Distributism Basics: A Brief Introduction

By David W. Cooney
August 8, 2014

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 that 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. Embrace of this view 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, some thinkers believed that 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 these proposals 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. This claim carries some justification, 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.