"If a peasant can grow a cabbage himself, cook it himself, and eat it himself, he has so far attained the maximum of efficiency and certainly the maximum of economy. Organization means that he must trust the cabbage to strangers on a train, strangers on a trolly, strangers in a shop, until by infinite financial complications he can get it exchanged for a turnip or a cauliflower; and at every one of those stages it is in danger from every one of those strangers. I am not saying that he should not change his cabbage for a cauliflower, or that the exchange could be made without some organization. What I say is that if there is some organization there will be some inefficiency; and if there is more Organization there will be more inefficiency..... That luckless vegetable has been lost in a forest of men, as trees walking; of men of the sort summarized as mostly fools; of human trees which are at least tolerably green. It is almost a wonder that the peasant does not preserve the vegetable in a shrine instead of putting it on a dish."
For example, since my exodus from education, after a short stint as a secretary I ended up in retail, and now work as an assistant manager in a large retail organization, not by choice but by necessity. Now the belief is that large grocery stores and large retail operations such as Walmart and Target get more goods into their shops than the small time grocer or hardware store of old and carry more variety, and do so more efficiently. It is a belief about as firmly rooted in reality as Santa Clause or the Tooth Fairy. Behind the receiving doors of huge stores, waxed floors and massive displays of toilet paper, there is money lost left and right, squashed underneath the boots of receivers, rotting in unopened boxes, destroyed by carelessness, not stocked through sloth, and a dozen other things which cause the profit margin of the store to go down. Let's take Walmart, the company I am unfortunate to find my employment with at this time. There are stores that do over a million dollars in sales each week yet lose money! The second problem is of course what Chesterton described, the forest of human hands that a thing must pass through before it gets to your cabinet at home. Many of the people who work under me are good people, in as much as they know their own business. Yet they don't see the big picture, and if they have no role in the bigger scheme they couldn't conceive of it if you explained it to them. Stockers do not understand that they are creating profit for the department, as I do who run that whole side of the store. They understand cookies come out of box and onto shelf. If some get damaged along the way, oh well. Likewise in the warehouses that supply stores such as Walmart. They do not look at the sales figures that I do every Monday morning and plan displays, and carefully handle merchandise so it arrives intact. It is crammed onto a truck, often labels are incorrect so the store is billed either too little or too much for the merchandise it is not receiving (which messes up counts and ordering and causes sales to be missed) and lots of things are broken. The only way for this process to be more profitable were if I were to load the truck myself, taking care that the right labels are on the right products, then to speed ahead of the truck and unload it myself so items don't get damaged or lost or sent to the wrong department which causes innumerable problems, then to stock the shelves myself and not eliminate displays which have been carefully planned as the stockers do in order to put up a pallet of canned corn that was mis-sent. All of this on top of my other duties of ordering, etc. As we know, the laws of physics and human anatomy make this impossible!
Chesterton's point is equally valid today as it was in his own time, and arguably as valid in any time. Even if all of the stockers, all of the receivers and warehouse clerks were equally as competent and knowledgable about how their pay checks are written as I, and all worked well, there would still be inefficiency simply due to the size of the operation. Waste would still occur, product would still be broken, misplaced, dropped, and stores would still be "shrinking" (losing money) by the hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions at the end of the year. I know of one Walmart in our district that lost over 2 million dollars from the process I have just described, before we count theft. (There is also the sheer waste of resources and products which is almost inhuman, but that should be left for another time). Increase the size of the operation and you only increase the inefficiency and waste. When you calculate the expenses involved in running the business, salaries, electric bills, construction, taxes/rent, and innumerable other expenses, the store just barely pays for itself in many cases, and the profit margin is small. If one takes that profit and starts doling it out for all of the errors I mentioned above from the inefficiency of the supposedly efficient big business, the profit shrinks considerably.
When faced with this state of affairs, we have to ask, is big business really better? Would it not be smarter, more efficient and less wasteful to have a number of small grocers who themselves control their stock and ordering rather than 4 Super Walmarts crowding out a 20 mile radius? Let us consider: The small grocer is not prone any less to inefficiency, but it is on a scale ridiculously smaller. He drops a bag of flower and loses 2.50. Walmart or the Supermarket drops a pallet of flower and over a thousand dollars, not just in what was paid but what was not paid, as in the retail markup. The big store loses an astronomical amount of money, paid back to him by open credit and the large debt he is allowed to run. The small grocer loses a small amount easily paid back to him. Likewise, the small grocer, if there is also a local rather than global economy to support him, is dealing with less and less people to bring him produce, meat products, beverages, etc. This allows the individual to control the passage of goods, and when the number of hands it flows through is smaller, the number of accidents and mistakes is smaller, consequently more money is made overall. Secondly the small grocer, being in control of his stock, can meet the demands of customers better. In a large retailer, products are determined at a district level, by a suit in a corner office crunching sales figures and determining what stores ought to carry. The small grocer can place an order for that which he does not normally carry, if not recommend another store entirely.
Lastly, the small grocer has as his aim to provide for his family, and consequently to stay in business. The large retailer, by such names as we know them, namely my employer, has as its aim to put others out of business. There is an owner, who normally lives in another state from where the large business is located, and he wants to expand his market share to unbelievable levels. This is not only true of Walmart, but it is true of Target, it is true of every Grocery Store regardless of whether it is named "Albertsons", or "Kroger", or "Stop & Shop", or, if you live in the southeast "Piggly Wiggly" (note to California readers that is not a joke! That is the largest chain in the southeast). However, for a Catholic that should prevent a problem, not in the least because of Catholic social teaching, but also if we consider an old examination of conscience. One part, under the 7th commandment, admonishes the man considering his conscience: "Have I done anything to knowingly destroy or assist in destroying another man's business so that he can not provide for his family in order to profit myself." That is precisely what Capitalism does, and encourages one to do. Thus, the smaller grocer, concerned for himself and his family, is concerned with his own affairs. The large one with everyone else's and how to destroy them. As such, Distributism, which aims at the smaller quantity, is more efficient for the salvation of the souls, whereas Capitalism is more efficient in creating greed and infinite perils to the soul.