Thursday, July 23, 2020

What Do You Mean By “Distributism”?

Somewhat to our surprise, we seem to have become something of a “distributist guru.”  Of course, that could just be an impression, but if it’s true, it might be because we seem to be able to give consistent specifics instead of vague and contradictory generalities.  Not that G.K. Chesterton or Hilaire Belloc gave out anything contradictory, or at least, not that they intended to be contradictory, but that’s not our point.  Our point is where Chesterton and Belloc wanted to go, not necessarily how they thought it expedient to get there.

G.K. Chesterton

What Chesterton and Belloc called “distributism” is actually very simple.  As Chesterton put it, it’s a policy of widely distributed capital ownership (he actually used the word “property,” but then gave productive assets — “capital” — as the kind of property he meant), with a preference (not a “mandate”) for small, family-owned farms and businesses.  When an enterprise must be large, so Chesterton stated, then it should be owned by the workers on shares (and he specified a business organized as a joint stock company, i.e., a “corporation”).

Chesterton gave no more specifics than that.  When he did give principles and program particulars in general terms, he carefully noted that not all distributists agreed on them . . . which rather removed them from the category of principle.

Belloc tried to give some specifics, but ran up against his own lack of understanding of money and credit, not to mention banking.  He ended up violating his own principles as well as the “laws” of social justice.

Hilaire Belloc

Unfortunately, Chesterton’s vagueness and Belloc’s bellicosity pretty much guaranteed that distributism would not survive Chesterton’s death, nor did it.  Many of today’s distributists take as their starting point an acceptance of the very things Chesterton and Belloc opposed with all their might, especially a redefinition of private property and thus its abolition.  Opposing Fabian socialism, the various forms of Fabian socialism (and quite a few others) have been taken as “authentic,” with defenders sometimes using language and undertaking actions that would horrify Chesterton and shame Belloc.

Does that mean distributism is a bad thing?  No.  A policy of widely distributed private property in capital is a great idea.

Assuming we mean distributism as Chesterton meant it, and not necessarily as many of today’s distributists mean it, private property is a natural right, meaning every human being has by nature the right to own. That does not mean the right to take what others already own, but it does mean that every human being has by nature not only the absolute right to be an owner, but also access to the opportunity and means to make that right effective.

Pope Leo XIII

On the other hand, while the right to be an owner is inherent in human nature and determined by God, the rights of ownership, i.e., what can be owned, how much, how it may be used, are necessarily limited and “socially determined.” Thus, property is both absolute and a part of human nature (“the generic right of dominion”), and at the same time limited by the necessity of not harming one’s self, other individuals, groups, or the common good as a whole by the exercise thereof (“the universal destination of all goods”).

Okay, that’s the natural law/Thomist understanding of property. Regarding distributism, Chesterton and Belloc intended it as a way of applying what they considered Leo XIII’s mandate in Rerum Novarum, viz.,

We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners. (§ 46.)

One possible way of actually implementing distributism is the “Capital Homesteading” proposal by the interfaith Center for Economic and Social Justice.