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Distributism^ Democratic Capitalism

and the New World Order


Dermot Quinn

DERMOT QUINN is a Professor of History at Seton Hall University, New


Jersey. A graduate of Dublin and Oxford, Professor Quinn has written ex-
tensively on Chestertonian themes in this and in other journals. His book.
Patronage and Piety: English Roman Catholics and Politics, 1850-1900,
was published last year by Stanford University Press.

"There are three economic theories struggling for supremacy in the


modern world," wrote the English social commentator K.L. Kenrick in
1926. "They are Capitalism, Socialism, and Distributism." ^ The remark is
impressive in its sweep, startling in its confidence, and—to our own
world—bewildering in its central claim. Capitalism and Socialism, yes:
that is a contest which makes sense. The dichotomy has a pleasing sym-
metry, sufficiently Manichean for most tastes. But Distributisml Where
did that come from? More to the point, where did it go? The observation
seems to recall a vanished era, its preoccupations unrecognisable only
seventy years on. Who now has heard of Distributism? Who had heard of
it in 1926? The questions do not answer themselves, but they certainly an-
swer Kenrick. In the struggle that he depicted, Distributism evidently has
not won. Yet there is a curiously contemporary ring to his analysis. Our
time has also seen a formidable contest, still unresolved. Socialism has
plainly failed. In Eastern Europe, centralised economies have collapsed,
taking with them their grisly political apparatus. In the rest of the devel-
oped world, Socialism survives in etiolated form, the creed of aging radi-
cals or sentimentalists. But it is by no means clear that Capitalism has
emerged champion. We have not reached, as was proclaimed two or three
years ago, the "end of history": social debate has not ceased. Perhaps
Kenrick was half right in recognising the perpetual struggle of economic
philosophies. I f so, are there now two competing theories—Capitalism
and Distributism? The question deserves answer.

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Distributism, then, is my theme, and it may be tackled, I think, in five


ways. First, it was a distinctive historical movement, and should be
treated as such. It was a response to particular circumstances, it waxed
and waned, and it had its reasons for decHne. But it was also a social v i -
sion which survived the movement which enshrined it. The ideal is a good
deal more important than the movement: witness our continued interest in
it. A third approach is to see Distributism as one attempt of several, at the
turn of the century and beyond, to arrive at a coherent moral account of
Industrial Capitalism. In England, for example, Archbishop Manning of
Westminster (an inspiration for Rerum Novarum) sought to reconcile the
laws of supply and demand with the law of the Gospel. Distributists, too,
tried to discover whether or not Capitalism had a soul. Their respective ef-
forts bear comparison. Fourthly, it is possible to consider Distributism in
the light of recent writing, particularly that of Michael Novak, who offers
a strong economic and quasi-theological defence of free-market Capital-
ism. Finally, it should be examined in the context of Centesimus Annus, as
a possible social philosophy for our own day.

What is Distributism? It is a grim word for a gracious thing: an idea


that attracted some of the most delightful minds of this century, thousands
who modelled their lives according to it, thousands more who were Dis-
tributists without realising it. Flourishing as a movement, especially in
England in the first decades of the century, its chief proponents were G.K.
Chesterton, his brother Cecil, Hilaire Belloc, and Father Vincent McNabb.
The list could be extended, certainly to figures in France, Belgium, Ire-
land, Australia, and the United States. But let Chesterton speak for all of
them. No-one articulated the Distributist ideal with greater wit or lucidity:
The truth is this; and it is extremely, even excruciatingly simple.
Either Private Property is good for Man or it is bad for Man. I f it
is bad, let us all immediately become honest and courageous
Communists. . . . But if it is good for Man it is good for Every-
man. There is a case for Capitalism; a case for Landlordism; a
case for complete Despotism; . . . there are arguments for Trusts,
for Squires, for big employers. But they are all arguments against
Private Property. They are all more or less philosophical reasons
why a man, as such, should not be an owner, as such; why the
tenant should not own his house; why the workman should not
own his workshop; why the farmer should not own his farm. The
moment Private Property becomes a privilege, it ceases to be pri-
vate property. . . . But [Distributists] are not ashamed of private
property; for we would give it to everyone.^

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Distributism, Democratic Capitalism and the New World Order

Such was the central claim. Nothing indeed could have been simpler.
Ownership deepened human dignity: the more widely spread the owner-
ship, greater the dignity of all. It seems naive, and the ideal social order—
small shops, small farms, small communities, small factories—is easily
mocked as a dainty provincialism, a retreat from the modern. Yet i f Dis-
tributists suffered much condescension,^ they did not lack intellectual
pedigree. Compare two social philosophies. Here is Chesterton: "In my
modern state there would be some things nationalised, some machines
owned corporately, some guilds sharing common profits . . . as well as
many absolute individual owners, where such individual owners are most
possible." 4 Here is an earlier writer:

Property should be in a general sense common, but as a general


rule private. . . . In well-ordered states, although every man has
his own property, some things he will place at the disposal of his
friends, while of others he shares the use of them. . . . How im-
measurably greater is the pleasure, when a man feels a thing to be
his own; for the love of self is a feeling implanted by nature and
not given in vain, although selfishness is rightly censured. . . .
And, further, there is the greatest pleasure in doing a kindness or
service to friends, which can only be rendered when a man has
private property. [This] advantage is lost by the excessive unifi-
cation of the State.5

Who was this proto-Distributist? Aristotle, in Politics, Book I I , Chapter


V.
The lineage may have been ancient, but Distributism had antecedents
much more recent than the Greeks. Something of its flavour may be de-
tected in John Ruskin, a pugnacious critic of English social inequality.
"Whereas it has long been known and declared that the poor have no right
to the property of the rich," he wrote in 1862, " I wish it also to be known
and declared that the rich have no right to the property of the poor."^
More recent than Ruskin was Pope Leo X I I I . Neither as an ideal nor as a
movement was Distributism exclusively Catholic, but many of its con-
cerns echoed those of Rerum Novarum, an encyclical published in the
generation in which Belloc and the Chestertons came to intellectual matu-
rity. The debt was obvious. "The law should favour ownership, and its
policy should be to induce as many people as possible to become own-
ers," wrote Pope Leo. " I f workpeople can be encouraged to [obtain] a
share in the land," he continued, "the result will be that the gulf between
vast wealth and deep poverty will be bridged over." ^ This was simplicity

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itself. The historical curiosity of Rerum Novarum, a sign of its subtlety,


was the appeal that it had for contradictory groups. Radicals and Conser-
vatives both claimed its endorsement: the former hearing in it a call for
social reform, the latter a justification for property rights and for the status
quo} But exquisite exegesis sometimes misses the obvious. Leo's text,
with its call for reasonable social equality based on widespread owner-
ship, certainly contained a Distributist element. Thoughtful Catholics, a
generation later, attempted practical application of his precepts.

Chesterton's proposal that "small properties should be revived"^


stirred remarkable response. A newspaper devoted to Distributist
thought—G.K. 's Weekly—was launched in 1925. Largely a Chestertonian
vehicle, it nevertheless attracted an impressive array of contributors—
Hilaire Belloc, Walter de la Mare, Eric Gill, Ronald Knox, Vincent
McNabb. Building on this group, a Distributist League was established in
1926, headquarters in London, branches in many provincial towns. The
initial success was substantial: within two months, sales of the Weekly
doubled. 1° Later experience was less assured. Precisely because the move-
ment achieved a following, disputes developed, some plainly absurd.
They recall the early Church, or Scholasticism in its dying decadence.
What was true Distributism? Could it succeed in cities? Was machinery
allowable? What was the difference between a machine and a tool? Into
which category fell a dentist's drill? Here was the standard problem of
sects founded on gnostic wisdom: before long, some will claim more wis-
dom than others. Not all the debates were foolish, to be sure, and that
small groups were considering large matters was itself part of the ideal.
But, to some degree, they missed the point. Distributism was not an eco-
nomic theory but a way of life. When it became ossified into ideology, it
was apt to seem, like all ideologies, ridiculous.

The appeal had nothing to do with novelty. Indeed, the ideas at-
tracted, not because they were new, but because they were old: as old,
perhaps, as Aristotle. Consider again that passage from the Politics. It
contains a glimpse of the Distributist ideal: the dignity of self-sufficiency;
the danger of selfishness; the importance of community; the obligations of
friendship; the dangers of uniformity; the perils of Statism; the value of
local attachments. These are difficult balances, and can be achieved only
if the acquisition of material goods is seen as a means of human f u l f i l -
ment, not as an end in itself. Economic activity is social and, therefore,
moral, a syllogism familiar to most ages save our own. Such was the an-

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Distributism, Democratic Capitalism and the New World Order

cient wisdom, and such was the wisdom until very recently. Only since
the end of the nineteenth century, with the development of the social sci-
ences as discrete disciplines, has there developed the doctrine that "laws"
of economics have nothing to do with morality. Even Adam Smith, apos-
tle of laissez-faire, considered himself primarily a moral philosopher. And
the divorce of economics from morality occurred at precisely the point
when industrialism, with apparent inexorability, seemed to undermine the
social order. Distributists attempted to repair the breach. Had Aristotle
survived, he might have become a valuable contributor to G.K. 's Weekly.

The Distributist celebration of private property was not an endorse-


ment of Capitalism. On the contrary, Distributists were anti-Capitalist. A
contempt for "vulgar and huckstering commerce" suffused their writing.
They announced some good news, some bad news. The bad was that Cap-
italism was inequitable, impoverishing, enslaving. The good news was
that it could not possibly survive; it was a "completely discredited" sys-
tem, proclaimed the Distributist Programme (1934), bringing poverty and
degradation never before experienced by westem man.^^ xhis was a harsh
judgment, but not, in the depth of the Depression, an unfair one. The idea
of producing merely for profit had created a world "verging on the in-
sane" ^4—when fields lay idle though the poor went hungry, when a coun-
try congratulated itself on low imports and high exports, when govern-
ments could order goods to be destroyed in order to stabilise price.
Distributists saw evidence, as they surveyed these ruins, of a radically
misguided mercantilism. The profit-motive put the cart before the horse.
According to the Capitalist, consumption should keep pace with produc-
tion. Not so, answered the Distributist: in any sensible economy, it should
be the other way round.Production and consumption might have to be
on a smaller scale, but the economic order would at least have the virtue
of sanity.

We must, however, define our terms carefully. The Capitalism of


which Distributists complained was monopolistic plutocracy: "the owner-
ship by a few of the springs of life." The concentration of wealth, and
the means of producing it, in the hands of an elite brought dangerous con-
sequences. Monopoly led to a small propertied class, a large class of
wage-eamers; a small political class, a large mass of followers; a narrow
class of bankers and brokers, a populace entangled by financial obliga-
tions—mortgages, loans, pension plans—which kept it in its place. Con-
sider the factory system and the division of labour—Industrial Capitalism

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in its platonic form. Their characteristics? A large class of helots and a


small class of masters, the former monotonously devoted to the latter's
profit. And at the heart of the system, a cult of machines, that peculiar
witlessness of "advanced" economies. Such servitude was forced on most
men, Distributists argued, because they could not produce for themselves.
They lacked property.
In this vision of a world out of joint, there was an almost religious
sense of the proportionality of things. Distributists had a sharp under-
standing of the connectedness of human activity. A l l our doings—individ-
ual responsibility to self, to family and to the State, the getting and spend-
ing of finite wealth, the good of each, and the common good of all—have
a proportion to each other. The notion of community implies as much.
Thus radical individualism must end in the chaotic disproportionality of
vast wealth, vast poverty. How could it not? Atomised society—an oxy-
moron i f ever there was one—was the Capitalist ideal, economics as envi-
sioned by Darwin. "Only when the Adam Smiths and the Ricardos have
had their day," Vincent McNabb wrote in his marvellous essay on
Aquinas and the Common Good, would "the Dumb Ox [Aquinas] come
slowly into his own,"i^ reminding us of older truths: that once there was a
connection between prices and justice; and that, in well-ordered societies,
the connection remains.
Let us think a little more about the meaning of property for the Dis-
tributist. Its significance, surely, was that it provided a tangible definition
of this idea of community. Mere possessions, still less mere possessive-
ness, formed no part of the Distributist vision. Property was valuable in
enhancing community values, but it was not constitutive of them. Cer-
tainly the Distributist did not claim that a society in which all are property
owners is a Distributist society. Think of isolated homesteaders. They
may be proprietors, but they are isolated all the same, mortgaged in Gaza
and friendless in suburbia. The Distributist was interested in ownership,
not for itself, but for what it represented: reward for honest toil, some de-
gree of independence, opportunity to provide for family, chance to exer-
cise charity and friendship. The "right" to property, he held, is the duty to
use it properly, not some limitless licence, as conceived by John Locke, in
order to enrich oneself in the name of enriching society as a whole.

Distributists had their critics, and the charges seem to fall into four
categories: first, that they promoted a philosophy which was innocent and
Utopian—a wholly unrealistic rebellion against modernity; second, that it

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Distributism, Democratic Capitalism and the New World Order

was historically particular—a movement of its own time, of no signifi-


cance for any other; third, that the attraction of its vision notwithstanding,
Distributism offered no practical proposals for the creation of a Dis-
tributist State; and fourth, that it was culturally fetishistic—little more
than a celebration of country over town, horse over tractor, workshop over
factory. These constitute a powerful indictment, the more so as Dis-
tributists tended to promote their cause with the zeal which frightens the
uninitiated. But the attacks are more fragile than they seem. Distributism
could defend itself more than competently in the market-place of ideas,
and it continues to do so today.

Consider the first criticism. Distributists were not Utopian; indeed,


they were explicitly anti-utopian. They had their ideals, of course, and
their idylls: which movement does not? But the claims that they made for
the Distributist State were modest. It offered not perfection but propor-
tion: 1^ between work and reward, between wants and needs, between pri-
vate and public ownership, between central and local responsibility. In
fact, as Chesterton paradoxically proposed, not everyone needed to be a
"Distributist" in a Distributist State. That would be to replace one dull
uniformity—Monopoly Capitalism—with another. Balance was the goal,
not heaven on earth. "There would be a great deal of hard work," wrote
Walter She wring, "there would be many kinds of trouble; there would still
be ill-will. But it would be a state where a man could be what a man was
meant to be; have the life and work he was meant to have. That should be
enough." 19 Balance, then, and variety. Distributists embraced eccentricity,
nonconformity, rural anarchy, iconoclasm. Utopias are lands without hu-
mour or irony: Distributists possessed both.

The point may be extended. I f anything, the critics of Distributism


were the Utopians; and a decidedly depressing Utopia they proposed. No-
tice the charge of "unrealism." Distributists were innocent, they argued,
because they were going in the wrong direction. The irreversible tendency
of economics was towards Industrial Capitalism, and all ought, therefore,
to follow that trend. But this is obvious contradiction. I f Distributists were
going in one direction, and the rest of the world in another, then plainly
there was not one direction only. And this economic determinism, with its
ungrounded claims of necessity and inevitability, was dehumanising. It re-
moved human agency from human affairs. Thus the paradox: apologists
for Capitalism were so optimistic it would prevail that their optimism re-
quired the pessimistic conclusion that none other could prevail. Dis-

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tributists rejected both the fataHsm and the utopianism. They were anti-
historicist and anti-utopian, urging human autonomy in the face of "des-
tiny" or "forces" or "the inevitabiUty of progress."

But the charge of naivete will not go away. Distributism makes good
morals but bad economics: this is a standard claim. The prescriptions, ac-
cording to critics, are irrelevant in the real world. Consider the market.
Here is a device which, for all its faults, remains the most efficient mecha-
nism for identifying and addressing needs and wants. But faced with the
market, the argument goes, Distributists could only put their heads in the
sand. They hoped it would go away, preaching instead the pieties of "just
price," which (be it added) could be achieved only by the market-rigging
that they deplored in the Capitalist.^^ Indeed, the more subtle criticism
might be offered that while Distributists deplored historicist talk of des-
tiny, they fell into the same trap by speaking of the "market" as i f it were
not a matter of human contrivance or control. They reified it in order to
demonise it, failing to see it as an expression of human creativity.

It is an important criticism, not lightly to be dismissed; but it misses


the mark. Distributists were not economic innocents, hoping against hope
that the market could be bucked. In fact, they were much more conscious
of market than those who made a cult of it. Even on its own terms, they
argued, the market was failing. It was not efficient. Under Monopoly Cap-
italism, it failed to do the only thing it claimed of itself: to be able to
match needs and wants. Listen to McNabb: " I have often said," he wrote
in 1942, "that the most efficient social and economic unit is one wherein
the area of production tends to be co-terminous with the area of consump-
t i o n ; that is, that things w i l l be produced where they are to be
consumed." 21 Now, the conclusion may be disputed; but the premise is
uncontroversial: in order to make an economic case, he spoke the lan-
guage of economic utility. Adam Smith would have approved. The corol-
lary argument—that Capitalism produced inefficiency—was also reason-
able, certainly in the era when Distributism flourished. I f Capitalism's
task was to make consumption keep pace with production, it could not be
otherwise.22 That goal did not eliminate waste so much as guarantee it,
creating appetites simply in order to satisfy them. The market was effi-
cient as mechanism, but when captured by the monopolists it was in-
evitably corrupted. Its purpose was turned to inefficiency itself: the doing
of things that did not have to be done.

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Distributism, Democratic Capitalism and the New World Order

Consider now the second charge: Distributism as a movement merely


of its own time. That it should have reflected the pre-occupations of an
era is obvious. The demons it assailed—soulless urbanisation, pointless
profiteering, anonymous corporatism, excessive faith in finance as eco-
nomic indicator—were those of many social investigators of late Victo-
rian and Edwardian England. It would be odd to condemn social evils i f
such evils did not exist.^^ But it requires no great gift of logic to notice
that a movement of its own time need not be merely of its own time. Nor
is the distinction between movement and ideal a false one: Distributism
still has much to say to societies which, for all their advances, suffer simi-
lar problems. Here is indeed pecuHar reasoning: that Distributism failed or
fails because everything of which it warned has come to pass. The critics
ought to think a little harder.

What of the third objection—that Distributists spoke about ends but


were silent about means? In fact, when put to the point, Distributists were
surprisingly specific about both. There was no shortage of proposals: i f
anything, there was superabundance. Indeed, in a movement rightly suspi-
cious of Statism there was an odd enthusiasm for legislation as the way
to build the Distributist society. To dissolve monopoly, few weapons were
left untried: steeply graduated taxation for large companies and combines,
tariffs to protect the small firm, confiscatory death duties on the biggest
estates, free legal services for the poor to protect small p r o p e r t y t h e
chartering of local banks, the encouragement of credit unions and co-op-
eratives, "employee" share ownership, and severe anti-trust laws.^^ Dis-
tributists advocated a full measure of state intervention in order to lessen
the role of the State. They were not much embarrassed by this; perhaps
they should have been. In fairness, the Statism which they disliked was of
a different order: the division of citizens into employers and employees, a
division which, enshrined in law and policy, assumed hereditary perma-
nence. But it required care to make the proper distinctions; and, occasion-
ally, Distributists were insufficiently attentive to the implications. One
thing, however, is clear: imputations of naivete notwithstanding, they had
a quiver full of practical ideas, many of them perfectly feasible.

Let us consider the final objection: cultural fetishism. According to


critics, Distributism was compounded of nostalgia and a sort of sancta
simplicitas. It attached undue moral significance to objects or styles. It
was inverted snobbery. It was a creed of cranks. There is an element of
truth here: some Distributists were faddists, pure and simple. What of it?

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The criticism misses the point. Distributism was radical, but not egre-
gious. The standard complaint—it was rural, backward, poujadiste—is
caricature. In fact, it was not anti-industrial or opposed to machines.
Rather, it had more to say about ownership itself than about any particular
form of economic activity. "Even while we remain industrial," Chesterton
remarked, "we can work towards industrial distribution and away from in-
dustrial monopoly. . . . Even while we are the workshop of the world, we
can try to own our tools." ^'^ Here was no machine-wrecking, no horrified
flight to the land. Monopoly more than industrialism was the target. In-
deed, because Distributists celebrated variety and heterogeneity, they did
not envision a world entirely of small farmers or shopkeepers. The absur-
dity of "mathematically equal sub-division of property or the imposition
from above of universal one-man independence" held no charm. Self-
sufficiency—call it economic freedom—was the goal. The form of that
freedom was a matter of choice.

On the other hand, insofar as Distributism was attached to things, it


could make a good case for them. Small shop was better than supermar-
ket; family farm was better than regional collective; parent was better
provider than the State; home-made was better than mass-produced; the
simple human association—religious order, or co-operative, or charity, or
parish, or group of neighbours—was better than loyalty to an abstractly
defined "class." There was honour in these intimacies. Compare the alter-
native. The metropolis, the suburb, the chain store—grey monuments, all.
Perhaps Distributists dichotomised too sharply: ^9 Manicheanism was their
besetting sin. But this was pardonable. Nor were they alone. After all,
those who condemn Distributist "fetishism" merely mean that its fetishes
do not coincide with their own.

If I have belaboured these four problems, it is only by way of making


the crucial point: that the appeal of Distributism lies ultimately in its co-
herence. It holds together, both as economics and as vision of man. This is
important, because it was the first social philosophy of the industrial-fi-
nancial era which did hold together. Others attempted a marriage of social
and economic anthropology, but they were not nearly as successful. Con-
sider Cardinal Manning of Westminster. Manning holds an honourable
place in the history of Social Catholicism as organiser, man of vision,
practical benefactor, conscience to the nation. But he also attempted to
construct a practical philosophy of community in an age of Industrial
Capitalism, and the result was a jumble of incompatibihties: from Smith,

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Distributism, Democratic Capitalism and the New World Order

Bentham, and Rousseau, to Bible, Aquinas, and the Times editorial. To


reconcile individualism and communitarianism was harder than he re-
alised: he made it harder still by relying on such syncretic sources.
Listen to his enthusiasms. First, the factory system and the division of
labour. Manning was a standard-issue Victorian optimist. He marvelled at
mechanisation as both creative achievement and source of wealth.
"Labour is [minutely] subdivided," he exclaimed, "and in that minuteness
. . . perfection is ever advancing." Then there were free markets. " I en-
tirely believe in the law of supply and demand, and free exchange and
safety of capital," he proclaimed in 1874.^1 After that came the claims of
capital and labour. Each were equal in every respect. "Whatever rights
capital possesses, labour possesses," he asserted, the statement as clear
as a proposition from Euclid. Then came a problem. Having preached
these utilitarian orthodoxies, he tried to weld them to an altogether differ-
ent vision of social harmony in which employer would not exploit em-
ployee, nor employee, employer. But the ills that he deplored as pastor
were precisely those of the system that he embraced as economist: long
hours, child labour, slum housing, an urban underclass, greed in assorted
guises. These were not accidents of laissez-faire, but its essence.

The confusion lay in his language of rights. Think of labour. On the


one hand. Manning saw it as socially useful and personally beneficial. But
he also regarded it as a commodity, an item of property to be bought and
sold as any other. The latter was dangerous ground on which to make a
claim of workers' rights. It assumed an atomistic politics of groups and
sections competing against each other, their "rights" defined by mutual
antagonism. Capital had "rights" only in opposition to Labour. Labour
had "rights" only in opposition to Capital. He hoped that Capital and
Labour would ride side by side, walk hand in hand. But how could they,
and why should they, i f his free market prevailed? He proposed all sorts
of moral and legislative remedies for social ills. He preached a radical
gospel. He offered a vision of "masters and men . . . united in accordance
with natural right and the higher jurisprudence." But he never succeeded
in making untrammelled supply and demand compatible with that higher
jurisprudence.

Contrast Distributism. It offered an integrated social vision: property


but not materialism, ownership but not acquisitiveness, personal auton-
omy but not mere individualism. These were not idle dichotomies, but
achievable realities: witness countries such as France, Belgium, or Ire-

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land, where small-scale production, widely dispersed, testified to the fea-


sibility of the ideal. Manning was an ameliorist. He wanted to reform
Capitalism, to civilise and to cultivate it. Distributists were different. They
reckoned that it was unreformable and should be replaced altogether. In
this, they were at once more radical and more intelligible.
So far, I have considered Distributism largely as an historical phe-
nomenon, an English one at that. Another approach—again historical—^is
to see it as part of a broader tradition, flourishing in the middle years of
the century, of Catholic anti-Capitalism. Place Chesterton and Belloc be-
side Amintore Fanfani of Italy, for example, and the similarities are strik-
ing. Writing in 1935, Fanfani produced a withering attack on Capitalism
as a creed of hedonistic individualism, impossible to reconcile with
Catholic teaching. "The Capitalist spirit," he thundered, "is that attitude
adopted by a man towards the problems of wealth, its acquisition and use,
when he holds that wealth is simply a means for the unlimited, individual-
istic, and utilitarian satisfaction of all possible human needs." Dis-
tributists would not have differed; in the face of such wrath, they would
not have dared.

Yet times change. As a movement, Distributism achieved only patchy


success. It was chronically underfunded, relied too heavily on the intellec-
tual patronage of a few men, was too much against the temper of its times,
shunned parliamentary engagement, and never quite recovered f r o m
Chesterton's death.^^ Likewise, the anti-Capitalist motif in Catholic writ-
ing has been moderated. Some Catholic intellectuals now praise a system
that their predecessors once condemned. I f Rerum Novarum was a Dis-
tributist document, then Centesimus Annus, with its qualified embrace of
the business economy, is not. What has happened? Does the Distributist
ideal have a future?
The most impressive rescue of Capitalism has come, predictably,
from the United States. A number of recent writers—Peter Berger, James
Wilson, Richard John Neuhaus—have skilfully lauded the American ex-
periment. One stands out: Michael Novak. Of him, it has been written that
perhaps no-one "has done more since Adam Smith to advance the moral
case for market economies." The Novakian project is indeed ambitious.
Unlike other celebrants of Capitalism who take their ground on the moral
neutrality of economics—free enterprise as a system that prospers and
thus requires no further scrutiny—Novak advances a greater claim. Capi-
talism, he says, represents not only efficient but virtuous economics, good

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for individuals as well as for societies. This is not quite the providential
claim that CapitaHsm works because it is morally superior; but it is close
to it.
Novak adumbrated the argument in The Spirit of Democratic Capital-
ism (1982). The timing was impeccable. Events in the Soviet Union and
in Eastern Europe made his case. By decade's end, democracy, i f not yet
Democratic Capitalism, was triumphant. Commentators have seen his in-
fluence in crucial passages of Centesimus Annus,^'^ where Pope John Paul
proposes for emerging nations "a business economy, a market economy,
or simply free economy." Most recently, Novak has produced The
Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1993), a response to Max
Weber, arguing that the historic rise of Capitalism owes more to Catholi-
cism than to Calvinism. It is heavy artillery, against which Distributism
(with its pleas for localism and smallness) may sound like a pop-gun.
But let us examine the case more closely. Novak is no apologist for
utilitarian efficiency or for survival of the economic fittest. The argument
is more urbane than that. Rather he sees Capitalism as part of a larger cul-
ture of human creativity. In fact, he resembles Distributists in two ways:
first, because his definition of Capitalism (like theirs) is very precise,
though not equivalent—what he praises is not what they condemn; sec-
ond, because he is interested less in economics per se than in anthropol-
ogy. He does not offer a prescription for prosperity so much as a vision of
man as producer, consumer, and provider. Distributists have been misun-
derstood, Novak has been misunderstood, and ( I suspect) Distributists and
Novak have often misunderstood each other.
What, then, is Novakian CapitaHsm? Largely enterprise. 'The Capi-
taUst spirit," he claims, "is creative, open, spontaneous, co-operative and
liberal in the sense of being innovative, generous and experimental." To
that extent, it is the highest economic expression of the creative subjectiv-
ity of the human person. It represents the best application of human intel-
ligence to the struggle for survival and prosperity. It is a form of co-oper-
ation with the Creator in the legitimate exploitation of the earth's
resources. It is transformative in a double sense: the earth is bountifully
transformed, its riches unlocked; and man himself, dignified by his cre-
ative inteUigence, is transformed into worthiness by his work.
Here is a noble scheme. As working definition, however, it leaves
something to be desired. The problem is obvious: Novak's classification
is so broad as to be heuristically meaningless. To speak of "human capi-

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tal"—inventiveness, knowledge, skill, enterprise, a capacity for organisa-


tion, habits of co-operation—is all very well: but it lends itself to circu-
lar argument. I f Capitalism be defined as benign material creativity, who
could reasonably be against it? And does everything in the category of be-
nign material creativity constitute Capitalism? I f this is Capitalism, every-
thing is Capitalism."^^
Such a spacious definition covers most contingencies, but covers
them so thinly that distinctions must immediately be made to prevent the
argument from collapse. Yet Novak's discriminations are surprisingly
undiscriminating. Whatever is materially creative expresses the spirit of
Capitalism, i f only by bringing human capital to a higher level of self-ex-
pression. Very well: but why does the pursuit of wealth for its own sake,
even i f conducted benignly, f a l l outside the model? Because Novak
wishes to deny that Capitalism is a philosophy of avarice. Yet to achieve
this, he is reduced to a categorically arbitrary empiricism. Listen to his
criticism of Fanfani. Fanfani, he says, argues that the Capitalist, qua Capi-
talist, has the single moral criterion of producing wealth. "But in the real
world," Novak writes, "this is absurd. The Capitalist is also a human be-
ing. To imagine someone so utterly fixated upon producing wealth, and
that alone, is not to imagine the ideal sketched by Adam Smith, John Stu-
art M i l l , Milton Friedman [and others].'"^! Thus, in the Novakian scheme
of things, one is led to the curious conclusion that everything is Capital-
ism but that no-one is Capitalist. Fanfani's thought-experiment—depict-
ing the behaviour of the Capitalist qua Capitalist—has the merit of creat-
ing a category. It is at least a workable heuristic. But Novak's denial of
the distinction does not erase the avarice that he wishes to deplore.

Nor is it wise to call the "real world" as witness. Manifest cupidity


does require explanation, and to assert that "Capitalism of its own nature
restrains greed" merely to fall into circularity: when greed occurs, it is
not the Capitalist qua Capitalist who is being greedy. Not only is this to
have it both ways, it is also to adduce a weak utiHtarian defence of Capi-
talist behaviour. To suggest that the Capitalist restrains cupidity merely
because it is bad for business is to depict an agent less noble than ex-
pected. The grander vision of the human person seems to thin into eco-
nomic consequentialism.
Let us agree, then, that Novak's technique is to rope together a series
of virtues, not all easily reconcilable, and call them "Capitalism": enter-
prise but also self-restraint, search for profit but also non-profiteering,

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Distributism, Democratic Capitalism and the New World Order

economic individualism but also social harmony, prosperity but also non-
consumerism. I f true, it sounds as i f the economist has succeeded where
the alchemist has failed. He has found the formula to turn base metal—in
this case, greed—into gold. How does he do it? By proposing that the
market is sufficiently self-regulating to make Capitalist excess impossible
because inefficient. Indeed, like Adam and Smith, he sees it not simply as
mechanism but as morality. I f it is to work, it requires those who partici-
pate in it "to practise a sensible regard for others." ^3 Thus any excess
which occurs is, by definition, non-Capitalist, because it does injury to
both the mechanism and the morality. The market, in sum, seems to repre-
sent the highest economic expression of the golden rule.

Here then is Adam Smith brought back to life. The marriage of mar-
kets and morals, announced in The Wealth of Nations, is consummated in
The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Notice the similarities.
Both works are rooted in a Lockean anthropology (in Novak, baptised
with some phenomonology from John Paul II) which sees man as perpetu-
ally active, perpetually creative. Both imagine that this activity is saved
from atomistic excess by the restraints of the market itself or by Capital-
ism's capacity to provide even the loser with gains. And both celebrate (in
strikingly similar terms) the civilising virtues of prosperity. It is man's
"continual motion," says Smith, which [has] "entirely changed the whole
face of the globe, turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fer-
tile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean . . . the great highroad
of communication to the different nations of the earth.^^ And, of modem
Italy, Novak writes, "The narrow winding roads of yore have been re-
placed by valley-arching autostrada as impressive as the ancient aque-
ducts. Shiny new automobiles are everywhere. The prosperity . . . posi-
tively ghstens." For all his denials, consumerism seems to be Dr. Novak's
patent balm for most social ills.

This confidence surely masks insecurity. The suspicion grows that, at


bottom, Novak's defence of Capitalism is no more coherent than IMan-
ning's a hundred year's ago. In both cases, the link is never persuasively
forged between an anthropology of work and a sociology of the market. It
is simply assumed that individual acts of creativity are themselves suffi-
cient to constitute a community of creative individuals. But when the
proof rests with a consumerism which has often destroyed communities,
physically and morally, replacing them with a mass culture injurious to
individualism, then the project collapses. Novak's only rescue is the fic-

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tion that the spread of proprietorship i n the West has produced au-
tonomous communities. Indeed, he thinks of himself as something of a
Distributist. More truthfully, it has produced greater social isolation than
before. As we have noticed, ownership alone—of house or car—need not
of itself reduce dependency. It may simply replace one form of rootless-
ness with another.

Now, these deficiencies in Novak's argument are potentially very se-


rious, because he has been claimed as a major influence on Centesimus
Annus^^ It would seem that i f one falls, so does the other. Is the latter,
then, any more convincing? In one important respect, yes. John Paul's
themes certainly have a Distributist ring. He defends private property
the family,"^7 the principle of subsidiarity,"^8 the economic autonomy of the
individual,'^^ the rights of labour,^^ the importance of real communities of
persons living in charitable solidarity.^! He attacks the injustices of unbri-
dled Capitalism,^^ tj^^ arrogance of collectivism,^^ the dangers of welfare-
dependency,^"^ the emptiness of consumerism,^^ and the hoUowness of de-
personalised mass c u l t u r e . A b o v e all, the Pope recognises that work and
property, state and economy, all exist within a culture which is morally
centred on man and must be judged in relation to the essential dignity of
the human person.^'^ "It is not wrong to want to live better," Pope John
Paul urges. "What is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be bet-
ter when it is directed towards 'having' rather than 'being,' and which
wants to have more not in order to be more but in order to spend life in
enjoyment as an end in itself."^^ In all these respects, Centesimus Annus
represents a strong endorsement of Distributist thought.

They are admirable premises, but what conclusions does John Paul
draw? These are offered in the most cited passage of the encyclical:

Should [Capitalism] be the goal of countries now making efforts


to rebuild their economy and society? The answer is obviously
complex. If by "Capitalism" is meant an economic system which
recognises the fundamental and positive role of business, the
market, private property, and the resulting responsibility for the
means of production, as well as free human creativity in the eco-
nomic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even
though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a "busi-
ness economy," a "market economy" or simply a "free econ-
omy." But if by "Capitalism" is meant a system in which free-
dom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong
juridical framework which places it at the service of human free-

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Distributism, Democratic Capitalism and the New World Order

dorn in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that


freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply
is certainly negative.

Perhaps it will be objected that this is no more coherent than previous at-
tempts to humanise Capitalism. It seems to fall between an anthropology
of work and a sociology of markets, hoping, like Pangloss, that all will be
for the best. But unlike Manning and Novak, John Paul does offer an inte-
grated vision of man and work, of economy and society. How? The an-
swer lies in the definition of the market. The encyclical certainly favours
"the free exercise of economic activity, which will lead to abundant op-
portunities for employment and sources of wealth." But what constitutes
freedom in this context? John Paul suggests that it presumes "a certain
[prior] equality between the parties such that one party would not be so
powerful as practically to reduce the other to subservience."

Now, this is precisely the Distributist thesis. What Centesimus Annus


calls subservience, Distributists used to call servility: social imbalance
justifying itself as economic "freedom," the former a desirable and in-
tended consequence of the latter. But that freedom is chimerical. John
Paul, with Distributists, sees it as enslavement—not simply to con-
sumerism; but, more significantly, to a determinism which accepts as in-
evitable "forces" beyond man's making.62 Proper freedom sees human
dignity resting in some kind of equality, though not in an imposed unifor-
mity. For Distributists, this rough equality would be achieved by widely
spread private property, by the break-up of large agglomerations of capital
and by their transfer to independent individual producers.

Pope John Paul's logic points in a similar direction. Without endors-


ing a particular model,^^ ^ j ^ ^ encyclical again and again echoes the lan-
guage of a Distributist inheritance. Remember, for example, Vincent Mc-
Nabb on the value of small markets: "The most efficient social and
economic unit is one wherein the area of production tends to be co-termi-
nous with the area of consumption." JQJ^J^ p^ui agrees: "It would appear
that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to
them."^^ He speaks here of charity and welfare, but the point applies to
economic activity more broadly defined. Thus the encyclical's approval
of co-operatives^^ (whether factories or farms), which tend to be small,
local, efficient, self-regulating, conscious of shared goods, but also of in-
dividual effort. Thus, too, the approval of credit unions,^^ wherein local
funds meet local needs and interest rates are not usuriously high. In myr-

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iad ways, Centesimus Annus brings a story full circle. Rerum Novarum in-
spired some intellectuals to a social vision that they called Distributism.
The anniversary encyclical re-states and deepens that vision, providing it
with philosophical tools for another century.
And so, as we contemplate that century, some conclusions are in or-
der. Throughout Eastern Europe, societies and economies are re-inventing
themselves: a rare and glorious moment. Naturally, they do not lack for
advice, our Zagrebian deliberations not excluded. Indeed much of that ad-
vice comes from the United States, where it is complacently assumed that
free-market Capitalism stands unchallenged as the model to adopt. This is
sometimes code for a political philosophy of ineffable banality, as i f the
events of 1989 were merely to make the world safe for MacDonald's,
Coca-Cola, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Abundance, American-style,
has its price: witness consumerism, a sterile mass culture, suburban alien-
ation, ignorance of the natural world. Capitalism may claim to enrich the
many, but often its product is civic impoverishment. "The business of
America," Calvin Coolidge once asserted, "is business." When business
becomes mere busyness, the spirit has died.
Distributism offers more coherent discernment: a regime of small
ownerships and local attachments, a creed of property but not possessive-
ness. Central to it is a notion of life in community, whether in the town or
the family farm or the parish or the religious order: human organisations
with a soul. The rootlessness of city or suburb, however affluent, holds no
appeal. And it is precisely modest proprietorship which permits individual
independence while preserving social responsibility. Owning one's own
land, one's shop; practising a trade or a skill; sharing profit or loss with
one's fellow workers: these were the Distributist ideals.

There is a further point. Distributism sets its face against acquisitive-


ness; but it remains, in the proper sense of the word, a materialist philoso-
phy. The great English Distributists—McNabb, Chesterton, Belloc—all
understood and celebrated the physicality of the world, seeing in its very
solidity a kind of sacrament, recognising a joyful variety in nature's cele-
bration of itself. They knew the importance of a religion of things: of
bread broken, of meals shared. Distributism, in its own way, is a version
of that elementality. It endorses property not merely as a means towards
an end, but as a form of earthy and earthly belonging. " A multitude of
men is standing on their own feet," Chesterton remarked in The Outline of
Sanity, "because they are standing on their own land." It is a vision of re-

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Distributism, Democratic Capitalism and the New World Order

markable resilience. But this should not surprise us. Distributism lays
claim to abiding truths about the purpose of property and the dignity of
work in a free society. I f that purpose is enrichment, it is moral enrich-
ment. I f that dignity lies in creation, it is in the creation of good things. I f
that freedom means choice, it means the freedom to choose wisely. And i f
that society means anything, it means the sociability of individuals honest
enough to acknowledge mutual dependence. "Our business is business,"
claimed Coolidge. "What," he seems to demand of the Distributist, "is
yours?" Quietly, and with no great claim to originality, the Distributist an-
swers: "our business is the business of life itself."

1 K.L. Kendrick as quoted by Michael Coren, Gilbert: The Man Who Was G.K.
Chesterton (London, 1989), p. 235.
2 G.K. Chesterton, G.K. 's: A Miscellany of the First 500 issues of G.K. 's Weekly
(London, 1934), pp. 15-16.
^ See for example G.P. McEntee, The Catholic Social Movement in Great Britain
(New York, 1927), pp. 111-117.
^ G.K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity (London, 1926), p. 108.
^ Aristotle as quoted by L.H. Haney, History of Economic Thought (New York,
1949), p. 62.
^ John Ruskin, Unto this Last (London, 1862), Essay iii, p. 54.
Rerum Novarum, quoted by Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (London,
1944), p. 437.
^ Appropriately, one may suppose, a similar fate has befallen Centesimus Annus.
^ G.K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity, p. 63.
10 See Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (London, 1944), p. 435.
See, for example, Brocard Sewell, "Devereux Nights: A Distributist Memoir" in
John Sulhvan (ed.), G.K. Chesterton: Centenary Appraisal (London, 1974).
12 G.K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity, p. 31.
1^ The Distributist Programme (London, 1934), p. 8.
The Distributist Programme, p. 3.
1^ Vincent McNabb, Francis Thompson and Other Essays (London, 1955), p. 75.
16 Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (New York, 1946), p. 53.
Vincent McNabb, Francis Thompson and Other Essays (London, 1954), p. 22.
1^ G.K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity, p. 56.
19 Walter Shewring, Topics (London, 1940), p. 62.
2^ Criticism of the practice of "dumping" was a Distributist favourite. See, for ex-
ample, G.K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity (London, 1926), p. 101 ff.
21 Vincent McNabb, Old Principles and the New Order (London, 1942), p. 12 (My
italics).
22 Vincent McNabb, Francis Thompson and Other Essays (London, 1935), p. 75.
2^ See D.A. Quinn, "Distributism as Movement and Ideal" in The Chesterton Re-
view, Vol. XIX, No. 2 (May, 1993), p. 160 f f
24 See, above all, Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (London, 1911).
25 See G.K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity, p. 80.

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26 The Distributist Programme, pp. 14 ff.


G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity, p. 37.
2^ r/ie Distributist Programme, p. 12.
29 See D.A. Quinn, "Distributism as Movement and Ideal," in The Chesterton Re-
view, Vol. XDC, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 165-166.
H. E. Manning, The Dignity and Rights of Labour (London, 1934), p. 11.
^1 H.E. Manning, The Dignity and Rights of Labour, p. 28.
^2 H.E. Manning, The Dignity and Rights of Labour, p. 18.
See D.A. Quinn, "Manning, Chesterton and Social Catholicism," in The
Chesterton Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 4 (November, 1992), p. 507.
^'^ Amitore Fanfani, as quoted by Michael Novak, The Catholic Ethic and the
Spirit of Capitalism (New York, 1993), p. 18.
^5 Such at least are the reasons offered by Brocard Sewell. See John Sullivan, ed.,
G.K. Chesterton: Centenary Appraisal (London, 191 A), pp. 142 ff.
^6 First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, Number 36, Octo-
ber 1993, p. 66.
^'^ First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, p. 67.
Michael Novak, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York,
1993), p. 23.
^9 Michael Novak, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, p. 9.
A passage in Chesterton (The Outline of Sanity, p. 6) comes to mind: " I f the use
of capital is capitalism, then everything is capitalism. Bolshevism is capitalism, and an-
archist communism is capitalism; and every revolutionary scheme, however wild, is
still capitalism . . . In that case, the word is useless. My use of it may be arbitrary, but it
is not useless. I f capitalism means private property, I am capitalist. If capitalism means
capital, everybody is capitalist."
Michael Novak, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York,
1993), p. 30.
"^2 Michael Novak, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, p. 30.
Michael Novak, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, p. 27.
The citation is from The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1790) IV. 1. 10.
'^^ See John Sullivan, ed., G.K. Chesterton: Centenary Appraisal, pp. 142 ff.
Centesimus Annus, 6.
Centesimus Annus, 39.
Centesimus Annus, 10.
Centesimus Annus, 15.
5^ Centesimus Annus, 8.
51 Centesimus Annus, 49.
52 Centesimus Annus, 8.
5^ Centesimus Annus, 17, 26.
5"* Centesimus Annus, 48.
55 Centesimus Annus, 33.
56 Centesimus Annus, 49.
5^ Centesimus Annus, 11.
5^ Centesimus Annus, 36.
59 Centesimus Annus, 15.
60 Echoing Rerum Novarum.
61 Centesimus Annus, 15.

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Distributism, Democratic Capitalism and the New World Order

Centesimus Annus, 40.


The Distributist Programme (London, 1934), p. 14, no. 2.
Centesimus Annus, 43.
Vincent McNabb, Old Principles and the New Order (New York, 1942), p. 12.
Centesimus Annus, 48.
Centesimus Annus, 16.
Centesimus Annus, 16.

Rab

187