Vulgar Libertarianism Watch, Part XVI
Even granting the distributist premise that smaller businesses have been swallowed up by larger firms, it is by no means obvious that it is always preferable for a man to operate his own business rather than to work for another. It may well be that a man is better able to care for his family precisely if he does not own his own business or work the backbreaking schedule of running his own farm, partially because he is not ruined if the enterprise for which he works should have to close, and partially because he doubtless enjoys more leisure time that he can spend with his family than if he had the cares and responsibilities of his own business. Surely, therefore, we are dealing here with a matter for individual circumstances rather than crude generalization.
This makes the unwarranted assumption that working for someone else is the only way of reducing risk, as opposed to cooperative ownership, federation, etc.. It assumes, as a basic premise, the very thing that distributism objects to: that capital is concentrated in the hands of a few owners who hire wage labor, instead of widely distributed among the general population who pool it through cooperative mechanisms.
And the proper contrast is not between the work schedule of an American farmer, producing for a capitalist commodity market, despite the hindrances of banks and railroads, versus the early 19th century factory labor. The proper contrast is between a laborer making a subsistence living off a small family plot with access to a common, and supplementing his income when necessary with wage labor, versus that same factory worker. To compare the hours and quality of work of a genuine subsistence farmer with the mind-numbing 12- or 14-hour days in a dark satanic mill is a joke.
Suppose, moreover, that "distributism" had been in effect as the Industrial Revolution was developing in Britain in the late 18th century. We would have heard ceaseless laments regarding the increasing concentration of economic power and the dramatic growth in the number people working for wages. What we probably wouldn’t have heard about was the actual condition of those people who were seeking employment in the factories. They weren’t lucky enough to be able to make a profitable living in agriculture, and their families had not provided them with the tools necessary to enter an independent trade and operate one of the small shops that delight the distributist.
Had they not had the opportunity to work for a wage, therefore, they and their families would simply have starved. It is as simple as that. Capitalism, and not distributism, literally saved these people from utter destitution and made possible the enormous growth in population, in life expectancy, in health, and in living standards more generally that England experienced at the time and which later spread to western Europe at large....
To back this up, Woods quotes Mises and Hayek with variations on the "best available alternative" defense of working conditions in the early industrial revolution. That argument was the subject of my first "Vulgar Libertarianism Watch" piece. As I showed then, it is not "as simple as that." And "luck" had nothing to do with it--the land expropriations of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the "downsizing" of the agricultural population, were a case of the propertied classes making their own "luck." And the story if this, their luck, is written in letters of fire and blood.
Those who care to support locally based and smaller-scale agriculture have already been doing so for two decades now by means of community-supported agriculture, which is booming. On a purely voluntary basis, people who wish to support local agriculture pay several hundred dollars at the beginning of the year to provide the farmer with the capital he needs; they then receive locally grown produce for the rest of the year. The organizers of this movement, rather than wasting their time and ours complaining about the need for state intervention, actually did something: they put together a voluntary program that has enjoyed considerable success across the country. Perhaps, if distributists feel as strongly about their position as they claim, this example can provide a model of how their time might be better spent.
This is one thing I agree with, sort of. Belloc strikes me as profoundly pessimistic. He assumed that concentration of property in a few hands was the natural tendency of a free market, and that state intervention was needed to reverse that natural process. In fact, the concentration of wealth is overwhelmingly owing to existing state intervention. The working of a free market would break it up. Belloc might have been more optimistic had he seen the free market as working in favor of distributism rather than against it.
What wouldn't be a "waste of time," though, would be for the community-supported agriculture movement to lobby for an end to the subsidies and other competitive advantages the federal government provides to corporate agribusiness.
To the extent that the anti-corporate Left sees state intervention as necessary to break the present power of big business, it's owing to the fact (as Nock said), that vulgar libertarians and state socialists have a common interest in obscuring the nature of the present system. Vulgar libertarian apologists for big business like to pretend that the current winners got that way through superior efficiency in the market. And state socialists like to pretend, likewise, that a bureaucratic apparatus controlled by themselves is the only way to counter the natural outgrowth of big business from the free market.