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Distributism Basics: Distributism vs. Christian Socialism

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.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Daniel Schwindt

    Well done again, Mr. Cooney. I’ve had all these men on my reading list for a while now but haven’t gotten around to them.

  • I agree that framing laws and creating arbitrary compulsions is not the answer, it is the problem. If we can one by one dissolve the worldly ambitions in people’s hearts, the system we have will be rendered useless and irrelevant.

  • John Médaille

    “Ownership, [Tawney] 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.” Is that really so different from, “Ownership of the means of production, whether in industry or agriculture, is just and legitimate if it serves useful work. It becomes illegitimate, however, when it is not utilized or when it serves to impede the work of others, in an effort to gain a profit which is not the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society, but rather is the result of curbing them or of illicit exploitation, speculation or the breaking of solidarity among working people.87 Ownership of this kind has no justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man”? (John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 43)

    • This is an area that would simply create unneeded conflict and new waves of expropriations from the lambs of society. Why wouldn’t the solution be to abolish people’s slavery to the turf: e.g. no one, no persons nor organizations nor states, can “own” land… they can only possess it.

      • John Médaille

        Yes, that’s the solution of Proudhon and George. Ownership is essentially identified with–and limited to–actual use. Further, the separation of ownership and use can only be the result of government: you can’t collect the rent if you can’t call the cops. That is to say, ownership apart from use is always and everywhere a product of government. In this, I would take issue with Leo XIII who identifies it as “natural.” Now, it is natural to own what you make, but you don’t make the land; you make something of it. Leo really doesn’t address the difference between man-made and natural property, but treats them both under the same rubric. Oddly enough, he doesn’t quote St. Thomas on property, but Thomas identified only the common use of property as belonging to natural law, while private property is a human addition to the law.

        • OK, sounds good. What are we waiting for?… 🙂

          • John Médaille


            Or for Godot to leave?

          • Hah!

            Godot is not leaving of his own accord. I am always in favor of non-aggression. We should just ignore him.. per below.

      • CatholicLibSoc

        That is proudhonist/mutualist/socialist view of property and i tend to agree with it.

  • Mea culpa!

    My thanks to John Médaille for taking a critical look at this article. It seems that I misinterpreted certain aspects of Tawney’s position. After further review, Tawney does not appear to deny the right to property and his statements about the continued right to ownership do seem to conform to the Catholic view expounded by the popes over the last century rather than the socialist view rejected by those same popes.

    In light of this, however, it seems to me that the claim that Tawney somehow represents a view that can be called “Christian socialist” becomes tenuous at best. I still question the compatibility of some of his statements with distributism as a whole. He seems to have a corporatist view regarding industry that goes beyond communal ownership of services – which would be compatible with distributism. Therefore while his views may not truly be socialist, I don’t know the extent to which I can agree that he is a distributist.

    However, as John pointed out, distributism is not a “one size fits all” proposition in the effect that its implementation would necessarily be exactly the same in all places. Aspects of its implementation could certainly be different in different societies based on cultural customs and needs as long as the underlying principles are followed.

    • Robb Beck

      I’m late to the party, but thanks so much for your review.

      When thinking about Distributism and Christian Socialism, I always find myself returning to Tawney’s great quote in the AS: “If by ‘Property’ is meant the personal possessions which the word suggests to nine-tenths of the population, the object of socialists is not to undermine property but to protect and increase it.”

      Tawney was unequivocally a Christian and a socialist. Even a cursory glance at his Commonplace book demonstrates his commitment to basic Christian orthodoxy, most of which stems from his grasp on the High Middle Ages and Aquinas.

      And to be fair, Tawney was critical of his Distributist comrades. In _Religion and the Rise of Capitalism_, he accuses them of being too Protestant – certainly a provocative claim!

      Polanyi is an interesting case and much more ambiguous to be sure.

      Thanks again.

      • Well, I guess that depends on if Tawney’s definition of property or of socialism is sufficient. I don’t disagree that the intent of socialists was to protect property, but the basic tenant of socialism is the social rather than private ownership of property. Sure, all forms of socialism allowed at least a limited claim to “personal possessions,” but that often didn’t include vast arrays of property which socialists tended to insist needed to be owned collectively. This is not compatible with Christianity. This, combined with its materialistic outlook, is why popes who never claimed capitalism is essentially incompatible with Christianity have declared that socialism is.

        However, the question of whether or not Tawney can be considered both a Christian and a socialist is not the question the article proposes to answer. The question is whether or not Christian socialism is essentially the same as distributism. The answer to that question is clearly no.

  • Stephen Peterson

    Thank you David, well researched.

    “George also accepts usurious forms of interest charged on loans of money …”

    I just wanted a clarification on what is usuary (and perhaps this is an issue for another article). The often quoted Vix Pervenit was written in a pre-inflationary economy, as is evidenced by quotes like “… a field or a house deteriorates in use. Money, however, when it is lent, is neither diminished nor deteriorated.” Thomas Storck seems to miss it in his article Is Usury Still a Sin?

    So, in an inflationary economy, is a lender entitled to compensation for inflation? Can they claim a risk premium (which is why credit is made available to anyone but risk-free borrowers)? Or is the entire centrally regulated monetary system, in which a low level of inflation is desired so as to deal with sticky wages, inherently unjust?

    • Well, inflation is a different topic, but can surely be related to the idea of charging interest to compensate for loss. The ideal, of course, is that the government is respnosible for ensuring that the regulation of available currency should match market activity in such a way that inflation doesn’t occur. This could never be done perfectly, but it could be done in such a way that any amount is negligible as further corrections are made to adjust for ongoing economic activity.

      However, in an economic system where either inflation or deflation can occur to a significant degree, charging interest to compensate for inflation requires acceptance of a prediction on the amount of inflation that will occur when the “loan” comes to term. Like other claims for charging interest to compensate for loss, this prediction simply cannot be known for certain ahead of time and, if we were to accept it at all, justice would require compensating the “borrower” if the interest collected turned out to be more than actual inflation – an idea absolutely rejected by our current system.

  • CatholicLibSoc

    distributism is petit-bourgeois capitalism(the private ownership of the means of production) and is only slightly better than what we currently have. I say this as a catholic. Also not all socialism is government control. Look up libertarian socialism, anarcho-communism, council communism and left communism. Catholics need to remember that MLM and Marxism-Leninism are not the only forms of communism and socialism.

  • RoamingCatholic

    Being increasingly drawn to distributism following in-depth study of Catholic Social Teaching, I’m still not convinced that property ownership is based in human nature. CST and distributism *have* convinced me of the necessity to uphold it as a universal right in the context of the modern globalized economy that we have, and the problem with socialism is that it just transfers ownership to the State and ultimately mirrors the same injustices it may have aimed to counter in capitalism. But what of any number of traditional indigenous societies that wouldn’t see land as something that can be owned by human beings at all, individually or collectively? Without wanting to romanticize, that idea seems to me to be closer (not to say absolutely equivalent, but arguably more reconcilable) to a biblical and/or traditional doctrine of creation than the propositions about property found in socialism, capitalism or even distributism.

    • colin mcdermott

      @RoamingCatholic I think you have a very good point about “ownership”. Most indigenous cultures either establish rough boundaries or not have ownership at all. They were still able to work their land and survive. Distributists focus on Ownership and guilds (which provide training) as the means of empowerment. Yet is this the “solution” to social inequality and the challenges that capitalism is presenting us?

      As our population has increased, there is going to be less and less land per person. Sure with technological increases people can now get far greater produce from far less land. Ultimately though if land is the key determinate of empowerment, people will be less empowered as our population increases.

    • We must remember that, as distributism attempts to be consistent with CST, statements about property ownership and rights must be undestood in that light. Rights do not simply come with obligations, they proceed from obligations. This is why, while asserting the right to private property, including property in land, we reject the notion of absolute rights in regard to use in the sense that someone can do anything they want without consideration of social obligations. Distributism incorporates the ideas of both subsidiarity and solidarity in its teachings.

      Having said that, it must be understood that any system devised by man will be imperfect just as we are imperfect. Therefore, distributism seeks to mitigate the corrupting influence of man by instilling subsidiarity in the economic structure so that both political and economic institutions are better held accountable to those impacted by their decisions and policies.

  • Edgardo Tenreiro

    The claim that distributism as an economic theory is viable because exists outside capitalism and socialism is illogical. There is one and only one science of economics necessarily derived from this central axiom: that human action is teleological or goal oriented. The central axiom can be demonstrated using the metaphysics and anthropology of Aquinas. Others have used Kantian apriorism or Aristotelian self-evidence. Still others, neo-positivists, hold that a science of economics derived from metaphysics cannot say anything about the real world, in other words, that unless economic hypotheses can be verified empirically, they lack any significance. We can safely assume that distributists are not neopositivists. Therefore they are either Aristotelians, Kantians, or Thomists, and in each of those cases, one and only one and the same science of economics can be logically derived.

    Any economic system that in practice violates the propositions based on the central axiom of human action is irrational. The only economic system that does not violate the central axiom and its propositions is capitalism. Economists like Mises and Hayek demonstrated in the 1920’s that socialism and socialistic policies, because they violated the central axiom, were irrational: their mandates could not have any coordinating effects. Distributism, while some would argue is not socialism, is socialistic. It violates the central axiom when it claims that there can be a better and more just distribution of capital than the ones that come about through the uncoerced exchange between individuals, that is, the market. It also violates it when it denies that future goods are worth less than present goods (the basis for usury or the charging of interest.) Like socialism, distributism is irrational.

    In addition, like all socialists, the capital redistribution aims of distributists only make sense in a static world where capital is a given and where the problem to solve is how it should all be distributed. Like all socialists, they ignore the conditions under which capital is created. Like all socialists, they justify the violence needed to effect such a redistribution (whether this is done at once or gradually, by a central distant authority or a decentralized local authority is irrelevant.) Like all socialists, they wish for the end without knowing the means. Like all socialists, they do not understand that production and distribution of capital are inextricably interdependent, two sides of the same coin. Like all socialists, they do not appreciate that most individuals, uncoerced by a socialist or a distributist state, prefer to receive from the capitalist a risk free advance (i.e, wages) of the uncertain future revenue stream of the enterprise. Like all socialists, they do not know that the social function of the capitalist is to bear for the rest of us the risk associated with the uncertainty of time. Like all socialists, they ignore that the history of capitalism is littered with the entrepreneurs who unsuccessfully carried that risk and lost everything. Like all socialists, distributists are obsessed with the few capitalists who successfully bear that risk and who therefore accumulate a much larger share of capital.

    • You are incorrect that mankind is inherently selfish. In hunter-gatherer societies until the present day, cooperation is the norm. And the greatest amount of leisure time is enjoyed. In the Western world, really we enjoyed greater freedom from work requirements, during medieval times.

      • colin mcdermott

        I could not have said it better myself Thomas. I can perhaps believe that the Chaos of Capitalism is based on some human motive, but I cannot agree that Thomas Aquinas would have seen “Greed” as a virtue.

        I love this part “It violates the central axiom when it claims that there can be a better and more just distribution of capital than the ones that come about
        through the uncoerced exchange between individuals, that is, the market.”.

        Remember the IMF has recently announced that there is no evidence that the trickle down effect works. Piketty and others have proven this with statistical analysis and we have known it to be such for ages. The market is just that, a market. Goods are traded and wealth is accumulated and usually consolidated in fewer and fewer hands. There is nothing Moral or even logical about market trading.

        Is it logical for goods to be traded without consequence of how they are produced or where they came from*?

        Give to god, what is god’s and give to Caesar what is Caesar’s!

        *ofcourse not. I cannot buy a TV from the back of a truck and be oblivious to it’s origins. Why should I then be able to buy a shirt and be oblivious to the slavery that stitched it together?

        • Thanks– I get worked up when I hear that “pure capitalism is perfect system” because it harnesses our failed natures. How can Catholics resign themselves to degradation?

          Piketty, although disappointingly conventional in his ultimate
          “solution”, points up what I like to call the “stickiness” of capital. This stickiness is amplified since the collapse of 2008. The best yield for our financial titans is in trading electronically among themselves. They avoid “getting hands dirty” by engendering true commerce. But how high do their piles of money need to climb?

          I feel good news today– the convulsions of the past generation are passing. The escapades of internet rationality, the securitization of people’s homes and of commodities etc, all of these foolhardy schemes purporting to advance but that have only destroyed, have been finally laid bare and bypassed. In the meantime, the knowledge imparted to the common man, about the evils brought on by the quest for profit and growth, has laid the seeds for a more moral, more fruitful society.

  • colin mcdermott

    Ok I get it now.

    Socialism is aiming for equality by evenly distributing societies resources.

    Distributism is aiming for Empowerment and human dignity by encouraging local empowerment and small land holdings.

    Hence you see a failure in Socialism*, people are never empowered. Perhaps in some systems they are running a guild or a union, but in reality we have Large systems where a minority will get a prestigious position and the majority will be surfs to the state. They very well may get bread on their table, but the system is not aimed at their empowerment.

    With Distributism, it flies against some of my values. I have long grown up believing that we are all humans who should be treated equally with respect. However this ideal equal treatment relies on a benefactor state that de-powers the individual. Distributism may achieve equality of sorts through empowering everyone, however I suspect that many will slip through the gaps (orphan’s, rejected community members, people on poor land, etc).

    Likewise we see that the Author is struggling with some of these concepts ” I consider progressive taxation to be an extreme case solution”…. because “it can be considered unjust”. A capitalist should be aghast as the rich will find themselves HAVING to pay for all sorts of community expenses, because they are rich (or it’s a local rule, etc).

    Dealing with only “Empowerment”, my modern view is that Education is the main facilitator behind empowerment. Not Land ownership or some traditional handing down of knowledge. I see so many trades where the tools, have an expense but would never be handed from generation to generation. Land, while expensive, is not plowed or mined for me to produce income from it. Most people can produce their income regardless of which piece of land they are on**.

    Is ownership of a particular piece of land a key to empowerment in today’s society? Can we just own any piece of land and have empowerment or do we need to find our families ancestral blacksmith forge and fire it up to be an empowered citizen? This is a key question to inheritances and if these are necessary for a fair state.

    *To me there is a worlds difference between socialism/communism and someone wanting say a free public dental system. Dental care enhances human dignity and respects us as people. (replace dental care with health care if not American). So lets keep a distinction between particular policy items and political theories.

    ** naturally farmers and miners are the main modern exception to this.

    • I think that you are at least somewhat mischaracterizing the goals of distributism. The purpose of promoting local empowerment is to mitigate the effects of those who would corrupt the system, since those people will exist in any system. The idea of empowerment is that the local community should be empowered to address issues proper to that sphere without having to rely only on state or higher levels of government. However, those higher levels should still be there as an additional resource for addressing problems when needed.

      I hate to agree with the talking points of capitalists, but there is no such thing as free public dental or health systems. Distributism is also based on the idea of the fundamental equality of all people and the idea that people should be treated justly and with dignity. The problem with these types of government controlled systems is that they have to become cost-effective according to the standards of the bureaucracies. This leads to rationing of treatment and government management of your health care based on statistical numbers rather than your needs. It must also be remembered that such schemes are completely dependent on the continuing existence of the very wealthy classes and big businesses to provide the tax revenue to fund them. However, pointing this out is not the same as advocating that we continue with things the way they are or were. Things like doctor cooperatives and subscription based services are already proving to be a much better solution for what you are seeking than systems controlled by government or insurance schemes, and at very low costs which not only make such services available to the poor working classes, but also make the possibility of charitable support for the health needs of the very poor much more achievable.

      The problem with your wanting to keep particular policy items separate from political theories is that the political theories of those who make policies dictate what those policies will be. Human dignity includes a whole host of things beyond dental and health care. You can have the best teeth and health and still be a slave. It doesn’t matter if we are discussing slavery entailing someone else owning you bodily, or effective slavery brought on by your economic dependence on either the state or big business (or both). You are correct, however, that simply trying to establish a public health system is not the same as trying to establish socialism or communism. I didn’t say they were the same.