A Primer on Distributionism: The Origin, Influence, and Basic Ideas of Distributionism
As I mentioned in We’re all in this Together, Catholic social teaching rejects Communism as denying individual rights (or even individuality). This teaching also rejects Socialism for treating people as merely means to the end of production while also restricting their autonomy. And it further rejects laissez-faire capitalism as treating people as means to the end of profit and removing moral decisions from the economic sphere. This rejection of the Left’s Communism/Socialism and the Right’s unfettered Capitalism is why a number of economists and Catholic thinkers from the 1880 to today have used Catholic teachings in an attempt to build a Third Way.
Modern Catholic social teaching really began with the encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. A response (as all good theology is a response to questions or problems) to the failures of Capitalism and spreading revolutions of anarchy, Communism and Socialism, Rerum Novarum was immediately seen as a new way of looking at the world of work and money. It was hugely influential within the Church and beyond. In 1931 Pope Pius XI released Quadragesimo Anno (Forty Years After) a more detailed discussion of the idea of subsidiarity that was first expressed forty years previously in Rerum Novarum. Pope Pius XI gave a more detailed ‘map’ of how subsidiarity could be used to create labor structures akin to guilds, expressed a deeper definition of subsidiarity in government and organizations, and reiterated that the chief duty of both is to protect the sick and the poor. In 1961 Pope John XXIII released the encyclical Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher). Mater et Magistra continued to stress the dignity of the person, the need for justice in all human interactions, the inability of material goods to provide people with fulfillment, and repeated the emphasis on subsidiarity and solidarity. Most recently Pope John Paul II released Centesimus Annus (Hundredth Year) which pointed to the fall of the Soviet Union and how Rerum Novarum had predicted the results of the implementation of Socialism more than 20 years before the Societ Union was founded. It goes on to point to the continued failings of unfettered Capitalism and the need to always remember the inherent worth of the individual and the need for solidarity. Centesimus Annus also points out that skills and ability have taken an even greater prominence than they had in the late 1800’s (when Rerum Novarum was issued) or the mid-1900’s (when Mater et Magistra was issued). This completes the transisiton from Rerum Novarum, which mentions all three but focused on land as the center of economic life through Mater et Magistra that acknowledged the then-central role of monetary capital, to the current day when knowledge had taken the center place. This not only reflects the changes in society and economics from the various times, but also the flexibility and applicability of the core tenets of Catholic social teachings – they are, literally, timeless.
This emphasis on the Papal source of the Third Way may seem a little, well, inward-looking. Most modern people think of papal encyclicals (if they are aware of them at all) as theologians talking to each other, or the Pope giving orders to the bishops. The impact of these works, however, was and is profound. Rerum Novarum in particular has had a tremendous impact on economic and political thought for 115 years. As David Boyle very succinctly points out, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical was the font for the revival of the British Liberal party and movement, became an influential economic force and, very recently, His Holiiness' concept of subsidiarity is now a critical element of the European Union’s constitution. The various political parties in Europe and South America that call themselves Christian Democrats or Christian Social Unionists acknowledge Rerum Novarum as their ‘founding document’ and use Catholic social teachings as one of the bases for their political platforms; the current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, is a Christian Democrat. Obviously, Catholic social thought is very influential right now.
The transition from Catholic theory to political party had a few intermediary steps, of course. Since we live in an imperfect world there were some missteps on the way, too. The primary initial theorists of what became Distributism (also called Distributivism and, my favorite, Distributionism) were Hillaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. These two men, both prolific writers and keen thinkers, were wrestling with the problems of their age (and ours); the necessity of people to live with dignity in a world gripped by violent struggles between ideologies. The effects of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of Socialism were the key stressors of their day, so they turned their faculties toward solving the problems of Socialism and Capitalism.
Although largely forgotten today (I suspect because they were neither to the Right or the Left) both men had huge influence in their time. Belloc was nicknamed “Old Thunder” and was considered a formidable opponent in an argument by such men as George Bernard Shaw. In his first year at Oxford he was so appalled at the poor showing of one half of a debate that he spontaneously rose from the audience, launched into an impromptu attack, and won the debate. After Oxford he became a writer and a Minister of Parliament. Later in life he was the editor of the Eye Witness which he took to a weekly readership of 100,000 by attracting writers such as Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. He was one of the earliest voices to warn of Hitler and Fascism.
G. K. Chesterton was the equal to Belloc intellectually and a better writer in many ways. The influence of his writings are, to me at least, shocking for a man virtually ignored today; Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man was a key element in C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity; his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill inspired Michael Collins into striving for Irish freedom and thus contributed to Irish independence; a newspaper essay Chesterton wrote had an energizing effect on an British citizen of Indian birth that helped galvanize this man who was grappling with racism in South Africa as he transformed from an apolitical professional into a professional politician – a man named Gandhi. During his life Chesterton was famous for his debates with other thinkers, writers, and speakers of his day. Like Belloc, he was so skillful at debate, so prepared with facts, and so organized in his approach that he rarely lost. Unlike Belloc, Chesterton was so jovial and good natured in debate that he was warmly regarded by virtually everyone, even those he trounced in a public forum. With all of this, it is hard to believe that today, not 80 years from his death, Chesterton is an enigma while men that he soundly defeated at debate, such as Clarence Darrow, are still household names.
Belloc and Chesterton entered into a very fruitful collaboration, jokingly called chesterbelloc, concerning their outlooks and suggested solutions for what they felt was wrong with the world. Belloc’s works Essay on the Restoration of Property, The Crisis of Civilization and The Servile State and Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World, Utopia of Usurers, and The Outline of Sanity, all combined with their numerous essays evolved into the basics of Distributionism. Additional input by many others, including the former guild socialist Arthur Penty and Catholic priest Vincent McNabb broadened the scope and reach of Distributionist thought. The impact of Distributist thought never really ended, even after the death of its founders. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement embraced Distributionism, especially as a means of self-sufficiency. E. F. Schumacher, creator of such ideas as appropriate technology and author of the hugely influential Small is Beautiful, claimed he owed a huge debt to early Distributists and was so compelled by Catholic social teachings and Distributionism that he converted to Catholicism. The impact of Small is Beautiful on the early ecology and environmentalism movement shows a lineage from Chesterton to the modern Simple Living and Sustainable Development movements. Indeed, the current “Crunchy Con” idea is really just a form of Distributionism with a shorter bibliography and more faith in laissez-faire.
Now that I have spent so much time talking about where Distributionism comes from, the impact it has had, and the people involved in it we move one to…
…what in the heck is it, really?
The discussion about what Distributionism is and isn’t, as well as how to accomplish it (and how not too) is still going on. Just like any other politico-economic idea, growth over time is probably a sign of vigor. But there are certain ideas that are core to the idea of Distributionism:
1. All men have a right to private property, to just compensation for their goods and labor, and to enter into business agreements – including employment – of their own free will.
2. aPrivate ownership of property and work (whether physical, artistic, or intellectual) are good both for the individual and society as a whole.
3. That responsibility and decision-making should be ‘pushed down’ as low as possible; the federal government is less efficient at and less capable of making good decisions than the state government, the state less so than the county, etc. down to the family itself.
4. Closely related to #3; private organizations are better at getting things done than governments; smaller groups are generally better than larger; individuals and families over all are the best.
5. The more local, the better.
6. All families should be as self-sufficient as possible.
7. Coops and Guilds are preferred over corporations and unions. This also means credit unions are to be preferred over banks.
8. When engaged in business-to-business ventures, avoid middle-men and deal as directly as possible with the end client/end user.
9. Government welfare programs are to be eliminated whenever possible, reduced or avoided otherwise.
10. There is no utopia, and there never will be.
Some points that I believe are Distributist, but some others do not:
A. Usury is to be avoided.
B. The key to developing Distributionism is positive reinforcement.
In the next article, I will go over each of these points in greater detail and try to draw the various strands together into a larger whole.