A merry dance of Catholic social doctrine, permaculture, distributism, and other odd answers to pressing questions

Vol. I, No. 4

On the Word "Distributism"

2008 Jan 26, 12:00 Sat tags:


From the Editor

  • Feature Article: On the word "Distributism"
  • Distributist News
  • Action: Decide how to contact your representatives
  • Resources
  • Selection: Pius XI: A just distribution of wealth
  • Bonus Selection: Chesterton on Socialism
  • Backmatter


What is Distributism? If you're unfamiliar with the basic idea of Distributism, there's no quicker introduction than DISTRIBUTISM DEFINED, our regular feature, which you'll find below in the backmatter of this issue. But the word Distributism is admittedly weird. In our feature article, I discuss why this embarrassing, anxiety-inducing term is actually quite sensible after all.

Then Pope Pius XI shows that although popes never talk about Distributism, they do talk about distributing. And Chesterton patiently assure us that Distributists (and popes) aren't Socialists.

Bill Powell, Editor

The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modem times with "communism" or "socialism." She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of "capitalism," individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor.

Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for "there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market."

Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2425


On the word "Distributism"

by Bill Powell

Almost everyone hates the word "Distributism".

I'll make a tentative exception for the five or ten people who haven't yet heard it, but I will not except the Distributists themselves.

About fifteen years ago a few of us began to preach, in the old New Age and New Witness, a policy of small distributed property (which has since assumed the awkward but accurate name of Distributism)...

G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity, 1927

"Awkward but accurate." Faint praise indeed, and that's Chesterton talking. While I have no statistics to prove the assertion, I'd say that many contemporary Distributists share this furtive embarrassment.

But I don't. I rather like the word Distributism. It's easy to say, it ends in ism, like its two great nemeses, and it's straightforward. A Distributist thinks property should be well distributed. Simple.

Alas, if only it were.

Distributism <> Socialism

I don't have a "target market" for this ezine; you may be a Distributist yourself, or a Capitalist, or a Socialist, or a Corporatist, or anything else you can think of. (Please pardon my Germanic capitalization scheme.)

But here in the U. S., most people seem to consider themselves Capitalist. People I meet are alert and on the prowl for Socialism, in all its forms, in all its works, with all its empty promises, and when they hear the word Distributism, they pounce.

So the first task for the reclamation of our dear word, at least around here, is to clear the air of this stench of Socialism.

It's an understandable misunderstanding. If property should be "more fairly distributed", this raises an alarming question: who's going to do the distributing? As one fellow puts it:

It is easy enough to say Property should be distributed, but who is, as it were, the subject of the verb? Who or what is to distribute? Now it is based on the idea that the central power which condescends to distribute will be permanently just, wise, sane, and representative of the conscience of the community which has created it.

That is what we doubt.

Few Capitalists would put the case more strongly. Who do you suppose this is? Why, Chesterton. He's describing Socialism, and arguing with Bernard Shaw, the famous Socialist.

In a live debate with Shaw that was later recorded under the title, "Do We Agree?" Chesterton gives a clear answer: No. We don't agree.

A Socialist government perpetually seizes the fruits of all labor and then promises, really promises, to make sure everyone gets a fair deal. But the Distributist distrusts a bloated government as much as the average Capitalist. Chesterton explains:

We say there ought to be in the world a great mass of scattered powers, privileges, limits, points of resistance, so that the mass of the Commons may resist tyranny.

Socialism envisions an enormous federal government with absolute power. Distributism envisions millions of independent businesses, farms, commons, and homes.

I suppose an American Capitalist might say we already have those independent millions. That's another discussion, but this is the Distributist goal: widespread ownership, not the widespread hands of government welfare.

Distributism and the (Average) Capitalist: Similar goals?

Really, the average Capitalist probably doesn't disagree so much with our goals. Owning your own business is still a staple American dream. Some Capitalists dislike Distributism for just this reason, fearing that our tomfooling around with the economy will only cause systemic collapse and hurl everyone back into serfdom. Fair enough; whether our plans are just or workable is yet another discussion. The point is, if you dream an America full of successful entrepreneurs, you're dreaming a widespread distribution of property. We have remarkably similar goals, you and I. You might even be eligible to call yourself a Distributist.

And our mutual objection to Socialism is not a mere distrust of government. Even if some Socialist government actually kept its promises, it would still be unjust. Elsewhere in the debate, with a rare lapse into the nominative third person, Chesterton puts the case even more clearly:

If all the citizens had simply an equal share of the income of the State they would not have any control of the capital. That is where G. K. Chesterton differs from George Bernard Shaw.

A Socialist friend on an organic farm once asked how I could have a problem with any government that kept the people warm, well fed, and happy. I asked him what the difference would be between those satisfied people and our flock of chickens.

True, those chickens pretty much had it made. Except for the minor detail that we were raising many of them for meat, and we didn't plan to consult them first.

I hope I've at least begun to show that the ideal economy envisioned by the average Capitalist (as sharply distinguished from, say, the vision of the CEO of Wal-Mart), has much in common with that of the Distributist. We both want to see average people have as much control over their own economic lives as possible.

But this is the goal; what about the method? If property isn't well distributed, the question remains: who's going to distribute it, and how?

Does the State have a role in the distribution of wealth?

I'll be blunt: I'm not going to answer that question right now. That's not this article, and there's no canonical One Distributist Method. There are many Distributist ideas, and they don't all involve the State.

But this seems to be the primary Capitalist fear: if Distributists want the State to use any force to ensure a just distribution of wealth, bang, we're Socialist.

This is a mistake. First off, Capitalists want economic laws themselves. If I redistribute your wallet into my pocket, for instance, you're unlikely to respond with a hearty, "Blast! There goes the invisible hand!"

Unless you're an Anarchist, you do want the State to have some role in ensuring a just distribution of property. So we're not discussing whether the State has a role, but what that role is.

You might be scared to tell the State to get within five miles of, well, anything. Here in the U. S., I am too. But that's because of the bad things it's already doing, not because it doesn't have a proper job to do.

It's rather like the State's role in ensuring a just distribution of bones; the State doesn't owe you perfect bones, but it's illegal for someone else to break them. Much of what passes for a "free market" today is the economic equivalent of King Kong taking a wan pre-med student and sitting on him.

It is true that Distributists do not shy away from the specter of the State "redistributing" from the rich to give to the poor. As we'll see below, neither do popes. But this is only tenable in a situation where the rich, through means that happened to be legal at the time, have stolen what was not theirs to take. If you can show that they stole it, why should they keep it?

Besides, this redistribution need not involve actual confiscation. In my own U. S. "free market", I would be happy just to see the State stop giving billions to corporations and agribusiness. You don't have to "redistribute" one dime away from Wal-Mart; just cut their subsidies, cut the fuel and highway subsidies that keep the trucking industry artificially competitive, forbid the importation of sweatshop goods, and give all this money back to the people by reducing these taxes. Then we'll see how Wal-Mart does in the world of actual competition.

Mr. Bernard Shaw proposes to distribute wealth.
We propose to distribute power.

In a Socialist world, the government owns everything, and the government gives each person their daily bread. Under Distributism, once people get (back) their own property and tools, they're independent. They don't want any government handing them daily bread; they can grow it or buy it themselves.

Distributism and Distributive justice

I'd like to make one more point about the meaning of our word "Distributism". People sometimes say that if Distributism has so much in common with Catholic social teaching, why don't any encyclicals mention it? It's true. They don't. But they do mention another word: distributive, as in: distributive justice.

It turns out there are three main kinds of justice, each with its own sphere.

|               Three Kinds of Justice              |
|                                                   |    
|  commutative:   person(s) - owes -> person(s)*    |
|  legal:         citizen   - owes -> community     |
|  distributive:  community - owes -> citizen       |
|                                                   |

*Person(s) here includes institutions.
Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2411  

So distributive justice covers what the State owes each citizen.

Among the many and grave duties of rulers who would do their best for the people, the first and chief is to act with strict justice--with that justice which is called distributive--toward each and every class alike.

-- Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 33. (1891)

The Pope [Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum] attributed to the "public authority" the "strict duty" of providing properly for the welfare of the workers, because a failure to do so violates justice; indeed, he did not hesitate to speak of "distributive justice".

-- John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 8. (1991)

Are we squirming yet? "Providing properly for the welfare of the workers"; is the Pope painting ENTITLEMENT in big red letters?


As usual, the joy is in the details. Just because the government has wrongfully handed out designer jeans to welfare queens, or $1.2 billion to the Wal-Marts that sell them,[1] this misbehavior hardly absolves the government from all economic responsibilities to its citizens. Quite the opposite.

Distributive justice: what does the State owe the citizens? Our malaise of "entitlement" only sharpens the need for clear thinking. It's a good strong phrase, distributive justice, and "Distributism" is clearly its cousin. Perhaps our word isn't so awkward after all.

Finally, here's another big D word you'll find in the encyclicals: distribution. As in, of property.

Now, if ever, is the time to insist on a more widespread distribution of property, in view of the rapid economic development of an increasing number of States.

-- John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 115. (1961)

Sounds like a good idea.

Bill Powell January 26, 2008


[1] Wal-Mart on welfare: $1.2 billion and growing!


G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity

"Do We Agree?" A debate between Chesterton and Shaw.

Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum

Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra

Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus

[These short links will redirect you to the full encyclicals.]



In the BONUS SELECTION below, Chesterton discusses why coal mines might be a justifiable exception to the Distributist rule of widely distributed property. But maybe even coal mines could be owned by the workers. Thirteen years ago, 240 miners in Wales bought a mine that the government wanted to close. The Coal Board thought they were doomed to disaster--but the miners knew better.



"Washington and Wall Street have finally discovered what everybody else already knew: we are in a recession.... Although Distributists have often avoided any "technical" analysis, my experience is that they actually have better tools, when they bother to apply them. Now is the moment to do this analysis, and to compare that analysis with the analysis of the standard economic theory."

[This short link will redirect you to the full article.]


Only last month, December 2007, a group of Lakota Indians declared the withdrawal of their people from all treaties with the U. S. Government, and the freedom of the lands they call the Republic of Lakotah.


However, the Lakota already have their own elected leaders, who dispute that this group had the authority to make the move on everyone else's behalf. Nevertheless, these leaders agree that the U. S. has violated many a treaty regarding Indian lands, which the Lakota still intend to get back.


If nothing else, the announcement is reminder of all the withdrawal and secessionist groups in the (currently) United States today. For instance, the Republic of Lakotah has been endorsed by the Second Vermont Republic:


Which held a 2005 convention in the Vermont capital building in Montpelier:


As the SVR is eager to explain, secession would be perfectly legal. The Constitution was ratified by pre-existing states; they voted to join, and they can vote to leave.

Nor is Vermont the only state in New England with independent ideas:


And if a new New England makes you queasy, you might find Hawaii's aspirations more palatable.


Did you know that Hawaii was an independent kingdom before it was overthrown by United States troops and other non-Hawaiian residents on January 17, 1893? They wanted to annex Hawaii to the U. S. right away, but the president at the time, Grover Cleveland, refused the offer, calling the overthrow "an act of war committed with the participation of a diplomatic representative of the United States without the authority of Congress."

Then came the Spanish-American war, and Hawaii was annexed, but didn't get the chance to vote on statehood until 1959. Unfortunately, the question on the ballot was: "Shall Hawaii immediately be admitted into the Union as a state?" Independence was not an option.


Hawaii is an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Maybe it doesn't really need to be part of the United States of America. You could get that impression from the formal apology which was made to Hawaii in 1993 by ... Congress.


"...the indigenous Hawaiian people never directly relinquished their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people or over their national lands to the United States, either through their monarchy or through a plebiscite or referendum."

I haven't looked into these groups enough to make a final decision myself, but they're certainly interesting.

ACTION: Decide how to contact your representatives

Here it is the fourth issue, and already here's "extra" homework. What, you may ask, does contacting an elected representative have to do with "changing the structure"? Well, my whole plan is based on taking things we do already and doing them better. So, if you never ever complain about how the government is run, at any level, please forget I even suggested this. You have no time to convert to this activity.

Otherwise, here's the task: just find out how to contact your representatives. You don't actually have to do it yet. It could be your Senators and House Representative, it could be your Governor and people in state government. It could be your local county or town officials. Don't try to do them all this afternoon, only one. Do you prefer email, fax, phone, or paper? Just pick one, get the contact info, and make it easy for yourself to use it. There. All done.


For contacting Congress, your best bet is probably a simple search on "contact congress", but the Electronic Frontier Foundation has this helpful (if slightly dated) page:



Pius XI: A just distribution of wealth

53. ... "[T]he wealth of nations originates from no other source than from the labor of workers." For is it not plain that the enormous volume of goods that makes up human wealth is produced by and issues from the hands of the workers that either toil unaided or have their efficiency marvelously increased by being equipped with tools or machines?

54. Property, that is, "capital," has undoubtedly long been able to appropriate too much to itself. Whatever was produced, whatever returns accrued, capital claimed for itself, hardly leaving to the worker enough to restore and renew his strength.

57. But not every distribution among human beings of property and wealth is of a character to attain either completely or to a satisfactory degree of perfection the end which God intends. Therefore, the riches that economic-social developments constantly increase ought to be so distributed among individual persons and classes that the common advantage of all, which Leo XIII had praised, will be safeguarded; in other words, that the common good of all society will be kept inviolate.

58. To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods, and the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is laboring today under the gravest evils[,] due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice.

59. The redemption of the non-owning workers - this is the goal that Our Predecessor declared must necessarily be sought. And the point is the more emphatically to be asserted and more insistently repeated because the commands of the Pontiff, salutary as they are, have not infrequently been consigned to oblivion[,] either because they were deliberately suppressed by silence or thought impracticable[,] although they both can and ought to be put into effect.

And these commands have not lost their force and wisdom for our time because that "pauperism" which Leo XIII beheld in all its horror is less widespread. Certainly the condition of the workers has been improved and made more equitable especially in the more civilized and wealthy countries where the workers can no longer be considered universally overwhelmed with misery and lacking the necessities of life.

But since manufacturing and industry have so rapidly pervaded and occupied countless regions, not only in the countries called new, but also in the realms of the Far East that have been civilized from antiquity, the number of the non-owning working poor has increased enormously and their groans cry to God from the earth.

Added to them is the huge army of rural wage workers, pushed to the lowest level of existence and deprived of all hope of ever acquiring "some property in land," and, therefore, permanently bound to the status of non-owning worker unless suitable and effective remedies are applied.

60. Yet while it is true that the status of non owning worker is to be carefully distinguished from pauperism, nevertheless the immense multitude of the non-owning workers on the one hand and the enormous riches of certain very wealthy men on the other establish an unanswerable argument that the riches which are so abundantly produced in our age of "industrialism," as it is called, are not rightly distributed and equitably made available to the various classes of the people.

61. Therefore, with all our strength and effort we must strive that at least in the future the abundant fruits of production will accrue equitably to those who are rich and will be distributed in ample sufficiency among the workers - not that these may become remiss in work, for man is born to labor as the bird to fly - but that they may increase their property by thrift, that they may bear, by wise management of this increase in property, the burdens of family life with greater ease and security, and that, emerging from the insecure lot in life in whose uncertainties non-owning workers are cast, they may be able not only to endure the vicissitudes of earthly existence but have also assurance that when their lives are ended they will provide in some measure for those they leave after them.

74. Hence it is contrary to social justice when, for the sake of personal gain and without regard for the common good, wages and salaries are excessively lowered or raised; and this same social justice demands that wages and salaries be so managed, through agreement of plans and wills, in so far as can be done, as to offer to the greatest possible number the opportunity of getting work and obtaining suitable means of livelihood.

-- Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno. (1931)

Copyright - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Footnotes removed, omitted sentences not marked, and paragraph breaks inserted, for a sane read. :)

Full document:
[This short link will redirect you to the full encyclical.]


And as some of us most heartily and vigorously refuse to be led to Socialism, we have long adopted the harder alternative called trying to think things out.

G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity

[MR. CHESTERTON:] Mr. Bernard Shaw proposes to distribute wealth. We propose to distribute power.

[MR. SHAW:] Mr. Chesterton has formed the Distributist League which organized this meeting. What was the very first thing the League said must be done? It said the coal-mines must be nationalized. Instead of saying that the miner's means of production must he made his own property, it was forced to advocate making national property of the coal mines.

[MR. CHESTERTON:] I can assure you that Distributists are perfectly sensible and sane people, and they have always recognized that there are institutions in the State in which it is very difficult to apply the principle of individual property, and that one of these cases is the discovery under the earth of valuable minerals. Socialists are not alone in believing this. Charles I, who, I suppose, could not be called a Socialist, pointed out that certain kinds of minerals ought to belong to the State, that is, to the Commons. We have said over and over again that we support the nationalization of the coal-mines, not as a general example of Distribution but as a common-sense admission of an exception.

[MR. CHESTERTON:] It is absolutely fallacious to suggest that there is some sort of difficulty in peasantries whereby they are bound to disappear. The answer to that is that they have not disappeared. It is part of the very case against peasantry, among those who do not like them, that they are antiquated, covered with hoary superstition. Why have they remained through all these centuries, if they must immediately break up and become impossible? ... But at no time did I say that we must make the whole community a community of agricultural peasants. It is absurd. What I said was that a desire for property which is universal, everywhere, does appear in a perfect and working example in the ownership of land.

Do We Agree? A Debate Between G. K. Chesterton and Bernard Shaw, with Hilaire Belloc in the chair

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