Christian distributism celebrates the small and the human. It rests on strong home economies and demands the widest possible distribution and ownership of productive property. It favors worker ownership through cooperatives of necessarily larger machines and enterprises. It seeks and reinforces local communities, bound together by ties of kinship, faith, and trade. It welcomes lifelong, fertile marriages of men to women. It favors home care for the elderly and infirm, as well as home-centered education for the young.
Contemporary rivals to distributism include the laissez-faire capitalism of the libertarians and economic nationalism of the America Firsters. The primary difference between the three lies in their respective anthropologies.
For the libertarians, only atomized individuals hold moral, social, and economic claims. These “economic men” choose their own moral order, their own sexual identity, their own living arrangements, and accumulate power and wealth to the limits of their skills, luck, and energy. The stupid, weak, lazy, or unlucky are left to private charity. Family bonds stand as barriers to economic efficiency and are best minimized. For personal burdens, such as elderly parents or children that escape abortion, the system’s commodification of everything provides answers: the childcare center at the beginning of life and the nursing home at the end.
The America-Firsters’ nationalist economic order may give recognition to a diminutive version of family values, but primarily as part of an elaborate social-political machine to secure national power. In practice, under the nationalist regime, most families are freed from the burdens of property ownership so they might better serve the institutions of survival and order: monopolistic corporations that provide needed factory goods and build elaborate highways as well as the aircraft, tanks, and other devices of “defense.”
Tied to economic nationalism is the welfare state—food stamps, social insurance, rent subsidies, and so on. The majority of persons and families have at best only modest savings and own little of enduring value. They may have claims, however, on the bric-a-brac of an industrial order: cell phones, big-screen televisions, and SUVs.
The anthropology of Christian distributism, at its deepest level, reaches back to Aristotelian ethics, locating the individual within a web of natural human relationships: marriage, children, kinfolk, friends, and neighbors. Each person’s identity is shaped by these bonds. Political entities larger than villages and neighborhoods are best viewed as aggregations of intensive, natural communities for limited ends such as mutual defense.
The economic visions of each competing system also differ. Laissez-faire capitalism features endless, restless energy. Like a small child, it can leave nothing alone. Every human interaction it touches must be transformed into a commodity. Everything, including embryos, is for sale. The laissez-faire system spreads around the globe, absorbing more traditional communities into its voracious matrix, until the last untouched Amazonian tribe succumbs to t-shirts and sneakers. Nothing lasts.
The nationalist economic order, on the other hand, evolves into the economy of the security state. It favors a war economy, with enemies that never go away: Soviet Communism forty years ago; “Putinism” today. The nationalist economic state makes massive expenditures on aircraft carriers, undetectable planes, nuclear bombs, and new technologies to militarize outer space. Dozens of “intelligence agencies” concoct threats, such as Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, in order to wage permanent war for permanent peace.
As we’ve seen, even the lowly COVID-19 virus can summon the nationalist war economy into action, with the same result: massive entities such as Amazon and Walmart surge in size while family-scale businesses are smashed. Through calls for mandatory national service and budgets hidden from democratic control, this system can pass fairly easily into petty fascism.
The Christian distributist response to the gross corruptions and inequalities facing persons within the modern industrial order is private property. As Pope Leo XIII explained in his 1891 encyclical on the humane economy, Rerum novarum, only when workers can anticipate gaining “a share in the land” might the dangerous “gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty…be bridged over.” Christian distributism favors the home economy, a real measure of self-sufficiency, and cooperation with kin and neighbors.
Critics of Christian distributism commonly fault its lack of specificity. In truth, important architects of this way of living have been very clear about the policies that should be pursued. English distributists like Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, who wrote in the first part of the last century, called for all of the following:
•Breaking up monopolies, supporting expanded profit sharing, and transferring ownership to worker guilds;
•Redistributing farmland and other natural resources, taxing transfer contracts to discourage the sale of small properties to big proprietors, and encouraging the division of big estates for sale to families;
•Prosecuting fraudulent capitalists, such as the financiers behind the economic crisis of 2008;
•Encouraging healthy self-sufficiency, by scrapping urban zoning rules that ban fences, chicken coops, vegetable gardens, and small shops;
•Decentralizing industry, cheapening electricity, and expanding power grids which Chesterton said “might lead to many little workshops”;
•Encouraging a healthy countryside and family-scale agriculture, which Belloc said “must be privileged as against the diseased society around it” in terms of both credit and taxation;
•Restoring small shops and using differential taxation against giant retailers.
Critics retort that a distributist regime is distinctly un-American. This, they argue, has always been the land of the rugged individual, the self-made millionaire, and the flamboyant corporate leader: the natural home of great capitalists, not of peasants or shopkeepers.
The dominant American economic system well into the 19th century was, however, distributist in character. The Americans of 1776 overwhelmingly built their economic lives around family and home. As proto-distributists, this founding generation of Americans had one overriding concern: land, especially the preservations of the family freehold into the future. Their attachment to soil was not a speculative venture, but rather the necessary foundation for godly homes, what one observer calls “the child-centered use of land.” Subsistence agriculture was the rule: fewer than 20 percent of farms produced goods for market sale.
Religious attitudes combined with the practical economics of the small farm ensured that offspring were a blessing rather than a curse. Children arrived as assets to their parents, new workers for the family enterprise and sources of security and care for aging parents. As historian James Henretta has noted, parents in the pre-modern economy raised children to “succeed them,” not merely to “succeed.” The average family size approached nine children per couple, a nearly unprecedented figure in global demographic history. The population of the new nation doubled every 25 years. Today, birthrates are well below replacement levels.
So, what happened? In short, the old agrarian vision of America associated with Thomas Jefferson surrendered, according to historian Herbert Agar, to “a greedy ... Hamiltonian capitalism.” By 1900, this change had spawned the industrial plutocrats of the Gilded Age, alongside a “mass of propertyless wage slaves” in the cities and a growing number of farm tenants and sharecroppers—rather than owners—in the countryside. Agar concluded that American democracy had become by 1930 “a soiled screen for plutocracy,” with capitalism in practice meaning “the negation of private property.”
In response, Agar joined with the Southern Agrarian Allen Tate to produce in 1936 the volume Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence. A year later, he collaborated with New Yorkers Ralph Borsodi and Chauncey Stillman to launch a monthly Distributist publication, Free America: A Magazine to Promote Independence.
Policies advocated by the authors in Free America resembled those of Chesterton and Belloc, albeit with a strong American accent. They included laws that would assist farm tenants in becoming owners; prohibitions on corporate ownership of farmland; an end to the favored treatment of corporations as “persons” under the federal Constitution; sound financial support for family dwellings on lots suited to home production; legal encouragement to producer and consumer cooperatives; expansion of electrical grids in rural areas to create a power source suitable for small farms and workshops; and the promotion of local food grown on organic and biodynamic farms.
Alas, the centralizing gale of World War II overwhelmed this crusading decentralist magazine, which ceased publication in 1947. Wartime demands had sharply increased the push for farm consolidation. “Get Big or Get Out” became federal policy for farmers in the 1950s, leading to the near extinction of family-scale agriculture and the depopulation of rural America. The American suburbs swelled in number—a development often celebrated by economic nationalists—but such homes were typically built on lots far too small for productive agricultural use. Buoyed by war and consequent empire, finance capitalism gained new luster and political control in the swollen welfare-warfare state. Appeals to the “small” and the “human” now seemed antiquated, even absurd.
This nationalist economy soon began to break down, however. The temptation to reopen American borders, and so gain cheap labor, was irresistible and was achieved in the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. The Vietnam War revealed the corruptions within the national security state and ended in a bloody and costly defeat.
Starting in the mid-1970s, the United States, Great Britain, and other nation-states attempted a merger of the nationalist and laissez-faire economies: the “new liberalism” it was called. Along the way, the American government embarked on a series of unwinnable wars in the Middle East to sustain the security state. A great shock came in 2008 when financial corruption nearly destroyed this economic order.
And now, the COVID-19 affair has brought on an astonishing, although inevitable, collapse of the globalized neoliberal system. Tellingly, the response in almost all industrial lands has been a massive and necessary return to de facto distributism: working at home, homeschooling, home gardens, home cooking, backyard chickens, home recreation, home worship, and so on.
This curious episode has nonetheless underscored a great truth: distributism is the natural human economic order, one that has roots in an older America and which deserves cultural and political recognition.