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distributismDistributism is the name given to a socio-economic and political creed originally associated with G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Chesterton bowed to Belloc’s preeminence as a disseminator of the ideas of distributism, declaring Belloc the master in relation to whom he was merely a disciple. “You were the founder and father of this mission,’”Chesterton wrote. “We were the converts but you were the missionary…. You first revealed the truth both to its greater and its lesser servants…. Great will be your glory if England breathes again.”[*] In fact, pace Chesterton, Belloc was merely the propagator and the populariser of the Church’s social doctrine of subsidiarity as expounded by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum novarum (1891), a doctrine that would be re-stated, re-confirmed and reinforced by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno (1931) and by Pope John Paul II in Centesimus annus (1991). As such, it is important, first and foremost to see distributism as a derivative of the principle of subsidiarity.

Since there are many who will be unaware of terms such as “subsidiarity” or “distributism,” it might be helpful to provide a brief overview of the central tenets of each. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church subsidiarity is discussed in the context of the dangers inherent in too much power being centralized in the hands of the state: “Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” Put simply, the principle of subsidiarity rests on the assumption that the rights of small communities—e.g., families or neighbourhoods—should not be violated by the intervention of larger communities—e.g., the state or centralized bureaucracies. Thus, for instance, in practical terms, the rights of parents to educate their children without the imposition by the state of ‘politically correct’ school curricula would be enshrined by the principle of subsidiarity. Parental influence in schools is subsidiarist; state influence is anti-subsidiarist.

“Subsidiarity’” is an awkward word but at least it serves as an adequate definition of the principle for which it is the label. Distributism, on the other hand, is an awkward word and an awkward label. What exactly does it advocate distributing? Are not communists and socialists “distributists” in the sense that they seek a more equitable distribution of wealth? Yet Belloc argues vehemently that distributism is radically at variance with the underlying ideas of communism and socialism. It is for reasons of clarity, therefore, that modern readers might find it useful to translate “distributist” as “subsidiarist” when reading Belloc’s critique of politics and economics.

Belloc’s key works in this area were The Servile State (1912) and An Essay on the Restoration of Property (1936), whereas Chesterton’s The Outline of Sanity (1925) and his late essay, “Reflections on a Rotten Apple,” published in The Well and the Shallows (1935), represent further salient and sapient contributions to the distributist or subsidiarist cause. It should also be noted that Chesterton’s novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, is essentially a distributist parable.

Put succinctly, distributism was the name that Belloc and Chesterton gave to the version of subsidiarity that they were advocating in their writings. Thanks largely to their efforts, and those of others such as Father Vincent McNabb, distributism became very influential in the period between the two world wars. At the peak of its influence, the Distributist League had branches throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. Its influence crossed the Atlantic under the patronage (and matronage) of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day and came to prominence in the policies of the Catholic Worker Movement in its formative years. There are also significant parallels between the ideas of the distributists and those of the southern Agrarians, though the similarities should not be overstated. Similarly, there are parallels with the vision of “economics as if people matter” outlined by the economist E. F. Schumacher in his bestselling book, Small is Beautiful.

Unlike the socialists, the distributists were not advocating the redistribution of ‘wealth’ per se, though they believed that this would be one of the results of distributism. Instead, and the difference is crucial, they were advocating the redistribution of the means of production to as many people as possible. Belloc and the distributists drew the vital connection between the freedom of labour and its relationship with the other factors of production—i.e., land, capital, and the entrepreneurial spirit. The more that labour is divorced from the other factors of production the more it is enslaved to the will of powers beyond its control. In an ideal world every man would own the land on which, and the tools with which, he worked. In an ideal world he would control his own destiny by having control over the means to his livelihood. For Belloc, this was the most important economic freedom, the freedom beside which all other economic freedoms are relatively trivial. If a man has this freedom he will not so easily succumb to encroachments upon his other freedoms.

Belloc was, however, a realist. Indeed, if he erred at all it was on the side of pessimism. He would have agreed with T.S. Eliot’s axiomatic maxim in “The Hollow Men” that “between the potency and the existence falls the shadow.” We do not live in an ideal world and the ideal, in the absolute sense, is unattainable. Yet, as a Christian, Belloc believed that we are called to strive for perfection. We are called to imitate Christ, even if we cannot be perfect as Christ is perfect. And what is true of man in his relationship with God is true of man in his relationship with his neighbour, i.e. we are called to strive towards a better and more just society, even if it will never be perfect. Therefore, in practical terms, every policy or every practice that leads to a reuniting of man with the land and capital on which he depends for his sustenance is a step in the right direction. Every policy or practice that puts him more at the mercy of those who control the land and the capital on which he depends, and therefore who control his labour also, is a step in the wrong direction. Practical politics is about moving in the right direction, however slowly.

In practical terms, the following would all be distributist solutions to current problems: policies that establish a favourable climate for the establishment and subsequent thriving of small businesses; policies that discourage mergers, takeovers and monopolies; policies that allow for the break-up of monopolies or larger companies into smaller businesses; policies that encourage producers’ cooperatives; policies that privatize nationalized industries; policies that bring real political power closer to the family by decentralizing power from central government to local government, from big government to small government. All these are practical examples of applied distributism.

As the foregoing practical examples would suggest, distributism/subsidiarity is not an esoteric ideal without any practical applicability in everyday political and economic life. On the contrary, it is at the heart of politics and economics. In all politics and economics there is the tendency for power to become centralized into the hands of fewer and fewer people. Subsidiarity can be seen as the antidote to this centralization, i.e. it is the principle at the heart of the forces of decentralization, the principle that demands the rights and protection of smaller political and economic units against the encroachments of central government and big business. Other practical examples can be given.

The constitution of the European Union is fundamentally centralist in its very nature, so much so that all reference to “subsidiarity” in EU documents amounts to a scandalous employment of Orwellian doublethink. As such, what has become known as ‘Euro-scepticism’, the view that the European Union is a gross monolith that needs to be dismantled, is fundamentally subsidiarist. Similarly the rights of rural cultures to enjoy their traditional ways of life are essentially subsidiarist, whereas urban-driven legislation banning traditional rural pursuits is a violation of subsidiarity. In the United States the right to gun ownership and in the United Kingdom the right to hunt foxes would fit into this category. (It is not a question of ‘gun control’ or ‘animal rights’ but of the right of rural cultures to choose their way of life without the imposition of unwanted urban value-judgments.) The continual erosion of states’ rights within the United States and the consequent increase in the power of the Federal Government and the Supreme Court is a violation of subsidiarity. Many more examples could be given but these should suffice for our present purposes. In short, and in sum, distributism as a variation of the principle of subsidiarity offers the only real alternative to the macrophilia and macromania of the modern world.

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[*] New Witness, 27 April 1923; cited in Pearce, Old Thunder, p.133

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15 replies to this post
  1. In other words, distributism entails something far different than the caricature of “three acres and a cow” for every family. Thank you, Joseph Pearce, for this short, clear, and eloquent essay.

  2. I have deep respect for the author, and this piece does a better job than most of outlining distributist policies. Yet I wonder what happens in a world of complex products made in numerous countries, neither altogether nor in part equivalent to the horse-carts and paint and such made locally in Belloc’s day – or how we’d get there. This is, I believe, the problem of encyclicals; from people good at soulcraft, mediocre at statecraft, and rather lame at much else.

    • “..neither altogether nor in part equivalent to the horse-carts and paint and such made locally in Belloc’s day..”

      Bear in mind that Belloc lived in a thoroughly modern world of international commerce, large corporations, continent spanning rail networks, and large scale industry. He would not find the 21st century altogether foreign, nor are his ideas ‘out of date’

  3. I like this article, and I like that you spend a paragraph – even in an “introduction” type article – enumerating some “applied” examples. They aren’t as concrete as some would demand, but they are a step in the right direction.

    My fear is that we ask many people to take such a large leap, generally a leap of faith, in adopting Distributist principles that we risk alienating them before we get any traction. Subsidiarity is a blessed thing, and one of the foundations of CST that I will defend till my dying breath, but there are more gradual steps we can take also. One that my family has recently become inclined toward is the minimalist movement that is particularly strong among us Millenials. This movement advocates a sort of povery of spirit (without explicitly even acknowledging it) that seeks to counter the same consumerism and materialism that our Holy Fathers have decried. I believe this is ripe ground for evangelization because most of these people are also completely disenfranchised of religion, or what they think religion is. There is some weakness in this lifestyle and theoretical approach, in that it is extremely focused on money (most of the minimalist reading I’ve done is from personal finance bloggers) and things (or lack there of). However, it seeks to give a right view of money as a means and not an end. This is easily confused by some because of their lack of vision in seeing what “end” for which they were made; but the point still stands.

    Another related area is the growing homeschooling movement. I have seen many blessed couples begin homeschooling their children for various reasons, who have come to see the joy and growth that this can bring to parents and children. It is a very difficult lifestyle, and I have seen many sacrifices firsthand from those same families. Again, I think this movement can easily be disturbed into a sinful and vain lifestyle. But I also see opportunities for grace, and fruits being reaped in even less than orthodox families.

    We all have our fields for sowing, but I believe I’ve enumerated above a couple of fields where I particularly find myself drawn. I can covertly spread Distributist seeds in my engagements along these lines, and I believe this can provide integration of the best of other philosophies with our own thought.

  4. Joseph Pearce, you do well in giving the overview of a distributist position, but this is wrapped up in terms that a classical conservative could not argue with. Nevertheless, there is still the problem of ownership in distributism that is arguably socialist in means of distribution if it were actually enforced by law – be that capital or means of labor. There is also the question of the arbiter of what constitutes “need” and “want” in terms of the labor market. Is there not a moral hazard that leads to sloth in telling the business owner that she can only achieve to a certain point and then it becomes the community property of others? What is the motivation to succeed and produce to the betterment of others?

    Distributism assumes that all men, and therefore all governments, are angels and will only act out of the betterment of others and not themselves. It assumes that all actors will read the encyclical scripts and not improvise.

    Perhaps I am completely missing the distributist point or philosophy, but I am yet to hear from a distributist to answer not in purely philosophical terms. I am told that it has practical application, but then everyone retreats to the esoteric as an example.

    I have to refer back to Joe Carter’s piece for the Acton Institute entitled, “No, the Pope Doesn’t Need Distributism (Because Nobody Does).”

    As he points out, even the one “real life” example that is a favorite of distributists is the Mondragon Corporation – of which 1/3 of the workers don’t have ownership in the company so strictly not distributist.

    In theory, in an economics lab, distributism is a great ideal. It calls out capitalism and socialist to task for their failing. Distributism is a great critique, but not a functional economic model.

    • Hi Josh. What you mention here is true of any economic theory. Finding real-world example is a challenge. Rightly so, though. We’re humans not mathematical formulas.
      You should study the Mondragon example beyond the ownership rate you quote. It will give you some further insights. The way it works and quickly adapts to our economic world spasms is stunning.

  5. Every distributist should read the book “Markets Not Capitalism: Individualist Anarchism Against Bosses, Inequality, Corporate Power, and Structural Poverty”. Yes, the overall worldview is diametrically at odds with traditionalist thought, but the economic vision presented in this book is practically indistinguishable from distributism. Also, it’s endorsed by Bill Kauffman, so it has to be good.

  6. Mr. Masty – maybe 3D printing will get us there? I can easily see a future in which there are no more supermarkets and stores, or companies which serve as retail middlemen between wholesalers and customers, let alone wholesalers who buy from producers.

    Instead, we will all have 3D printers capable of printing our furniture and other household goods, maybe even our houses. We will log onto the internet and be able to choose from hundreds of designs made by individual craftsmen, all selling for 99 cents per download. Or – if we have the time and inclination – we can design our household goods ourselves and then print them.

    As 3D printing becomes more advanced, we will be able to print components for cars, and more and more complex goods. No one will go to a store anymore – everyone will make their own. Corporations will become obsolete.

    You can already see it happening in the realm of modern office space organization. More and more often, as work becomes more mobile, office space is being organized in accordance with dynamic principles – people no longer have their own offices, but rather rooms are reserved for specific tasks. This cuts down on the costs associated with the use of office space. Yet, part of the reason these are seen as costs which need to be cut is because large static offices are becoming more and more economically redundant.

    After all – let us not forget how many of the modern corporations we take for granted as existing due to market necessity actually exist because they are intimately tied to the government which bails them out every time market forces signal that the corporate structure is obsolete. This cannot go on indefinitely.

    I also share Asimov’s idealism about how machines will take over the mundane labor functions assigned to men, which wastes human brain-potential. Human beings will then have the liesure time to engage in a life-time of learning. Asimov’s robot novels did after all demonstrate how robots could lead to the rebirth of ancient Greek cities; Solaria is Sparta, Aurora is Athens (in a sense)

    I realize that this is all utopian, and I of course do not think that this process – if it comes – can be directed or planned by our present political authorities, but rather will develop (hopefully) along organic lines.

    Still – 3D printing is a wonderful concrete example of a prospect for a world in which it is economically possible to liberate man from the technocrats without necessarily having to deprive him of technology.

  7. While I retain skepticism regarding the (what I see as) the Achilles heel of distributism, namely the political enforcement of a socio-economic program, nonetheless, for all the critics, we have already had one example of Distributism in action.
    Some years back, The Phone Company was an actual monopoly. A person did not even own the telephone in their home, but “rented” it from The Phone Company. They really did have a good product, but the Federal courts decided it had to be broken up. The result was expected to be chaos and loss of service. The real result was a blossoming of technology and a liberation of choice. Now, there is not one company, or even regional companies, but everyone who wants to gets into the Phone business. Shucks, I even see people on street corners giving phones away free just to get you to try their service. None of that could have been (it wasn’t) predicted.
    I will not say that the “deregulation” of the long-distance trucking business, or of the electric energy business has fared as well. And with first cable TV and then satellite TV, we wallow in a pool of choices. (Which, from a nation-building point of view may be a disaster, with the “bubble” effect)
    My ignorance of the subject causes me to think of “distributism” as some form of Economic Federalism. (And I wonder if Catholic Social Teaching would be stated differently if those Popes were familiar with American Federalism?)
    But, as we have learned, any system can be abused, even a Federal one.

  8. There is a fundamental weakness in this post. It limits the centralization of power to that of belonging only to the state. Considering that power follows wealth, where wealth is consolidated, you have the centralization of power with or without the state’s presence.

    Another weakness in this post, which is somewhat related to the first, is that all forms of the state is conflated into at best a threatening, alien entity. That is regardless of whether the state is run by elites or is more democratic. And because the more democratic forms are conflated with the elite-centered state, there is no recognition that the rights of the individual can infringe on the rights of the larger community. Thus conservatives will tend to err on the side of the individual regardless of the wealth, and thus power, of the individual regardless of the rights and desires of the larger community as expressed in a democratic state.

    Another weakness is to make the working definition of socialism revolve around the “redistribution of wealth.” The first concern of socialists, and I am one so I know this, is not the redistribution of wealth but the redistribution of power in both the public and private sector. When Marx talked about the “proletariat dictatorship,” the left understood him to mean a partial democracy where representatives were elected to councils while keeping their day jobs. It was a partial democracy because the only ones who could vote and be representatives were workers and soldiers. When Lenin hijacked the Revolution, he not only took apart the councils, he ridiculed leftist-leaning communists. The objection to Lenin as stated by Rosa Luxemburg, a contemporary of Lenin, was that Lenin was instituting a bourgeois dictatorship. Karl Kautsky (hopefully have the name right), another victim of Luxemburg’s criticisms, criticized Lenin for silencing socialist brethren who had other opinions.

    I bring this up just to point out that it is the redistribution of power that is first concern of socialists. And for the left-leaning, anti-elite socialists, this redistribution of power starts with democratizing the workplace. For, as Chomsky has pointed out, the political arena can never be fully democratized until the workplace is.

  9. S Masty,

    Those like Prince Kropotkin, E.F Schumacher, Lewis Mumford, Ralph Borsodi, Kevin Carson, John Seymour, Kirkpatrick Sale, and many more have gone some way to explain how appropriate, decentralised technology can replace the state-capitalist, globalised system we currently live under.

    I think it is undeniable, although some distributists do not explore the point or even acknowledge it, that distributism means a lesser proliferation of consumer goods, lower growth, a slower pace of technological development (and, generally, technology will be more human scale), and less long distance and global economic, social, and cultural links. From a traditional conservative position, none of this seems bad too me. Rather, it seems an advantage, on balance. Besides, distributism does not, though, mean pre-industrial technology. More human scale technology – like that advocated by some of those I listed above – can be developed.

    I have never really understood the argument, given here by David Naas, that distributism is unattainable (aside from the question of political will). First of all, the biggest obstacle to distributism is corporate welfare and privileges. Get rid of these and the economy will already be much more distrubutist. Indeed, if Kevin Carson is correct then no large businesses and only a minority of medium ones would exist without massive and increasingly state support.

    But after that, distributists can make use of decentralised and not overly statist means to encourage distributism. The land value tax (which can replace over taxes) and other means to free up land and discourage speculation, mutual banking and related banking and currency reforms, reform of corporate charters to encourage cooperatives, and even some well placed subsidies and incentives to distributism. And remember, distrubitism does not have to be pursued ideologically, in the sense of following a blueprint. One can be a distrubitust in principle and just take piecemeal action to encourage change in that direction. A conservative need not be worried distrubutism is inevitably ideological.

    The achille’s heel of distributism – apart from the fact it will hard to win people over in today’s state-capitalist, consumerist society – is not how it can be brought about or even how it can be run (it seems to me an eminently practical system – I’m somewhat bemused by the suggestion it won’t work), but the question of defence. This is more important for the U.S than for us Brits, because of your global position. But distributism’s slower pace of technological development would mean that the military would, presumably, not development as fast. This could be a problem in today’s world.

  10. wessexman

    I do not say a distributivist system would be unattainable. How did you derive that from my post?

    Should you attend to the second paragraph, I allude to an example of distributism (as I understand it), the 21st Century telephone business, being brought about sans some master plan for implementation. Like Topsy, it just grew. Which, to a conservative of Burkean tendencies, is far preferable than any form of top-down social engineering.

    If you peruse my third paragraph, you may see other concerns.

    I quite agree that fragmentary, or piecemeal implementation would be far preferable than any attempt to work off a blueprint for a concerted effort at social engineering. Those sort of schemes have failed miserably, if the sad history of the XXth Century has taught us naught else. The caveat here is that the result of “small steps” will surely be a “mixed economy”, which may have vulnerabilities not apparent today.

    But, you allude to the problem of “political will”, and dismiss it with a shrug. I am constitutionally unable to hand wave away problems. (Communism promised Heaven and delivered Hell, because the messy details of implementation were glossed over.) The will in question is not that of the public to implement, but of the corporations to defend their power. And for far too long, conservatives have been beguiled by Big Business, and seduced by the contributions rolling into the coffers of political organizations on the Right. (In the US, certain elements of the tea party factions seem to understand the corrosive effects of Big Money in politics. I can but wonder if they will survive once the Money takes aim at them.)

    About technology, I am not worried. Once the government produced the infrastructure of the Internet, marvelous (and decentralized) things happened, some very good, some very ugly. The demise of The Phone Company also led to decentralized results. (Indeed, cell-phone technology grew out of the efforts of some radio amateurs tinkering around, or so I am told.)

    All of which is to say that the world is far more wonderful and far more complicated than we should like to imagine. Unintended consequences are all about us. A process of slow, organic growth may produce a distributist society, and it may not.

  11. David Naas,

    Sorry, it was not you I meant. I got you mixed up with another poster.

    I certainly agree that distributism should not be pursued too ideologically, although that does not mean concerted action cannot be pursued and sustained principles cannot be followed. Organic growth is important, but deliberate action may be used carefully and cautiously.

    The most important action that can be taken is ending corporate welfare and privileges. These are singles biggest thing working against distributism. After that, land and currency/banking reforms should be pursued. These alone would do a lot of the work towards building a distributist economy.

    Of course, I don’t dismiss the need for political will. But this is not the place to do anything about it. That is why I didn’t dwell on it. Besides, I’m not that hopeful distributism (which to me is just traditional conservatism applied to the economic realm) will gain much ground in the foreseeable future.

    I don’t think that the internet will achieve much decentralisation and distributism on it own. Lewis Mumford has written eloquently on the tendency of technological developments to be guided by the social and economic systems they occur in. As our system is centralised and dominated by state-capitalism, the technological development will tend to serve that system. As Prince Kropotkin noted as early as the end of the 19th century, there has long been technology available that could help decentralise our economies and societies, without sending us back to pre-industrial economies. But this technology does not tend to get developed because it does not serve the interests of those with the power in our societies.

  12. Thank you for the explanation, and I’d like to thank the commentariet for expanding on the problems associated with ‘distributism.’ The author might reply in another essay? I’m learning from both the essay and this thread. Again, thanks.

  13. The full quote from Eliot’s Hollow Men is this:

    Between the desire
    And the spasm
    Between the potency
    And the existence
    Between the essence
    And the descent
    Falls the Shadow
    For Thine is the Kingdom

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