Robert Stark interviews Keith Preston about Distributism
















Robert Stark talks to Keith Preston of Attack the System for a written interview.

Topics include:

Keith’s interest in alternative economics that opposes both capitalism and socialism such as distributism
Why third way economics theories have limited influence but a large potential audience
A Traditionalist critique of Capitalism
Chesterton and Belloc’s views on Nationalism, Eugenics, and Imperialism
How Marxist viewed Distributism as a Petit Bourgeois movement
The Distributist critique of the welfare state versus the modern conservative view towards poverty
Taxation policies such as a Negative Income Tax and Asset Tax

Transcript of Interview:

Keith how did you become interested in Chesterton and Belloc, distributism, and Third Way economics in general?

I began with an interest in anarchism, libertarianism, and other philosophies that offered criticisms of the state. Yet unlike conventional libertarians I saw a need to criticize the power of the mass corporations that act in collusion with the state as well. I continue to share the libertarian socialist view that elimination of the state without the parallel dismantling of the infrastructure of corporate plutocracy would largely result in the development of a kind of corporate feudalism. However, there is also a need for an approach to economics that does not stifle productivity and development. Hence, my rejection of communism in favor of third way positions such as distributism.

Can you give us some background information on Chesterton and Belloc, their biographies, and core beliefs?

Chesterton and Belloc were traditional Catholics who were critics of modernity. They were critical of the effect that capitalism, liberalism, statism, and scientism had in terms of eroding traditional institutions such as family, the local community, religion, morality, and traditional culture.

How is their critique of capitalism different from Marx’s and other the left in general?

The distributists were critical of capitalism because of its corrosive effect on traditional society and the undermining of European institutions that had developed during the medieval era. However, this was one of the things that Marx and Engels actually praised about capitalism. The distributists criticized capitalism from a conservative or reactionary perspective, while the Marxists regarded distributism as backward looking and themselves as forward looking.

Did Marxist view Distributism as a Petit Bourgeois movement?

That is somewhat true, in the sense that Marxism regards distributism’s emphasis on an economy of small property holders as petite bourgeois. The Marxists held to a similar view of Proudhon’s mutualism. But Marxists would also regard distributism’s romantic medievalism as retrograde and counterrevolutionary as opposed to their own supposedly progressive perspective.

Was distributism a reaction to the Industrial Revolution?

Yes, obviously distributism was a reaction to the industrial revolution. The distributists were as critical of the impact of the industrial revolution as the Marxists, perhaps more so. Once in a debate with a socialist Chesterton was accused of defending the British industrial system because of his anti-socialism, and Chesterton replied that only the devil would defend the industrial system as it was at the time.

Is distributism based primarily on Catholic Social Teachings?

Yes, Catholic teachings on social justice were obviously a primary influence on distributism, although distributism developed a more specific and prescriptive socio-economic critique than what is found in the social teachings per se. However, the ideas of the distributists have certainly been adopted by many Catholic social philosophers.

Do distributist make the case that capitalism and socialism are two heads of the same coin, both based on consolidation?

Yes, the criticisms of both capitalism and socialism that are offered by distributists are very similar not only in the sense of the tendency of both of these towards excessive centralization but also their orientation towards materialism and economism which distributists regard as antithetical to spiritual and ethical values.
What were Chesterton and Belloc’s views on Nationalism, Eugenics, and Imperialism?

They were opposed to all of these. Chesterton in particular was a “Little Englander” who opposed the maintenance of England’s international empire. The regarded nationalism as being driven by the same modernist forces as liberalism, socialism, and communism, and they also regarded eugenics as a dangerous attempt by human beings to tamper with nature that would lead to terrible abuses.

Is trust busting a distributist policy and how much of an influence did it have on the early 20th Century Progressive movement?

Anti-trust policies are an example of the kinds of policies that distributists would be sympathetic to, but distributism had no influence on the Progressive movement per se. Progressivism was a modernist, scientism oriented, materialist philosophy of the kind to which the distributists would have been opposed. Eugenics was also a core feature of Progressive thinking at the time as well.
Do distributist favor the middle class over the wealthy and lumpen proletariat, much like the philosophy of producerism which views both the very top and bottom as parasitic?

There are parallels between distributism and producerism. But producerism tends to have its roots in Protestant and bourgeois notions of the superiority of middle class values over those of aristocracy while distributism is rooted more in Catholic traditions which place a greater emphasis on noblesse oblige as the proper basis for the relationship between aristocrats and peasants, and charity towards the poor.

What is the general distributist view towards the welfare state?

Distributists have generally taken a critical or at least cautiously skeptical view of the welfare state but for different reasons that ordinary American-style conservatives and libertarians. The distributist criticism of the welfare state is not that it takes tax money from the supposedly deserving wealthy and affluent and gives money to the supposedly undeserving poor. Instead, distributists share in common with socialists the view that the welfare state is merely a cheap substitute for actual social justice. However, unlike socialists, distributists tend to regard the welfare state as destructive of organic institutions such as family, community, church, and charities, and distributists would share the common conservative and libertarian view that the welfare state traps the poor into a cycle of poverty.

What are your thoughts on the negative income tax as an alternative to the welfare state?

The negative income tax would arguably be a more efficient means of providing assistance to the poor because it would have the effect of eliminating the bureaucratic middlemen that are charged with the task of administering the welfare state, and which absorb much of the expenditures that are allocated for the social welfare system. Therefore, social transfer payments could be potentially increased but at reduced costs.

What are distributist solutions to taxation? For instance do they favor raising taxes on the ultra rich?

There is no one singular distributist approach to tax policy. Distributists are generally less hostile to taxation than conservatives and libertarians, and would likely be inclined to favor higher taxes on large business and the super rich with lower taxes on small business and the working to middle classes.

What are your thoughts on the Asset Tax?

Both advantages and disadvantages can be identified with regards to the Asset Tax. An advantage is that is discourages the hoarding of wealth as opposed to productive investment that produces economic stimulation and job creation. The major disadvantage is that is focuses on the taxation of personal wealth rather than institutional wealth of the kind held by corporate entities which would undermine the ability of the middle class to accumulate assets and also disadvantage the elderly.

What are your thoughts on social credit and how does it differ from a negative income tax?

Social credit involves monetary policy while a negative income tax involves tax policy. Social credit is based on the idea that credit should be expanded relative to the overall volume of production in order to ensure that overproduction does not take place and that a consumer market for the full volume of production is ensured. The ambition of social credit is to raise the purchasing power of consumers by means of interest-free credit. The negative income tax involves direct cash transfer payments to recipients. The negative income tax might be a viable alternative to the welfare state while social credit might be an alternative to the proliferation of consumer debt.

Why do Third Way economic theories have such a limited influence and do they have a large potential audience?

Economic theories of these kinds conflict with the objectives of capitalists and corporatists that prefer the centralization of control over wealth and resources. Third Way economics also undermined the objectives of socialists and communists who prefer a collectivized or state-controlled economy. Therefore, both the left and right wings of establishment opinion have a vested interest in ensuring that these ideas are not widely disseminated.