Monday, September 22, 2008

What Is Distributism, and Why Should Engineers Care?

Engineering is an unavoidably economic activity, since it always involves applying knowledge to achieve an end within the constraint of limited resources. Engineers have worked under every kind of economic system from radical Communism to the nearly unrestrained free market of places like Singapore. There seems to be a growing consensus that the only kind of economic system with a future is free-market capitalism, which even the leaders of the Peoples' Republic of China have embraced. I will now take moment during this more-than-usually-political season to introduce you to a system that is more than economics and really more than politics, but would profoundly change both if it was adopted seriously. It is a third alternative to capitalism or socialism which almost no one has heard of: distributism.

Historically, distributism was the way most economies operated in most parts of the world for centuries until the rise of the mercantile states in the seventeenth century, when capitalism began to take its modern form. Then socialism arose as an attempt to correct the flaws of capitalism, but sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. Both capitalism and socialism share many concepts in common, including the philosophical assumption that man is Homo economicus: that is, the most important thing about man is his economic activity and behavior. Socialism puts the government in charge of the economy and capitalism bows to the free market, but both systems assume that when you have solved the economic problem, you have solved the most important problems.

Distributism, which had its heyday in England in the 1930s, starts from a different place altogether. It says that the economy was made for man, and not man for the economy.

Here's a little quiz: how many of the following items do you find appealing? Never mind how they would come about, just react positively or negatively to each:

--- Working at home, rather than in an office at the end of a long commute
--- Eating fresh fruits and vegetables you grew yourself or bought from a local farmer
--- Owning your own business
--- Being better off economically for having children rather than the reverse
--- Buying things made and sold by people who live in your neighborhood

None of these things are impossible or cloud-cuckoo-land pipe dreams. Millions of Americans enjoy one or more of them every day. All these things, and more that space doesn't allow me to list, are pieces of a distributist program that would encourage movement toward the wider distribution of ownership of productive property. That is distributism in a nutshell.

Where would engineers fit in a distributist economy? That is a good question, but one I would have to take time off and write a book about to answer adequately. Because large-scale capitalism is so deeply entrenched worldwide, most engineers work for firms that are either large multinationals themselves or depend on them. It is silly to pretend that you could take a multi-billion-dollar semiconductor foundry and turn it into dozens of little mom-and-pop IC plants spread all over the world. But it may seem silly simply because no one has thought along those lines for decades.

Many technical innovations that have taken place since the 1930s are potentially very friendly to a distributist economy. For instance, before the advent of the Internet it was impossible for a three-person company with limited capital to do worldwide marketing of any kind. There were simply no advertising media that such a small company could afford. Now all it takes is a website and maybe some translation software, and there you are. Already many firms are outsourcing specific engineering functions to private contractors, although in a haphazard way motivated by capitalistic concerns rather than other factors. The profession of engineering itself began largely as a group of quasi-independent professionals with what amounted to consulting practices, rather than as large staffs of wage-earning employees, which is the norm today.

These are idle musings at this point, admittedly, but the point is that bigger is not always better, and more means exist today to make small, owner-operated engineering firms viable than possibly ever before. There will always be a need for large organizations to deal with large projects such as aerospace programs, public works, and so on. But they need not be the rule-–one day they could be the rare exception in a distributist economy, in which most engineers would work either for themselves or in small local firms.

After decades of neglect, distributism is now seeing something of a renaissance, with books and websites showing up with some regularity. One of distributism's most prominent early exponents was the British author G. K. Chesterton, whose writings on distributism (The Outline of Sanity, Utopia of Usurers) are easier to find than some others. Wendell Berry, an author and farmer associated with what is known as the Southern Agrarian movement, takes positions that are often sympathetic with distributist principles. The Amish, who are often thought to eschew all forms of technology, actually take advantage of certain carefully chosen modern technologies, but only after carefully considering how its use will affect their individual and communal life.

You will probably never see a distributist candidate for President or a Distributist Party playing power politics. It is inherently a small-scale, local movement, but for that reason it can be much easier to live a practical distributist life here and now, in some ways, than it is to become an instant successful capitalist, for instance. If you think my treatment of distributism has been wacky and out of place, I promise not to bring it up again at least till after the November elections. But it's not impossible to imagine engineers doing well and doing good in a distributist economy as well as in the one we have now. And maybe, just maybe, things might be better than they are.

Sources: Books such as Distributist Perspectives I and II and Beyond Capitalism and Socialism are available from IHS Press (, which also publishes other works of Catholic social thought, where distributism finds many of its origins. On the web there are peppery blogs and information on distributism to be found in The Distributist Review at IEEE Technology and Society Magazine carried an excellent article by Jameson Wetmore on the Amish and their attitude toward technology in its Summer 2007 issue, pp. 10-21.


  1. I am attracted to all the items. I started working at home now as a design consultant this year and it was the best decision I have ever made (other than my engineering degree). I believe in buying local and eating locally grown foods. Good review of a heavy topic.

  2. Good article, thanks for it!!