Distributism is an economic theory asserting that the world’s productive assets should be widely owned rather than concentrated. Developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, distributism was based upon the principles of Catholic social teaching, especially the teachings of Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum novarum (1891) and Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno (1931).
Distributism views both laissez-faire capitalism and state socialism as equally flawed and exploitative, favoring economic mechanisms such as cooperatives and member-owned mutual organizations as well as small businesses and large-scale competition law reform such as antitrust regulations. Some Christian democratic political parties such as the American Solidarity Party have advocated distributism in their economic policies and party platform.
According to distributists, the right to property is a fundamental right and the means of production should be spread as widely as possible rather than being centralized under the control of the state (state capitalism), a few individuals (plutocracy), or corporations (corporatocracy). Therefore, distributism advocates a society marked by widespread property ownership. Cooperative economist Race Mathews argues that such a system is key to bringing about a just social order.
Distributism has often been described in opposition to both laissez-faire capitalism and state socialism which distributists see as equally flawed and exploitative. Furthermore, some distributists argue that state capitalism and state socialism are the logical conclusion of capitalism as capitalism’s concentrated powers eventually capture the state. Thomas Storck argues: “Both socialism and capitalism are products of the European Enlightenment and are thus modernizing and anti-traditional forces. In contrast, distributism seeks to subordinate economic activity to human life as a whole, to our spiritual life, our intellectual life, our family life.” A few distributists were influenced by the economic ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his mutualist economic theory, and therefore the lesser-known anarchist branch of distributism of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement could be considered a form of free-market libertarian socialism due to their opposition to both state capitalism and state socialism.
Some have seen it more as an aspiration, which has been successfully realised in the short term by commitment to the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity (these being built into financially independent local cooperatives and small family businesses), although proponents also cite such periods as the Middle Ages as examples of the historical long-term viability of distributism. Particularly influential in the development of distributist theory were Catholic authors G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, the Chesterbelloc, two of distributism’s earliest and strongest proponents.
In the early 21st century, several observers speculated on Pope Francis’s position on distributism after he denounced unfettered capitalism in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, in which he stated: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. […] A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which has taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits.”
The mid-to-late 19th century witnessed an increase in popularity of political Catholicism across Europe. According to historian Michael A. Riff, a common feature of these movements was opposition not only to secularism, but also to both capitalism and socialism. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII promulgated Rerum novarum, in which he addressed the “misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class” and spoke of how “a small number of very rich men” had been able to “lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself”. Affirmed in the encyclical was the right of all men to own property, the necessity of a system that allowed “as many as possible of the people to become owners”, the duty of employers to provide safe working conditions and sufficient wages, and the right of workers to unionise. Common and government property ownership was expressly dismissed as a means of helping the poor.
Around the start of the 20th century, G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc drew together the disparate experiences of the various cooperatives and friendly societies in Northern England, Ireland, and Northern Europe into a coherent political theory which specifically advocated widespread private ownership of housing and control of industry through owner-operated small businesses and worker-controlled cooperatives. In the United States in the 1930s, distributism was treated in numerous essays by Chesterton, Belloc and others in The American Review, published and edited by Seward Collins. Pivotal among Belloc’s and Chesterton’s other works regarding distributism are The Servile State, and Outline of Sanity.
Although a majority of distributism’s later supporters were not Catholics and many were in fact former radical socialists who had become disillusioned with socialism, distributist thought was adopted by the Catholic Worker Movement, conjoining it with the thought of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin concerning localized and independent communities. It also influenced the thought behind the Antigonish Movement, which implemented cooperatives and other measures to aid the poor in the Canadian Maritimes. Its practical implementation in the form of local cooperatives has been documented by Race Mathews in his 1999 book Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society.
The position of distributists when compared to other political philosophies is somewhat paradoxical and complicated (see triangulation). Strongly entrenched in an organic but very English Catholicism, advocating culturally traditionalist and agrarian values, directly challenging the precepts of Whig history—Belloc was nonetheless an MP for the Liberal Party and Chesterton once stated “As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals”. This liberalism is different from most modern forms, taking influence from William Cobbett and John Ruskin, who combined elements of radicalism, challenging the establishment position, but from a perspective of renovation, not revolution; seeing themselves as trying to restore the traditional liberties of England and her people which had been taken away from them, amongst other things, since the Industrial Revolution.
While converging with certain elements of traditional Toryism, especially an appreciation of the Middle Ages and organic society, there were several points of significant contention. While many Tories were strongly opposed to reform, the distributists in certain cases saw this not as conserving a legitimate traditional concept of England, but in many cases entrenching harmful errors and innovations. Belloc was quite explicit in his opposition to Protestantism as a concept and schism from the Catholic Church in general, considering the division of Christendom in the 16th century one of the most harmful events in European history. Elements of Toryism on the other hand were quite intransigent when it came to the Church of England as the established church, some even spurning their original legitimist ultra-royalist principles in regards to James II to uphold it.
Much of Dorothy L. Sayers’ writings on social and economic matters has affinity with distributism. She may have been influenced by them, or have come to similar conclusions on her own. As an Anglican, the reasonings she gave are rooted in the theologies of Creation and Incarnation, and are slightly different[how?] from the Catholic Chesterton and Belloc.
Under such a system, most people would be able to earn a living without having to rely on the use of the property of others to do so. Examples of people earning a living in this way would be farmers who own their own land and related machinery, carpenters and plumbers who own their own tools, among others. The cooperative approach advances beyond this perspective to recognise that such property and equipment may be co-owned by local communities larger than a family, e.g. partners in a business.
In Rerum novarum, Leo XIII states that people are likely to work harder and with greater commitment if they themselves possess the land on which they labour, which in turn will benefit them and their families as workers will be able to provide for themselves and their household. He puts forward the idea that when men have the opportunity to possess property and work on it, they will “learn to love the very soil which yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of the good things for themselves and those that are dear to them”. He states also that owning property is not only beneficial for a person and their family, but is in fact a right, due to God having “given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race”.
Similar views are presented by G. K. Chesterton in his 1910 book What’s Wrong with the World. Chesterton believes that whilst God has limitless capabilities, man has limited abilities in terms of creation. As such, man therefore is entitled to own property and to treat it as he sees fit, stating: “Property is merely the art of the democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven. But because he is not God, but only a graven image of God, his self-expression must deal with limits; properly with limits that are strict and even small.” Chesterton summed up his distributist views in the phrase “Three acres and a cow”.
According to Belloc, the distributive state (the state which has implemented distributism) contains “an agglomeration of families of varying wealth, but by far the greater number of owners of the means of production”. This broader distribution does not extend to all property, but only to productive property; that is, that property which produces wealth, namely, the things needed for man to survive. It includes land, tools, and so on. Distributism allows for society to have public goods such as parks and transit systems. Distributists accept that wage labor will remain a small part of the economy, with small business owners hiring employees, usually young, inexperienced people.
The kind of economic order envisaged by the early distributist thinkers would involve the return to some sort of guild system. The present existence of labor unions does not constitute a realization of this facet of distributist economic order, as labour unions are organized along class lines to promote class interests and frequently class struggle, whereas guilds are mixed class syndicates composed of both employers and employees cooperating for mutual benefit, thereby promoting class collaboration.
Distributism favors the dissolution of the current private bank system, or more specifically its profit-making basis in charging interest. Dorothy Day, for example, suggested abolishing legal enforcement of interest-rate contracts (usury). It would not entail nationalization but could involve government involvement of some sort. Distributists look favorably towards financial cooperatives and mutuals such as credit unions, building societies and mutual banks as preferred alternatives to banks.
Distributism appears to have one of its greatest influences in antitrust legislation in America and Europe designed to break up monopolies and excessive concentration of market power in one or only a few companies, trusts, interests, or cartels. Embodying the philosophy explained by Chesterton, above, that too much capitalism means too few capitalists, not too many, America’s extensive system of antitrust legislation seeks to prevent the concentration of market power in a given industry into too few hands. Requiring that no company gain too great a share of any market is an example of how distributism has found its way into government policy. The assumption behind this legislation is the idea that having economic activity decentralized among many different industry participants is better for the economy than having one or a few large players in an industry. Note that antitrust regulation does take into account cases when only large companies are viable because of the nature of an industry, as in the case of natural monopolies like electricity distribution. It also accepts that mergers and acquisitions may improve consumer welfare; however, it generally prefers more economic agents to fewer, as this generally improves competition.
Social credit is an interdisciplinary distributive philosophy developed by C. H. Douglas (1879–1952), a British engineer, who wrote a book by that name in 1924. It encompasses the fields of economics, political science, history, accounting, and physics. Its policies are designed, according to Douglas, to disperse economic and political power to individuals.
Distributism sees the family of two parents and their child or children as the central and primary social unit of human ordering and the principal unit of a functioning distributist society and civilization. This unit is also the basis of a multi-generational extended family, which is embedded in socially as well as genetically inter-related communities, nations, etc., and ultimately in the whole human family past, present and future. The economic system of a society should therefore be focused primarily on the flourishing of the family unit, but not in isolation: at the appropriate level of family context, as is intended in the principle of subsidiarity. Distributism reflects this doctrine most evidently by promoting the family, rather than the individual, as the basic type of owner; that is, distributism seeks to ensure that most families, rather than most individuals, will be owners of productive property. The family is, then, vitally important to the very core of distributist thought.
Distributism puts great emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity. This principle holds that no larger unit (whether social, economic, or political) should perform a function which can be performed by a smaller unit. In Quadragesimo anno, Pope Pius XI provided the classical statement of the principle: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do”. Thus, any activity of production (which distributism holds to be the most important part of any economy) ought to be performed by the smallest possible unit. This helps support distributism’s argument that smaller units, families if possible, ought to be in control of the means of production, rather than the large units typical of modern economies.
In Quadragesimo anno, Pope Pius XI further stated that “every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them”. To prevent large private organizations from thus dominating the body politic, distributism applies this principle of subsidiarity to economic as well as to social and political action.
Distributists believe in a society that is as self-reliant as possible. Some may advocate that families and charitable organisations ought to provide an alternative to social security as a means of advancing the principles of subsidiary. However, many distributists reject the idea of eliminating social security.
Distributists such as Dorothy Day did not favour social security when it was introduced by the United States government. This rejection of the new program was due to the direct influence of the ideas of Hilaire Belloc over American distributists.
The Democratic Labour Party of Australia espouses distributism and does not hold the view of favouring the elimination of social security who for instance wish to “[r]aise the level of student income support payments to the Henderson poverty line”.
The American Solidarity Party has a platform of favouring an adequate social security system, whereby they state: “We advocate for social safety nets that adequately provide for the material needs of the most vulnerable in society”.
Society of artisans
Distributism promotes a society of artisans and culture. This is influenced by an emphasis on small business, promotion of local culture, and favoring of small production over capitalistic mass production. A society of artisans promotes the distributist ideal of the unification of capital, ownership, and production rather than what distributism sees as an alienation of man from work.
This does not suggest that distributism necessarily favors a technological regression to a pre-Industrial Revolution lifestyle, but rather a more local ownership of factories and other industrial centers. Products such as food and clothing would be preferably returned to local producers and artisans instead of being mass-produced overseas.
Distributism does not favor one political order over another (political accidentalism). While some distributists such as Dorothy Day have been anarchists, it should be remembered that most Chestertonian distributists are opposed to the mere concept of anarchism. Chesterton thought that distributism would benefit from the discipline that theoretical analysis imposes, and that distributism is best seen as a widely encompassing concept inside of which any number of interpretations and perspectives can fit. This concept should fit in a political system broadly characterized by widespread ownership of productive property.
In the United States, the American Solidarity Party generally adheres to Distributist principles as its economic model. The Brazilian political party, Humanist Party of Solidarity is a distributist party, and distributism has influenced Christian Democratic parties in Continental Europe and the Democratic Labour Party in Australia. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam view their Grand New Party, a roadmap for revising the Republican Party in the United States, as “a book written in the distributist tradition”. The Pirate Party of Romania is also considered to be a distributist party.
Distributists usually use just war theory in determining whether a war should be fought or not. Historical positions of distributist thinkers provide insight into a distributist position on war. Both Belloc and Chesterton opposed British imperialism in general as well as specifically opposing the Second Boer War, but they supported British involvement in World War I.
On the other hand, prominent distributists such as Dorothy Day and those involved in the Catholic Worker Movement were/are strict pacifists, even to the point of condemning involvement in World War II at much personal cost.
E. F. Schumacher
Distributism is known to have had an influence on the economist E. F. Schumacher, a convert to Catholicism.
The Mondragon Corporation, based in the Basque Country in a region of Spain and France, was founded by a Catholic priest, Father José María Arizmendiarrieta, who seems to have been influenced by the same Catholic social and economic teachings that inspired Belloc, Chesterton, Father Vincent McNabb, and the other founders of distributism.
Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic
Distributist ideas were put into practice by The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, a group of artists and craftsmen who established a community in Ditchling, Sussex, England, in 1920, with the motto “Men rich in virtue studying beautifulness living in peace in their houses”. The guild sought to recreate an idealised medieval lifestyle in the manner of the Arts and Crafts Movement. It survived almost 70 years until 1989.
The Big Society was the flagship policy idea of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto. Some distributists claim that the rhetorical marketing of this policy was influenced by aphorisms of the distributist ideology and promotes distributism. It purportedly formed a part of the legislative programme of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement. The stated aim was “to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will ‘take power away from politicians and give it to people.'” The idea of the Big Society was suggested by Steve Hilton, who worked as director of strategy for David Cameron during the Coalition government before moving on to live and work in California. Big Society gradually declined as an instrument of government policy over the course of the 2010–2015 government.