A Brief History and Basic Ideas of Distributism

Distributism is an economic theory that both shows the failings and failures of Communism, Socialism, and Capitalism while presenting a logical method of conceptualizing and regulating economics. In the end it is based upon natural law, logic, and Catholic philosophy. When you think of true ‘social justice’ you should start by thinking of Distributism.

Modern Catholic social teaching really began with the encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. Rerum Novarum was a response to the obvious failures of Capitalism and spreading revolutions of Anarchy, Communism and Socialism, Rerum Novarum was improperly seen as a new way of looking at the world of work and money – in fact, it is a much older way. Despite this, or maybe because of it, Rerum Novarum was (and his) hugely influential.

In 1931 Pope Pius XI released Quadragesimo Anno (Forty Years After) a more detailed discussion which more fully developed subsidiarity that was first expressed in Rerum Novarum. Pope Pius XI gave a more detailed ‘map’ of how subsidiarity could be used to create labor structures akin to guilds, expressed a deeper definition of subsidiarity in government and organizations, and reiterated that the chief duty of both is to protect the sick and the poor.

Pope John XXIII released the encyclical Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher) in 1961. Mater et Magistra continued to stress the dignity of the person, the need for justice in all human interactions, the inability of material goods to provide people with fulfillment, and repeated the emphasis on subsidiarity and solidarity. Mater et Magistra was seen not just as a theoretical discussion but was used as a guideline to improve the lives of the poor and to resist tyranny most obviously by Solidarnosc (Solidarity) the Polish worker’s movement.

In 1991 Pope John Paul II released Centesimus Annus (Hundredth Year) which pointed to the fall of the Soviet Union and how Rerum Novarum had predicted the results of the implementation of Socialism more than 20 years before the Soviet Union was founded. It goes on to point to the continued failings of unfettered Capitalism and the need to always remember the inherent worth of the individual and the need for solidarity. Centesimus Annus also stresses that skills and ability have taken an even greater prominence than they had in the late 1800’s (when Rerum Novarum was issued) or the mid-1900’s (when Mater et Magistra was issued). This completes the transition from Rerum Novarum, which mentions all three but focused on land as the center of economic life through Mater et Magistra that acknowledged the then-central role of monetary capital, to the current day when knowledge had taken the center place. This not only reflects the changes in society and economics from the various times, but also the flexibility and applicability of the core tenets of Catholic social teachings – they are, literally, timeless.

Encyclicals, no matter how well-written, how influential, or even how prescient, seem to never have the recognition they deserve. Most modern people think of papal encyclicals (if they are aware of them at all) as theologians talking to each other, or the Pope giving orders to the bishops. The impact of these works, however, was and is profound. Rerum Novarum in particular has had a tremendous impact on economic and political thought for over 120 years. As David Boyle very succinctly points out, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical was the font for the revival of the British Liberal party and movement, became an influential economic force and, very recently, His Holiiness’ concept of subsidiarity is now a critical element of the European Union’s constitution. The various political parties in Europe and South America that call themselves Christian Democrats or Christian Social Unionists acknowledge Rerum Novarum as their ‘founding document’ and use Catholic social teachings as one of the bases for their political platforms; the current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, is a Christian Democrat. Obviously, Catholic social thought is very influential right now.

The transition from Catholic theory to political party had a few intermediary steps, of course. Since we live in an imperfect world there were some missteps on the way, too. The primary initial promoters and theorists of what became Distributism were Hillaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. These two men, both prolific writers and keen thinkers, were wrestling with the problems of their age (and ours); the necessity of people to live with dignity in a world gripped by violent struggles between ideologies. The effects of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of Socialism were the key stressors of their day, so they turned their faculties toward solving the problems of Socialism and Capitalism.

Although largely forgotten today, I suspect because they were neither to the Right or the Left, both men had huge influence in their time. Belloc was nicknamed “Old Thunder” and was considered a formidable opponent in an argument by such men as George Bernard Shaw. In his first year at Oxford he was so appalled at the poor showing of one half of a debate that he spontaneously rose from the audience, launched into an impromptu attack, and won the debate. After Oxford he became a writer and a Minister of Parliament. Later in life he was the editor of the Eye Witness which he took to a weekly readership of 100,000 by attracting writers such as Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. He was one of the earliest voices to warn of Hitler and Fascism.

G. K. Chesterton close to an equal with Belloc intellectually and a more engaging writer in many ways. The influence of his writings are, to me at least, shocking for a man virtually ignored today; Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man was a key element in C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity; his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill inspired Michael Collins into striving for Irish freedom and thus contributed to Irish independence; a newspaper essay Chesterton wrote had an energizing effect on a British citizen of Indian birth that helped galvanize this man who was grappling with racism in South Africa as he transformed from an apolitical professional into a professional politician – a man named Gandhi. During his life Chesterton was famous for his debates with other thinkers, writers, and speakers of his day. Like Belloc, he was so skillful at debate, so prepared with facts, and so organized in his approach that he rarely lost. Unlike Belloc, Chesterton was so jovial and good-natured in debate that he was warmly regarded by virtually everyone, even those he trounced in a public forum. With all of this, it is hard to believe that today, not 80 years from his death, Chesterton is an enigma while men that he soundly defeated at debate, such as Clarence Darrow, are still household names.

Belloc and Chesterton entered into a very fruitful collaboration, jokingly called chesterbelloc, concerning their outlooks and suggested solutions for what they felt was wrong with the world. Belloc’s works ‘Essay on the Restoration of Property’, ‘The Crisis of Civilization’ and ‘The Servile State’ and Chesterton’s ‘What’s Wrong with the World’, ‘Utopia of Usurers’, and ‘The Outline of Sanity’, all combined with their numerous essays evolved into the basics of Distributism. Additional input by many others, including the former guild socialist Arthur Penty and Catholic priest Vincent McNabb broadened the scope and reach of Distributionist thought while expanding the theory. The impact of Distributist thought never really ended, even after the death of its founders. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement embraced Distributism, especially as a means of self-sufficiency. E. F. Schumacher, creator of such ideas as appropriate technology and author of the hugely influential ‘Small is Beautiful’, claimed he owed a huge debt to early Distributists and was so compelled by Catholic social teachings and Distributism that he converted to Catholicism. The impact of ‘Small is Beautiful’ on the early ecology and environmentalism movement shows a lineage from Chesterton to the modern Simple Living and Sustainable Development movements. Indeed, the brief “Crunchy Con” idea was really just a form of Distributism with a shorter bibliography and too little skepticism laissez-faire Capitalism.

Now that I have spent so much time talking about where Distributism comes from, the impact it has had, and the people involved in it we move on to…

what is it, really?

The discussion about what Distributism is and isn’t, as well as how to accomplish it (and how not too) is still going on. Just like any other politico-economic idea, growth over time is probably a sign of vigor. But there are certain ideas that are core to the idea of Distributism:

1. All men have a right to private property, to just compensation for their goods and labor, and to enter into business agreements – including employment – of their own free will.

2. Private ownership of property and work (whether physical, artistic, or intellectual) are good both for the individual and society as a whole.

3. That responsibility and decision-making should be ‘pushed down’ as low as possible; the central government is less efficient at and less capable of making good decisions than the regional government, the regional less so than the local, etc. down to the family itself.

4. Private organizations are better at getting things done than governments; smaller groups are generally better than larger; overall families are the best.

5. The more local, the better.

6. All families should be as self-sufficient as possible.

7. Coops and Guilds are preferred over corporations and unions. This also means credit unions are to be preferred over banks.

8. When engaged in business-to-business ventures, avoid middle-men that do not add value.

9. Government welfare programs are to be eliminated whenever possible, reduced or avoided otherwise; private charity is always better.

10. Usury is corrosive and to be avoided or eliminated.

11. There is no utopia and never will be.