark of a truly free society.

As Hilaire Belloc – one of Distributism’s greatest advocates – noted:

But if we are to retain freedom, then we can only do so by keeping the determining mass of the citizens the possessors of property with personal control over it, as individuals or as families. For property is the necessary condition of economic freedom in the full sense of that term. He that has not property is under economic servitude to him who has property, whether the possessor of it be another individual or the State.

We invite our readers to share their thoughts when this article is reproduced on our Facebook site It goes without saying that there are no official links between Richard Howard, the Humanist Society of New South Wales and the National Liberal Party. Readers will note that this Introduction uses the phrase ‘third position’ (not to be confused with the extreme-right philosophy of that name) and that the article uses the phrase ‘Third Way.’ Here they are used in a context that distinguishes it from capitalism and socialism – indeed, it refers to an economic position that goes way beyond both capitalism and socialism.


Distributism As A Means of Achieving Third Way Economics (Part 5)

“Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s the other way around.”
Relevance in Australia

Arthur Joseph Penty (1875 – 1937) was a English architect and writer on Guild socialism and Distributism. He was first a Fabian socialist, and a follower of Victorian thinkers William Morris and John Ruskin. He is generally credited with the formulation of a Christian socialist form of the medieval guild, as an alternative basis for economic life. As an associate of Alfred Richard Orage, Penty was also familiar with the Social Credit ideas of Major Clifford Hugh Douglas. However. Penty embraced Distributism. He published a number of texts on Guild socialism and distributism including The Restoration of the Guild System (1906); Towards a Christian Sociology (1923) and Distributism: A Manifesto (1937).

Australia is however not a nation of starving match-girls and poverty-stricken tubercular factory workers crowded six to a room. This is a rich country whose poor are still fabulously wealthy by Third World standards.

Australia is however, at the beginning of the 21st century, a country whose living standards have not been rising consistently.

Thirty years ago a single working-class income was enough to support a family. A bus driver or council labourer could reasonably expect to be able to buy a modest house and drive a late model car. Today all that has changed. While a proliferation of electrical consumer gadgets get ever cheaper and more numerous, the fundamental costs of living – accommodation, food, transport, health care and education are far less affordable now than then.

In response, both partners in most relationships have quietly gone to work full time, but even this doubling of family incomes has still not kept pace with the erosion in average income standards.
Yet this is not universally true. The living standards of professionals, managers and others on higher wages have kept pace with the increasing cost of living.

Part of the reason for this is that those on higher incomes now rarely marry outside their socio-economic class. Where once doctors and lawyers and company executives married their secretaries or people on lower incomes that they met at social gatherings today they marry each other, maintaining their combined earning power but helping to lock those on lower incomes out of one means of economic advancement.

Fundamentally however, this is a reaction rather than a cause. The fundamental problem is that over the last 35 years the purchasing power of take home pay for those on lower incomes has declined, particularly in terms of accommodation cost.

Concomitantly, waves of takeovers and mergers has seen ownership of every aspect of production, distribution and exchange concentrated more and more in fewer and fewer hands.

As “globalisation” continues to place a downward pressure on wages and conditions, this situation is likely to be exacerbated.

In Australia as in the United States, since the demise of Keynesianism in the early 70’s, the gap between rich and poor has continued to widen. In the US in 2000 the salaries of the CEOs of the 365 largest companies was 500 times the average wage and the 13,000 riches families have around the same collective income as the 20 million poorest.
Small family farms, once the cornerstone of Australian life outside the big cities, have become an endangered species as vast agribusinesses have grown up driven by the voracious fast-food industry.
For more and more young people today, the prospect that they will never be anything but poorly paid wage slaves living in rental accommodation is a real possibility.

Increasingly all sense of community is being lost, as the dog-eat-dog struggle to grab a few chestnuts out of the economic fire turns us into an anonymous collection of disconnected individuals – more a bus stop than a nation – in which no one cares for anyone but themselves.

Driven by the ceaseless demand for ever greater profits in ever fewer hands rather than nutritional benefit, the very foods that we eat are being genetically transformed and chemically altered, the long-term consequences of which we can only guess.

Yet what really does this profit anyone?

In the end, the purpose of material advancement cannot be simply material advancement for its own sake but must be an increase in human happiness.

As the struggle for living standards intensifies, can we really say that our society as it is today is achieving this?
Can even those few who do gain from vast profits really say their lives are better than they might be if everyone had a better life, when more and more their material enjoyment is curtailed by the need to hide behind walls and security guards and legalized violence?

Some will say that 1930s social theorists and the localized success of the co-operative system in the Basque region of Spain have little relevance to us in Australia today, but in Switzerland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, four of the richest countries in the world, communitarian distributism in small farms and businesses and housing is alive and well.

In addition to having higher per-capita incomes than Australia, all have a tiny fraction of the levels of poverty, drug abuse, homelessness and crime of this country. They have less pollution, less traffic congestion and much less urban sprawl than Australia and a far stronger sense of community than we have here.
It is in this context that Belloc’s prescient warning of the dangers of the servile state and distributism’s alternative vision of an affluent, cohesive society of home owners and self-employed deserves to be re-examined.

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