An all-too-brief introduction to Distributism

Posted by on November 2, 2016 at 2:24 pm.

Recently, a friend of mine emailed me, asking two questions: first, “What is the American Solidarity Party?” and second, “What is distributism?” Most of what I know is fragmentary, and my response to him was also mainly fragmentary and incomplete. Although I have done some reading in the economic side of Catholic Social Teaching (my research is in the personalist side from a metaphysical perspective), this is not an area in which I have much competence. I am open to correction, clarification, and any additions that may help. I’ve edited my response to my friend to fix some typos and also to keep the people anonymous for the purposes of this blog.

 


 

The American Solidarity Party is basically a political party that primarily follows Catholic Social Teaching, one that calls itself “the only active Christian Democratic party in the United States”. The term “Christian Democrats” refers to its more European usage like the political parties over there and its usage doesn’t have anything to do with the American Democratic party. It is neither left nor right in the American senses of the term; and, from what I can tell, they eschew the modern notion of freedom which has enveloped nearly every other major political party. Their economic platform seems to, from what I can tell, align itself to the idea of distributism without employing the term explicitly (although they may do this elsewhere as I am not completely familiar with all of their literature).

Distributism as it is known now comes from G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. It is at its core a Catholic sensibility, as both Chesterton and Belloc, both Catholics, were inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (hereafter RN). In a sense, distributism is a way to take Catholic Social Teaching seriously; in other words, for many of us Americans, we think we’re pretty “good” at the human dignity thing with regard to a few issues like abortion, capital punishment, etc., but we tend to be beholden to neo-liberal economics (which is what Capitalism is), that force that attempts to commodify everything.

The basic conundrum produced by the reigning economic “orthodoxies” at the time of Belloc and Chesterton was the fact that many forms of socialism were trying to take away property (RN paragraph 4), while at the same time liberalism was trying to take away freedom in the form of, amongst other things, putting “freedom” only in the hands of the rich few. The core ideas are centered around the common good and supporting property ownership for all (RN paragraph 6): this means that it is against communism/state-social because it takes control away from the Nation State and also against capitalism because it takes away control from the few rich oligarchs who control property (these days that may be “the banks”, or more specifically the private banking system and so thus distributists tend to favor the credit union model). Pope Leo XIII states in RN, for example, that “the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself” (para. 3).

RN 15 is very direct on private property ownership, saying “it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal. The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.”

Instead of the state or capitalist ownership by the few, distributism favors the family, common good, and the small over the massive. There is a book entitled Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, by E. F. Schumacher (a Catholic convert) which has been one of the most influential books in the 20th century on these matters. The State is not to absorb the family, and the family is to be obedient to God (RN 35-36).

Distributism commends a just and fair wage, which Rerum Novarum talks about (see paras. 45-46). Also: safe working conditions (para. 42), and especially a focus upon the family as a unit where all of this freedom is experienced, apart from any State control (RN 12-14). Additionally, RN 48-49 (and beyond) strongly advocates for worker’s unions, also called “working men’s associations”, for these “working men’s associations should be so organized and governed as to furnish the best and most suitable means for attaining what is aimed at, that is to say, for helping each individual member to better his condition to the utmost in body, soul, and property” (RN 57). The Knights of Columbus come to mind as an example of something that helps to uphold the dignity of the working person in defense of the family in the form of workers/life insurance in dangerous jobs (see RN 53 which alludes to such orders/societies).

There is a lot more to distributism, such as “subsidiarity” which was upheld by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno, an encyclical whose entire subject is written “on the 40th anniversary” of Rerum Novarum; Paul VI’s Octogesima Adveniens, on the 80th anniversary of RN; and again reiterated in St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, on the 100th anniversary of RN.

Also, other current Catholic (and Anglo-Catholic) figures in play could be discussed as far as being influential on interpreting the Catholic Social Teaching in the form of distributism. When I was in England, for example, I saw the emergence of the “Red Tory” and “Blue Labour” movements were attempting to do similar things (with varying degrees of success and failure when tying themselves too closely to political parties). I also attended a conference the week that Benedict XVI’s economic encyclical Caritas in Veritate came out which became the book The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Pope Benedict XVI’s Social Encyclical and the Future of Political Economy. This encyclical Caritas in Veritate, by the way, is now included in the expanded edition of Catholic Social Thought.

Hope this has been somewhat helpful in giving a bit of a small sketch. Distributism is actually nothing more than articulation of Catholic Social Teaching in its most full-bodied expression beyond the typically American left-versus-right issues. The American Solidarity Party, as far as I can tell, is doing its best to be faithful to this expression as it sees the two major political parties (let alone most of the third-party alternatives who tend to be also too entrenched in a false form of liberty) as very lacking.

 

Sources:

“The Politics of Solidarity: A Case for the American Solidarity Party,” by David McPherson

Rerum Novarum (encyclical by Pope Leo XIII)

The Distributist Review

The Education of E. F. Schumacher

Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, by E. F. Schumacher:

Small is Still Beautiful, by Joseph Pearce

The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace, by John Médaille

Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More, by John Médaille

“Beginning a Path toward Distributism: A Brief Definition,” by David Russell Mosley