What is distributism?
by Thomas Storck
Thomas Storck is the author of Foundations of a Catholic Political Order and The Catholic Milieu. He is a contributing editor of New Oxford Review and a member of the editorial board of The Chesterton Review.
Much of the history of the Western world since the middle of the
nineteenth century has been the history of the clash of competing economic
systems. Ever since the Communist Manifesto of 1848, when it was claimed that a
"specter is haunting
In the first place, we would do well to make a few definitions of the
chief terms we will be using, and especially of capitalism. Too often this word
is left undefined, and each person gives it some sort of connotation in his
mind, good or bad, depending on his own beliefs, but never clearly defined. Now
first, what is capitalism not? Capitalism is not private ownership of property,
even of productive property, for such ownership has existed in most of the
world at most times, and capitalism is generally held to have come into
existence only toward the end of the Middle Ages in
Now is there anything wrong with capitalism, with the separation of ownership and work? In itself there is nothing unjust about my owning a factory or a farm and employing others to work for me, as long as I pay them a just and living wage. But nonetheless, the capitalistic system is dangerous and unwise, its fruits have been harmful for mankind, and the supreme pontiffs have often called for changes which would, in effect, eliminate capitalism, or at least reduce its scope and power.
Let me explain and justify the assertions I have just made. And in order to do so, I must first make a brief detour to talk about the purpose of economic activity. Why has God given to men the possibility and need for producing and using economic goods? The answer to this is obvious: we need these goods and services in order to live a human life. Thus economic activity produces goods and services for the sake of serving all of mankind, and any economic arrangements must be judged by how well they fulfill that purpose.
Now when ownership and work are separated there necessarily exists a class of men, capitalists, who are one step removed from the production process itself. Stockholders, for example, typically do not care about what the company they are formal owners of actually makes or does, but only whether its stock price is rising or how large a dividend it pays. In fact, on the stock exchange, shares change hands thousands of times a day, that is, different individuals or entities, such as pension funds, are part owners of companies for a few minutes or hours or days, and then the stock is sold to someone else and they become owners of some new entity. Thus this class of capitalists naturally comes to see the economic system as a mechanism by which money, stocks, bonds, futures, and other surrogates for real wealth, can be manipulated in order to enrich themselves, instead of serving society by producing needed goods and services. As a result, men have made fortunes by hostile takeovers, mergers, shutting down factories, etc., in other words, by taking advantage of private property rights, not in order to engage in productive economic activity, but to enrich themselves regardless of its effect on consumers or workers.
The popes have indeed justified the ownership of private property, but if we examine how and why they have done so, we will see that the logic of their position is far from the logic of capitalism. Let us look, for example, at a famous passage from the encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891).
Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which is their own; nay, they learn to love the very soil which yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of the good things for themselves and those that are dear to them. (no. 35)
But what happens under capitalism? Do men learn to love the very stock certificates which yield cold cash, in response to the labor of someone else's hands? The justification of private property that the popes have made is always tied, at least as an ideal, to ownership and work being joined. Thus Leo XIII: "The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many people as possible to become owners" (Rerum Novarum, no. 35), and this teaching is repeated by Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (nos. 59-62, 65), by John XXIII in Mater et Magistra (nos. 85-89, 91-93, 111-115), and by John Paul II in Laborem Exercens (no. 14). If "as many people as possible...become owners," then that fatal separation of ownership and work will be, if not removed, at least its extent and influence will be lessened. It will no longer be the hallmark of our economic system, even if it still exists to some extent.
And this brings us directly to distributism. For distributism is nothing more than an economic system in which private property is well distributed, in which "as many people as possible" are in fact owners. Probably the most complete statement of distributism can be found in Hilaire Belloc's book, The Restoration of Property (1936). Note the title, The Restoration of Property. For the distributists argued that under capitalism property, certainly productive property, was the preserve of the rich, and that this gave them an influence and power in society far beyond what they had any right to. Yes, the formal right to private property exists for all under capitalism, but in practice it is restricted to the rich.
A further feature of distributism that follows from this, is that in a distributist economy, the amassing of property will have limits placed on it. Before one objects that this sounds like socialism, he would do well to remember Chesterton's remark (in What's Wrong With the World, chap. 6), that the institution of private property no more means the right to unlimited property than the institution of marriage means the right to unlimited wives!
In the Middle Ages those quintessential Catholic institutions, the craft
guilds, very often limited the amount of property each owner/worker could have
(for example, by limiting the number of his employees), precisely in the
interest of preventing anyone from expanding his own workshop so much that he
was likely to drive others out of business. For if private property has a
purpose and end, as Aristotle and
I realize that much of what I say here must sound strange to many
readers. Most Americans are acquainted only with capitalism and socialism. But
a little knowledge of Catholic economic history and of traditional Catholic
economic thought will be enough to convince any fair minded reader that there
is an entire world out there of genuine Catholic thought on this subject nearly
unknown in the