The recent esays on distributism and the many comments in response raised a number of interesting questions and also revealed that a number of readers, including myself, were to varying degrees perplexed as to both distributism’s aims and methods of implementation. While John Médaille’s five part series on distributism clarified a great deal, the discussion inspired me to return to one of the original proponents of distributism, Hillare Belloc, in order to understand something of the intellectual heritage of a view of political economy about which I had only heard that it was “perhaps good in theory, but utterly impracticable.” What follows is the first of a few reflections on Belloc’s An Essay on the Restoration of Property, one Belloc’s three works in which he advocates a distributist economy.
A Matter of Mere Semantics?
Some comments in response to the recent posts on distributism suggest that the term “distributism” smacks of redistribution—the idea that wealth should be taken from the have’s and given to the have not’s. While I agree that distributism does perhaps bear this unfortunate connotation, Belloc’s works on distributism contains language that elucidates the main premise of distributism. Additionally, Belloc uses another name for his economy that may help to eliminate the terminological confusion that “distributism” might somehow be synonymous with what could be called “redistributism.”
In his Essay on the Restoration of Property, Belloc describes distributism as a society in which sufficiency and security are joined with freedom because “property is so well distributed and so large a proportion of families in the State severally OWN and therefore control the means of production as to determine the general tone of society.” Belloc contrasts this type of society, where many, if not most, families own property, with a capitalist one, where the private ownership of property is concentrated in the hands of very few, as well as with a communist one, where most, if not all, property is owned by the state. Thus, according to Belloc, distributism aims principally at two things: (1) more widespread ownership of private property; and (2) the economic freedom that results from the the ownership of private property.
While Belloc often describes the type of economy he is advocating as “distributist,” he also refers to it as “proprietary,” due to the idea that a truly free economy requires the widest distribution of private property as possible. Given that “distributism” refers principally to a society where the private ownership of property is wide spread, it would certainly be clearer and more accurate to use another of Belloc’s terms to describe this type of economy; that is “Proprietary economy.” This term not only highlights distributism’s emphasis on the more widespread ownership of private property, but avoids the admittedly off-putting connotation the term “distributism” carries with it.
Admittedly, this terminological substitution could be mere sematics without substance. Even if “Proprietary economy” avoids the untoward connotation of a wholesale redistribution of property, the question raised in several comments related to the posts discussing distributism still remains; namely, how we would institute such an economy if, in fact, our economy is not sufficiently proprietary? There is nothing in Belloc’s description of a proprietary economy that requires that the government redistribute property to ensure that a large proportion of families own property. But it does appear to be true that one way to accomplish this goal might be to do exactly that.
Now if government redistribution of property is the only way to make the transition from a non-proprietary state to a proprietary one, then however good the end of wide spread ownership of property may be, many of us would consider the means of getting there too treacherous, for it offends our distaste for excessive government intervention in the market. Nevertheless, in this case it may still be worth asking whether such government intervention is not the evil we suppose it is, especially given the good Belloc believes can only be achieved through a proprietary economy. My next reflection on Belloc’s work will consider this question as to whether the death knell for distributism, as some comments have suggested, is that a proprietary economy can only be established through such drastic and intolerable means.
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