Distributism and the Just Deserts System

Distributism as a popularly discussed possible economic system which was never tried. It provides a convenient discussion point for comparison with both a potential Just Deserts system and the usual capitalism one.


Distributism is a socio-economic system which is characterized by the wide distribution of ownership of productive property. Like any other socio-economic theory such as socialism, there are variations on the idea, perhaps wide ones, which keep some precepts but not necessarily all of them, and also possibly change the means of implementation of those that are accepted.

In its simplest form, Distributism says that productive property, such as agricultural land and factories should be owned by the employees, according to some rule. The theory behind the system originated over a hundred years ago, and then production was thought of as concerning material goods only; thus the distributists thought that property was easily divisible into productive and non-productive property. Leisure was not a good to be produced, and so a public park was not productive property and did not fall under the mandate to be owned and governed by those responsible for the activities needed to continue to provide leisure to the public. Neither was a transportation system thought to be productive, as the moving of goods and people from place to place was not a product. Nowadays that concept has been clarified and the legacy concepts of material-only productive goods has been generalized to other intangible goods. Distributist concepts are not particularly affected by the generalization of productive property for material goods to all property.

Distributism took as one of its benefits the increase in motivation of individuals that arises when their efforts are rewarded both with a wage or salary as well as an increase in the value of the property which produces the benefits. However, such an increase would not occur in a steady-state economy, and if the distributist system does not provide this benefit in a steady-state system, how might it be expected to work in the other two situations, where the economy is shrinking or when it is growing? There may be great value in distributing the ownership of property to the population, but motivation is not necessarily one of them. Perhaps Distributism sees workers as comprising three categories: those who will work industriously in any situation; those who will never work industriously on their own but will seek to do only the minimum forced upon them for survival by the system; and those who are motivated only by the opportunity to receive more benefits if they work harder and smarter.

If the third category is a substantial fraction of the total, Distributism will show a higher productivity if ownership of the means of production allows this category of worker to produce more. How might this happen? For a few classes of workers, they could spend more time if they owned their means of production, and could work themselves to exhaustion if they chose to. For workers in mass production, it is hard to see how an individual in such an operation, even if a part owner, could increase his hours of work except in some unusual circumstances. In those circumstances, it would make no difference if he was a part owner or not. The assembly line, or whatever the production method was, will not run extra hours simply because certain individuals wish it to.

Just Deserts as a socioeconomic system might result in the same arrangements, but for an entirely different reason. Distributism believes that the distribution of property to a large fraction of the population will improve the efficiency of production, and this is a sufficiently important issue that it should be done. Just Deserts believes there is no way individuals can legitimately earn enough to have huge differences in the amount of property owned, and so there is no way that such ownership disparity could happen, except by legacy ownership, and that would be gradually erased as the new socio-economic system were put into operation.

The question of how to arrange for ownership of things well beyond the ability of an individual to own is not clearly decided. Employee ownership is one example, but stock ownership is another, and community ownership yet another. All three are used extensively in our current economic arrangements, and all three seem to work well. For the first two, there are employee owned corporations that successfully compete with similar corporations where ownership is by the sale of stock; neither category seems to have an inherent advantage that propels them to dominate the other. Community ownership is used for certain classes of things, such as roads and schools, but there are certainly examples of roads and schools which are privately owned, by stockholders, and they seem to both work about the same. There are also, in some countries, extensive public ownership of utilities or even ordinary corporations, and they do not quickly crumble.

Long term effects might differ, but it would seem that a socio-economic system with a diversity of ownership types might have some advantages. The three categories of ownership might be originated in different ways. Just Deserts does not prohibit private ownership, but simply makes it impossible for someone to accrete sufficient unearned income as their wealth so that there would be orders of magnitude differences in the amount an individual would own, compared to the mean or mode. It might be that ownership was not by individuals, but by households, but this should make little difference in the way the society would function.

One of the major advantages of unfettered capitalism is the ease by which large quantities of resources can be amassed for the purpose of starting new businesses. There is a great tendency for those without large amounts of excess capital to use their income, perhaps totally, as the basis for their level of consumption. For Just Deserts to work, a mandatory fraction would have to be withheld for the purposes of amassing capital that could be put to the task of creating new businesses, when such were necessary. There would need to be other withholdings as well, such as for old age and disability insurance, health care insurance and other individual expenses. But in addition to these, there would have to be a capital fund withdrawal.

There is little obvious or immediate benefit to the individual from such a capital fund withholding. It would be subject to claims against it for consumption purposes. Some sort of social barriers are necessary to prevent this.

As any large block of capital, collected capital would be subject to corrupt use. Capitalism has few barriers to the corruption of government and internal agents of companies and corporations, such as supply officers, but in cases where there is no monopoly or cartel operating, there is competition. Competition eliminates some mis-uses of capital. Poor matching of supply and demand serves as another barrier to the poor use of capital. These would have the same effect under a Just Deserts system as under capitalism. One type of corruption in capitalism involves the obtaining capital under false pretenses or without the proper checking of the planned uses of it. This would also exist under Just Deserts, except that the source of the capital would be somewhat different. The source under capitalism might be an individual or a group of individuals with high wealth, whereas under Just Deserts the equivalent source would be an agency designed to make good use of withholdings from workers.

As noted before, the benefit from corruption under capitalism is to increase the income or wealth of the person causing the corruption; under Just Deserts the same could be true, but there would be a massive difference in scale. An individual or small group of individuals under capitalism could, if they were wealthy, engage in corruption whereas the group would have to be so large under Just Deserts, it would be unlikely to occur. Of course, if the scale of corruption goes down, it would be possible to have some, but the effect of it would be much less grand, meaning much less money would be diverted because of the corruption. Thus, Just Deserts makes corruption somewhat less likely, but by no means impossible. A Distributism system would have much less accumulation of wealth, as property, by some means, stays widely distributed. If a more general Distributism system were installed, so that not only productive capital was widely distributed, but all forms of wealth, then the same conclusions about corruption that pertain to Just Deserts also pertain to Distributism.

One proclaimed advantage of Distributism is that the dispersal of capital would make production more efficient, by motivating large numbers of individuals to work harder with the capital they had. Just Deserts has even a better claim to this, as not only is capital more finely dispersed, it is productivity which is rewarded with higher income, just as it is under capitalism. Under Just Deserts, the only way open to obtaining a higher standard of living is to earn more by producing more. Capitalism rewards hard workers, but it rewards the holders of unearned income even more, and allows rewards to accrue which are not connected with productivity. By focusing the attention of everyone on productivity and reducing the propensity for corruption, Just Deserts might be seen as the socio-economic system which actually generates efficiency in the economy, as Distributism and capitalism were reputed to be, but do not necessarily.

Unearned Income and Winston Churchill

Churchill wanted to put a tax on land sale profits, in a specific way, as he felt some were unearned and therefore more deserving to be taxed away. This concept is intriguing, but regrettably not the Rosetta Stone to a new system.

The term “unearned income” became famous with economists David Ricardo and Henry James, who used it to denote the appreciated value of property which was not from development of itself, but of the surroundings. The idea was that this was done without any significant contribution by the owner, yet he or she reaped the lion’s share of this appreciation. A very famous speech by Winston Churchill in 1909 is often quoted to define the problem, if there is assumed to be one, with a landowner making possibly huge profits on land without having exerted any effort whatsoever to receive them. Instead, Churchill spoke about the profit arising because of the labor and expense of the general community surrounding the property, near and far, who improved the potential utility of the land without any development of it having been done. Churchill favored that the unearned profits from the sale of such land be taxed by the state and used for the good of the community, whose efforts produced it.

The general principle of taxing unearned income more than earned income has received support from many quarters, and seems to be an acceptable principle upon which to base a taxation system. However, there has been no end of controversy and change in what is considered unearned income. This blog has as a goal, a better way of defining it, and a better way of taxing or otherwise regulating it.

It is a natural way of human existence to avoid tax, and tax avoidance mechanisms are as ubiquitous as tax plans and almost as prevalent as tax payers. Even more prevalent are the paid experts who promote the income and wealth of their sponsors as earned, or whatever label receives less opprobrium. The same experts are at the ready to explain or rather excuse any tax avoidance scheme in terms relating to personal choice or corporate advantage or professional practices or some other rationale for its use, other than stating it to be exactly what it is. In contrast, there are a few individuals who simply label tax avoidance schemes for what they are, and state they are proud to have located and made use of them. All this obfuscation makes it somewhat difficult to exactly define what is ‘unearned income’, if there is anything like this, and what should be done to tax or regulate it. To deal with this murky situation, some basic principles need to be enunciated.

The first point to be made is that unearned income does not exactly exist. All income is partially earned and partially unearned, and the difficulty is in deciding how much of it is one and how much is the other. The land value appreciation gain that Churchill spoke about is one of the easiest and simplest ones to describe as it is almost binary. In Churchill’s picture, the value gain is unearned if the landlord does not develop the property, but the development, if it appreciates, produces earned value. Things aren’t binary in economics, but quantitative. The landlord invests his money in a piece of property, and could have instead put the money into a CD or some other investment. The lack of interest paid for undeveloped land represents a loss, as compared to the interest from other investments. Annual tax, even if small, represents another cost of holding the property. Thus, taxing the gain of a piece of undeveloped property at 100% would eliminate all potential interest in such investments. However, a tax at 100% of the amount over some multiple of the average gain of investments, plus tax costs, would be a better approximation to the return of unearned income back to the community which created it. What multiple to use is debatable, but it should not be large, perhaps somewhere between one and a half and four.

Churchill also used the same speech to promote the annual tax on a piece of property, as distinct from tax on the appreciation recognized in a sale, as dependent on the potential value of the property, as opposed to its original value. Sometimes and in some places, the exact opposite is done; zoning is a tool for maintaining artificially low appraised values, and limits on tax appraisal changes annually is another. The taxation on an annual basis, as opposed to the tax on the sale profit, is simply a moving in time of the amount of the taxation, if the mathematics of tax rates is done correctly.

The label ‘monopolist’ was used in Churchill’s speech, and this again is because of the nearly binary nature of land. There is little land created on the planet’s surface, and only by reclaiming wetlands, dredging dirt for use in artificial islands, or using polders to force back the sea. One can claim that a particular piece of land is held as a monopoly, if it is in a particular location that cannot be bypassed, but otherwise, land is somewhat fungible. The owners of all the land in some particular location might be said to have a collective monopoly, but so could all the owners of a particular stock or anything else. Supply and demand slides into monopoly as the owners form a cartel to dissuade individuals from selling before some process increases the price substantially.

A real monopoly would exist if some individual or band of individuals obtain rights to all of some land, just as they would if they had obtained all the rights to some resource, like oil, or some invention that was patented or some drug which was likewise limited. These monopolies have not been similarly singled out for extra taxation, as Churchill did with land, but they could be with similar justification. The basic point of the singling out needs to be clearly stated. Churchill felt that there was little justice in allowing unearned income to be lightly or inconsequentially taxed, but he felt that justice was done better with a mere 20% tax on land profits. Others have written that societies need to harness the labor, capital, land, and resources they have available to them so that these four quantities could be put to the best use in increasing the living standards of the population, or at least some of them. The Churchill 20% tax would not do that.

In designing a new socio-economic system, or even trying to see if there are any better ones possible, it is necessary to be specific about the goals of the society. Should this goal of increasing the living standards of some subset of the population be one which shapes all the tax and regulation policy of the governance mechanisms? This one, as are most others, has some appeal to it, but like all goals, it is arbitrary as well as being poorly defined. Should a socio-economic system be defined by setting down a few goals and then building up the details of the system to accomplish them? Soviet communism had a simple slogan, something about changing the distribution of the products of society to be based on needs rather than productivity, past and present. Other systems have had slogans as well. The alternative is to be more Churchillian, and stick with what we have but modify it a small amount in the direction we think would improve it.

These are just two of the many ways to conduct planning for a society or for a project or anything else. One is to set a destination, which might be listed as a set of goals, and then try to get there. The other is to keep doing exactly what is currently being done, and just make small corrections. Both work well in many instances. The first one is more appealing if the general opinion of the existing socio-economic system is negative, and then a new plan or a new set of goals might be chosen to break away from it. The second one, obviously, has appeal in the inverse situation, where the general opinion is that things are not so bad, and can be corrected. The second one also arises in the instance where it is recognized that no one at all can figure out how to design a new socio-economic system from scratch, and that any system should have some experience with it before it is adopted. Since one cannot experiment with a whole society, it means that there is no way to make a new socio-economic system that is acceptable to the population. Theoretical justifications as to how a system would work are not likely to be correct, as there is no body of experience and no general theory of sociology and economics which would assist a team of designers in figuring out the details of the new system.

Are these latter opinions justified? Is it indeed impossible to come up with a whole new system, and the best that can be done are minor course corrections, perhaps a large amount of them in an never-ending stream. How exactly would we know if minor course corrections will take us in a desired direction or steer away from it or lead us into unknown territories, if there is no competency in sociology and economics? The lack of experience and the lack of theory seem to be an inhibition to small changes, as well as to large ones. So, let’s just keep trying.