Thursday, April 10, 2014

Who wouldn't want to live in The Shire?

(One company's version of the Shire,
swiped from hobbitontours.com)

My recent writings about prospects for our common life have inclined to a vision of caring communities with economic opportunity for all. Similarly, a lot of contemporary writing on neighborhoods, particularly but not limited to new urbanists, try to recapture the magic of the traditional small town with public spaces, vibrant local businesses and connections. On the other side, many people are complaining or at least concerned about aspects of contemporary American life that work against community: rising inequality, in which a few mega-gainers crowd out the rest of us; a national government preoccupied with ideological struggles and distant from local concerns; and social isolation from any real community. Comparing those negative aspects to the egalitarian, sociable and industrious society J.R.R. Tolkien portrays in The Hobbit, or--for a more urban setting--the wondrous shop of the caring entrepreneur Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol, makes it easy to identify what is amiss in the 21st century West.

Now I find there's an economic theory, albeit an obscure one, with a similarly blissful vision of community. Arthur W. Hunt III, who teaches communications studies at the University of Tennessee-Martin, defines distributism on the American Conservative blog as "a humane microcapitalism," looking for "an economy with the widest use of private productive property," with fondness for "the pastoral ideal of village and farm." Catholic writers Hilaire Belloc (The Servile State, 1912) and G.K. Chesterton (What's Wrong With the World, 1910) were founding distributists, reports Hunt, rejecting both state socialism and unrestrained industrial capitalism. He notes echoes of distributism in the works of Dorothy Day, Allen Tate, Wendell Berry and Alasdair MacIntyre, among others. In an extended passage, Hunt describes distributism at work in J.R.R. Tolkien's depiction of the Shire of Hobbiton in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He concludes by noting
the current growing sense that something is amiss in our current economic system... Certainly the young want more for themselves than the current market forces are holding out for them. Who wants to work for Wal-Mart at minimum wage?
A race around Google did not turn up a lot of scholarly sources on distributism: In The New Economics, Andrew Simms and David Boyle describe the distributists as "all but forgotten" (p. 21). But they do pop up on the occasional blog, and boast their very own online journal, The Distributist Review.

However obscure they might be, I'm pleased to have run across the distributists. It's very encouraging to see recognition on a conservative blog that "something is amiss in our current economic system." This recognition hasn't yet bubbled up into the Republican Party in Congress, or their associated battalion of SuperPACs, but we can hope that distributism might eventually be a more congenial way into the conversation than new urbanist or communitarian ideas seem to be. Certainly we need to hear from the right concerning the problems of our society.


 (Increasing concentration of wealth in the United States,

But it's one thing to decry the increasing concentration of wealth in the West (especially in America); it's quite another to figure out how to address it. Simms and Boyle note that distributism "lacked practical policy solutions" (p. 20). What I've read about distributism amounts almost entirely to a wish for good outcomes. In a way, notwithstanding their stress on widespread property ownership, they remind me of the young Karl Marx. In the notes later published as Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx describes the plight of the worker as consisting of more than mere material deprivation; they are deprived of their very humanity because they have no control over their work or really very much of their lives (except, notably, eating, drinking and sex). Just as Marx saw most people thwarted by private property owners and their stooges in government, the distributists see most people thwarted by big business and big government. Somehow liberation from these malevolent forces--which in both approaches occurs more or less by magic--will restore humans' true nature and we'll be able to live happily and cooperatively together.

[Hunt notes that Tolkien in chapter 8 of  The Return of the King (Allen & Unwin, 1955) depicts even the fictional Shire as vulnerable to concentrated economic power. Here the solution actually is magic, or at least the breaking of a spell cast by the evil wizard Saruman. Once that's done, hobbit society is quickly set to rights.]

Which brings me to my biggest reservation about the distributist vision: In the absence of real solutions to the global economic system, it's tempting to make the national government  the sole target. "Tateofpa," a commenter on The Monkey Cage blog, responds to research on the overwhelming influence of moneyed elites on national politics by noting, The writer of this makes a compelling reason to keep more tax money closer to home then sending it to a group of people who are less responsive, to those who elected them. More money need should stay in the states, and more for local, because they are more responsive to those who elected them (Bartels, cited below). Big government certainly has a lot to answer for: destructive "urban renewal" programs, tax advantages for sprawling communities, dehumanizing welfare programs. And even defensible policies like the minimum wage, food stamps and unemployment assistance are temporary fixes and no substitute for developing a healthy economy.

I'm all for communities and neighborhoods stepping up. Maybe once I read Benjamin Barber's new book, If Mayors Ruled the World (Yale, 2013) I'll be even moreso. Even so, today more than ever we need national government, because the 21st century economy is too big for individuals or neighborhoods or even metropolitan regions to take on alone. A New York Times article this week reporting cities' attempts to address economic inequality was largely pessimistic in tone, because businesses operate at a global, not a municipal, scale (Lowrey). The reporter quotes economists Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution ("Cities just don't have the tax and trade policy and tools to rein back inequality in a significant way") and Edward Glaeser of Harvard ("Most localities are very restricted in the kinds of stuff they can do"). Cities are just as powerless against other problems that cross state lines, like environmental pollution or the cost and availability of medical care. Absent the magic to turn our world into the Shire, we need an empowered national government to provide a crucial check-and-balance to today's private economy. Capitalism doesn't get its human face unless something puts it there.

Unfortunately, the U.S. national government seems less and less capable of performing this vital function. I'm not ready to join Marx in calling the government the stooge of the ruling economic class, but I'm not sanguine that the political playing field is level, or that it is effectively balancing economic trends. The latest Supreme Court decision striking down limits on individual contributions to congressional campaigns (McCutchen v. FEC) is only a minor blow to democracy, but it comes on the heels of a series of court decisions on campaign finance that empower individuals and corporations with deep pockets at the expense of everyone else (Young). In her new book, Wal-Mart Wars: Moral Populism in the Twenty-First Century (New York University, 2013), Rebekah Peeples Massengill describes the enormous political power that comes with Wal-Mart's economic strength. An increasing pile of research has shown, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, that the rich are indeed different from you and me (Page et al.). If the rich can buy the debate, they've just about bought the politicians (Bartels).

Both the Shire and its urban alternative seem very far away. I'm decidedly not counseling despair. I'm just telling you what you probably already know anyway: the struggle for inclusive communities with opportunity for all is a difficult one. We need to choose our battles wisely, study the issues well, look for political leaders who still have general interests at heart and then hold them to their promises, and most of all plead our cause without relenting.

A COUPLE OLDER POSTS

"Gleanings from the New Urbanism," April 19, 2013
"Is Too Society," April 10, 2013

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING

Larry R. Bartels, "Rich People Rule!," The Monkey Cage, 8 April 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/04/08/rich-people-rule/

Arthur W. Hunt III, "Pope Francis Needs Distributism," American Conservative, 3 April 2014, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/pope-francis-needs-distributism/.

Annie Lowrey, "Cities Advancing Inequality Fight," New York Times, 7 April 2014, A1, A3.

Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels and Jason Seawright, "Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans," Perspectives on Politics 11:1 (March 2013): 51-74

Andrew Simms and David Boyle, The New Economics: A Bigger Picture. Routledge, 2009.

Rick Young, writer/producer/director. "Big Sky, Big Money." Frontline, 30 October 2012, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/big-sky-big-money/

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