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Distributism was an attempt at forming an economic ideology out of the wake of the May 1891 papal encyclical, the Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII, which dealt with the need to alleviate "the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class". The Rerum Novarum stated the opposition of the Vatican to both unrestricted modern capitalism and to state socialism while reaffirming the right to private property and labor unions.
Sounds good in theory
Distributism took this opposition to both modern capitalism and state socialism and attempted to form an economic ideology around it. Distributism makes the case that ethics have a place in economics. In theory, Distributism sounds like the same things espoused earlier by such writers as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and later by the 1970s back-to-the-land movement. An economy consisting entirely of small-scale entrepreneurs, skilled craftsmen bartering their trade, small family farms, mom-and-pop shops, worker-owned cooperatives, and universal property and home ownership was envisioned. To accomplish this, Distributism put a great deal of emphasis on the need to make ownership of private property as widespread and diffused as possible, with everybody owning a small piece of land but nobody allowed to accumulate large amounts of land. Mass marketing and commercialism, absentee ownership of rental housing units, and large factories would not be part of this envisioned society.
G.K. Chesterton summed up his opposition to modern capitalism this way: "The problem with capitalism is not too many capitalists, but not enough capitalists". He idealized a world where everybody was a small-scale capitalist, but no monopoly capitalism could emerge.
This is indeed an appealing way to live for many. People can patronize these sorts of cottage businesses rather than mass-marketed products and get "back to the land" with a small farm, barter, and the like, even under the current capitalist system. But Distributism was never able to articulate just how this would work as an economic ideology guiding society as a whole (as opposed to a lifestyle choice for some). Because they were also opposed to state socialism, they had to propose how land would be redistributed among the people without socialistic state intervention, which they could not do. However, Hilaire Belloc attempted in his Essay on the Restoration of Property. Nor was Distributism ever able to successfully articulate how these small cottage industries would be prevented from growing into the large-scale commercial enterprises they were opposed to, as tends to happen under unregulated capitalism, without resorting to the sort of state socialism they were against.
Employers who cannot employ workers profitably at arbitrarily high wages, which controlling authorities consider just, will fire workers or, if they cannot find a legal excuse, refuse to replace workers who leave. Either way, unemployment will increase. Also, not everyone wants to be a small-scale entrepreneur or can do this.
Distributism was most closely associated with two Roman Catholic writers in the UK who were otherwise known for their theological treatises and detective fiction: G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. T. S. Eliot was also a convert to the Distributist cause. John Henry Newman, Robert Hugh Benson, George Macdonald, J. R. R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Fulton Sheen, Simone Weil, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day (founder of the pacifist Catholic Worker movement) may also have been influenced by it.
Hilaire Belloc was a Catholic apologist whose writings bordered on a cranky sort of fundamentalist Catholicism. His fans today tend to be right-wing Catholics who insist on Catholicism being a core part of Distributism and look down on those who show an interest in Belloc's economic ideas without also espousing his religious views. G. K. Chesterton was a more moderate Christian writer, a High Church Anglican who ultimately converted to Roman Catholicism. He is better known today for his Father Brown mystery novels.
Much like Georgism (which sprung from the same period and out of the same miserable conditions wrought by the early industrial revolution), Distributism has found some newfound interest among a small few of the politically "green" persuasion who see it as a possible alternative to capitalism and who promote it in a mutated form on the Internet. Environmentalist interest in Distributism can likely be traced back to economist E. F. Schumacher, author of the 1973 book Small is Beautiful. While his work was heavily informed by Catholicism (he was a former atheist who became interested in the faith in the late '50s, eventually converting in 1971), he found his primary audience among the "back to the land" movement of the era.
It has also been rediscovered by some third positionists, who have dabbled in trying to incorporate Distributism (along with anarchism, neo-paganism, feminism, Marxism, the Green Book of Libya, and goodness knows what else) into their various far-right ultranationalist ideologies. A. K. Chesterton (second cousin of G. K.) was a major influence in this regard, helping to import his relative's economic ideas into the National Front when he helped co-found that organization.
Ideas close to distributism in history
Thomas Jefferson proposed that poor people be given 50 acres of land to farm.
Antitrust laws are also close to the ideology of distributism.
- The Distributist Review, a proponent of the idea
- Rerum Novarum, Encyclical of Leo XIII, 1891, reproduced on Vatican website
- What’s Right with Distributism
- What’s Wrong with Distributism
- Pearce, Joseph. "The Education of E. F. Schumacher." The Distributist Review, 7 July 2010 (recovered 27 August 2015).
- World Fascism: A Historical Encyclopedia, p. 177-8.
- Draft Cconstitution for Virginia 1776