A questioner wrote to me with three questions following my recent podcast recording on Distributism, and as I took some time to answer them and thought them generally useful basic questions on the subject, I decided I'd post them with the answers I gave here.
Here follows the first question and its answer; questions 2 and 3 with their respective answers will be posted separately. Be not faint of heart, this is the longest answer by a good margin, but also the most fundamental question.
Distributism seems to promote the wide distribution of the "means of production". Is this specifically land or does it also mean other assets like machines, tools, etc.? How does Distributism propose this be done?
First, I think it necessary to clarify some terms and also some background.
Distributism grew as a thesis in response to the 1891 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum.
In that encyclical, Pope Leo — in addition to calling for the right to "private ownership [to be] held sacred and inviolable" — also called for "the law... [to] favor ownership, and [for] its policy... to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners."
Now, contextually, it is clear that Pope Leo meant ownership of productive property, not merely things like leisure goods or even just a home. Belloc and Chesterton used the more familiar and colloquial term, "the means of production." Belloc usefully categorized "the means of production" to include physical or natural resources (i.e., land, tools, etc.) as well as capital (i.e., wealth reserved for future production). Belloc ascertained that there was still another category of wealth, which he put under the heading "enjoyment," but the distribution of this is not really part of the Distributists' concerns; that is to say, provided a well-distributed means of production, inequalities in wealth apart from capital would be a natural part even of the Distributists' envisioned ideal state.
Still working along the lines of definitions, we should provide another, which is probably the most important: namely, the term Distributism itself.
Distributism takes its name from the scholastic philosophical category of "distributive justice." Put very simply, in any society there are three main kinds (or "species") of justice, and this covers all the kinds of relations within society:
Before we leave this question, though, one last clarification on what is meant by distribution. Consider a graph plotting data over a certain field with an X and Y axis, say, with 5 points positive and negative on each axis, and thus four quadrants to the graph. Now suppose all of the data are located in the upper-right quadrant of the graph. The way scientists or statisticians would describe these data is to say that they are poorly distributed or narrowly distributed. If, on the other hand, you have data all over the place, in all four quadrants, and at all four corners of all four quadrants and in the centers — well, of such data, you'd say that they are well distributed or widely distributed.
Why is this last point important? Because we tend to think of "distribution" in terms of an activity rather than as simply a state of affairs: in its verbal sense rather than as, say, a predicate nominative.
Distributists want widely distributed property in the sense of widely distributed data. We don't want some kind of constant, rigorous activity of distributing. Whenever the conversation goes from a statement of a noun or adjective, a statement of fact ("distribution" or "distributed") to a discussion of activity or verb ("distribute" or "distributing"), we need to recognize that we've moved on past point one of the Distributist thesis: that a wider distribution as a status quo is desireable. If we aren't even yet settled upon that point, any conversation of ways and means is already out of order.
So, our first task is to convince people of the goal of wider distribution, and then invite a robust conversation about the best, most prudent, and appropriate manner in which this might be achieved: and there can be disagreement about this, and what's appropriate in one time and place may not be appropriate in another. For example, what may be appropriate under a tribal monarchy is not likely to be prudent as a tactic employed in a democratic republic under an imperialist presidency. The outcome of despotism does not attain as a risk equally in all situations or circumstances, but this certainly must be a factor to be reckoned with in any case.
It would be worthwhile, nevertheless, to provide a practical example of a policy model; so, here goes:
Belloc's proposal of some form of progressive tax.
The idea here would be that a tax effectively dis-incentivizing personal profit and capital control after certain set limits, such that it would be in the owner's own best interests to, say, distribute shares to his workers so that they could become stakeholders; or reinvest in a separate venture that would create gainful employment for more people; or the like. It would essentially provide a nudge toward many of those whom are often called "job creators" to... well, create jobs... rather than, say, buy a third or fourth luxury automobile.
Now, there are many objections to this, of course.
Firstly may be the objection that this is simply a "mean" attitude toward rich people. With this objection, I must say I have very little sympathy. A justly ordered society should encourage its members to be virtuous--and though clever readings abound of the New Testament and the Tradition about what was really meant by camels and eyes of needles and all that, none of these have convinced me that a society that tries to temper the desire for filthy lucre is less just or virtuous than one that irrationally and exuberantly celebrates it.
A second objection may be that... well, after all, luxury cars create jobs, too! I'll grant this. But if the luxury car factory really were to shut down owing to the hypothetical owner not buying his third or fourth man-toy and instead building a second factory for his enterprise, at least the former workers now displaced from the car factory would have a new place to look for work. Or, perhaps, in a Distributist economy the concern would be moot: maybe the luxury car factory would be a worker-owner cooperative, agile and responsive to the changing market, able to more smoothly and practically either either diversify its concerns, or at least by equitable distribution of the burden a more lean market ride out a lull in demand.
A final, and more substantial (in my mind) objection might be that the progressive tax removes economic incentives and doesn't square with human nature as we know it.
To this, I'd counter first that one of the most knowable and fundamental things about human nature is the prevalence and persistence of greed in fallen man; and the tax proposal certainly does seem to reckon with this truth about human nature. And it is well to note here that any sloganeering about "not legislating morality" is simply rubbish: all we can legislate is morality.
Further, though, I think a lot of counter-examples could be mustered from the realm of human nature to show that rule-based systems don't automatically result in people taking their ball home in a huff. The tax could be seen as analogous to a ten-run rule or "mercy" rule in Little League Baseball; and, accordingly within the metaphor, the argument would be like saying that if you put such a rule in place and capped the maximum score, suddenly the team that could score ten points and win in three innings won't do so: they will simply give up trying and not play to win anymore, merely because they can't win by thirty points or forty. Well, of course, the fact is that the better team will still play to win in any case. What is more, one could imagine a condition where a team is so dominant that simply winning in blow-outs becomes less interesting to them; and so, perhaps because they simply love the game so much and want to play for longer, or maybe because they love the other team so much, comprised of their schoolmates and friends, therefore they will start throwing hit-able strikes, stealing fewer bases, pulling their starters and playing the bench-warmers; in sum, extending the game so that even though they do win in the final result, they play a full six innings and the other team gets to score a few runs as well.
This metaphor isn't that far-fetched. Many company- and small business-owners have manifested how just this kind of altruistic relationship vis a vie their workers (as opposed to a relationship that sees workers as somehow competitors for some limited pool of wealth) is actually not only economically viable but even beneficial—even in our current economic paradigm; a fortiori, how how beneficial it might be under the kind of reformed society that which Distributism would hope to bring about!