Since the age of 16, politics and economics have been a passion of mine. I studied politics and economics at university and have spent a lot of my free time considering different political and economic systems to see which one I most agree with. I have come to a conclusion which I wish to share with you here. It’s said that there are three topics one should never talk about at the dinner table – religion, politics and sex. This blog is already about the first so I don’t think there should be any problems delving into the second one too.
People have a whole range of views on political and economic issues and so I do not present this as definitive, but rather as one option among many – the one I personally believe fits best with Paganism (which is slightly ironic given its roots). I hope this will also begin a debate across the pagan blogosphere about our attitudes towards and engagement with the political and economic spheres of life. From reading many blogs I think most of us have a similar attitude to economics and politics but there doesn’t seem to be a coherent system/ philosophy, a political economy, behind it all and that’s what I want to present here.
The suggestion I’m going to make has its roots in Catholicism. There is a lot to fault in the Catholic Church but when its comes to the political economy in their social teachings, they are way ahead of many in pointing out the way forward. Successive popes have written on the subject of economics. It began with Pope Leo XIII in the late 19th Century and his encyclical Rerum Novarum. Later Pope Pius XI wrote another one entitled Quadragesimo Anno. The ideas in these documents were taken up by British authors GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc and formed into a coherent system called Distributism.
Distributism is an economic philosophy that says that both the capitalists and the socialists have got things terribly wrong. On the one hand you have a laissez faire capitalist economic system which allows private property and a free market but inevitably leads to concentration of power, big businesses and monopolies who can exploit workers, consumers and the environment. On the other hand you have socialism which similarly leads to a concentration of power, this time in the hands of a political elite and ultimately to a very big government with little freedom for the people. Distributism says these are both wrong. Whether its big business or big government, both have major flaws, take power from people and cause many problems. To counter this, Distributism says “small is beautiful”. To a Distributist, property, power and economic assets should be distributed as widely as possible in society. A Distributist says that you can’t have a truly free market when there is big government or big business. It says that the economic system must be built not on seeing man as an economic actor, but with complete respect for the human person. A Distributist system would be much more similar to the economic way of life of our ancient ancestors rather than the system we have now. And most importantly, I believe that it would lead to a system much more in harmony with the environment.
Distributism is based on two ideas – subsidiarity and solidarity. Subsidiarity means that things should be done at the smallest possible level in society that is feasible, beginning with the family unit. Solidarity means kinship, unity and community, as well as a keen focus on the poorest. Distributism believes in the small and the local. It is sceptical of both big business and big government. It believes in freedom and liberty for people. It says that man is more than an economic creature – he is a social and sacred creature too. Distributism is neither left wing nor right wing, it is a truly third way, acknowledging the best of both sides. From the right wingers it agrees with the need to have a market based economic system built on private property as the system most likely to produce wealth as well as the necessity of limiting government power. From the left wingers it agrees that the market left to itself often leads to monopoly and exploitation, and that equality, social justice and helping the poor are vital. It is egalitarian. And it adds the insight that too often big business and big government are mutually reinforcing, one leads to the other or one cannot exist without the other.
So what would a Distributist system look like. At its foundation would be small family owned businesses and farms. Where it was necessary to have larger businesses, these would be co-operatives (whether worker or consumer). For industries which are monopolies, there would be public ownership at a local level. There would be guilds of each industry in a given community who would be responsible for setting standards, training apprentices and helping out members financially when they had need. There would be friendly mutual societies who would provide social security when workers were sick, unemployed or old. Instead of big banking corporations there would be small, local credit unions and community banks. There would be a just, living wage, local currencies, more community supported agriculture, strong competition and anti trust laws to stop businesses growing too large. There would be a tax system that favours the small business over the large and which ensures land is available for all. Rather than focus on mass production, we would have a society of artisans who focused on producing good quality items instead of everything for the cheapest price. Many people would grow their own food and most would be produced as locally and organically as possible. There would be a big society, a big community rather than a big state or big business. While Distributism does not specify a particular political system, I believe it would work best with a democracy. Examples of Distributism in action include the Mondragon Co-operative Corporation in Spain, the Land to the Tiller program in Taiwan which is responsible for catapulting it from a third world country to a 21st century high tech country, and all the credit unions, co-operatives and mutual societies we see around the world today. In other words – it works and some of it is already there.
With green parties advocating a return to the small, local and co-operative, this political economy fits well with pagan ideas about protecting the environment, favouring place and ancestry, building relationship with the land we are on and building an economic system based on respect and relationships.
I will do more posts over time about this system, but hopefully this has given you a good introduction. If we can split it off from Catholicism, then it becomes a system that is very supportive of pagan ideals and attitudes. For more information, here’s a few good websites to look at –
The ChesterBelloc Mandate – This is no longer updated but there’s good historical articles.