Distributism: An Offered Economic Alternative


I came across a comment thread on Citizen Tom’s comments on his blog: An Update For My Blogging Friends, asking for an alternative to the greed of Capitalism.

Here is a response, although, I do acknowledge not the response, but only one that is proposed as an alternative to our existing systems.

GK Chesterton once wrote, “The truth is that what we call Capitalism ought to be called Proletarianism. The point of it is not that some people have capital, but that most people only have wages because they do not have capital.”

If I could modernize Chesterton’s sentiments, I would certainly articulate the notion that what we call Capitalism today should be properly called “Corporatism.” However, instead of getting into what I disagree with Capitalism and Socialism, let me instead promote an alternative solution to those economic systems.


Let us first explore Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, that created a foundation for such a system:

Paragraph 19-22:

19. The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity. Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvellous and manifold. First of all, there is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice.

Note: Pope Leo XIII in the above paragraph is rejecting the idea of class warfare proposed by Marx, his contemporary, as well as others.

20. Of these duties, the following bind the proletarian and the worker: fully and faithfully to perform the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon; never to injure the property, nor to outrage the person, of an employer; never to resort to violence in defending their own cause, nor to engage in riot or disorder; and to have nothing to do with men of evil principles, who work upon the people with artful promises of great results, and excite foolish hopes which usually end in useless regrets and grievous loss. The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character. They are reminded that, according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers – that is truly shameful and inhuman. Again justice demands that, in dealing with the working man, religion and the good of his soul must be kept in mind. Hence, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age. His great and principal duty is to give every one what is just. Doubtless, before deciding whether wages axe fair, many things have to be considered; but wealthy owners and all masters of labor should be mindful of this – that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine. To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven. “Behold, the hire of the laborers… which by fraud has been kept back by you, crieth; and the cry of them hath entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.”(6) Lastly, the rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing; and with all the greater reason because the laboring man is, as a rule, weak and unprotected, and because his slender means should in proportion to their scantiness be accounted sacred. Were these precepts carefully obeyed and followed out, would they not be sufficient of themselves to keep under all strife and all its causes?…

22. Therefore, those whom fortune favors are warned that riches do not bring freedom from sorrow and are of no avail for eternal happiness, but rather are obstacles;(9) that the rich should tremble at the threatenings of Jesus Christ – threatenings so unwonted in the mouth of our Lord(10)

Of course, having this discussion recently with my Libertarian brother, I must note quickly that distributists have always recognized the importance of private property. Private property in the system of distributism is considered very good. This mentioned fact is what marks a clear distinction and separation from socialism; therefore, to merely generalize a system because it opposes the greed in Capitalism is simply intellectually dishonest. Owners of small businesses in the local community are more likely to engage with the social and civic life of their community due to capital being owned at this local level. Of course, Folks would need to be compelled to shop locally to grow and sustain wealth on a local level. I would surmise a change in cultural values to compel folks to do so. For example, in my local community, the city has decided to rebuild the town square into a beautiful square with a park in the middle. As a result, many local businesses have moved to the area and are thriving.

However, It is true that distributism shares a connection that workers should control the means of production, so to answer any question on how property would be handled, it would be in a guild system instead in be hands of a corporate board or stock holders. The Distributist isn’t concerned with redistribution of property already owned, this is a lie often proposed by those who support Capitalism, as this is a system that is not dictated by coercion like Capitalism and Socialism of the state, but instead of families in a local community.

I will agree that there are valid critiques of the system, for example on specialized products like iphones, appliances, cars etc.; therefore, corporations will always have a place. However, a development of a system that can promote in our current communities a support system of greater  emphasis small businesses locally. Capitialism–especially the modern type of Corporatism–only seeks to serve the greed of humanity, which it’s true that greed is a natural motivating factor within humanity, it is also creating a positive for a normally sinful nature.

We must acknowledge that in a capitalistic economy it isn’t logical to shop at the local bookstore when it may be more expensive or one may have to have the product ordered for them, which may take 1 to 2 weeks. However, It would be to our benefit to learn to live a slower lifestyle, it would benefit us to aid to the workers of our communities rather than donate money to an informal benefits service.

Perhaps, the Catholic social teaching  of subsidiarity would promote such a change in culture. The idea rests, simply, on the need for the governed to be governed by the most local entity of government. Distributism, in a way, needs to work in unison with a government of subsidiarity like two lungs. A local government, one that is more focused than state governments, is a better way to serve our communites and to protect our religious freedoms.

I wrote this post as a conversation with Citizen Tom, a discussion on how rather than heated debate which seems to have taken place in his threads. I only wish for him to consider how this Catholic system, which Stephen may or may not be proposing, is different from socialism. 

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