Author Archives: James

Distributism Isn’t Outdated

G._K._Chesterton_at_work-554x414First published by The American Conservative on 13th November 2014

G.K. Chesterton offers a non-statist vision for economic and social change that’s still relevant in the age of the iPhone.

I’m not holding out for a Red October 2017, but neither am I happy succumbing to a weary fatalism about the kind of capitalism we find ourselves with today. I want to believe things could be different, but that will require more vision than can be found in our current political arguments. And its accomplishment will hinge upon inspiring rather than alienating business leaders.

This will require a vision for transformation that—crucially—doesn’t revolve around a model of gladiatorial government whereby elected representatives battle for policy changes and social justice while we sit by cheering. No, we need a non-statist vision for economic and social change.

G.K. Chesterton’s early 20th century “distributism” is a movement typically considered a spent force, which is always a good reason to pay attention to something, for finding a vision for the future often requires swiveling back to the past. It holds out just the sort of powerful vision that could very well capture the hearts and minds of business leaders.

Chesterton’s “distributist” project tried to chart a middle course (but not “Third Way”!) between laissez faire capitalism on the one side and state socialism on the other. The problem with the former, as Chesterton wrote in The Outline of Sanity 10 years after the Russian Revolution, was that “The practical tendency of all trade and business today is towards big commercial combinations, often more imperial, more impersonal, more international than many a communist commonwealth.” While of the alternative, Chesterton said, “the point about Communism is that it only reforms the pickpocket by forbidding pockets.”

Instead, Chesterton picked up and ran with what we might call the Lockean strain in Pope Leo XIII’s famous encyclical Rerum Novarum, the emphasis on the natural integrity of private property. For Chesterton, ownership is a self-evident good, which therefore shouldn’t be abolished but widely distributed. Similarly, profit is a good thing, in fact too good a thing not to be shared. Accordingly, what Chesterton took issue with in the then-current defense of capitalism was that it was a “defense of keeping most men in wage dependence; that is, keeping most men without capital.” This conviction compelled Chesterton to lambast big business (which backfired when big chain of news stands refused to sell G.K.’s weekly); to monitor and oppose mergers; to advocate independent proprietorship; and to pronounce on every possible occasion that “small is beautiful”.

What possible relevance, though, can distributism have in globalized 21st-century economies? Economies where self-employment makes up so small a proportion of overall employment? In economies that produce complex, specialized goods from iPhones to aircraft?

Well, I think we could envisage in our economies a radical increase in the rate of self-employment—by which I mean, proportionately, a small increase! Small but significant. For, excitingly, many of the jobs that lend themselves to self-employment—bike shops, cleaning, landscape gardening, building trades—are entry-level. Ownership can be most achievable for some of the most disadvantaged and for the longest unemployed.

Policy circles at the moment, in the U.S. and the U.K., are abuzz with talk of how transformative “interventions” can improve someone’s life—interventions like the Family Nurse Partnership, or other types of mentoring for isolated young mothers. The distributist vision will require interventions as well, but interventions undertaken by men and women in the business community who give their time and energy to mentor young people at risk of crime, those coming out of the criminal justice system, or the long-term unemployed, all with the aim of giving them the confidence to set up their own productive, self-owned businesses.

How else might the distributist vision be achieved? Many on the right say that the best thing men and women in the business community could do for the poor is to start companies. Absolutely, but what about starting companies that the poor have a stake in from the very start?

Take a rural example: I have a friend who has made a significant amount of money, with which he has purchased a farm. But instead of working the land for him, the worker keeping the pigs will run the business with my friend, will co-farm, and will then share the profits.

Interestingly, however—as Jay Corrin notes in his excellent book Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy (University of Notre Dame Press, 2002)—Chesterton’s promotion of ownership and concomitant dismissal of wage-dependence led, in the General Strike of 1926, to the distributists strongly disapproving of the central demand of the trade unions: an insistence on a living wage. As Corrin says: “Focusing on the issue of wages, they argued, would only serve to perpetuate the division of property between employer and employee.”

At this point, though, Chesterton was running so far with the Lockean strand of Rerum Novarum, he left behind its other emphasis: the living wage. We can’t afford to make that mistake. For the truth is we don’t have time to wait until the elimination of “wage-dependence”; something needs to be done now about the low-wage economy. More specifically, the poor deserve a “floor” in terms of income—in the form of a living wage.

In the UK there have been two recent political attempts to respond to Catholic Social Teaching: Phillip Blond’s Red Toryism—focusing more on Chesterton’s distributist vision—and the Blue Labour movement developed by Lord Glasman, a Jewish political philosopher. His thinking and activism bears the impress of his appreciation of what he called the precious “gift” of Catholic social teaching. For as a community organizer, Glasman is adamantly anti-statist. Only by lobbying companies one by one, he insists, bringing management into direct relationship with their low-paid staff, should the living wage be campaigned for.

Returning to America, the task of tackling poverty can seem overwhelming. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world, while drug use is so endemic that it would now seem that opium is the opiate of the people. But chief among our priorities must be to increase ownership amongst the poorest and to ensure them a living-wage “floor.”

How will this be accomplished? Not mainly through government. No, this vision will be accomplished by envisioning, rather than alienating, business leaders; envisioning them to do things differently in the capitalist economies in which we find ourselves.

The misery of men-only parties

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 September 2014

Last year my wife Holly and I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, a stunning colonial town nestled in the Shenandoah mountains. Charlottesville was just voted America’s happiest city by the US National Bureau of Economic Research. We happily wander the downtown promenade, or visit the viognier vineyards, but there are some customs we’ve found hard to fathom. Chief among these is what can only be called the ‘sausage fest’, parties to which only men are invited.

Arriving to take a job at the University of Virginia, I was thrown in among the nexus of relationships a big academic institution affords. Add to that the Americans’ unjustifiably high estimation of Brits (in contrast to our unjustifiably low estimation of them), and I was well set up to make friends.

Holly, though, had to wait a while for her work permit to come through. So when the wife of an academic colleague sent us an invitation to his 30th birthday party, I said: ‘Go on, give her call. She could become a friend. Tell her we’d love to come.’

‘Delighted James can come,’ was the reply. James? Eh?

This apparently is par for the course. Wives organise parties for their husbands but when the ‘big night’ arrives, very much leave them to it. I find this problematic both personally and in principle.

Personally, I don’t really enjoy a party sans femmes. Stag weekends, for example. I’ve always found them a necessary evil. Why do I like parties with women? Not because I’m still after them. No, because — and maybe saying so is in itself sexist — why construct a social situation only to extract from it all charm, all vivacity, all grace? Women have been a force for good in the world. I truly believe that. Or as Inspector Morse once put it, ‘I have always believed femininity to be the guarantor of civilisation.’

But there’s a principle at stake too. When it comes to the bother about the burka, I hold the unremarkable position of being enough of a liberal to think the veil oppressive, but enough of a pluralist to concede women should be allowed to wear it. Deep down, though, I feel that if male lust poses a threat to society, it’s incumbent on men, not women, to deal with it. Why must how women dress be determined by how men are?

Where I am in the States, though, the prevailing position seems to be even more radical. It is as if male lust requires not just that our womenfolk remain covered. It requires that they not be there at all.

Maybe I should be more exact. For in truth it seems that the Virginians’ under-lying fear is not an evening with women. It’s an evening with women and bourbon.

Another ‘sausage fest’ I attend, again organised by the man’s missus, is held in his house. When we arrive there’s no sign of women and children. The eight of us take our seats, whereupon a single 20-ounce steak is placed on each of our plates. No potatoes. No accoutrements. Just meat and, in the middle of the table, a helluva lot of bourbon.

My wife likes to introduce me as a ‘one-pint wonder’. It should be said, I have the suggestion of a paunch and am at best ‘ugly handsome’, while Holly is slender and beautiful. Nevertheless, she can drink me under the table. Recall the opening scene of that sweeping epic Raiders of the Lost Ark. Remember the thin dark-haired heroine who has challenged a burly climber to a drink-off? She slams a shot. He matches her. Then he slowly keels over into the snow. Our first date was rather like that.

So as Woodford Reserve swills in my mouth, and the mantelpiece swims through my glasses, it strikes me that it really should be Holly representing us at this sausage fest. They’ve invited the wrong representative of Team Mumford.

Instead as the night wears on, my conversation becomes more convoluted and my analogies weaken. At 2 a.m. we eventually pile out into minus 12°C. I stumble home, ‘the crunch of frost beneath the foot’. I traipse up the drive shouting ‘HOLLLEEEE’ like Brando in Streetcar.

You might say I’m being overly judgmental about a culture I have freely embraced, indeed which has freely embraced me. I have been treated to the Americans’ outstanding hospitality, yet here I am criticising their mores. Perhaps sausage fests may be justified on the grounds that they provide important opportunity for the sexes to regroup. But sadly, over the course of a year, I’ve been to about nine sausage fests, whereas my wife hasn’t been to any birthday parties for the women. Maybe they don’t age in the same way.

Or perhaps you suspect the reason I feel uncomfortable about my sausage fests is because deep down I feel uncomfortable about my sausage. Well, in that, as with the sausage fest, you’d be better off asking my wife.

October 2014 Playlist

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

New album by Lia Ices and Alt J’s new offering are blowing my mind right now! And I’m going through a serious Arctic Monkeys/Black Keys rock-fest… Enjoy!

Arctic Monkeys – Do I Wanna Know?
The Black Keys – Gotta Get Away
Lia Ices – Higher
Al J – Nara
Shovels and Rope – The Devil Is All Around
Sufjan Stevens – He Woke Me Up Again
Tom Petty – Crawling Back To You
Goodnight, Texas – I’m Gonna Work on Maggie’s Farm Forever
DeVotchKa – The Last Beat Of My Heart
Steve Earle – Meet Me In The Alleyway
The Contours – Do You Love Me

Marilynne Robinson on ‘the family’

“We have reasoned our way to uniformly conditional relationships. This is at the center of the crisis of the family, since the word means, if it means anything, that certain people exist on special terms with each other, which terms are more or less unconditional. We have instead decided to respect our parents, maybe, if they meet our stringent standards of deserving. Just so do our children respect us, maybe.
Siblings founder, spouses age. We founder. We age. That is when loyalty should matter. But invoking it now is about as potent a gesture as flashing a fat roll of rubles. I think this may contribute enormously to the sadness many of us feel at the heart of contemporary society. “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds’, in the words of the sonnet, which I can only interpret to mean, love is loyalty.”

From ‘Family” in The Death of Adam: Essays in Modern Thought

It’s time to rethink our attitude to abortion

First published by The Daily Telegraph on 10th September 2014

sex-selective-abortionsA new set of figures was published last week. The figures were released without much fanfare, but they are potentially explosive: a rising proportion of premature babies born at 23 weeks are surviving. More accurately, Britain’s best neonatal units are saving them. Freedom of information requests from 25 hospitals revealed that 120 babies born at 23 weeks survived over the past four years (likely to be more given the limited sample size). In 2006 just 19 per cent of babies born at 23 weeks survived, according to one study. Last year, in specialist units like North Bristol’s, all those foetuses born at 23 weeks survived.

This is wonderful news. But it is also controversial. It is controversial because under current laws foetuses can be aborted up to 24 weeks gestation. In the past that’s when they were considered “viable”. But what if today many more 23-week-old babies stand a chance of making it? Why should doctors terminate the life of a foetus now old enough to exist outside the womb?

Many human rights campaigners are seriously provoked by this contradiction. They argue the abortion limit should be lowered to at least 20 weeks. But despite the amazing advances in neonatology, there is reason to hesitate at this suggestion, to step back from the detail and see the whole picture. For the more fixedly you consider the whole phenomenon of human procreation – how human beings are brought into the world by their mothers – the more mistaken it seems to press for a change in the law on these grounds. Why so? Because to press for 20 weeks would be to accept the premise that viability is what should ground the right to life. It would to be to click the “Accept” button confirming the terms and conditions of the debate, rather than questioning the entire way it has been framed since 1967.

Forty-seven years ago, when Parliament legalised abortion, they did not declare all pregnancy termination legal. They didn’t hold that every creature resident in its mother’s womb now lay outside the protection of the law. No, Parliament picked a point in pregnancy after which the state has a “compelling interest” to safeguard human life. Lawmakers opted for viability, described in an earlier piece of legislation (the Infant Life Preservation Act 1929), as the point at which the foetus was “capable of being born alive”.

But why should being capable of being born alive – being able to survive the onset of breathing and oral feeding – be the make-or-break threshold? Viability may have solidified as a legal concept, but the science shows that in reality it’s a moving target. That’s precisely what the data coming out of neonatal units like Bristol’s is telling us. In that case why should the permissibility of abortion depend upon something as unstable as the state of medical technology? Upon something differing from hospital to hospital within our own country, let alone between hospitals in developed and developing nations? So, say a hospital in Mali has a neonatal unit that lacks sophisticated technology. It follows that the unborn babies of women who live in that hospital’s catchment area are not viable. But why should that affect their human rights?

More fundamentally, what feminist thinkers have shown is the fact that viability constitutes a profound category mistake. Human beings arrive in the world in a state of radical dependency. To insist they reach a stage of independence before we confer rights upon them is to assume, in the words of feminist political philosopher Seyla Benhabib, a “strange world” in which “individuals are grown up before they are born”.

In 1973 the Supreme Court judge who wrote the majority opinion in Roe v Wade, the case which legalised abortion in the US, defined viability as the moment when the foetus is “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb (albeit with artificial aid)”. The bracketed qualification is the giveaway, revealing viability to be a chimera. No foetus born at 23 weeks, or 26 weeks is any more “viable” than an infant of three weeks. They are all dependent, just dependent upon people other than their mother, upon “artificial aid”.

But if not viability, then what? Controversial philosophers like the Australian Peter Singer have concluded the threshold must be pushed forward, beyond birth, to the moment when newborns show signs of self-consciousness (which he dates at “perhaps a month”). Rather than justify infanticide, it seems more reasonable to go backwards not forwards. But could that ever really be done? Certainly not by changing the law overnight. Social reform in this area would require rethinking our whole attitude to the unborn. It would require love, courage and community – not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Paul Ryan, the Republicans and a new approach to poverty

Food stamps

An Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) station at a market in Union Square allows people to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables using food stamps

First published by The Hedgehog Review, 11th August 2014

At the end of July Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, more widely known as the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee, unveiled a new set of sweeping policy proposals to tackle poverty in America. But in a summer with so many crises around the world and at home—ISIS on the move in Iraq, a jetliner shot out of the sky over strife-torn Ukraine, Israel battling Hamas in Gaza, Ebola spreading through west Africa, and a crisis on the Texas border, to name just few—Americans have had little time to think of matters beyond the horrific headlines.

But as the poet Philip Larkin said, “sun destroys the interest of what’s going on in the shade.” And what’s going on in the shade is that Ryan has proposed a plan to tackle poverty that isn’t just about cutting the welfare bill. Why is that of interest?

Cast your mind back to the 2012 presidential campaign. Why did Mitt Romney choose the young congressman from Wisconsin to be his vice-presidential candidate? Because after the enormous federal budget deficits of the Bush presidency,  Ryan was the man with the plan to restore the GOP as the party of fiscal conservatism. “The Roadmap to America’s Future” was what Ryan called the budget that Republicans rallied behind. Romney picked Mr. Austerity in 2012.

It is therefore nothing short of extraordinary that a line on page 14 of Ryan’s report declares “that this is not a budget-cutting exercise—this is a reform proposal.” The report goes on to say that the idea is not to cut existing resources—we’re talking about some $800 billion dollars—but to use them more effectively. Of course, how resolute you are about tackling poverty shouldn’t be measured by how much you spend. But in the context of the career of the House budget committee chairman, either this is an extreme instance of bad faith or something—the vision, the task at hand, even the man himself—has changed.

Recall one more thing about the 2012 presidential campaign, something that might be even more vivid in our collective memory.  Remember when Romney was not just quoted but filmed saying that 47 percent of Americans “who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims”’? The absolute nadir of those remarks was:  “My job is not to worry about those people [emphasis added]I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Of course, that wasn’t Ryan speaking. But he was the man’s running mate.

Ryan has started to worry about those people. That’s the significance of “Expanding Opportunity in America.” He’s started to worry about those people in households receiving food stamps whose transport costs to and from work threaten to push them into deeper poverty. He’s started to worry about those young men stuck in cycles of generational drug addiction, with neither high school diplomas nor family to fall back on. And he’s started to worry about single mothers caught in the vicious bind of being unable to earn enough to afford childcare and so being unable to work at all.

As I listened to Ryan set forth his proposals at a low-key think-tank breakfast, the congressman’s singularity of focus and sense of urgency was undeniable. “I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does,” he began, “but we have an obligation to deliver change… and to do that we need to to stop listening to the loudest voices in the room, and start listening to the smartest voices in the room.”

One of the smartest voices in the room was actually in the room. He spoke next. Bob Woodson, a veteran African-American civil rights activist, leads the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Ryan introduced him as “my friend and my mentor.” Their connection runs deep—as a younger man, Ryan worked on the Hill with Bob Woodson, Jr., before he was killed in a car accident in 2003. For the last year and a half, Woodson has taken Ryan on a tour of “some of the most dangerous zip codes in America.” Once a month, they’ve gone to different community organizations in the inner city, each connected to Woodson’s network: rehab centers, homeless shelters, churches, gang-ridden schools.

When I asked Mr. Woodson what he thought was the single greatest influence on Ryan of these largely unpublicized visits, he replied: “They have him given hope that answers do exist. That people can triumph over despair in the worst circumstances.”

One such organization is Emmanuel Baptist Church in Indianapolis. In a city with one of the highest crime rates in the nation, Rev. Dr. Darryl Webster saw directly how many young black men were getting killed. Nine years ago, he started a series of “Come Back Camps” where young men undergo a kind of boot-camp training to get their lives in order. Starting at 5:45 am, mentors coach teenagers and men in their early twenties in key life lessons. “We’re empowering people because of a relationship,” Rev. Webster tells me. Their success rates—equipping young men to withstand the drug culture, helping them find and hold jobs, getting others into college—have been outstanding. Webster’s vision is even more expansive. “Government,” he says, “needs to do a better job at identifying the places that are change-agents, places that are already doing it… Then [it] could come alongside organizations and make them service-providers.” That vision lies at the heart of the Ryan reforms.

The centerpiece of Ryan’s proposals is a new pilot project called the “Opportunity Grant.” Right now, individual states receive funding for as many as 92 different federal programs. Pilot states could choose to receive the value of up to 11 of these as one payment. The point is to allow states greater room to innovate, to channel funding streams that in the past were strictly dedicated to one or another form of assistance (such as food stamps) toward new aid programs. (Ryan has been quick to preempt the historic suspicion of “block grants,” funds of which have frequently been redirected toward non-welfare projects. Participating states, he insists, will have to “spend that money on people in need—not roads, not bridges, no funny business.”)

Where do the community “change-agents” come in? One route would be through the stipulation that participating states have to use at least some of the consolidated cash to support nongovernmental organizations “with a proven track record.” The goal here is to provide the poorest with more providers to choose from. 

To grieve over a gridlocked Congress or America’s profound polarization is to resort to cliché. Whether on the left or the right, few remain unaware of those features of the twenty-first-century political landscape. This makes what Ryan’s doing in the shade all the more interesting. He is also advocating, for example, a major new employment incentive almost identical to the one the president wants to introduce: a wage subsidy for a key group that has largely missed out on one in recent years—young adults without children. It’s a tragedy that people in the prime of their lives find themselves out of the job market. One solution: double the maximum tax credit for childless workers and drop the threshold from 25 to 21 years old.

Ron Haskins, senior fellow at the centrist Brookings Institution and one of America’s top welfare experts, believes these proposals hold out real hope of a bipartisan breakthrough. There are lots of things Democrats and Republicans can agree on, Haskins told me. Who wouldn’t value a proper commission looking at how you can really tell if safety-net programs are working? And when it comes to tackling poverty, Haskins emphasizes, “It’s not just Republicans who think states should have more flexibility.”

Ryan’s encounter with the inner city has changed his mind about something else, Woodson tells me: the criminal justice system. Again, Ryan was moved by a positive, not a negative. Meeting ex-prisoners “whose lives had been redeemed,” in Woodson’s words, made Ryan question the present harshness of sentencing in the United States and the resulting levels of incarceration.  Judges, in his view, need more discretion so they don’t have to impose mandatory draconian sentences.

To attempt bipartisanship is to find some common ground, enough common ground. It doesn’t mean winning over the whole of the opposition. Clearly, many on the left will never accept the enhanced conditionality Ryan favors, or any possible threat to entitlements such as food stamps (if they are folded into “opportunity grants”).

For Ryan, though, a greater threat than his opponents may be his friends. The bipartisan promise of the proposals may be the very thing that distances him from his own party. The response of John Boehner, Speaker of the House, couldn’t have been cooler. Conceding that poverty is an issue in America, Boehner added that “there’s probably a debate about what that help looks like.” Hardly encouraging words. Ryan’s alienation would end any hopes he may harbor of a run in 2016. But it would also mean Republicans miss a huge opportunity by again becoming too fragmented over a vital policy front to make a deal with the Democrats—or, if they capture the Senate this autumn, even to put proposals on the president’s desk.

Another major obstacle to Ryan’s plan is the direction religious liberty issues are going in America. At the heart of Ryan’s vision are grassroots civil society organizations that will be contracted by government to distribute welfare to the poorest. A significant proportion of those organizations will be faith-based. Yet only days before Ryan launched his report, President Obama signed an executive order sweeping aside the religious exemption for federal contractors that discriminate against employees on the basis of sexual orientation. What this portends, as happened with Catholic adoption agencies in Britain in 2004, is that the very organizations that are most needed as local “change-agents” in the fight against poverty could no longer receive money from the state.

But if Ryan does somehow manage to overcome these obstacles, if he can rally his Republicans around his ideas—and it wouldn’t be the first time—who knows what could happen? John le Carré dedicated his novel, The Constant Gardner, to an aid worker named Yvette Pierpaoli who “lived and died giving a damn.” Maybe one day the same will be said of Paul Ryan.


“When a man makes an oath, he holds his own self in his two hands like water. If he opens his fingers, he needn’t look to find himself again.”

Thomas More, A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt

August 2014 playlist

So… I’ve been on paternity leave… explaining my lack of posts… This is a new playlist I’m excited about, though, and of course it’s dedicated to Connie Mae Mumford (b. 31-v-2014)

War on Drugs – Red Eyes
Goodnight Texas – Jesse Got Trapped in a Coal Mine
My Morning Jacket – All the Best
Tom Petty – Don’t Come Round Here No More
Bob Dylan – Rocks and Gravel
Lana Del Rey – West Coast
First Aid Kit – My Silver Lining
Cuff the Duke – If I Live or Die
The Magnetic Fields – Quick!
Zbigniew Preisner – Lacrimosa, Day of Tears
Drew Holycomb & The Neighbors – Good Light