Distributism’s heyday was in the 1920s and 1930s as people searched for alternatives to socialism and capitalism. Distributists such as G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc also decried the philosophical and practical materialism that, they believed, characterized modern economies, liberal or collectivist.
Whatever the validity of such concerns, they should not distract us from the deep flaws in distributism’s economics. Realizing a distributist economy would require massive state economic intervention in the form of endless fiddling with the allocation of land, capital, wages, and therefore prices to realize an unrealizable — and unknowable — optimal property distribution.
The strength of Salter’s book is that it reminds us how liberty is dependent on property, and how property gives institutional birth to liberty. This theme can never be emphasized enough in an age when property rights are so trivialized by progressives and, increasingly, conservative interventionists.
That said, I remain skeptical of distributism’s capacity to make a distinct contribution to illuminating the significance of this link. Leaving aside its economic deficiencies, distributism offers little by way of a normative conception of property’s importance beyond what already can be found in more sophisticated forms in, say, natural-law philosophy.
Salter recognizes that many of the challenges that common-good capitalists seek to address are not amenable to government tinkering. Nonetheless, he wants to ameliorate negative externalities associated with the creative destruction unleashed by free markets. That is consistent with distributist thought. Beyond, however, pointing to the work of Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom on private governance, Salter refrains from specifying the content of a neo-distributist agenda to address such problems. That, he says, should be worked out by scholars and policy-makers.
Overshadowing this, however, is another question. To what degree should creative destruction be considered an externality in the first place? If people decide to frequent a new Walmart rather than a local hardware store, is this an externality? Surely it is some consumers expressing their preference for lower prices over familiarity with more expensive local retailers whom other consumers may continue to patronize because they prioritize familiarity over lower prices. If this is true, it is unclear how the common good is undermined.
Thinking about the market’s place in the wider social order matters. The idea of the common good reflects the truth that humans have obligations to one another beyond contracts. In the final analysis, however, I think that Salter’s exploration of distributism ends up demonstrating that good-faith common-good capitalists will need a very different starting point from distributism.
More seriously, much of this [NatCon] policy is progressive, as natcon politicians frequently join with their left-leaning (if not far-left) colleagues to advance legislation along these policy lines. My Cato colleague Ryan Bourne, in fact, has collected numerous examples—Vance and Bernie Sanders on trade with developing countries; Josh Hawley and Amy Klobuchar on antitrust and the “Gilded Age”; Marco Rubio and Sherrod Brown on stock buybacks; Tom Cotton and Jared Bernstein on industrial policy; Tucker Carlson and Elizabeth Warren on the “free market”—of natcons and card-carrying progressives talking about policy in utterly indistinguishable ways. That’s not a coincidence; it stems from natcons’ sharing with progressives views on not only discrete policy, but on the role and power of government itself. And when they do debate and disagree, it’s (usually) on whom the state should support (or fight), not whether it should act at all.
I actually think that one of the worst things Akerlof ever did was collaborate with behavioral economist Robert Shiller, in a book called Phishing for Pfools. I reviewed that book harshly when it appeared.
The presumption that markets are flawed and government intervention is the solution pervades the thinking of much of the economics profession in general and Akerlof and Yellen in particular. As you know, I have a different point of view.
Are markets imperfect? Certainly. But solutions that come from the market itself can sometimes work. And solutions that come from government intervention can often fail. In short: markets fail; use markets.
Rep. Jordan also quotes Mr. [Nick] Clegg [Facebook’s president for global affairs] reporting that he “countered that removing content like that would represent a significant incursion into traditional boundaries of free expression in the US” but it didn’t end the pressure from the administration.