14 November, 2013

Distributism Basics: A Brief Introduction

For those people who have just heard about distributism, whether they are just curious, or doubtful, I would like to present a few articles that run through the basics in simple terms. I'd like to be able to answer some of the claims presented by our detractors, but those answers must be understood by what distributism actually is, rather than what our detractors claim it to be.

Distributism, like capitalism and socialism, is the embodiment of certain views about how economic and political structures should work within a society. It has at times been called the “Third Way” of economics and also a “middle ground” between capitalism and socialism. It is true that distributism is a different way than either capitalism or socialism, but I disagree that it stands in between the two as if it takes parts of both or tries to blend them together. In fact, a better description of the differences would place distributism on one side, and both capitalism and socialism on the other. I hope this series will help you to see how that is.

Part of the confusion that leads people to think distributism somehow tries to negotiate a middle ground between capitalism and socialism is that we make some of the same arguments against both systems. We believe in limited government and the private ownership of property, but we also believe that the government does have a role in assisting society and that the concentration of large amounts of productive property in the hands of a few private owners leads to the the exploitation of the working classes. It is understandable that, without further investigation into how we think these problems should be remedied, people would conclude that we are somewhere in between the capitalist and socialist position. I hope in this series to present a clear, easy to understand, explanation of both where we stand and how our views are very different from both capitalism and socialism.

To begin to understand distributism, we must look at the founding of the movement. In 1891, Laissez Faire capitalism had been the predominant economic model in the West for some time. Laissez Faire is a view that government should not interfere in economics, or the businesses that make the economy work, except as needed to protect property rights and the peace of society. This led to wide masses of people being impoverished by extremely low wage jobs while a few were able to become extremely wealthy. This situation led to such great dissatisfaction in Western societies as a whole, that socialism actually looked good to people. In response to this threat, Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical called Rerum Novarum.

Rerum Novarum did not offer a new economic system. It outlined problems with capitalism as it was being practiced, and with the proposals of socialism. It urged that these problems be addressed and presented the principles that should guide how to address them. It should be noted that, while the principles outlined were in keeping with the Gospel message, one should not expect otherwise from a pope, the philosophical view that served as the foundation was not exclusively Christian in nature. (See: Is Distributism Catholic?)

In response to this call to resolve the problems evident in the Laissez Faire capitalism, and hoping to convince people who were considering socialism to consider another alternative, a group of Englishmen, led by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, started the distributist movement. In formulating their ideas, they looked to history to see where the injustices of the prevailing capitalist system crept in, they also looked further to see what was being done to avoid those injustices before then.

Distributists were not alone in the effort to address the problems of Laissez Faire capitalism. The socialist movement of the time was an effort to do the same. Even within the realm of capitalists, there were those who thought things needed to change. A capitalist economist named John Maynard Keynes sought to address the problems by altering the capitalist system itself. Keynes proposed more government intervention in economic and social matters while leaving the concentration of productive capital in place. To alleviate the impoverished state of the working classes, the government would tax the wealthy to fund programs to support the workers.

In the end, most countries adopted the modified version of capitalism proposed by Keynes and some adopted socialism. I will discuss some specifics about these in subsequent articles. Although the Keynesian system seemed to address the problems of Laissez Faire capitalism, in truth, it only worked by keeping the fundamentally unjust elements of that system in place. This prompted Pope Pius XI to write Quadragesimo Anno in 1931. Quadragesimo Anno was a follow-up to Rerum Novarum in which Pius XI discussed in greater detail why these systems are fundamentally flawed as solutions to the original problems addressed by Leo XIII.

Various forms of capitalism and socialism have been attempted in the last century, and they have all repeatedly failed. Many people are wondering what else can be done. The proposals of the distributists have been disregarded by professional and academic economists, leaving the average citizen unaware that they even existed. Many people are increasingly despairing of the possibility of finding a real solution to our economic and political problems because it seems to them that all of the options have been tried. 

In the last several decades, the involvement of government in economics has expanded exponentially as more and more government programs to support the working classes and the poor have been implemented. The modern Libertarian economists (primarily of the “Austrian school”) are loudly calling for a return to an essentially Laissez Faire model. They claim that we are on the road to all-out socialism. There is some justification to this because certain political and economic leaders seem to be advocating things very close to it.

Is this the moment for the distributist movement? Are the citizens of the Western world fed up with their “expert” economic leaders enough to consider trying a real alternative? Only time will tell.

Other articles in this series:
[These titles have been updated since this article was originally published.]


  1. I see Distributism as anarchic in the sense that it speaks to power and refuses to worship its idols. It renders the artificial "isms" moot by returning economics to the home.

    Actually, I don't see it as an "ism" at all. It can't be done to people from the top down, it has to come from the bottom up. This doesn't mean, as you say, that there is therefore no role to be played by government. But that role will be pointless if the people don't hold the ideals or exercise civic virtue, and perhaps more than anything that is why we haven't seen a resurgence of Distributism in the modern world.

    Distributism starts at home, when people decide that's where they'd rather be. We could all use a good dose of encouragement to get back there.

  2. I am very much a distributist, but I have one question: Would distributists support the abolition of wage labor in favor of an economy based entirely around self employment and co-operatives? This is a theme common in libertarian socialist thought and distributism seems to be very similar to libertarian socialism, albeit lacking in the leftism you find in those writers.

    By the way, the idea that the nineteenth century was an era of laissez-faire is a completely baseless myth conjured up by Progressive Era capitalists to excuse using their capitalist state to expand protectionism and regulations to squelch competition and maintain capitalism.

    1. My next article in the series will discuss socialism. Self-employment and worker owned cooperatives are not socialist, because a key tenant of socialism is the (near if not total) elimination of private property. This is a key element in any socialist system.

      Regarding the 19th century not being Laissez Faire, I completely disagree. Businesses were very unregulated within a given state. Protectionist policies at the state level does not negate Laissez Faire within the state, nor are they incompatible with capitalism. The idea of global free trade is relatively new in capitalism, and "protectionist" laws were in use long before the 19th century.

    2. You don't know much about socialism beyond American propaganda and context-free reading of encyclicals if you think co-ops and self-employment are not socialist. Try reading socialists instead of reading about socialism. There are many other strains of thought beyond the rightly condemned state-capitalism proposed by the Marxists and Fabians.

      Furthermore, your claim that the economy was unregulated in the Gilded Age is completely baseless. There were four primary protectionist monopolies that worked as a vehicle to exploit labor: The land monopoly, the banking monopoly, the patent monopoly, and the tariff monopoly.

      I would recommend reading the writings of Benjamin Tucker and Henry George to learn more about these problems. Laissez-faire in the Gilded Age is a fantasy, pure simple, and the people who were there knew it.

    3. Dean Anonymous,

      I admit that I have not read every socialist theory out there. I have, however, read the condemned propositions of Henry George (although I don't claim to have ready everything he wrote). His own socialist policy would outlaw ownership in land. If you will wait until my next article in this series, you will see that I do acknowledge that various socialist theories have accepted the private ownership of some productive property. However, like Henry George, that was always accompanied with outlawing private ownership of the most significant portion.

      While self-employment and co-ops may have been accepted by particular socialist theories along side the communal ownership of the most significant portion of productive property, they are not in themselves socialist.

      The four monopolies you cite are no proof that the economy was unregulated. They are instead the proof of the power of Laissez Faire capitalism to use the power of government. Capitalist monopolies have always utilized the power of government to protect themselves. Laissez Faire does not mean absolutely no government involvement. The corporate powers used their economic power to get the government to do its bidding, to pass those (protectionist) laws it wanted and to not pass those laws it didn't want. It was not a myth. It was the market power of capitalism utilizing the tools at hand to crush competition. That is the way of capitalism. Their power was not absolute, however, which is why child labor laws were eventually passed over their objections.

      So, in answer to your original question. Yes, I do advocate self-employment and cooperatives. I do advocate guilds. I do advocate the idea that businesses have social responsibilities to the communities in which they operate. I also advocate that government does have social responsibilities according to the principles of subsidiarity. In other words, I advocate Distributism.

    4. I also want to address another part of your question. No I do not advocate the abolition of wage labor. There will always be those who prefer to be employees who work for a wage. Distributism would not abolish this, but it would dramatically increase the number of proprietors.

    5. None of Henry George's ideas have ever been condemned. Yes, there was that little spat with the Pope but having done much research into the issue, it was a case of semantics and miscommunication. Indeed, Georgism would follow directly out of the idea of the universal destination of goods. Henry George's idea of eliminating "private property" in land was not that no one could own land, it was that absentee ownership of land, land monopoly, one of the primary causes of exploitation, must be eliminated. He furthered posited that taxation of any and all products of labor is immoral. His ideals were as much laissez-faire as they were socialist. In his own words:

      "What I have done in this book, if I have correctly solved the great problem I have sought to investigate, is, to unite the truth perceived by the school of Smith and Ricardo to the truth perceived by the schools of Proudhon and Lasalle; to show that laissez faire (in its full true meaning) opens the way to a realization of the noble dreams of socialism; to identify social law with moral law, and to disprove ideas which in the minds of many cloud grand and elevating perceptions."

      His program is not the abolition of property but the strengthening of property in every imaginable realm except for the one realm where property cannot exist without active occupancy and use: land. Land is not the product of anyone's labor but God's, and therefore is the common property of humanity. Property in land is good and useful but cannot be owned in absentia.

      "The four monopolies you cite are no proof that the economy was unregulated. They are instead the proof of the power of Laissez Faire capitalism to use the power of government."

      "Using the power of the government" and "laissez-faire" are antithetical propositions. I will venture to say that "laissez-faire capitalism" is an oxymoronic phrase because capitalism cannot be the product of genuine laissez-faire.

      "Capitalist monopolies have always utilized the power of government to protect themselves."

      Yes, and this is proof-positive that capitalism needs the state to exist. Were it unnecessary, capitalists would not do everything in their power to create a massive protectionist web to crush competition.

      "Laissez Faire does not mean absolutely no government involvement."

      Yes, it does, that is *exactly* what laissez-faire means.

      "The corporate powers used their economic power to get the government to do its bidding, to pass those (protectionist) laws it wanted and to not pass those laws it didn't want. It was not a myth. It was the market power of capitalism utilizing the tools at hand to crush competition."

      Can you not see how contradictory your argument is within the same breath? You want to simultaneously hold that capitalism is and is not a product of interventionism. The historical record shows that interventionism, not laissez-faire, created capitalism. Using state power to pass anti-competitive and protectionist regulations is the antithesis of market power.

    6. You may have concluded that the "dispute" was merely a matter of semantics, but the Church teaches that property is land is just and condemned socialism's denial of the right to property - in land as well as other productive property. Henry George said "If private property in land is just, then the remedy I propose is a false one; if, on the contrary, private property in land be unjust, then is the remedy the true one." That is not a matter of semantics. The Church teaches that private property in land, while not absolute, is just, George denied this. His position is condemned by the Church.

      You say that I do not understand Laissez Fair, but according to my own studies it is you who have the misunderstanding because the actual thing known as Laissez Faire is not the same as the literal interpretation of the words. Laissez Fair was not government interfering with business, it was business using with government. Government did the bidding of big business and otherwise left it alone to do what it wanted.

      Maybe it is you and I who are quibbling over semantics. You say that the term should not be Laissez Faire. Fine, then remove the term. The point is the same whether the period of capitalism is called "Laissez Faire" or something else. The condition I described is not a myth, and it the cause of the misery of the working classes and the rise of socialism. Since it is generally known as Laissez Faire, and since it is consistent with my own studies of that period and what it means, I will continue to use the term.

      Thank you.

    7. I would like to start with an apology. When writing my previous responses, I was also involved in a task that was not going well. I believe that my frustration with that task unjustly transferred to my responses to you. I sincerely appreciate your comments and participation.

      I also need to make clear, since my previous comments did not, that I actually agree with most of what I have read about Henry George. In fact, I wrote in favor of his idea regarding ground rents.


      In point of fact, it is only his view on the private ownership of land which I believe is in genuine disagreement with the Church and condemned by it. I may be mistaken. It may be that he later wrote a clarification of which I am not aware. In any case, the subject of George's position is not really to the point of this article or the series.

      Thanks again!

  3. When I think of Distributism, I think of Hobbits and the Shire. Of course, as a "Tolkienphile" this pleases me.

  4. While this article was interesting, it doesn't actually explain what distributism is. Shouldn't an introduction at least explain the basic concepts of the subject matter at hand to the layperson who knows nothing about it (aka: me ;)?

    1. This is a fair criticism, and if I were to rewrite the series, I would take that suggestion to heart. This article is more about why an alternate system was needed.

      When I started writing the series, I viewed all the parts as a whole. In other words, It would be more accurate to present the entire series as the "introduction" to the basics of distributism.

      Thank you,