Distributism Basics: Distributism vs. Christian Socialism

By David W. Cooney
October 2, 2014

Editor's note: This article concludes a seven-part series on the basics of distributism. View all articles in the series here.

One reaction to this "Distributism Basics" series is that a particular group of commenters has asserted that its economic and political theories are so close to distributism as to make it virtually indistinguishable from their own theories. In various ways, these commenters have assured me that, if I would only read the writings explaining their views, I would be left scratching my head wondering what separates them from my own. Is this true? Is distributism just another name for what others call "Christian socialism?"

I've decided that this specific claim needs to be addressed as an addition to the more general explanation of the incompatibility of distributism and socialism that I previously published.

The purpose of this article is twofold: On the one hand, to explain to Christian socialists why their view is fundamentally at odds with distributism; on the other hand, to show any readers who suspect that distributism is some form of socialism why this suspicion is unsound. As I pointed out in the first article of this series, distributists make many of the same criticisms against capitalism as do socialists, but we also make many of the same criticisms against socialism as do the capitalists. The apparent confusion on this point lies in how closely the views of Christian socialists appear to track distributism. This appearance owes not so much to our similar critiques of capitalism but to the similar terminologies that we invoke in defending our positions. However, the appearance of similarity is superficial; the devil is in the details, as they say.

For this article, I have reviewed three writings by authors recommended to me by Christian socialists: The Acquisitive Society by R. H. Tawney, Progress and Poverty by Henry George, and The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi. While I believe that these authors were sincere in their attempt to address the injustices that capitalists seemed incapable or unwilling to address, and I believe that many of their criticisms of capitalism were both just and correct, these authors seemed to miss where their proposed solutions were just as faulty as the other socialists whom they criticized. Ultimately, the views held by Christian socialists about the nature of property and economics, the relationship of those things to the individual and society, and the relationship of society to the individual, is no less utilitarian and materialistic than those of any other form of socialism.

While Christian socialists appear to agree with distributists that there is no such thing as an absolute right to an unregulated use of private property, they appear to disagree that the right to own and pass on to heirs property legally obtained, including property in land, is inviolable. Distributsts advocate policies that promote the widest practical ownership of productive property, but these policies must be formulated to avoid injustice against current owners. The policies must encourage as natural a transition from concentrated to distributed ownership as possible. The idea of merely abolishing title by a stroke of law, as suggested by some of these authors, is not compatible with distributism. In addition, the position of the Christian socialists seems to put the power of regulation in the highest levels of the government, but distributists insist that power must be exercised locally wherever possible and practical.

Tawney asserts that the right to own property is based on fulfillment of function to society rather than on human nature itself. Ownership, he claims, can be voided, or at least rendered moot by legal devices if the owner is deemed not to fulfill a needed function in the process of his ownership. This "functionality" or lack of social usefulness goes beyond someone merely drawing an income from property owned by him but worked on by another; Tawney would apparently deprive ownership of those who own property for rent in urban areas but not those in rural areas. He also claims that those workers whose industry is not deemed useful to society as a whole lose their claim to property; that the state should invest in and maintain ownership of large industries; and that a form of joint ownership between the state and the workers be maintained. This is not presented as a temporary measure, he argues; the state should acquire title (either exclusive or joint) to productive property and hold it.

As we move on to George, it must be remembered that distributism is not an attempt to negotiate a middle ground between capitalism and socialism. It does not attempt a harmonious blending of the two. George, on the other hand, declares that such a harmonious blending is his goal. He asserts that you may own your house, your shop, and all the things in them, but not the land on which they sit or any natural resources of that land.

George also accepts usurious forms of interest charged on loans of money, justifying it on the grounds that, because the activities of production result in a general increase throughout society, and even throughout the world, the charging of interest on money loaned achieves an overall economic balance. The problem with this justification is that the lender is effectively protected from loss while the borrower is not. The chance of the borrower getting an increase is tied to the success of his activity, but the lender's chance of increase is tied to the presumption of overall increase rather than his ability to wisely choose borrowers. Not only is usury incompatible with distributism: The idea of a transaction in which only one side holds a risk is fundamentally unjust.

How Polanyi's The Great Transformation could be presented as evidence that Christian socialism is essentially the same as distributism is beyond me. While Polanyi seems willing to apply some level of subsidiarity to national government, this was only for the purpose of preserving culture. I found no evidence that his idea of subsidiarity applied to anything else, or that it applied to anything more local than the state. He dismissed subsidiarity altogether in economic matters. This is because, in his view, industrialized economy has moved beyond national boundaries, making those boundaries anachronistic for modern economics. I have not found this notion in any explanation of distributism.

As I explain in my article, “Is Distributism Catholic?,” the philosophical basis for many distributist positions predates Christianity. Yet as I explained in the first article of this series, distributism as a distinct and named economic system was founded by Catholics in response to papal teaching.

Polanyi rejects the idea that the Gospel applies to modern society, agreeing instead with Robert Owen's assertion that "the Gospels ignored the reality of society”:

Owen recognized that the freedom we gained through the teachings of Jesus was inapplicable to a complex society. His socialism was the upholding of man's claim to freedom in such a society. The post-Christian era of Western civilization had begun, in which the Gospels did not any more suffice, and yet remained the basis of our civilization.

The discovery of society is thus either the end or rebirth of freedom. While the fascist resigns himself to relinquishing freedom and glorifies power which is the reality of society, the socialist resigns himself to that reality and upholds the claim to freedom, in spite of it. Man becomes mature and able to exist as a human being in a complex society. To quote once more Robert Owen's inspired words: 'Should any causes of evil be irremovable by the new powers which men are about to acquire, they will know that they are necessary and unavoidable evils; and childish, unavailing complaints will cease to be made.'


If this is a position of Christian socialism, in what way is it compatible with distributism? In what way can it maintain a claim to being Christian?

Additionally, the methods condoned by Christian socialists to achieve their goals cannot be accepted by distributists. These authors, recommended to me by Christian socialists, have affirmed my conviction that pope Pius XI was correct when he wrote:

If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.

There is one final point I feel I need to address in this article. Distributists have been criticized by certain capitalists for not rejecting the notion of a progressive tax as an instrument to facilitate the transition from capitalism to distributism. Among these criticisms is the notion that, because socialists, like Marx, also supported progressive taxation, therefore we actually are socialists.

Two responses come to mind here. The first point is the idea that, because some socialists supported an idea, anyone else who supports that idea must also be socialist (no matter how forcefully he renounces socialism). Well, the socialists whom I reviewed for this article  actively advocate the private ownership of the tools of production. One advocated charging of interest on money loaned. If these capitalists are to be consistent, they must either reject the ideas of interest charged on money loaned and private ownership of the tools of production, or admit that they are really socialists. I say this tongue-in-cheek, but am illustrating the point that  one has to look at the entire position presented and cannot justly accuse someone of being a socialist merely because he affirms one or two particular points of socialism.

The second point is that, while I cannot speak for other distributists, I consider progressive taxation to be an extreme case solution. This is because there are aspects of progressive taxation that can be considered unjust. It could only be considered if, after a true attempt to apply more just methods, those attempts were found to be inadequate for accomplishing sufficient change. Even then, due consideration to the principle of double-effect would have to be applied. I would also point out that, in my view, progressive taxation would only really be compatible with distributism if done at a local level rather than at a state or federal level. I admit that, at this time, I believe that it is likely to be needed, but this is because capitalists have historically used taxes and other laws to establish the current economic environment, and those same tools may be needed to undo the status quo. Regardless, I would be happiest if the wider distribution of privately owned productive property could be accomplished without this type of drastic measure.