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Distributism at the Margins

"Don't Blame Wal-Mart" is the title of an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times by former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich.

He makes the important point that while many lambast Wal-Mart for creeping into communities and running small businesses into the ground, the fault lay less on Wal-Mart and more on the consumers who shop there. You really can't blame Wal-Mart for competing in the market and playing by the rules of the game. The nature of the economy is that an entity has to continually be on the lookout for opportunities for growth in order to stay competitive. While one would hope that a company such as Wal-Mart that is oozing in excess reserves might be more discriminate in where it places its stores, the internal dynamics of the global economy have forced corporations to remain vigilant if they wish to survive.

The major problem lies in the fact that consumers desire extra low prices. We are willing to support Wal-Mart and contribute to the damage it does to small businesses and local communities, turning entrepreneurs and proprietors into wage-earners, because cheap products our the first love of our heart. This is the essence of consumerism -- elevating consumer values above all others.

The problem is one not need be materialistic to be complicit.

When we choose to shop for the cheapest products available, we make it harder for the smaller businesses to compete. Smaller businesses cannot charge as low of a price as corporations like Wal-Mart because of the smaller volume of business. In the ultra-competitive market, low prices are almost always going to carry the day, unless people step in to support local producers, stores and vendors.

The next question is, "Why should we support local stores?" Well, for a number of reasons. First of all, when capital becomes disconnected from local communities and actual people (i.e., into a corporate shareholder context), the connections between business and the community, capital and labor are lost. The bottom line is elevated over the human interests of both the company and the community. Both workers and consumers become commodified and faceless. This affects both corporate management and consmers. When there is no human connection to one's work or consumer habits, the process is depersonalized. Business and purchasing decisions are made without reference to human persons and authentic values. The economy should be ordered toward the authentic development of human personality. Disconnected capital breaks down this process.

Additionally, when we support the Wal-Marts, we aid in shifting ownership of productive property into fewer and fewer hands. Widely distributed property is a good for a number of reasons, but most particularly because it aids man in securing political freedom by allowing him a measure of personal sustenance, it contributes to the development of his human faculties by giving him the duty of exercising his role as a steward of creation, and allows him to participate more fully in social life. Under a system of widely distributed property, the economy is subservient to the person, not the other way around as when the majority of persons in a society are simply wage-earners for corporate entities owned and controlled by relatively few.

This is the main thrust of the economic doctrine laid down by the popes from Leo XIII to Pius XI and made popular by the Distributists, including G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Eric Gill, T.S. Eliot, and others. While there are certainly small pieces of legislation that can help foster a system of widely distributed property, distributism is a social movement. It relies on the individual choices and freedom of each person in how they exercise their resources. Part of being a good steward is spending one's money wisely. This of course means that we may have to settle for having less things. I can only buy half as many clothes from Brooks Brothers as I can the local tailor. This is the conundrum and the sacrifice. But your choice could be the difference between a person owning his own business and practicing a craft such as a tailor, and selling suits at J.C. Penney that are made by a machine in Malaysia. This difference will have a profound effect on how this man lives his life, supports and raises his family and affects the community around him.

Like everything else, transforming the economy requires conversion of heart. We will have to re-order our values. But, if we do, fostering a person-centered economy might be the basis of helping convert society as a whole. If people are more capable of recognizing human values and experiencing leisure, the seed of the Gospel will be more easily planted -- this phenomenon will perpetuate itself. (I should note that as of now, granola Leftists are outstanding at fostering this alternative culture of consumption, far outpacing their Christian counterparts).

One aside to end. Distributism does NOT mean there will be no more big chain shops. A distributist society has a large variety of companies and producers. It is not "sinful" or selfish to shop at these stores if done in moderation. Additionally, because of the generosity of a market system, the profit motive can help foster new products that might provide a world of opportunities for other small businesses. I am thinking of coffee as an example. The big corporation Starbucks practically invented the $3 cup of coffee. This spawned a whole coffee cultural movement where it is essential to have a cup of premium coffee in your hand -- like a status symbol (the coffee is also yummy). This phenomenon, in turn, allowed multitudes of small coffee houses owned by independent proprietors to spring up all over the country. This may not have happened without the transformation of a product by Starkbucks -- folks would have kept getting their 89 cent coffee from McDonald's or Dunkin' Donuts. So big companies do have their place. One can reasonably purchase their wares in moderation, and they also help folks such as students and poor families maintain a certain standard of living that would not be accessible to them otherwise. Thus, it is really up to folks with disposable income to lead the way in transforming the economic culture.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 1, 2005 6:34 PM.

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