23 September, 2022

Where does Distributism fit in?

One thing that seems to confuse many people looking at distributism is that they really can’t imagine a society beyond our current conservative/liberal or right/left paradigm. I believe this is the source of a good deal of the criticism against us. If we’re not conservative, then we must be liberal. If not liberal, then conservative. If not capitalist, then socialist. We are not liberal in the modern sense, nor are we Classical Liberals. We are not Modernist, nor are we Post Modernists. We are not Libertarians and we are not totalitarians. I believe the root of the problem is that people don’t see the connecting thread between all of these views. They not only think several of these positions are fundamentally different things, but that these are essentially the only things that are. For myself, even though there are significant differences between these views, they are fundamentally the same, and the reason I say so is that they are all various forms of Liberalism. Distributism is not a product of Liberalism, so they really have a lot of difficulty understanding it. It just doesn’t fit into any of the neat little categorizations that have been the basis of their political and social arguments for more than a century.

The foundation of Liberalism, the so-called “Classical Liberalism,” is that existing social/cultural norms needed to be broken in order to have a more liberal society. Now, people who say they are Classical Liberals will argue many positions that they believe to be the foundation of their view. Things like the value of the individual, the idea that people should be able to improve their state in society through education and work and frugal living, the idea that women have rights and slavery should be abolished. The reality is that these ideas were not only around before the advent of the Classical Liberal movement, but they were more than just ideas. They may not have been implemented in a perfect way, but they were in play in Western societies before the rise of Classical Liberalism. Unfortunately, societal disruptions during the Renaissance reversed many of the advances that had been made in regard to these ideas. I do not deny that the Classical Liberals brought these ideas back into society, but I do deny the claim by today’s self-identified Classical Liberals that these ideas were first introduced by Classical Liberalism.

The method Classical Liberals used to break the existing norms was to become part of the existing institutions that teach what the norms are and also the institutions that enforce those norms through its laws; in other words schools and government. (They did also resort to literal warfare, but that would be a topic for another article.) This has been the method from its beginning. However, the true flaw of their view was, and continues to be, that the basis for determining what needs to be changed is rooted in a philosophy of materialistic individualism, a philosophy that essentially removes the ability to look outside of ourselves for this determination. In other words, there are no true and external norms based on natural law, on morality, or especially on religion, which are not subject to being changed. Each individual gets to decide what is right and wrong with society and therefore, what needs to change. The problem for the original Classical Liberals was the same as it is for today’s “moderate” liberals; When you combine this philosophical view with the acceptance of the method, you end up with no argument against those who want to change what you have established based on the same philosophical view and using the same methods.

The original Liberals had modest goals, they only wanted a few changes to the social norms and they accomplished those changes. However, they failed to prevent changes beyond what they wanted. The reason they failed is that they seemed to assume the movement as a whole would not “progress” beyond what they believed were reasonable changes to society. They were wrong. The movement always contained “progressives” who wanted a more “liberal” society than the they did. The Liberal movement was always “Progressive” because it always argued that the changes they were advocating were progress for society. They simply had no accepted means of agreeing to any limits to change. This is just as true between the moderate Liberals and the Woke today as it was between the original Classical Liberals and those who wanted even more change during the Enlightenment era. Because this movement has no standards external to itself, there really is no defense against those who what more change. Every change, it is argued, is “progress,” and the more change that takes place, the more rapid the next change seems to become accepted.  

In the early days of Classical Liberalism, this led to a split in the group between those who wanted to conserve the new norms, and those who wanted more change. In other words, the “Conservatives” and the “Progressives.” What a lot of people today don’t realize is that the Conservatives have always been Liberals, just not as liberal as the other factions of the movement. In today’s political environment, all of the predominant political and social positions are various levels of Liberalism. As the Progressives continued to change society, the terms “right” and “left” were adopted from the French revolutionary period, where those on the “right” oppose new change and those on the “left” advocate for it. The adoption of this terminology allows us to picture the spectrum of this movement as it spreads out over time, with the more Conservative position to the right and the more Progressive positions to the left.

The Conservative faction also became known as “reactionary” because they were always reacting to the new changes being advocated. Ironically, those who label others as “reactionary” eventually become the ones reacting to the changes that go beyond what they imagine. This has been the experience of the academics at the center of the Grievance Studies project, and at the heart of the controversy that rocked Evergreen State College in Washington State several years ago. They seemed to find it a cruel irony that they were no longer viewed as part of the vanguard group for real Liberal progress in society. Instead, without realizing it, they had become the reactionaries who could only find what they considered to be a reasoned response among those they considered to be very Conservative. They view the Woke Left as Post Modernists and therefore not really Liberal. However, the Woke Left has clearly labeled them as “right wing,” especially since they dared to talk to those on the Conservative side of the spectrum. I view the Post Modernists and Woke as simply the latest phase of Progressive Liberalism that has left these academics behind. What they fail to realize is that, while the current tactics of the Woke Left are far more extreme than they ever used, some form of those tactics were always used by Progressives. Why is it only now, when they find themselves excluded from the academic elite, that they are seriously questioning the fact that the universities have become institutions that only present one side. Even if “speakers” from the other side were invited in previous times, the overwhelming majority of the actual tenured professors have been Progressives for many decades. As they have said, “the right cannot fix the universities.” The reason for this is that the right has been excluded from real representation in the universities. Now, some of that exclusion was self-imposed, but not all of it. And if you think it’s bad for the right, imagine what it is like for those who hold traditional religious views! Ironically, they sincerely believe that they and the universities were open minded when they were in charge. The right cannot fix the universities. The right cannot even fix itself.

The reason Conservatism will always fail is that it is just the right-most faction of the Liberal spectrum. They view themselves as “Classical Liberals.” However, as the overall spectrum of Liberalism continues to “progress” more and more to the left, so does the scope of what is considered “Conservative.” The Conservative Right today includes positions that were promoted by the vanguard of the Left, the leftest of the Left, just twenty years ago. The Conservative Right of twenty years ago included positions that were considered very liberal a generation before that, and so on. Just think of the different changes in social norms that have been accepted by the so-called Conservatives in the last few decades. 
“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types – the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.”
 – G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, 19 April 1924.
For just about all of the changes that have occurred, those advocating change argued that the change was slight. No one is talking about substantial changes. No one is talking about changing the law, or the definition, and no one is talking about imposing their views on you. They may have been completely honest in regard to themselves, but the claim doesn’t take into account the faction of their movement that actually does want more change – a faction that always seems to exist, a faction that seems to always grow beyond what the old majority imagined. The “slippery slope” argument may be a logical fallacy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Today’s “moderate Left,” those who continue to protest that they are ideologically on the left and therefore not Conservative, but also not extremist like the “Woke,” those who say they are “Left” but not “leftist,” are struggling in what I believe to be a futile effort to save the “true” Liberalism from what they seem to view as an infiltration by “Post Modernism.” While they view Post Modernism as something different than true Liberalism, I simply see it as the latest step along the overall path of Liberalism. A step that is consistent with what Progressives have done throughout their history. Just as the original Liberalism was supposed to be “progress” for pre-Liberal society, the modern “Woke” movement is supposed to be “progress” for the current liberal society. Just ask them.

So where does Distributism fit into all of this? Well, it just doesn’t. It has no place in the spectrum of Liberal ideas. Conservatism, Liberalism, Progressivism, Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, Woke ideology, Critical Race Theory, the Social Compact theories of society, and many other things that are rampant in our society are all based on some level of acceptance of the foundational philosophical view of Liberalism. Distributism is based on an older view. A view that accepts that natural law and morality are based on something outside of ourselves, and that we are subject to them rather than their master. What happens when we refuse to be subject to them? You end up with something like the Woke movement of today. Distributism is based on a view that political and economic life are categories of ethics and therefore subject to ethics; a view that has no problem with profit, but also teaches that profit cannot be the highest motive; a view that has no problem with wealth, but also teaches that wealth has a broader social purpose and implication than just the individual person or family; a view that accepts that government can have a role in helping those who are destitute, but that role is limited and subordinate to the role that others in society have; a view that teaches that it is immoral to refuse to work when you are capable, and immoral to refuse to assist those who are need of it; a view that believes that parents have more rights over the raising and education of children than society as a whole; a view that believes that government should interfere with business as little as practical, but that there are also moral limits to business practices; a view that is not rooted in a philosophy of materialistic individualism.

This is the difference. To really become a Distributist is to reject the Liberal aspects of the other views. While some of our positions may sound similar to some Liberal positions, they are founded on a completely different reasoning. While some of our positions may sound similar to Conservative positions, they are also founded on a completely different reasoning. This is why I have repeatedly said that our greatest difficulty in presenting Distributism is that Distributism is truly a fundamental shift in how to view government, economics, and society as a whole.

Title image includes "Noun Confusion" by Delwar Hossain, BD, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.


  1. Videos on the Grievance Studies

    Videos on what happened at Evergreen College.

  2. Thanks David for standing athwart materialistic individualism. Please keep publishing articles on distributism, whenever and wherever possible.


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