Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Living Distributism: One day at a time

by Athanasius

Critics of Distributism argue that oh, it is impossible, it can't be done, you will never get that in say America, or England. We may also not get the Traditional Latin Mass in Los Angeles, and we may not find exceptional beer in the area we live in. Yet this doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Social movements are often started by the work of individuals at the grass roots level, even when they are not aware of it. To start living Distributism, the first and obvious goal should be the attainment of property and working on small agricultural plots, or working some kind of trade, even if it is only in our spare time.

Yet for many, given the state of the modern economy where house prices rise 80% but wages only 2%, this is also very difficult. So then we have to stop and say, how do we live a Distributist lifestyle, and begin rejecting the atheistic materialist yoke of Capitalism? It starts in our daily lives, with how we use our resources, and what we spend our money on.

The first step is frugality. One of the things which drives the consumerist culture is the throw away society created by advertising and crummy goods. The cheap worthless goods of our society are beyond number. Consider cheap t-shirts which fall apart, clothes not stitched well, bad food, furniture which falls apart, American cars, appliances which break after 2 uses, all carted to the dump and conveniently discarded.

Donald P. Goodman in his book "Distributism, a Catholic System of Economics", gives this example:
Landfills are so full that states are trucking their garbage elsewhere to dump it; everything, from toys to groceries, comes wrapped in at least one layer of packaging; we now actively choose wasteful methods rather than those which conserve and reuse. This culture of waste is fundamentally antithetical to distributism, which emphasizes cultivation over exploitation, and is an aspect of modernity which everyone can fight. More than that, it is an aspect of modernity which everyone can benefit from fighting. The expense of our wasteful habits is more enormous than most of us realize. Let us take a relatively benign example: paper plates. While real dishes are not only of greater utility and durability than paper ones, most in our society choose to employ paper plates because they are much less of a bother. They need not be washed or put away; they can be simply used and discarded.....
Waste is, we must all remember, a sin, and distributism is in large part an attempt to eliminate societal structures that are based on sin.
Another way not to waste, is to utilize everything available to you. Instead of supporting the immoral fashion industry, which works overtime to make women look as slutty as possible, and make men look as "pimp", "gangster", and buffoonish as possible, even from 6 months old, learn how to sew or make your own clothes. Buy American brands from small companies only, accept hand me downs. Don't throw clothes away once the children out grow them, as every family did within my memory. Baby clothes and most infant materials come to mind. Instead of buying a new crib for every baby, or redesigning rooms at enormous expense, or buying designer baby clothes, one can save the clothes for the next baby. After all, babies do not normally wear clothes out, they simply outgrow them or get them dirty.

Instead of supporting mass industrial companies, we can put our money into small family owned businesses which produce quality goods. That can be quite a sacrifice to us, especially when convenience appears to make it look better. Instead of buying garbage at McDonalds, one might try saving his money and going to a quality restaurant once in a while. Consequently he might try conserving his money and making quality food at home instead of buying frozen dinners with no nutritional value that remove the delight of the culinary activity which has kept human civilization going for many centuries. Instead of supporting Walmart or Target or other retailers in any manner, we might try family owned shops. This is more possible thanks to the internet, which decentralizes, rather than centralizes like the "Big Shop", a horrible creation that has only served to continually cheapen human life. As Chesterton noted in the Outline of Sanity:
I think the big shop is a bad shop. I think it bad not only in a moral but a mercantile sense; that is, I think shopping there is not only a bad action but a bad bargain. I think the monster emporium is not only vulgar and insolent, but incompetent and uncomfortable; and I deny that its large organization is efficient....As applied to things like shops, the whole thing is an utter fallacy. Some things like armies have to be organized; and therefore do their very best to be well organized. You must have a long rigid line stretched out to guard a frontier; and therefore you stretch it tight. But it is not true that you must have a long rigid line of people trimming hats or tying bouquets, in order that they may be trimmed or tied neatly. The work is much more likely to be neat if it is done by a particular craftsman for a particular customer with particular ribbons and flowers. The person told to trim the hat will never do it quite suitably to the person who wants it trimmed; and the hundredth person told to do it will do it badly; as he does. If we collected all the stories from all the housewives and householders about the big shops sending the wrong goods, smashing the right goods, forgetting to send any sort of goods, we should behold a welter of inefficiency. There are far more blunders in a big shop than ever happen in a small shop, where the individual customer can curse the individual shopkeeper. Confronted with modern efficiency the customer is silent; well aware of that organization's talent for sacking the wrong man. In short, organization is a necessary evil--which in this case is not necessary.
Taking such a thought to heart, avoiding the big shop altogether is the best course for the Distributist. Society reflects in its character the tenor of its microcosm, the family. The more families that live frugally, not spending freely but spending in necessity alone, the more we spread the gospel of ownership.


James said...

Good points concerning the need to live simply and support local businesses. However, when considering the individual taking direct action to "attain property, work on small agricultural plots, or some kind of trade" we should consider the techniques used by the large businesses. Lean and Six Sigma are two methods that have enabled large businesses to gain advantage in the marketplace.

Small (or micro) businesses could become very competitive if the owners were better educated in some of the fundamentals of "lean" manufacturing and processes that eliminate waste. Quality, or the elimination of defects, which is Six Sigma, is another concept that keeps customers coming back. The application of these techniques need not be structured/practiced as in a large business, which requires endless traning, meetings and documentation. But, the small businessman should understand the impact of these "tools' and how they could help him compete for and keep customers.

Large businesses are inherently incompetent simply based on their size. They have "exceeded human scale." The left hand doesn't always know what the right is doing because every time a tenured employee walks out the door or retires the knowledge of processes and experience that make his little piece of the business work go with him. This is the weak link in a large organization, and no amount of memos or documentation can replace experience.

I see too many small businesses today that succeed in spite of their shoddy customer service and/or business practices. There are several examples of great little businesses in my community. But, there are just as many examples of businesses that are so poorly run that they beg for competition. They make themselves easy marks for the chain stores and national service providers.

Whether a farmer, a carpenter, or a shop keeper, "lean" processes and quality are important to profitability and winning and retaining customers. The personal touch that a small business owner can impart to his product or service is immeasurably valuable in terms of the "experience" that his customer can receive at his business compared to a chain store staffed by employees. If more small business owners and those that aspire to own a business would embrace the "lean and quality" concepts the big stores wouldn't last.

Athanasius said...

Its very true, and it smacks of something I have said in the past when commenting on home schooling. Home schoolers fail when they try to make their homes model the school, instead of making their school model the home, because modern education is a business and it is a failing business like the large industrial systems.

When small businesses try to run themselves like big businesses they always run into trouble from the things you mention. Keeping things to scale and eliminating waste control costs, and the good business owner knows what is necessary in order to keep these things under control. The poor business owner is as you mention, begging for competition.