Distributism doesn’t mean what you think it does.

It’s not some kind of baptized-socialism that should more accurately be called “redistributionism.” Distributism is radical. It’s self-reliant. It’s a man-against-the-world anarchy that even the most committed acolyte of Ayn Rand can only dream of. Don’t believe me? Then believe honorary Catholic Libertarian Dorothy Day, and her description of the fathers of Distributism:

G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc…and Father Vincent McNabb were the great distributists who opposed the servile state, the ‘providential state’ as Pope Pius XII recently called it… [They] would have feared the word, ‘anarchist,’ and understood it only in its popular connotation. I myself prefer the word ‘libertarian,’ as less apt to offend.1

Perhaps it is best, however, to describe Distributism in terms of two things it is most definitely not: Socialism and Capitalism.

The Economic Compass

Socialism can be defined as the government ownership and control of the means of production.2 In that description, we can see to distinct aspects to the relationship between government and the means of production: ownership and control. And, in this description, “government” has an opposite: the private individual. That gives us a two-axis, four-quadrant compass, much like the popular Political Compass, that we can use to identify four common economic paradigms. The extremes of the axes are between government and private individual, with one axis being “Ownership,” and the other being “Control.”

So let’s fill in the blanks. We already have government ownership and control, which is Socialism. At the other extreme, is private ownership and control – let’s call that Classical Liberalism. (You could use another term like “Free Markets,” but that seems too specific. And Capitalism is a sub-category, which we’ll get to later.) Now we’re left with the two hybrids. Coincidentally, one is a fairly new system, and the other is a rather outdated arrangement. The first is government control of the privately-owned means of production: which is, not coincidentally the economic definition of Fascism. Obviously the word is loaded with connotations tied to how it had been sought politically, both through popular nationalism and individual authoritarianism. But, in the purely economic sphere, reigning in the powerhouse of the economy, without having to fully nationalize its parts, was the goal of both Mussolini’s Corporatism and FDR’s New Deal, independent of how the two men sought to achieve those ends. Finally, we have government ownership of the privately-controlled means of production. That is basically Feudalism, in which nobles held claim to ownership of land and property, but serfs worked that land with varying degrees of autonomy and independence.

So we have our Economic Compass, which looks like this:

Socialism is plain to see, but where does Distributism fit in all of this? Distributism is an economic theory with roots in the early modern social teaching of the Catholic Church in general, and Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, in particular, which says:

Hence, 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.3

In the context of inviolable private ownership and private control of property, it would seem that Distributism would have to be in the lower-right corner. Deeper reading into the encyclical seems to bear that out, as well, with a major emphasis both on the inherent value of the communal act of imbuing one’s personality onto Creation by work on one’s property (p. 9), as well as on the right of a father to pass on his property to his children (p. 13). The line does get a little more blurred once we get outside of the encyclical, and into the more interpretive works of GK Chesterton. In The Outline of Sanity, his collection of essays on Distributism, Chesterton tends to let an idealistic agrarianism inform his prose, and, being a good Englishman, his idealized agrarianism was, necessarily monarchist and feudalist. While it can be argued that a 999-year lease is practically indistinguishable from true property ownership,4 the more interesting thing about Chesterton’s more medieval take on property is that it highlights the tension he identified between Distributism and Capitalism: Control.

So What is Capitalism?

Now that we’ve got some basic definitions for economic systems, including Socialism (aka What Distributism is Not), it’s time to dig a little deeper. First, let’s refer to Chesterton’s definition, from The Outline of Sanity, which I think will put us on the right track:

When I say “Capitalism,” I commonly mean something that may be stated thus: “That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.”5

While the note on wage-dependency is important, I’d like to rephrase that definition from a more Classically Liberal—Smithian—point of reference:

Capitalism is the application of the concept of specialization and the division of labor to the ownership and use of Capital as a means of production in itself.

With that definition as a frame of reference, it’s much easier to see how Distributism and Capitalism are somewhat opposed: the former emphasizes individual, productive property ownership, with property that reflects the fingerprint of its owner, while the latter emphasizes property ownership by a small few, who then hire employees to make the products reflect the fingerprint of the brand. Given that distinction, it is perhaps easier to at least recognize why Catholic teaching would prefer what we’re calling a Distributist organization of an economy, over a Capitalist one. The Capitalist system, in which wage-earners are subordinate to wage-payers and their capitalist backers, is very martial in nature, and inevitably directed toward materialist ends. Meanwhile, the Distributist is self-reliant and self-directed, working directly with Creation to improve it, imbuing the work of his mind, body, and soul on his little corner of the created world, for the improvement of himself, his family, and his community. That’s not to say that employees, and even individual capitalists themselves can’t build such positive outcomes in their lives and the lives of their neighbors, they can. But one system is directed toward that end, while, in the other, that end is an accident. For every George Bailey, there’s a Henry Potter.

Reviewing our Economic Compass above, then, if Distributism is about Private Control, and Capitalism is about Private Ownership, we can say that they can inhabit anywhere within their respective half of the compass, rather than simply one quadrant. They overlap, on those axes, in the Classical Liberalism quadrant, but, as we’ve stated, they’re still systems in opposition. It turns out that there’s a Z-axis to that compass, which, deriving from a key point in the definition of Capitalism, can be said to be a spectrum between Generalization and Specialization.

A capitalist organization is privately owned by, and employs, people who specialize in specific tasks that support the organization. A distributist organization is privately controlled by, and perhaps employs, people who wear many hats and perform many different tasks in support of that organization. Even the the Father of Modern Capitalism, Adam Smith, noted the distinction between specialists and generalists, in, not surprisingly, given Chesterton’s later focus on agrarianism, the unique context of farming:

The nature of agriculture, indeed, does not admit of so many subdivisions of labour, nor of so complete a separation of one business from another, as manufactures. It is impossible to separate so entirely the business of the glazier from that of the corn-farmer as the trade of the carpenter is commonly separated from that of the smith. The spinner is almost always a distinct person from the weaver; but the ploughman, the harrower, the sower of the seed, and the reaper of the corn, are often the same. The occasions for those different sorts of labour returning with the different seasons of the year, it is impossible that one man should be constantly employed in any one of them.6

While Capitalism is based on a system in which there is a specific group of specialized Capitalists, it follows that there would be many more specialists, as well. Specialized workers, who operate machines and make the widgets, specialized managers, who direct and motivate those workers, specialized administrators, who count the widget components and manufactured widgets, and, perhaps most tellingly for the libertarian, specialized lobbyists, who work with legislators and regulators to make sure that their widgets are the most valuable available. “Crony Capitalism” is, in fact, the natural outcome of a specialized, capitalist system, in which capitalist businesses can hire specialists to lobby government, and government can hire specialist bureaucrats to regulate businesses.

Given the nature of Socialism, and the natural trend of specialized Capitalism to capture government control for its own ends, it follows that governments, ultimately, exist to protect property owners. Fortunately for us, that holds true for Distributism, as well, though not in the same way:

When there is once established a widely scattered ownership, there is a public opinion that is stronger than any law; and very often (what in modern times is even more remarkable) a law that is really an expression of public opinion.”7

If Distributist ends can be reached, then government will not only protect the private control of property, but, equal ownership of property will create private institutions so strong that, in many cases, government will be unnecessary. Unlike the suggestions from the original Distributists, though, we don’t need massive “land reform” and forced government redistribution of property to get there. Rather, we need a government that stays out of the way, and a distributist entrepreneur class that’s not afraid to be generalists.

A Libertarian Distributism of the Future

Based on our definitions, here’s a basic rule of thumb to apply, going forward: Every small business, particularly a family-owned one, is fundamentally Distributist in nature. It’s no accident that subsidiarity and solidarity, two concepts often seen as opposed to each other when viewed in a state-centered paradigm, are unified in the relationship between a small business owner and his customer. Two people meet and exchange some of their life’s work, implicitly for the customer, explicitly for the business owner, in order to improve each other’s lives in a way that they couldn’t have on their own.

Some time back, I was watching some travel program where the host visited a small, “hole in the wall” restaurant, where the family’s grandmother was sitting in the dining room, welcoming guests, and preparing food at a table. Immediately, I doubted that such an action, preparing food in a dining room, would be received very well by health departments in the United States. But why wouldn’t it be? Such a situation is perhaps safer, from a customer’s perspective, than having such activity locked away in a kitchen. If grandma is right there, filling and rolling tamales, there’s nothing hidden from the customer, who is free to see whether she’s well, healthy, and hygienic. Meanwhile, the grandmother maintains her human dignity, by continuing to help with the business and the family that she has put a lifetime of hard work and care into, even if she might not be able to stand in a cramped kitchen all day. It seems that the grandmother should be free to help her family’s business in that way. On the other hand, maybe an 18-year-old working at Taco Bell shouldn’t be rolling bean burritos in the dining room, completely unsupervised. There’s a difference between those situations, which is why, perhaps, there should be a difference in the way the law treats them.

That leads me to the first (and thus far, only) policy fix to move toward a Distributist economy: Progressive Regulation. Well, more properly, it’s more of a system of progressive deregulation. Large, multi-location, publicly-traded companies have little in the way of consistent oversight and information-sharing, and a lot in the way of lobbying power to protect themselves from being harmed by regulation – They made the labyrinth of rules and regulations themselves, so they get to keep them, for now. On the other hand, small, family-owned, single-location companies have a great deal of consistent oversight, the incentive and the means to maintain good practices, and a general inability to hide poor practices from customers – They shouldn’t be regulated at all. Pure anarchy. In between, as the incentives and means to maintain good practices are disbursed among more people, each with less skin in the game, there could be tiers of regulation making up for that loss of information sharing and skin in the game. Some states have so-called “Cottage Industry Laws,” in which small, home-based businesses, like the ones run by folks who you might meet at a farmers market, are basically unregulated. The structure is in place; it just needs expansion.

And if the capitalists and cronies can carve out a little deregulation for themselves, as libertarians, we can say “Oh, darn.”

There are really only two other actions that government can possibly take that could potentially support expansion of economic activity organized according to Distributist principles. The first is pretty simple: Release the federal lands across the West and allot them to people who will improve them, in the same way that the Midwest was disbursed through the Homestead Acts. The other issue is still a problem in search of a solution, which may be found in government policy, or it may not be. Essentially, if the specialized use of capital as a means of production in itself, Capitalism, is opposed to Distributism, then funding capital-intensive Distributist projects is an issue. Further, because there isn’t currently a long-standing tradition of Distributist trade, with small owners building up businesses, training apprentices and their children in their art, and bequeathing those businesses to them for the future, the process of a general transition to Distributist organization will be steep. There are some opportunities available through technology, such as 3-D printing and manufacturing (see below), and crowdfunding, but there is still a lot of work to be done to identify a solution here.

So what about large scale manufacturing, or other capital-intensive operations? Historically, Distributists have tried to apply some kind of employee-owned, cooperative model, as a way to specialize a little, while also spreading out ownership. There are some companies that operate on such a model, though very few are explicitly Distributist. Fortunately, technology is beginning to allow small businesses, and even individuals, to own their own means of production. The sharing economy allows people to turn the capital goods that they own, like houses and cars, into a one-person taxi or rental business.8 That’s Distributist. Online shops provide the means for individual people to reach and serve customers worldwide, and reduce transaction costs in the process. That’s Distributist. Online printing allows people to publish their own works, without having to go through large publishing houses. That’s Distributist. Perhaps the greatest opportunity of all, the maker revolution in 3-D printing and robotic machining provides the tools for individuals to operate a small-to-medium manufacturing business, with very low capital requirements. That’s not only Distributist, but it’s also the lynch pin that can allow an entire chain of Distributist firms to operate in series throughout the web of the economy. The Future is Distributist.

Aside from the one policy change of progressive deregulation, there’s not much else for the state to do when it comes to making Distributism happen. It’s a system that seeks to human-size economic interaction and activity, and therefore really needs human-sized actions to make it grow and flourish. If you’re not ready to make the jump into full Distributism, away from the stability of 9-5 wage earning, and free from the disbursed risk of the few capitalists who employ you, there’s something that you can do to develop the Distributist mindset. Make stuff. That’s it. Take up, or take more seriously, a creative, productive hobby, where you can trade the produce of your craft with friends old and new, and even sell it. You could garden, or brew beer, or do leathercraft, or knit, or fix cars, or whatever suits your interests, skills, and capacity.9 Whatever it is, just make it some kind of productive, non-specialized work that you can imbue with your spirit and personality, and provide some productive value for others at the same time. Because that is Distributism.

1 Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness

2 Strictly speaking, Marxist socialism claims to have the means of production owned and controlled by the Proletariat, but we all know that, in practice, the Proletariat gives that power up to its proxy the Party, which is the de facto government.

3 Rerum Novarum, p. 15

4 Additionally, is being required to pay property tax, on owned property, forever, all that different from an indefinite government “lease” of property?

5 GK Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity. Also of note, reading through Church criticisms of “capitalism” with that definition in mind, and not some vague sense of “free markets” or “property,” I find that those criticisms, for the hundred-plus years since Rerum Novarum, make much more sense.

6 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

7 GK Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity

8 Some will claim that using your “personal property” in order to make a living is vulgar and inhumane. I counter that the lofts, apartments, and other living spaces above shops in older “downtown” areas weren’t always just places for upscale hipsters to live.

9 Bonus: If it stays small enough, no taxes or regulators!