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distributismDistributism, as originally conceived by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, has long ceased being a practical possibility for the majority of those living in the liberal democracies of the West. Yet this does not mean that the core principle of distributism—widely distributed private ownership of the means of livelihood—is wholly beyond our reach. Chesterton, Belloc, and their followers advocated distributism as a rural ideal. “Three acres and a cow,” was their rallying cry. But if we re-situate distributism within the matrix of our current technological capabilities, distributism can reassert itself as more than an agrarian wish, but as a practical possibility for a large number of people. 

Distributism is all about the freedom of markets, though it never forgets that freedom is about much more than going to market. Your garden-variety free marketer is typically good at explaining why government needs to keep its mitts off free enterprise, and in describing the human potential that is released when folks are allowed to create economic value for themselves. But your garden-variety free marketer is typically less good at connecting the value of free enterprise with other aspects of human flourishing. We should always be vigilant in asking, “How can our business enterprises be more free?” But we should also be vigilant in asking questions such as the following: “Who exactly is the one going to work? Is there one breadwinner in the family or two (or more)? If there is more than one breadwinner, how does this effect the moral and spiritual life of the family, and principally the rearing of children? And where exactly is the workplace? Is it part of the neighborhood where one lives, sustaining a connection to the families of employees? Or is it so far from the home that travel to and fro takes a heavy toll on family life, not to mention the religious and other communities which also require our time and energy?”

It seems to me that the great virtue of distributism is that it is a home-centered economics. The distributist ideal keeps the means of livelihood integrated within family life. A paycheck of some kind is certainly a necessary condition for a family’s flourishing, but it is far from a sufficient one. How much better it would be if, as much as possible or desirable, an individual could own the means of his family’s livelihood, either singly or in a co-operative venture, so that he were not so dependent upon the decisions of others which may or may not take into account how his work impacts the well-being of his family?

The home computer and the Internet, whatever their drawbacks for social life, have nonetheless opened up tremendous new possibilities for privately owned, home-based businesses. Devin Rose, over at the new blog Second Nature, has recently written an interesting article exploring this phenomenon. A couple of years ago I launched my own little home-based venture, a company devoted to my fiction, journalism, and other freelance writing. I’ve had a ball pursuing this idea and exercising my entrepreneurial juices. It continues to amaze me, for example, what digital technology has made possible for me; how, from my home office, I can not only write a book, but work closely with my illustrator, digital formatter, and web design team, and then, with the push of a button, put the book up for sale on Amazon and immediately enjoy worldwide distribution. And I’ve deeply appreciated, living as I do amidst the traffic-jammed highways of Northern Virginia, not to have to slog up I-95 into D.C. every day (and back again). Not everything is idyllic, obviously, about taking one’s entire economic burden onto one’s shoulders, and the jury remains out as to whether my venture will be a long-term success. But I’m so thankful I live in a country and at a time in history in which I can at least have the chance to follow this dream.

I read a fair amount of marketing and business development gurus, folks like Seth Godin, Chris Brogan, and other “influencers” one finds featured on places like LinkedIn. It’s interesting. All of these folks are stressing the same thing, namely, the post-industrial nature of our economy, in which the individual and his or her chances of private ownership are greater now than they’ve ever been in history (here’s an infographic illustrating this transformation that I just stumbled upon today). Godin calls our current economy the “connection” economy, because he sees today’s businesses thriving more on one-to-one (though usually electronic) trust-based connections rather than on the production of “stuff” designed for anonymous consumption. And these gurus also talk about the importance of being brave, about stepping out of the comfort zone of being a passive employee with a paycheck into the new world of taking into one’s hands full ownership of one’s economic well-being.

Chris Brogan calls his company “Human Business Works,” and I think it’s fair to say that he and Godin and others are looking for ways to make business connect better with other aspects of human flourishing. They don’t have a conception of the distributist ideal in so many words—though I’ve brought it to Brogan’s attention via Twitter. But they are, I believe, groping toward something like the ideal of widely distributed private ownership advocated by Chesterton and Belloc.

It’s an ideal whose time may even now just be arriving.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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14 replies to this post
  1. Good stuff–I agree, we may be on the verge of a recovery of home economics, aided paradoxically by communications technology. It is as though the new utilities have acquired the status of natural resources in pre-industrial economies–things you must have access to and serve as preconditions for economic life. This is going on at the same time as the homesteading movement with its emphasis on reconnecting to the land and greater self-sufficiency–developments that should be celebrated by paleoconservatives.

    • Thanks for your comment, C.R. I really like your analogy connecting the new digital utilities with natural resources in pre-industrial economies. I also agree that the renaissance of interest in things agrarian and locally-sourced is to be celebrated. It’s clear that various sectors of our culture are trying to find their way back to a more human economy.

  2. I too agree and have never been happier than after getting away from politics and founding my own business in 2007. Still, the government and its tax laws are all structured to favor large corporate entities who can employ accountants and lawyers. The barriers to entry are formidable. I have found it quite an adventure, but also feel it’s a great experience.

    For instance, I’ve never studied accounting, but I was audited three times and therefore now feel confident to call myself rather expert at VAT tax accounting. I guess what I’m getting at is that surviving in the market by serving customers is the easy part – it’s surviving the regulators that puts pride into a man… but also a sense of how much time and resources the state forces me to waste on red tape.

    Distributism has little political support for the same reason the market in general does: politicians love to feel necessary. They like to imagine that the world would end if everyone had three acres and a cow, families loved and took care of eachother and churches were full. What would be left for them to do? Maybe fight false heterosexual bourgiouseconsciousness as the socialists have been reduced to doing, having failed at all else?

    • Mr. Rieth: To paraphrase John Lennon, “Imagine no politicians / I wonder if you can / No one to issue orders / No one to make a plan.” I don’t know what we’d do without the political class, but I’d sure like to find out.

    • Thanks for this comment, Peter. Congratulations on holding out against the ever-grasping hands of the Servile State.

  3. I’m on this same path myself – small, home-run business ownership – as are a circle of of half a dozen of my close friends. We have definitely thought about our work as a sort of virtual homesteading. We can keep both parents at home when both worked outside the home only a year ago. There is an incredible potential for upward mobility when anyone can buy a .com for $10, web-hosting for $100/yr or less, and learn all the skills necessary to create an online business for free. The ultimate goal: Avoiding debt, buying a few acres, and living alongside an intentional community which is familiar with its food. For us, the virtual marketplace is a means to a traditional end which would otherwise be unavailable to us, and which was ironically jettisoned by our grandparents in a rush to the city.

    • Zach–your short paragraph is an inspiration! I hope you’ll consider me a virtual neighbor in your emerging distributist community.

  4. Thank you for this article, Mr. McInerny. This may be going a little off-topic, but would you have the time to put together a list of bullet-point ideas for becoming more self-sustaining economically (outside of the Internet-based opportunities you’ve noted in this article)? I’ve been reading material by the author Allan Carlson and feel drawn to his articulation of an ideal family life where production largely takes place in the home. I’m homeschooling my oldest child at the moment, so that is one way in which I am “producing” at home. I’m also hoping that when we move to a bigger home (my wife and I are expecting our fourth child at the moment), we’ll be able to have a large enough backyard to start a vegetable garden. Can you throw some more ideas my way – or perhaps point me to any articles or books that speak to this idea at a more practical level?

  5. You may be closer at heart to E F Schumacher here, than to Distributism, but consider the progress already. Mid-20th C, the Western employment norm was often tens of thousands changing shifts when a single factory whistle blew. Not only has self-employment grown, but so has smaller specialised manufacturing, etc. The scope can be seen in the decline of trade union membership, because chiefly it is most cost-effective for unions to organise in a populous workplace rather than among small employers or the self-employed. In America it stood at 35% of the overall workforce in 1954 and was 12% in 2010 – and is now only 7% in the private sector because government is big and easiest to organise. Next, one ought not go overboard with technical optimism, but if digital printing (if that is what it’s called) nears its hyped potential it could represent a change as dramatic as the Industrial Revolution, and lead to units of production that are smaller still. Yet as more people work from home fewer seem to know their neighbours.

    • 3D printing will indeed see the end of a great many production lines. We will essentially all have our little factories at home. Forget about shopping for sofas, chairs, tables etc. What will happen is a rise in online interior design software and vendors selling scans of design aesthetics to down load and 3D print.

      It’ll be great!

  6. It is fun seeing some of the optimism of my friend George Gilder repackaged in humane ways that do not require us to invest in .coms! Fun stuff, Daniel McInerny! And, speaking of shift changes at factories, I once sat on a bench near Trinity Church, Wall Street and watched the subway at the World Trade Center disgorge tens of thousands of smartly dressed purpose-driven finance district eager beavers in running shoes. I’m not certain I have ever recovered; I, who spent most of my career quietly exiting my little brick house on Hillsdale St. and walking the two blocks to my unstylish office. I hope that computers don’t replace colleges (they already have, in a sense–the University of Phoenix is the largest university in the history of mankind), but on other fronts this Schumacherian home economics movement is full of hope. In some rural areas like Hillsdale County it is possible to make a meager living on about 20 acres, is one is properly computered and blogged up. If, like Chris Wiley and a few other of us I know you can also build small buildings (or buy them from companies that make them on small factory floors), then a new distributes may well be possible. Although few of its theorists, as was true of the original distributists, and agrarians, will actually choose to live this way.

    • Indeed, John! Were not the key point of Distributists distribution (i.e., taking something away and giving it to someone else) they would have found another word for their movement. Maybe Rustificationists. Signally, no pictures survive of GKC joyously pulling ewes or Belloc merrily bringing in the sheaves: that was intended for the rest of us in the Lower Orders. A week spent on my great-uncle Ed’s ramshackle, cold-water dairy-farm in Michigan’s UP and most of today’s Distributists would sell the cow, lease the three acres and become vocal Suburbanists, or launch a vigorously romanticised ‘Back to the Cities’ movement.

      • FWIW, the “distribution” of distributists is not that “the government” needs to redistribute other peoples capital, its that capital ought to be more well distributed- ie. lots of owners. The method of getting to this state was never a doctrine. Its also odd that the author would suggest Belloc or Chesterton thought everyone should be farmers. Fr. Vincent McNabb perhaps, but not the other two. I think both would agree, though , (and so would Schumacher whose theories i cannot distinguish from distributism) that all society should be agriculturally based, as it grounds us in the neccessities of life and not in consumerist culture.

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