A review of Beyond Capitalism and Socialism, Edited by Tobias J. Lanz
The message of this excellent book, Beyond Capitalism and Socialism, is straightforward and timely: both socialism and capitalism are lacking.
But the book goes a step further, offering suggestions for what type of economy and society we should adopt in the twenty-first century:
“There must be a better way. And, of course, there is, and has been for a very long time. It is a society based on small self-sufficient regions, empowered communities, vibrant neighborhoods, gainfully employed families, individual self-satisfactions, decentralized politics, local economies, sustainable organic agriculture, cooperative work, environmental humility, and careful nurturing of the earth.”
The entire book outlines these basic ideals in a realistic and real-world, even anti-utopian, way.
First, it notes that through history humankind has faced on ongoing series of major crises. These are simply the reality of history. Every generation faces challenges, and some are bigger than others.
We have enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity which is rare in human history. Crises of some kind will come, and at some point they will challenge or end the ability of big government to solve the world’s problems.
Second, the book argues that truly sustainable society depends on something more than dependence on big institutions:
“As James Kunstler puts it in The Long Emergency, when these [inevitable] crises hit, national and supranational economies will disintegrate and ‘the focus of society will have to return to the town or small city and its surrounding agricultural hinterland…’”
“It will require us to downscale and rescale virtually everything we do and how we do it…”
“Anything organized on the large scale, whether it is government or a corporate business enterprise such as Wal-Mart, will wither as the cheap energy props that support bigness fall away.”
This is an extremely important point. Towns and cities along with families could, and indeed should, at some point become once again the central institutions of human society. We have given far too little thought to this eventuality.
Third, if any or all of these changes—or others like them—occur, we will see our world drastically altered.
Unfortunately, little of our modern schooling, scholarship, career training or leadership preparation is geared in any way to dealing with such a possibility.
“And then, of necessity, the world will reconstruct itself on the lines of a more human-scale, community-based, local-resource-dependent societies…”
I don’t know if this forecast will come as predicted here, but it certainly could. And if it does, we need leaders who are prepared.
In fact, even if this prediction doesn’t occur, such an increase of leadership on local levels could only help our society.
Even if our major institutions remain big, even global, strong local leadership is vital to success—economically, politically and on a societal level.
It is the breakdown of exactly this kind of local leadership which has caused such drastic growth of institutions that are too big and such widespread dependence on these institutions.
Any organization that is too big to fail is, put simply, too big. Period. If it is too big to fail, its failure is a major threat—because all manmade institutions eventually fail. Most do so earlier rather than later.
The authors of Beyond Capitalism and Socialism get it right that the answer to our major current problems are rooted in our citizens and community, and that until we build strong local foundations across society we can only expect to witness further economic decay.
They are also correct that neither capitalism nor socialism hold the answers, that a return to true free enterprise is essential, and that we must get started in this process rather than wait for some crisis to force such changes.
At times the authors get caught up in denominational debates from the Catholic perspective, but this tends to deepen the benefit of the book rather than detract. Readers do not have to buy into any religious themes to learn from the numerous commentaries on the potential of free enterprise society.
The book is invaluable reading for American, and all freedom-loving, citizens. As one of the authors wrote:
“Given a society, in which men, or the vast majority of men, owned property and were secure in their income, the myriad interactions of free men making empowered choices really would balance supply and demand. We would be astonished at the variety, the non-servility, and the creativity of our neighbors.”
Still, I found the book lacking in one major detail.
I prefer the term “free enterprise” to “Distributive,” first because I think it more accurately describes the philosophy for which it stands and second because I’m not convinced that free enterprise and distributism are precisely the same thing.
They share many ideals, it is true, but there are differences. For example, both free enterprise and distributism agree that:
- neither capitalism nor socialism is the ideal
- capitalism, in which those with wealth are treated differently by the law than those without wealth and the level of one’s wealth determines which laws pertain to each person, is flawed
- socialism, in which the government owns the major means of production and levels incomes and work assignments in an attempt to create long-term equity between all citizens and where one’s status is determined by one’s government position, is flawed
- the local society, economy and government is more important than the state- or national-level economy and government and should be treated as such
- families are the central institution of society, and they are more important than markets or governments; markets and governments exist to help families, not vice versa
- money is an important consideration in making choices for family, career, business and society, but it is less of a priority than relationships, spirituality and morality
- we have reached a point in the modern world where our societal dependence on big institutions—both government and corporate—is a serious weakness in our culture and causes much that is negative in our world
- a return to society that is more ideal, more locally-oriented, and citizens that are more independent and entrepreneurial is overdue. In such a society, most families would own their own businesses rather than remaining dependent on government or corporations for their jobs and livelihoods
The big difference between free enterprise and distributive thought hinges on how we should move toward such a society. Dale Ahlquist, one of the authors, suggested the following:
“The dilemma of Distributism is the dilemma of freedom itself. Distributism cannot be done to the people, but only by the people. It is not a system that can be imposed from above; it can only spring up from below….If it happens, it seems most likely that it would be ushered in by a popular revolution. In any case, it must be popular. It would at some point require those with massive and inordinate wealth to give it up.”
The desire for popular support is normal for all political groups, but the idea that Distributism “would at some point require those with massive and inordinate wealth to give it up” is alarming at best.
Why would the wealthy have to “give it up?” Why is that necessary in free society? The word “required” is the problem.
Fortunately, Ahlquist clarifies that this would be voluntary, so it isn’t Marxist, but it still makes me wonder, why?
Nor is this the isolated view of just one author. Here is how another of the authors put it (and for this author voluntarism is replaced by government force):
“For instance, if I own one or several stores (say pizza restaurants) I would have a reasonable and normal rate of taxation, but as soon as I begin to assemble a chain of such businesses, then my rate of taxation would rise so sharply that no one of a normal disposition would seek to continue to own such a chain….A similar scheme of taxation would attack ‘multiple shops,’ that is, stores selling many lines of goods, such as a mega or ‘box’ stores, and stores with ‘large retail power.’”
Again, why? The answer is that no big institutions can be allowed, that everything must by force remain small.
This makes the same mistake as Marx, who taught that government would take from the rich and redistribute equally to all.
The mistake was to think that those running the government wouldn’t keep a little (or a lot) extra for themselves and their families.
In the Distributive ideal, where no institution can be allowed to be too big, the clear flaw is that any institution powerful enough to keep all the others small will have to be, well, big.
That means big government. The Distributists would presumably want the government to be local, but strong enough to keep all the other institutions small.
The American founders already dealt with this and wrote about it extensively in the Federalist Papers.
Madison, for example, said that nearly all of the colonies in the late 1780s suffered from local governments that were too dominant—they nearly all had corrupt and unfree practices.
This was one of the strongest arguments in support of the U.S. Constitution: a central entity would help reduce unfree and unfair governing fads which always arise in small (and therefore inbred) governments.
Clearly government has become much too big today, but a return to locales dominated by a few powerful families that ignore the needs of the rest of the people is not the answer—though it is precisely what would happen to most local governments if left to themselves. History is clear on this point.
We certainly need more local leadership, independence and a lot more entrepreneurialism and real ownership. We need good local government to make it work, and ideally a federation of local governments to maintain real freedom.
But back to the main point: why would we want to use government taxation to keep any business from growing?
If it offers a good product at a good price and people prefer its offering to those of other businesses, why should we drastically increase its taxes so that it remains small? Is smallness the central point?
If so, this is the reason I prefer free enterprise. One more quote will suffice to further my point:
“Of course, a suitable period of time would be necessary to complete an orderly sell-off of property from excessively large owners to small owners before the new tax system came into full effect. Moreover, if this is instituted at a very reasonable pace, with tax rates on concentrations of property increasing gradually each year, this would give owners more time to prepare and help prevent a ‘firesale’ of their property. Similarly some form of guaranteed loans would have to exist to allow those without property or money to purchase the excess property that was being sold.”
My first thought when I read this was, “Who gets to determine what ‘excess’ means in such a society? Whoever it is, they’ll eventually keep more of the money and power than everyone else.”
This one flaw in how the book describes Distributism is a serious problem. It proposes stopping one capitalist from getting too much wealth and power, but it doesn’t seem to realize that it also proposes taking the “excess” money from the capitalist and giving it to the socialist.
Some people may believe that this is the system we live under in the United States today. This is incorrect.
The U.S. commercial code has numerous laws which are written specifically to treat people differently based on their wealth.
For example, it is illegal for those with less than a certain amount of wealth to be offered many of the best investment opportunities. Only those with a high net worth (the amount is set by law) are able to invest in such offerings.
This naturally benefits the wealthy to the detriment of wage earners.
This system is called capitalism, and it is a bad system—better than socialism or communism, to be sure, but not nearly as good as free enterprise.
In a free enterprise system, the law would allow all people to take part in any investments. The law would be the same for all.
If this seems abstract, try starting a business in your local area. In fact, start two. Let the local zoning commissions, city council and other regulating agencies know that you are starting a business, that it will employ you and two employees, and then keep track of what fees you must pay and how many hoops you must jump through.
Have your agent announce to the same agencies that a separate company, a big corporation, is bringing in a large enterprise that will employ 4,000 people—all of whom will pay taxes to the local area and bring growth and prestige.
Then simply sit back and watch how the two businesses are treated. In most places in the United States, one will face an amazing amount of red tape, meetings, filings and obstacles—the other will likely be courted and given waivers, benefits and publicity.
Add up the cost to government of each, and two things will likely surprise you: 1) how much you will have to spend to set up a small business, and 2) how much the government will be willing to spend to court the large business.
This is the natural model in a capitalist system. Capital gets special benefits.
Apparently, in contrast, in Distributist society the small business would pay little and the big business would have to pay a lot more. Under socialism, neither business would be established at all—at least not by you. A government official would do it all, or not do it.
In free enterprise, the costs and obstacles would be identical for the two businesses. In free enterprise, the operative words are “free” and “enterprise.”
Some Distributists seem to share the socialist misconception that unless government forces smallness, every business owner will push to become too big.
Wendell Berry, a favorite writer of mine, often took the same tone. In reality, however, the evidence is clear that American business and ownership stayed mostly small—with most people owning family farms or small businesses—until the 1960s.
It was government debt which wiped out the farming culture that dominated the South and Midwest, and the rise of big corporations over family-owned businesses came after the U.S. commercial code was changed by law to a capitalist rather than a free enterprise model.
Instead of using government to force businesses to remain small, let’s consider giving freedom a try. It has worked for us in the past.
If we altered the laws at all levels so that government entities treated all businesses and citizens the same, regardless of their level of capital in the bank, the natural result would be the spread of more small businesses.
Freedom, not government control, is the answer.
With all that said, I’m convinced that at least some, maybe many or most, of Distributists in general and the contributing authors to Beyond Capitalism and Socialism specifically would agree with this point, that in fact their view of Distributism coincides with free enterprise. For example, Ahlquist’s chapter appears entirely supportive of free enterprise.
Still, I am concerned by this one thread of thought among some of the authors that seems to see government as the way to keep business from growing.
Free enterprise gives no special benefits to big business like capitalism does, but it also does not force businesses to remain small. If this is the view of most Distributists, I agree with them. Even if we disagree on this point, and I’m not sure we do, I find much to praise in this excellent book.
Beyond this one concern, I can’t say enough positive about Beyond Capitalism and Socialism. It is greatly needed by our citizens today.
Everyone should read it and ponder its application to our current world. Consider the following thoughts from this thought-provoking book:
“Home and family are the normal things. Trade and politics are necessary but minor things that have been emphasized out of all proportion.” –Dale Ahlquist
“What then is Distributism? It is that economic system or arrangement in which the ownership of productive private property, as much as possible, is widespread in a nation or society. In other words, in a Distributist society most…would own small farms or workshops…” –Thomas Storck
“As Political Economy is the child of Domestic Economy, all laws that weaken the home weaken the nation.” –Joseph McNabb
“The family, not the individual, is the unit of the nation.” –Joseph McNabb
“We don’t want to work hard. We don’t want to think hard. We want other people to do both our work and our thinking for us. We call in the specialists. And we call this state of utter dependency ‘freedom.’ We think we are free simply because we seem free to move about.” –Dale Ahlquist
“The conservatives and liberals have successfully reduced meaningful debate to name-calling. We use catchwords as a substitute for thinking. We know things only by their labels, and we have ‘not only no comprehension but no curiosity touching their substance or what they are made of.’” –Dale Ahlquist
“[T]oday here in the United States of America, and in all industrialized countries…there is a class of men and women, perhaps the majority, that…is unfree….I mean, all those who subsist on a wage, the price paid for the commodity they have and who have no other means of maintenance for themselves and their families. I mean…all those who subsist on a wage that is paid to them by those who are, in actuality, their masters; a wage that may be withdrawn at any time and for any reason, leaving them on the dole, or to starve, if they can find no new job…These are not free men in any rational and exact sense of the word.” –Ralph Adams Cram
“Every man should have his own piece of property, a place to build his own home, to raise his family, to do all the important things from birth to death: eating, singing, celebrating, reading, writing, arguing, story-telling, laughing, crying, praying. The home is above all a sanctuary of creativity. Creativity is our most Godlike quality. We not only make things, we make things in our own image. The family is one of those things. But so is the picture on the wall and the rug on the floor. The home is the place of complete freedom, where we may have a picnic on the roof and even drink directly from the milk carton.” –Dale Ahlquist
“The word ‘property’ has to do with what is proper. It also has to do with what is proportional. Balance has to do with harmony. Harmony has to do with beauty….The word ‘economy’ and the word ‘economics’ are based on the Greek word for house, which is oikos. The word ‘economy’ as we know it, however, has drifted completely away from that meaning. Instead of house, it has come to mean everything outside of the house. The home is the place where the important things happen. The economy is the place where the most unimportant things happen.” –Dale Ahlquist
“Caveat lector! For there is little resemblance indeed of the real ownership of real property…to the ‘rent-from-the-bank’ home ‘ownership’ (sic) of most American families.” –John Sharpe
“Our separation of economy from the house is part of a long fragmentation process….Capitalism has separated men from the home. Socialism has separated education from the home….The news and entertainment industry has separated originality and creativity from the home, rendering us into passive and malleable customers rather than active citizens.” –Dale Ahlquist
“In the age of specialization we tend to grasp only small and narrow ideas. We don’t even want to discuss a true Theory of Everything, unless it is invented by a specialist and addresses only that specialist’s ‘everything.’” –Dale Ahlquist
“In material things there can be no individual security without individual property. The independent farmer is secure. He cannot be sacked. He cannot be evicted. He cannot be bullied by landlord or employer. What he produces is his own: the means of production are his own. Similarly the independent craftsman is secure, and the independent shopkeeper. No agreements, no laws, no mechanism of commerce, trade, or State, can give the security which ownership affords. A nation of peasants and craftsmen whose wealth is in their tools and ski and materials can laugh at employers, money merchants, and politicians. It is a nation free and fearless. The wage-earner, however sound and skilful his work, is at the mercy of the usurers who own that by which he lives. Moreover, by his very subjection he is shut out from that training and experience which alone can fit him to be a responsible citizen. His servile condition calls for little discretion, caution, judgment, or knowledge of mankind. The so-called ‘failure of democracy’ is but the recognition of the fact that a nation of employees cannot govern itself.” –John Sharpe
Whether you agree or disagree with the details, this book is a treasure of great ideas to consider, discuss, ponder and think about.
Whether or not the ideas in Beyond Capitalism and Socialism become necessary to all of us through some major crisis ahead, a national consideration of these topics is long overdue. We do need to move beyond capitalism and socialism.
We need a rebirth of free enterprise, for our nation, economy, freedom, prosperity and above all, for our families and communities.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.