We recently got into a FaceBook group devoted to discussing “Catholic Stuff.” Most of the questions and discussion items were a little bit out of our area of expertise, but we did get into an interesting one about “distributism,” the rather loosely defined social philosophy advocated by G.K. Chesterton and his cohort, Hilaire Belloc.
The main topic under discussion and which most of the comments were related to was, “What is distributism, and is it a Catholic economic system?” Our response (somewhat edited for clarity) was as follows:
|Fr. Heinrich Pesch, S.J.|
As a number of people have commented over the decades (notably Dr. Franz Mueller, the noted student of Fr. Heinrich Pesch, S.J., founder of Thomist solidarism) there can be no such thing as a Catholic economic system, social system, political system, etc. All you can have is a system that conforms materially to Catholic teaching, which in social and political matters means the natural law “written in the hearts of all men.”
That being said, Chesterton and Belloc promoted distributism as something not Catholic, but compatible with Catholic teaching . . . and thereby caused two major problems that have lasted to the present day:
1. Chesterton was very careful to describe distributism in general terms, which drove George Bernard Shaw absolutely bonkers. Shaw demanded specifics that he could ridicule, as he did in the early debates with Chesterton until Chesterton caught on and learned how to handle him. Belloc tried to discuss some specifics, but he made technical errors that so-called experts were able to discredit easily and ignored the sound principles behind the flawed applications.
2. Others also tried to fill in the details of distributism and ended up equating it with various forms of socialism, e.g., guild socialism, social credit, syndicalism, democratic socialism, etc., etc., ad infinitum, which was not only incorrect, but supremely ironic, as Chesteron’s principal goal was to offer an alternative to socialism and capitalism. Thus, today many people on both sides of the debate see no difference between distributism and socialism.
What is distributism? A policy of widely distributed ownership, with a preference for family owned farms and businesses.
That’s it. Chesterton never said anything more about what distributism is, although he said a great deal about what it is not.
At that point in the discussion, someone else contributed the comment that Rerum Novarum was derived from distributist principles, to which someone else replied that the statement was not true, but not so crudely as that.
Since we think that — chronologically — distributism (cir. 1910) came after Rerum Novarum (1891), we said that it was true after a fashion, but not entirely accurate. Chesterton and others came up with the somewhat vague notion of distributism in an effort to apply the principles described in Rerum Novarum, as well as Mirari Vos and a number of other encyclicals.
The problem was that Chesterton quickly found that he could be ripped to shreds by both capitalists and socialists because he did not have the technical expertise to point out the flaws in their arguments. He then presented distributism as a goal to strive for, but one that he had no specific plan to implement
The unfortunate result was that others have been able to “capture” the term distributism and apply it to what is effectively socialism in all but name (and now in name by some). The essence of distributism, stripped of all the verbiage and add-ons by people with agendas, is very simple: a policy of widely distributed ownership with a preference for family owned farms and businesses. That is not only the essence of distributism, it’s as far as you can go with it and still claim that Chesterton supported it.
Then someone asked about specific practical applications of distributist principles, i.e., “Is the Mondragon corporation or Taiwan distributism on full display? Ive been told employee owned businesses and co-ops are examples of distributism. Is that true?”
We answered that, in the broad sense, yes. We don’t know about Taiwan (our contact there has never mentioned it), but the Mondragon system, while exemplary as far as it goes, also has some serious flaws. The major ones are:
1. Ownership is limited to workers. (What Leo XIII and GKC called for was as many people as possible owning capital; limiting it to workers slips into the Marxist labor theory of value and the idea that only labor creates property . . . which abolishes gift and inheritance, among other things.)
2. Financing is limited to existing savings; “modern” finance (actually millennia old) is not used, all financing comes out of restricting consumption, which has a lot of problems, given that the sole purpose of production is not saving, but consumption.
3. The bulk of production is not for the local economy, but for export. (An economy that does not first take care of domestic needs can get into deep trouble if the export market dries up, cf. Japan.)
4. Foreign workers do not participate in ownership. This has caused resentment, as they feel they are treated as second class workers.
Yes, worker-owned businesses, as with ESOPs and coops CAN be examples of distributism IF the purported owners have the rights of ownership, which many do not. In the U.S. the ESOP is often used as an expensive employee benefit that can be very useful, but few participants have the full spectrum of natural rights of private property. Coops are better in some respects, but do not have the tax advantages of 100% worker owned S-Corp ESOPs.
The key element is power and human dignity. Do people have their natural rights of life, liberty, and private property secured, or are they just paid lip service?