The Bookman has long been an admirer of what has been called distributism, a social/economic theory that combines a preference for localism in politics and business, a strong agrarian focus, and the segregation of some aspects of society, such as the family, from the market. The distributist stance has often, and rightly, been interpreted as anti-capitalist (though that need not be the case). But as Thomas E. Woods, a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, demonstrates in his pamphlet, Beyond Distributism, distributism, as it has been articulated, does not actually meet the human goods it advocates.
It is true, Woods acknowledges, that no human society is perfect and that no Christian supporter of capitalism believes that the pursuit of material goods for its own sake is a worthy life-goal. Yet distributists cannot ignore the explosion of wealth capitalism has created, nor the immense relief of poverty and destitution that has accompanied it. “It is precisely the wealth that market mechanisms create and the leisure that the market makes possible that make the enjoyment of higher things practicable in the first place.” Woods makes the simple point that, although the free market is efficient, its efficiency allows us to focus on other goods—and creates the conditions for more people to exist in a healthy society than otherwise; for all its presumed and even actual virtues, pre-capitalist agrarian life was too often Hobbesian in character. It was the factories, as Woods argues, with all their disadvantages, that allowed many for the first time to have a sustainable income for themselves and their families.
This small volume is not the last word on the subject. Woods does not fully address the system we actually have now, the regulatory-managerial state, which is not truly capitalist (and, it must be said, not favored by Woods any more than it is by distributists). That system could go far in a distributist direction with its attendant advantages without succumbing to the weaknesses Woods describes. Nevertheless, Beyond Distributism addresses objections that those who advocate distributism must answer.
Russell Jacoby, in a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, recently bemoaned the supposed lack of conservative intellectuals. Had he done some homework, this volume devoted to the thought of Russell Kirk might have set him to rights (and denied his article’s premise). Pafford’s study joins a growing number of books on Kirk that place his intellectual achievements in perspective. It is a recent installment in Continuum’s “Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers” series; a new, paperback edition is forthcoming. Pafford’s central chapter focuses on Kirk’s beliefs, covering such subjects as economics, education, and his intellectual influences, specifically Edmund Burke, John Adams, Orestes Brownson, and T. S. Eliot, though noting that in assessing the contributions of these and others to his thought, Kirk “identified key minds, distilled their beliefs, wove the thread which connected them, and added his own contributions.” As for his continuing relevance, Pafford is confident: a “powerful conservative current runs through our culture, a current deriving more from Kirk than from any other individual of the past half century.”
This book is a good introduction to the major themes of Kirk’s thought and to his central works, as well as how Kirk differs in some crucial respects from other major thinkers.
Brief reviews of books on distributism and Russell Kirk.