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Fantasy__038816_In a very interesting interview in Catholic World Report, Jay W. Richards, co-author of The Hobbit Party, a new book examining the political thought of J. R. R. Tolkien, sought to distance Tolkien from the political views of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Whilst paying lip service to the romantic aspirations of distributism, the political creed advocated by Belloc and Chesterton, Richards suggests that the devil is in the practical details of distributism:

The difficulty, we think, is that Belloc in particular didn’t simply offer an appealing ideal. He proposed some very specific policies to bring about a distributist society, and he did so with economic ideas that we think were in some ways mistaken. For instance, in his Essay on the Restoration of Property, Belloc wrote that “the effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice.” In contrast, in “The Scouring of the Shire,” Tolkien describes a group of bossy outsiders who have infiltrated the Shire, “gatherers and sharers . . . going around counting and measuring and taking off to storage,” supposedly “for fair distribution.” It’s not a complimentary picture. Given Tolkien’s views about the use of coercive power to achieve presumably laudable goals, it’s hard to imagine him signing off on the details of Belloc’s program.

After admitting that the question of distributism is “complicated”, Richards concludes that “in order to glean wisdom from Tolkien’s economic views … it’s better to describe Tolkien’s views on their own terms rather than to identify them with those of other thinkers, such as Chesterton and Belloc.”

I am quite frankly perplexed by Richards’ line of reasoning. In “The Scouring of the Shire,” the hobbits, like good Bellocian distributists, are certainly not “hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice.” On the contrary, they are all too ready to take up arms to restore the distributism that the Shire had enjoyed prior to their departure. How on earth, or in Middle-earth, can the hobbits’ restoration of the property of the Shire, using all necessary force, be seen to contradict Belloc’s advocacy of exactly the same thing in his Essay on the Restoration of Property?

LOTR1Apart from the self-contradictory nature of Richards’ efforts to distance Tolkien from Belloc, Richards himself openly advocates “the use of force as the handmaid of Justice” in his strident defence of Tolkien’s adherence to Just War theory.

At this point we are becoming somewhat confused. Not only does Tolkien agree with Belloc’s position but so does Richards!

We have to dig beneath the incoherent surface to understand what Richards is trying to say. His argument is not with the use of force per se but with the use of economic force. As an adherent to the nonsensical creed of the free market libertine, Richards advocates the legitimacy of using force of arms to restore property taken unjustly but not the force of law. It is legitimate to kill people and to drop bombs in order to restore property to its rightful owners but it is not legitimate to enact laws to do so.

Belloc advocates legal intervention to restore justice in the economy, such as, for instance, proactive measures to assist small businesses to gain and retain a place in the marketplace in the face of efforts by large corporations to exclude them from it. Richards makes the all too common and naive mistake of equating Belloc’s political philosophy with that of socialism and then, having done so, states, quite correctly, that Tolkien was not a socialist. The fact is that Belloc opposed the way in which both socialism and globalist capitalism concentrate property into the hands of a privileged few, i.e. politicians and plutocrats. The answer to this injustice was to promote small businesses and to use the power of politics to do so. Such political intervention is not liked by free market libertarians who seem to believe that it’s better to have the world run by global corporations who have free rein (and reign) to use and abuse their economies of scale to monopolize control of the market.

Richards’ reasoning is simple and simplistic. He begins by demonstrating that Tolkien disapproves of socialism, the “gatherers and sharers … going around counting and measuring and taking off to storage,” supposedly “for fair distribution.” He then suggests that Belloc’s advocacy of distributism is itself socialist, even though Belloc always vehemently attacked socialism. The problem seems to be that Richards does not make the essential and crucial distinction between socialist “redistribution of wealth” and the restoration of widely distributed private property which the distributists advocate. Whereas socialists believe that private property is bad and that it should be controlled by the state, distributists believe that private property is good and that it should therefore be restored to as many people as possible as a defence against the power of the state. It is simply incorrect to equate or conflate these diametrically opposed philosophies.

It is also curious that Richards is keen to quote Tolkien’s opposition to socialism but neglects to mention his graphic depiction, a few pages later, of the ravages inflicted by the laissez faire capitalism of the industrial revolution:

It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. The great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the Water, through rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a streaming and stinking outflow. All along the Bywater Road every tree had been felled.

As they crossed the bridge and looked up the Hill they gasped. Even Sam’s vision in the Mirror had not prepared him for what they saw. The Old Grange on the west side had been knocked down, and its place taken by rows of tarred sheds. All the chestnuts were gone. The banks and hedgerows were broken. Great wagons were standing in disorder in a field beaten bare of grass. Bagshot Row was a yawning sand and gravel quarry. Bag End up beyond could not be seen for a clutter of large huts.

SatelliteAs a boy, Tolkien had lived in the “rows of new mean houses along each side of the road”, i.e. the slums, of industrialized Birmingham, which, as the second largest city in England, had been, until the advent of the industrial revolution, a small Warwickshire village. Describing himself in one of his letters as “a hobbit,” Tolkien preferred what Birmingham had been in its pre-industrial past to what it had become in the wake of the advent of laissez faire economics. Like William Blake, who had lamented the “dark satanic mills,” and Gerard Manley Hopkins, who had bemoaned the industrial “smudge” that man had left on Creation, Tolkien preferred agrarian sanity and simplicity to the poisonous fruits of so-called economic “progress.”

And as for the necessity of the so-called “force” of economic intervention to restore productive property to those who have been dispossessed by the onslaught of laissez faire, Tolkien would have agreed with Chesterton. “The foundation of the true doctrine of progress is that all things tend to get worse,” wrote Chesterton. “Man must perpetually interfere to resist a natural degeneration; if man does not reform a thing Nature will deform it. He must always be altering the thing even in order to keep it the same.” Chesterton used the example of a gatepost to illustrate this point, stating that we cannot preserve a gatepost by leaving it alone. If we leave it alone we will be leaving it to rot. If we wish to preserve the gatepost we have to be continually painting it. The sort of intervention that Belloc was advocating was of this sort. To conserve culture or property we must actively oppose those forces that seek to undermine it; to restore culture or property, once it is lost, we must be actively engaged in defeating those forces that have dispossessed us of it. Doing nothing, leaving things be, “laissez faire”, is not an option for the true conservative or distributist because it ensures the destruction of all that is worthy of conservation and restoration. It is in this context that we must understand Belloc’s advocacy of the use of force “as the handmaid of Justice,” It is also in this context that we must understand the hobbits’ use of force in achieving the restoration of property in the Shire.

It is true, as Dr. Richards maintains, that Tolkien never seems to have called his own political philosophy by the admittedly ugly name of “distributism.” It is equally true, however, that Shire economics and distributist economics are essentially synonymous. When all is said and done, economic sanity by any other name still smells as sweet!

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57 replies to this post
  1. Mr. Pearce, Thank you for this lively and restorative essay! I know so little about distributism and this seems like a foot in the door. I also very much appreciate being dragged deeper into the Scourging of the Shire, it is time for another read of LOTR. I agree that Belloc, Chesterton and Tolkien shared much of a mind and perhaps a whole heart. God bless you!

  2. Thank you, Joseph, for this excellent, gentle but firm rebuke of what has become for scholars associated with The Acton Institute and all too common theme in their dismissal of Distributism as little more than a quaint disposition, a mere “aesthetic”, in contrast to the real-world economics of market capitalism. You may recall that I spoke with you at your recent appearance at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids about this very subject. I doubt that your effort here will convince Richards or his Acton colleagues to surmount their prejudices regarding Distributism, nor give them pause in their on-going efforts to distort and misconstrue Distributism, but perhaps it may serve to spur their basic decency (to which I readily attest) and soften their ideological tendentiousness toward Distributism. One may hope.

  3. Dear Mr. Pearce, I’m afraid you have misunderstood the true nature of the free market objection to distributism. The problem is not that distributism is inherently socialist. We know distributism is not socialist. What we think is that distributism, if followed to its logical conclusion, would require continual government intervention to maintain it that would make it the moral equivalent of socialism. Here is an example that will illustrate the dilemma some of us see: Imagine a community where everyone has been given their forty acres and a cow (I know, I know, the forty acres and a cow is an analogy, but the analogy works, so lets go with it). One man’s cow gets sick and dies. Another man makes a poor decision and loses his cow to pay a debt. The man who ends up with two cows sells one, and uses the proceeds to buy a bull. Over time, he ends up with ten cows. He hires the men who have lost their cows to tend his herd. Before you know it, he owns a “factory farm”, and everyone works for him. So the process of distribution must begin again. The man who owns all the cows certainly objects, but, curiously, so do some of his employees, who did not enjoy the risk of being a sole proprietor, and are content to earn a paycheck. So the distributist faces a dilemma: either he allows the situation to continue as it is, or he resorts to force to redistribute the cows and land once again. And if he decides to use force, he is, my friend, the moral equivalent of a socialist.

    The man who ends up with all the cows is not morally blameless. According to Catholic teaching he should voluntarily redistribute some of the cows, treat his workers justly, and exercise good stewardship of the land he has gained. However, even if he does none of these things, the state should have no right to forcibly redistribute his land. A state that is willing to do such things in the name of justice will soon lose the ability to distinguish between justice and the exercise of power for power’s sake. Convinced that the cause is just, the state will commit evil in order that good will come about in the end. This is what history has shown us, and this is what I fear would happen.

    To sum up, I am in favor of voluntary redistribution, but deeply fearful of state redistribution, even when voluntary redistribution does not occur.

    PS I have no relation to the Acton Institute. I’m just a private individual who, like the Gaffer Gamgee, “can’t abide change, especially change for the worst.”

  4. “And as for the necessity of the so-called ‘force’ of economic intervention to restore productive property to those who have been dispossessed by the onslaught of laissez faire, Tolkien would have agreed with Chesterton.”

    This seems to me a stretch. The restoration of the Shire at the end of Lord of the Rings is a use of physical force to restore actual property previously owned by members of the Shire and taken from them. Saruman’s forces do, of course, upend an economic system and replace it with an Industrial-Revolution-type system, but we’re still talking about the restoration of property actually owned by members of the Shire. To suggest that that is proof that Tolkien would have thought it acceptable for government to use its power over the economy/make laws to redistribute property on an everyone-owns-productive-property-basis seems to me a stretch. Perhaps those were his personal views, perhaps not, but I don’t think the Lord of the Rings provides proof that that’s what Tolkien believed.

    In general, I am extremely reluctant to attempt to extrapolate an author’s philosophy from a work of literature. The literary approach precludes the straightforward answer of philosophy, and a work of literature may contain things that the author didn’t intend but are nevertheless present in his work. I can think of authors/playwrights whose personal views/outlook I would thoroughly disagree with but whose works reflect great truth — and perhaps truth in tension with their personal views. Furthermore, sorting out the author’s point of view, as distinct from the narrator’s or those of characters in the novel/play, is not always easy or clear. Most importantly, perhaps, I think literature seldom delivers any kind of prescription. I think it generally tends to illuminate the questions rather than deliver straightforward answers.

    It’s obviously more than fair to say that the Lord of the Rings reflects a love for the agrarian life of the hobbits and a suspicion of industry/Industrial Revolution-type projects. I don’t think, however, that we can take from the Lord of the Rings an endorsement of any particular political philosophy or, especially, any particular political program.

  5. On a slightly different track from my previous comment, I find it interesting that the Lord of the Rings shows that the hobbits’ way of life cannot exist on its own. It’s certainly portrayed as a desirable way of life, but it cannot exist without the efforts of the Rangers, who live in a very different society (if they can be said to live in society at all — but at least they come from a very different society). Furthermore, when the hobbits restore the Shire at the end of the novel, they do so using skills they have acquired from outside their society.

    The quest itself is ultimately accomplished by the hobbits, but again, they are not sufficient on their own. They need the help of the other members of the company to get them to Mordor. Even in Mordor, their efforts alone are not enough — they need the efforts of the city of Gondor and its allies to focus Sauron’s attention away from Sam and Frodo.

    If we are going to extrapolate any political commentary from the novel — which I am reluctant to do, per my comment above — it seems Tolkien may be saying that Shire-life may be the most desirable regime, but it is not a fully practicable one. Put another way, the novel certainly suggests that in a fallen world, the Shire system is not sufficient in itself. It certainly is not a system that can spread across all of Middle Earth. Again, though, I think it’s a stretch to suggest that the Lord of the Rings offers endorsements of specific political plans in the real world. Better perhaps to say that it holds up the ideals of Shire society while also showing other necessary elements that must be part of society in a fallen world.

    • Well said. I am writing a book on Distributism right now, and one of the criticisms I constantly point at it is that it needs outside help to survive, thereby making it unrealistic.

      • “I am writing a book on Distributism right now, and one of the criticisms I constantly point at it is that it needs outside help to survive…”

        One could level the same charge against capitalism. The crony-capitalism of the United States and the socialist welfare states of Europe were all born of capitalism. If anything, this criticism only proves Chesterton correct in his assertion that constant vigilance is required to maintain any system.

        This does not necessarily mean that distributism is a viable system, but this criticism alone is insufficient.

        Stated another way: the international merchant oligarchy currently being bred by crony capitalism has proven itself exceedingly effective in producing and manipulating wealth, and it receives plenty of government support in the forms of subsidies, grants, trade laws, and tax legislation.

    • “I find it interesting that the Lord of the Rings shows that the hobbits’ way of life cannot exist on its own. It’s certainly portrayed as a desirable way of life, but it cannot exist without the efforts of the Rangers, who live in a very different society…”

      In TA 2747, roughly 250 years before the events of LotR, the Shire was attacked by an army of orcs and goblins. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the only canon instance of the Shire being attacked by an outside force prior to the Battle of Bywater. During this conflict the hobbits formed an army led by Bandobras “Bullroarer” Took, and the force of orcs and goblins was soundly defeated at the Battle of Greenfields.

      At the Battle of Bywater the hobbits again formed a military force and were able to drive out the evil men led by the fallen wizard Saruman.

      Now, it is true that the Rangers protected the Shire, it is their interference which has allowed Shire society to develop as it has insofar as many of Bilbo and Frodo’s contemporaries can barely conceive of conflict prior to Saruman’s invasion, but Tolkien’s canon makes it clear that hobbits and even the proto-hobbits from which Smeagol came have shared a similar cultural identity for hundreds of years. That is, they have always been lovers of a simple and agrarian lifestyle. Yet, at the Battle of Greenfields they showed themselves capable of defending themselves. On the other hand, at the Battle of Bywater the hobbits required the presence of Frodo and company to unite them. What changed?

      I propose that one could make a reasonable argument that the Rangers themselves weakened hobbit society. Hobbits had for at least 200 years been under no obligation to protect themselves, and so when Saruman arrived with his band of evil men they were unprepared to offer any sort of resistance until they were revitalized by the infusion of foreign militaristic influences introduced by Merry and Pippin. I will not try to apply any sort of political message to this situation, but to say that the hobbits *need* a metaphorical big brother to beat up the bullies does not address the complete picture. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that the Shire might have been wiped out sometime prior to the events of The Hobbit without the protective shield provided by the Rangers, but it is also possible that the hobbits would have continued to find effect means of defending themselves. Regardless, what we can say for certain is that the Rangers fundamentally altered Shire society, not by turning hobbits in the direction of distributism, but by forcing the Shire to exist in an illusory state (a subsidized state?). The hobbit ideals which the author identifies with distributism and which Dr. Richards tries to alienate from distributism existed well before the coming of the Rangers.

      What this means is that you are, in a way, correct when you say that the hobbit’s way of life cannot exist on its own, but this is true precisely because hobbit society as it exists at the time of The Hobbit and LotR is in many ways a construct of outside forces; it is, as I have already suggested, an illusion.

      “The quest itself is ultimately accomplished by the hobbits, but again, they are not sufficient on their own. They need the help of the other members of the company to get them to Mordor. Even in Mordor, their efforts alone are not enough — they need the efforts of the city of Gondor and its allies to focus Sauron’s attention away from Sam and Frodo.”

      This speaks more to the physiological and psychological realities of hobbit nature, the limitations of Frodo and company, and the overwhelming power of Sauron (an enemy which can be easily identified with the Industrial Revolution) than to economic systems. Hobbits are small, physically weaker than men, elves, and dwarves, and Frodo and company have no military training. The martial tradition of Gondor and Rohan was forged by the necessity of a constant physical and mortal threat posed by orcs and goblins, and neither of these cultures represent anything like free market societies; they are both feudal systems.

      “It certainly is not a system that can spread across all of Middle Earth. Again, though, I think it’s a stretch to suggest that the Lord of the Rings offers endorsements of specific political plans in the real world.”

      That is all well and good, but the article was less concerned with distributism as a viable economic theory than it was with correcting Dr. Richard’s misrepresentation of distributism and the Shire. Even if my original hypothesis is true – that the Shire of Bilbo and Frodo’s day is an illusion created by the interference of foreign nomadic warriors and militaristic feudal societies – we can still say that the hobbits naturally cleave to a particular way of life which closely resembles distributism in many respects.

  6. Actually, MK, the only thing that the Shire lacks is a military defense and the desire to trade with outsiders – neither of which is opposed by distributism. Other than that, the Shire is completely self-sufficient. (It should also be noted that, in the end, it was not the Rangers, but the Hobbits themselves to reclaimed the Shire by military force.)

    • Yes, the hobbits themselves reclaim the Shire, but, as I mentioned above, they do it using skills they learned outside of their society, not from it. Shire society is not reclaimed by Shire society, but by the society of Gondor and Rohan, which the hobbits have absorbed. Also, while distributism may not object to a military force, the novel itself suggests that Shire society cannot exist on its own. This is why I think it’s dangerous to layer political philosophies over the novel. Shire society may look like distributism, but while distributism may embrace armies and trade, Shire society doesn’t. In fact, one of the reasons Sam is able to reenter Shire society is because he has an ability to put aside the life he has been leading (war, traveling, etc.) and return to his agrarian life. The novel does not suggest a place for the warrior life in Shire society. We can’t take distributist philosophy and suggest that because the Shire has a resemblance to distributism, Tolkien must therefore be assenting to all the tenets of distributism and suggesting that Shire society is both the ideal and a fully workable society. That is to go outside the confines of the novel. The novel makes two things clear: Shire society is desirable and admirable, and it does not exist without other kinds of society — Gondor, the Rangers, etc. One can argue that Shire society could exist and work, particularly if one is willing to embrace a warrior class (since no society can exist without one in a fallen world), but to say that Tolkien suggests or embraces that in the novel is I think to miss the fact that in many ways the novel suggests the opposite — that Shire life is not something that can exist without other kinds of lives that protect it/support it.

      • While I accept your assertion that the Hobbits needed to learn defensive skills that were foreign to their outlook, I this is more a peculiarity of Tolkien’s perspective based on his personal experience of the horrors of war than any true incompatibilty of Shire life and military defense. I don’t think that anyone would argue that the Shire is a perfect representation of distributism (except in a utopian world without conflict) any more than Mondragon is in the modern age (because it has to operate on a scale that can compete in a capitalist economic environment.

        Instead, I believe that it is more akin to the Three Estates of the Medieval Era where the Nobility was charged with defense of the land and not very involved in local economic matters. However, even in those times, locals who were pretty much unconcerned in state matters on a daily basis were called upon for some military matters as occurred in the example of the Shire. Like the peasants of those time, Sam returned to his normal life afterward and left the task of military defense to those whose role it was in the overall society.

        This is actually not so different than it is for us today, if you give it full consideration.

  7. Actually, MK, the only thing the Shire lacked was a means of military defense (this is where the protection of the Rangers came in) and the desire to trade with outsiders – neither of which is opposed by distributism. Distributism does not require or even advocate the type of isolationism desired by the Hobbits. It should also be noted that, in the end, it was the Hobbits and not the Rangers who recovered the Shire by military force.

  8. “A state that is willing to do such things in the name of justice will soon lose the ability to distinguish between justice and the exercise of power for power’s sake. ”

    I agree with this 100%. There’s an old saying “Who watches the watchers?”. Well, in this case, who watches the distributors? Who can be trusted with this sort of power over people’s livelihoods? Realistically, no one. All this does is sound like a milder version of Marxism.

  9. Against redistribution… So you are against taxation? What’s with you Americans? One party (Communist Party) socialism, with the exception of the brief glimmer of hope with ‘Gorby’ communism, was an unmigitated disaster but there are Socialist governments regularly in Europe. Give onto Caesar and don’t expect too much from him. But I like to insure myself against hard times. It is usual for an Irish person to spend time on welfare… not just the underclass. Distributism (often called ‘Green Economics’) advocates the creative use of a taxation system. The free market is a bad idea because once ‘freed’ the rich will mould it to their liking. We small folk need the protection of a genuinely democratiic government not a pseudo democratic plutocracy. 40 acres and a cow is utter equality. Small business is to be commended. The problem with bigger firms is their innate tendency to abuse power.

  10. There is an issue here: “Whereas socialists believe that private property is bad and that it should be controlled by the state, distributists believe that private property is good and that it should therefore be restored to as many people as possible as a defence against the power of the state.”

    But who is doing the restoring? If it is the state, and if the state does so by taking things for fair distribution – whether it’s actually fair, or perhaps whether you think it is actually fair, or not – then the state is actually controlling it. You carefully use the word “restore” quiet a lot, but what does this mean? I never owned three acres and a cow, and you take these from a big business and give them to me, you aren’t restoring to me what someone else has taken from me (as in the hobbits return to he shire), you are stealing what someone else has to give me.

    This is the distinction that you are failing to mention in “force as the handmaid of justice.” There is a large difference between the force used to take what was actually stolen from the hobbits and return it to them, and using force to take what you think ought to be mine (or yours) from people who definitely did not steal it (even if you don’t like how they acquired it) from me or anyone else and then give (a, I mean “restore”) it to me (or yourself).

    Now of course if that’s not what you mean by using force – if instead you mean simply setting up rules that are themselves fair but that encourage property to move in the direction that you think is best, then that’s not in fact using force at all. But when ever you talk about using force to redistribute property how you think best – whether you say you value personal property and are a distrubist, or hate it and are a socialist – you are in fact the one controlling the property, not the people who you claim to wish to “restore” it to.

    Or if you want another lord of the rings analogy, the end goal of distrubism may be fine, but attain in the way of Gandalf, not the the way of Saruman. Guide things how they ought to go, and raise armies to defend against actual unjust violence, but not just against people making decisions you don’t care for. Even if you know, for certain, that you are right.

  11. Great article!. Tolkien knew very well and like the works of Chesterton, and probably those of Belloc too. He defined himself as “not incapable or unaware of economic thought” and defended that “as for the ‘mortals’ go, Men, Hobbits and Dwarfs, (…) the situations are so devised that economic likelihood is there and could be worked out”.

    A very important point not mentioned in the article and where Tolkien and Belloc meet, is that when Saruman´s minion took control of the Shire the former farmers and owners became workers in the mill or farm labourers without lands. By losing their properties, they lost their economic independence and so their political rights.

    But there is also room for divergence: Tolkien criticism against the “modern” world was focused on the machines and their evil effect on human souls (I think he blamed machines, combinated with human greed, for World Wars), while Belloc (the servile state) thought that without concentration of property a certain but slower industrial revolution could have happen and its effects could have been positive. But previously stablished concentration of poperty (after the so called Reformation) made the industrial revolution being as it was. So, to simplify, Tolkien blamed machines and Belloc human institutions. As Mr. Pearce says, Belloc would propose to change laws to promote small bussiness and distribution of property. But, what would have been Tolkien´s policies? Probably much more radical than those of Belloc (see what happen to the fire-powered mill and to the Shire´s iron production after the hobbits liberate the Shire).

  12. Carl Marks (love the name, by the way), I am not against redistribution. I am against forcible redistribution (The key word here is ‘forcible’). I prefer the voluntary redistribution that is Christian charity first, and the rational redistribution that is taxation and government welfare as the second best alternative. But the forcible taking of people’s property in the name of some higher form of justice only creates greater injustice. And you can’t maintain the kind of equality distributism envisions without taking from some and giving to others on a constant basis.

    This world is not perfect. There are no perfect economic systems, just as there are no perfect people. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” (James Madison, Federalist 6) But we’re not angels, so we are forced to settle for the least bad system possible. And that system, for all its flaws, is what we currently have.

    I’m not blind to the weaknesses and injustices of capitalism. It’s just that I don’t see a better alternative. Distributism is not the answer, because it will end in either the “tyranny of the redistributors”, or the reversion to capitalism.

    • Carl Sommer, the fact that you refer to the “tyranny of the of the redistributors” indicates clearly that you do not understand the way distributism works. There is no committee of redistribution where the government decides who gets what and takes from those who have in order to redistribute to those who have not. What there might be instead is something like a policy imposed by a local community – not the state – that says that future transfers of title (other than inheritance) for property within its jurisdiction must be to a resident of the jurisdiction. In other words, if you are a remote owner and you want to maintain the ownership you have legally obtained under our capitalist system, your ownership will not be violated. If you with to pass own your property to your heirs, that will not be violated. If you choose to sell, you are free to sell to any resident of the community, but not to another remote owner unless that person, upon purchase of the property, will become a resident of that community.

      This is merely a possible example, but it should be sufficient to show that your “tyranny of redistributors” simply cannot exist under distributism because it doesn’t fit in with subsidiarity. Under distributism, the state would not have that kind of power.

      http://practicaldistributism.blogspot.com/2014/01/distributism-basics-nature-and-roles-of.html

      http://practicaldistributism.blogspot.com/2014/01/distributism-basics-distributist.html

    • Nobody likes paying tax… therefore it is legitamite coercion. In a genuine democracy the electorate creates the state. Socialism (as opposed to Communism) does not steal property from the public (in Sweden there is very little publicly controled work… government control though) but seeks to protect workers rights. In general public sector workers earn somewhat less than the private sector but the conditions are much better…job security, sick leave…educational oppurtunities etc. Government will nationalise where appropriate but always on behalf of the electorate. The Socialist movement does not seek to overthrow capitalism but to ameliorate its worst excesses. Socialists and distributists share some common groung it seems to me…..?

  13. Might it be to the point – or the opposite – in this context to consider kingship in the Lord of the Rings in comparison with Chesterton on kingship and aristocracy/oligarchy in his Short History of England? If so, not without also noting Tolkien’s playfully satirical verse-response to Charles Williams’s in many ways very idealized use of Byzantium in his Arthurian retelling, or not-exactly-straightforward glimpses in Tolkien’s own letters. For instance, Letter 52 of 29 November 1943 to Christopher: “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy.” Or Letter 77 of 31 July 1944, also to Christopher, which includes “I should have hated the Roman Empire in its day (as I do), and remained a patriotic Roman citizen, while preferring a free Gaul and seeing good in Carthaginians.”

  14. Splendid essay ,(and rebuttal). I was listening to an interview with the author on Catholic Radio this week, and I had the same response when he dismissed Distributism.

    If Tolkien was alive today, would be a stretch to say he would probably support something along the lines of “The Green Party”? A suggestion brought up in a lecture by Prof. Michael Drout that I listened to recently.

  15. David W. Cooney, thank you for your kind explanation. I remain unconvinced. I wish you could see your words the way I do: “a policy imposed by the local community–not the state…” indicates that something will have to be imposed. And what if people choose not to obey the imposition of the local community (human nature is perverse enough that some will not obey even your just impositions)? The “local community–not the state”, will either have a mechanism for enforcing its decrees, or it will not. If it has mechanisms for enforcing its decrees, it will become tyrannical, at least in the eyes of some. If it does not have mechanisms for enforcing its decrees, your ideal community will gradually devolve back to humanity’s natural state.

    The problem is not the goodness of your vision. Even I can see its appeal. The problem is that distributism does not adequately take original sin and human foibles into consideration.

    And now I must move on to other things. I do wish you well.

    • Carl, if, as you say, a government having the ability to enforce its decrees means that it will become tyrannical, then I can only conclude that there should be absolutely no government at all. If a government cannot enforce its decrees, then it is not a government. Therefore, there could be no laws against fraud or theft or false advertising, or anything else because they require the ability to enforce them.

      Maybe you really are an anarchist, but I am not. Capitalism uses the power of government to enforce its decrees and has done so since the days of Adam Smith (and, in economic matters, that involvement was not limited to fraud and theft). Distributism’s goal on an economic level is to protect economic freedom for the widest practical number of people by having policies that will encourage the widest practical private ownership of the means of productions. In the political arena, distributism combats tyranny by decentralizing governmental authority to the greatest extent practical – according to the principle of subsidiarity which establishes governmental authority according to its natural function as close to the affected citizens as possible. This protects freedom by making government policies as answerable to the people as possible by making policy decisions as local as practical.

      You say that distributism does not offer sufficient protection against tyranny, but it providesm more than capitalism or socialism. However, you statement leaves subjects us to the whims of the economically powerful. If decrees (laws) cannot be enforced, then might makes right and the common citizen will have no recourse against the power of the corporation. One only needs to look at the urban conditions of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries to see what the result will inevitably be.

    • All governments have to impose their policies. The state should limit its interference, but it is not a conservative or traditional Christian view that the we should always be distrustful or jealous of the state. The state has its role. It may become tyrannical but paranoia on that score owes more to classical liberalism than traditional conservatism and Christianity.

      The real question is whether distributism is just and whether it can be achieved in such a way that the social associations and liberties of traditional society are not harmed. Liberal paranoia about any and all state action have little to do with this.

  16. For what it is worth, if I am not mistaken, Carl Sommers’s first example above coincides (at least in part) with a line of argument by St. Maxiimilian Kolbe.

    Also, for what it is worth, C.S. Lewis alludes to Distributism in another fictional context, That Hideous Strength (ch.1, section 2).

    • The problem with his first example is two-fold. First that he assumes the forced redistribution so that everyone has 40 acres and a cow. Second, that the fictional equality established by that must be maintained in order for distributism to work. However, neither of these are really distributist solutions.

      In the case of the government redistributing parcels of land, that has only ever been considered legitimate in those countries where the existing capitalist system resulted in one family or cartel owning such a large percentage of land that the population at large could not own any – AND not employing that land (deliberately leaving it dormant) in order to maintain their monopoly control of economic power. So, unless you are discussing such an extreme situation, the example is fallacious when discussing distributism.

      In the case of those who mismanage their own property, distributism does not include the provision for the state (or even the local) government to go back in and redistribute again. Businesses are allowed to fail in a distributist society, and some business owners who are more savvy than others will undoubtedly become rich. However, just because this man manages to run his farm better than others doesn’t mean that he can undermine all of his competition so that he becomes the only farmer in town (running his factory farm with all of the other farmers becoming his employees). That may be a likely scenario under capitalism (where it usually includes recourse to anti-competitive practices), where he can use economic power to undermine other farmers including those who do not mismanage their farms, but it really won’t work under distributism.

      Distributism would not prevent him from being successful and acquiring more wealth than others, but it can set up other limits within the community of his farm to prevent him from swallowing up his competition while not going as far as redistributing his wealth to prop up bad farmers. This is a complete red herring.

  17. Erratum – Sweden is probably socialism’s greatest sucess story.A much smaller proportion of the workforce work directly for the government in comparrison with other Western European countries but the Swedish government excercises control over what private industry can do – mainly to protect workers from exploitation. Also ecological controls etc…appropriate controls…

  18. Luckily, both Thomas and Augustine address this area clearly, leaving NO ROOM for interpretive socialism; governmental coercion is merited in ONLY TWO areas, for Thomas. “Public authority is committed to rulers in order that they may safeguard justice. And so they are permitted to use force and coercion ONLY in the course of justice, whether in wars against enemies or in punishing civilian criminals.” Aquinas also quotes Augustine to quip: “if justice is taken away, what are kingdoms but massive robberies?” Naturally, robbing Peter to pay Paul falls in that realm. The sort of “justice” to which Thomas adverts is undoubtable: Aristotelian “arithmetic justice.” In De Regime Principium, Book 4, P 76, Thomas cites Matthew 25:15 and Augustine to affirm that good order is defined as “the disposition of equal and unequal things, giving to each what it deserves.” However much Messieurs Chesterton, Belloc, or Pearce would bend the concept of dessert, it does not mean a birthright of “3 acres and a mile.” Conversely, dessert means either common law inheritance or the conversion of labor into property. A government energetic enough to distribute goods fits Augustine’s measure of a government who may be likened to “pirates” or “thieves:” “If [arithmetic] justice is taken away, what are kingdoms but massive robberies?” In another place, Augustine writes: “the government becomes like a band of robbers when it increases to such a degree that it HOLDS PLACES, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues people’s.”

    • TGordon, Fortunately, Chesterton, Belloc and Pearce did not claim there was a birth right to three acres and a “mile,” “forty acres” and a cow, or even the original three acres and a mile. Nor do they claim that it is the role of government to engage in such distributions. Crisis averted.

  19. With all due respect, this just isn’t an open question. One need not be a lawyer to understand how fundamentally distributism fails, but one needs a little background in Property Law (as any law student will tell you, the following explains why Property is hands down the bulkiest course in law school:

    The ancient right of property at common law which predates Aquinas (known to him), and which has its roots antedating even Augustine, is famously, as it were, “a bundle of sticks.” Since the “simple and simplistic” slur has been tossed by your side at mine, I must note how simplistic the Distributist’s notion of upholding property law is. Plainly, this is untrue. By your own account, Distributism violates property rights, o which there are a few different “sticks” (ie rights) in the bundle: the right of possession, occupation, “quiet enjoyment,” exclusion (of others), and lastly alienation (selling)–which is the CRUCIAL conceptual nexus with the other natural right: liberty of contract. While distributism may on milder theories like Mr. Cooney’s, uphold the right of possession or occupation (many Distributists deny even this), certainly you’ve just recounted the denial of alienation (“you can’t sell your land to such an thus”).

    Oh and by the way, the various rights are sine qua nons for the others: I cannot quietly enjoy my land if I cannot exclude strangers; I cannot sell the land without the right of contract, etc. Bear in mind, these interrelations were known to Thomas and Augustine. They are as old as “fee simple” itself.

    Thus, even the mildest strain of your theory violate property and contract rights.

    Let me know if you create ex nihilism some way to avoid violating property law, Distributists. Otherwise, please, lets not waste any more time.

    • Now, it is true that you will find kooks in any group, so I cannot necessarily deny the claim that may be some “distributists” who deny the property rights you list, but you fail to list any distributists who actually do. I’m sorry, but I’ve been associated with some of the leading distributists of the day, and I’ve read many classical distributist authors, and they are more emphatic about property rights than “many capitalists” I’ve encountered. (And I put that in quotes to acknowledge that I did the same thing you did.) However Aquinas did not believe that property rights were absolute (in the capitalist sense), not did he believe they existed without social obligations (all rights originate from obligations).

      You cannot lay a charge against distributism for somehow violating property law when you not only fail to list any laws that distributism actually violates, but you also fail to acknowledge that not all of our current property laws go back through and beyond Aquinas – there are also many laws based on elements of capitalist philosophy that Aquinas would clearly reject. Therefore, there are elements of existing property law which would clearly remain, and others which, because they are positive laws, are subject to change. Clearly, distributism would not the former – those consistent with the teachings of Aquinas and the Church – and whatever remains (which may not be many) will be changed.

      You say that my own exampe violated the right of alienation, but there are laws (or used to be before capitalists changed them) against selling to just anyone. I cannot sell my house to someone who wants to open up a store, because the community says that it can only be used for residential purposes. I can’t even sell it to someone who wants to set up an apartment, or even a duplex because it is not only zoned for single family dwellings, but the homeowners association also prohibits that. These limitations necessarily limit those to whom I may sell, so the idea of such a limitation does not necessarily violate the right of alienation. There used to be laws against selling to foreign parties because the land belonged to those in the country. Just as these laws do not violate the law of alienation, what I outlined only does under current capitalist theories rather than on the basis of any natural obligation/right conderning property rights.

      So, distributists will not force you to keep land you don’t want. You may not be able to sell to just anyone for any purpose (which you already cannot do in any absolute sense), but you may sell any land you longer wish to own. I’m still befuddled by the claim that “many distributsts” deny the right of possession or occupation. One of the main points of distribution is that we want as many people as practical to own and possess property and be able to use it to provide for their living. Maybe you’re confusing us with the so-called Christian socialists who sometimes claim to be distributists.

    • Aside from what David has said but I will add my two pence:

      It is a little hard to tell what your point is, but it seems to be that one either has to accept some very strong non-proviso Lockean idea of property rights or not believe in property. That is, you seem to be saying private property that when it comes to alienation and use and the like, that only very strong rights count as genuine property rights.

      Well, although distributists have some things in common with mutualists and others who do put significant limits on rights to absentee ownership and the like, most strict distributists, whilst not perhaps fully living up to your strong, non-proviso Lockeanism, do not believe in the same extent of limitations of ownership and use. So, I’m not sure which distributists you are talking about.

      And you simply do not explain or support your point. You do not really argue for or even really explain why your strong, non-proviso Lockeanism is a natural right or why it is absolutely necessary to the concept of private property. Nor do you show why other, less robust ideas of private property must be socialist or lead to socialism.

      I’m also a little confused how Aquinas knew of English common law rights of property, or how they predated Augustine.

  20. I’ve always pointed to the Shire as an exemplar of a truly anarchist society. And in many ways I consider anarchy as synonymous with conservatism, with the exception that the former means the absence of government and the latter tends to allow a limited government qua “necessary evil.” Alas the world is so economically, technologically, militarily, and politically complex that I think the notion of living in such a society a pure fantasy, which is why I, like Tolkien, opt for the designation “philosophical” anarchist (in that sense where “philosophical” = “theoretically”). The only way a truly free society is ever going to exist is if the nations ultimately destroy each other and the surviving human race “starts over.” Unless this happens in my time and I am one of those survivors, I must, alas, remain but a ‘philosophical’ anarchist. But even if, say, the American people were to somehow “rise up” (not that I advocate a Bolshevik Solution), how could they possibly contend with a government armed with nuclear weapons?

  21. It seems to me that the current system needs constant help to survive by way of bailouts or quantitative easing. So capitalism helps the institutions whereas I suspect a distributist would prefer to give the money direct to the individual struggling with mortgage.

  22. David Cooney:

    1) we don’t live under capitalism. We live under a socialist redistributive state, which exists under any state energetic enough to use income taxes or capitations.

    2) 95% of the folks who claim to be libertarians are not that. They are licensitarians. True libertarianism–religious libertarianism–is the only fitting economy for a republic, which must be geographically small and populated by a MORAL people. Americans are a people formed by 2 worldviews which reject the concept of liberty–Protestantism and Enlightenment thought–so of COURSE our economy has never been correct capitalism. Correct capitalism works.

    3) because of your misdefinitions of “property right,” and #1 and #2, you mistake consumerism (on the demand side) and careerism (on the supply side) for capitalism. They are invalid shades of capitalism. Capitalism is simply economic LIBERTY, i.e. governmentally unimpeded private contracts and private property. A capitalist economy will be moral ONLY IF its people are moral.

    4) distributism is a “centrally planned” economy, even if it claims otherwise. Planned economies are the classically defined subset of what constitutes socialism. That’s why Richards and others rightly say so.

    5). Restraints on alienation are restraints on valid property rights. I don’t have the time to walk you through the difference between equitable servitudes and legislation/regulations. Or property law in general…or the contracts clause in Article I, Section 9 of the US Constitution. I was just hoping you’d listen to reason: Distributism is an absurd proposition of imagination–and stark instantiation of the admonition against inter-disciplinary reasoning.

    • The Soviet Union would have worked if its people were moral…all of them. Any form of society would. And,while I do not hold to moral relativism any individuals’ conception of moral absolutes must be flawed, incomplete. Surely that individuals should contribute to the collective is a basic moral imperative. And as some are more moral than others these contributions should be fair but compulsory. Democratically decided……..

  23. PS: I don’t know what you mean by “property rights weren’t absolute” for Thomas. (??). Whatever. But he certainly wrote that “the right to acquire and hold property is necessary to sustain human life.” That is, it should be safe against government meddling.

    • TGordon,
      It takes quite a stretch to get from “the right to acquire and hold property is necessary to sustain human life” to the idea that any government “meddling” regarding property constitutes a violation of that right. It is certainly not an argument made by St. Thomas.

      What I meant by the statement that property rights were not absolute for St. Thomas is that they weren’t. While the teachings certainly did not originate from him, he refined them to be completely in conformity with Catholic teaching and his teaching on the matter has been repeated by the popes throughout the centuries. All rights come with, actually originate from, obligations. In regard to property, any rights to it originate not merely from the personal obligations one has to sustain oneself, but also with the social obligations born from the fact that human nature compells us to live in society and we have obligations toward each other as human beings and as equal creatures of God. I’m sorry, but if you’re going to try to use St. Thomas to back up your argument, you can’t pick and choose bits and pieces of his teaching while ignoring the rest. And you certainly won’t convince anyone by simply dismissing counter arguments with, “whatever,” and then presenting an interpretation that is supposedly based on St. Thomas but is actually contrary to the body of his teaching.

  24. No, it is absolutely untrue that the USSR would have worked with a moral public: if you believe that, then I see why and how fundamentally we disagree. Socialism, as our Catechism affirms, is incompatible with human nature. Which is the ENTIRE point: only one political economy is compatible with mans liberty, namely free enterprise. America’s barely latent Calvinism posited a LACK of freedom, which combined with a materialist Prot work ethic to make a licentious form of capitalism. But when liberty is properly understood (unique to Catholicism)–that means 90% of public or better, say–the only political Econ consistent with moral freedom will emerge: a truly FREE market untouched by smut or consumerism not because it’s illegal, but because family reigns. Read your Montesquieue

    • BUT a moral public does not exist in reality – not to the extent required to create a moral and ‘free’ society without legal restraints on behaviour. However we understand it humankind is ‘fallen.’ Socialism ‘can’ work… I’m not labouring a point here but in Sweden the Social Democrats win 4 out of 5 elections… similar is other Nordic countries…(here socialism ‘works’ in a purely pragmatic sense)…

  25. I’m unsure why it is claimed distributism requires some sort of massive redistribution. There are many relatively decentralised and not overly interventionist policies which can support distributism, like (most importantly) rolling back corporate welfare and privileges, the land value tax, encouraging mutual and community banking, and various similar reforms. I think distributism will be considerably less statist than corporate capitalism.

  26. My personal conclusions from Mr. Pearce’s article and the subsequent comments made.

    While the Hobbits of the Shire should have paid a bit more attention to what was going on outside of their local community, their local community was economically self-sufficient. Even with their distrust of outsiders, they did not totally reject trade with them.

    The society in which they lived operated pretty much under the principles of subsidiarity. In this model, there were those whose role was to provide defense of society overall. In reading the books, the notions that certain royal holding were established precisely for this purpose. Prime examples of this are Gondor and Rohan. However, these notions did not include the authority to run roughshod over the local life of the smaller communities they defended. This was their role.

    The examples of the Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, and most of all Humans, show clearly that there will be failures in every societal group. In the tremendous conflict which threatened them all, every group banded together. It is true that the Hobbits only had four representatives in the conflict, but their group was certainly the least suitable for greater participation. Even they, however rose up under the leadership of Sam and defended their own.

    When the great conflict was over, they all returned to what was their natural role in the overall society. I think this is a fair but imperfect description of distributism. Then again, since no society in this world will ever be perfect, it may be an even better description of distributism than I I give it credit.

    Thank you, Mr. Pearce, for an excellent article, and everyone else for a lively and clarifying discussion.

  27. Wessexman and Cooney:

    I realize that this page does not tend to attract legal philosophers or even many legal reasoners. But I wonder very much: even as perverted as Article I, Section 8 jurisprudence of our Constitution presently exists, where would one justify gov’t power sufficient to allow the sort of servitude you described, banning out-of-state property ownership?

    Both of you have been greatly misled as to Aquinas, who is in fact the first MAJOR natural law thinker to justify revolt, revolution, and what he calls “tyrannicide” for the simple violation of property and contract rights. (He distinguishes between “insurrection” and “revolt” such as to leave the concept of just revolution wide open.)

    Property rights are not “absolute” for ANY thinker I’ve ever heard of. Again, even in our own–once more, perverted–political tradition, government “takings” must be fair and compensated. So that distinction (“not absolute”) is utterly unhelpful. More simply, it would not even in our day qualify as just cause to “take” private property just to give to someone else.

    But still, whenever in Thomas’s philosophy, he claims that a thing is “necessary to sustain” human life, he is basically talking about something that is sacrosanct as against tyrannical regimes. And his list is very scant.

    Now, for Thomas, you point out the obvious: property is not absolute. (duh) But any government taking that is unfair, if qualifying on Thomas’s simple criteria as “tyrannical”, justifies outright revolution. (As does an unfair scheme of taxation overly burdensome to the class paying the most taxes.)

    I’m sorry that you have been so diverted from Thomas’s “Treatise on Law.” Thomas is quite the advocate of popular vigilance and quite the scourge of tyrannical regimes.

    On the other hand, Locke–a corpuscularian and a denier of the intelligibility of nature–is not and cannot be a genuine natural law thinker, as any serious student in philosophy knows. So, natural law thinkers are not much interested in the proviso.

    The true natural law tradition emanates from Thomas, to Bellarmine and Suarez, who make the free market prefigurings of Thomas very real and distinct. (From there, the tradition went to Grotius and Pufendorf, who were very confused about revolution and Protestantism.)

    I don’t know of any serious academic Thomists (I don’t mean popular Thomists, or TV personalities) at American or European orthodox Catholic schools who are also Distributists, by the way.

    • Since I, as a distributist, do not advocate taking private property just to give it to someone else. Even in the one example I gave – which you must admit is an extreme case that would rarely apply – I did not mention taking without just compensation. Therefore, your argument there does not apply to me or to distributism. In fact, two foundational documents for distributism are Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, which clearly lay out the foundation “That the State is not permitted to discharge its duty arbitrarily is, however, clear. The natural right itself both of owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance ought always to remain intact and inviolate, since this indeed is a right that the State cannot take away.” The point here is that what you are arguing against is not distributism, but your own mischaracterization of it.

      You also seem to be claiming that any distributist society is by its very nature a tyrannical regime, but you have failed to provide even one reason to justify such a claim.

      For academic Thomists who acknowledge that distributism is consistent with Thomistic teaching, try Dr. Raphael Waters, or Dr. Dennis Bonnette.

    • Again it is somewhat hard to follow what your point is.

      I’m neither an American nor a Thomist (I’m a Platonist), though I admire the Angelic Doctor greatly. And although I’m not an expert, shall we say I’m quite sceptical that St. Thomas either endorsed free market capitalism or, in anything but the most extreme circumstances, popular revolution.

      And as David has said, distributists are not looking to confiscate people’s property anyway.

  28. Lets start at the beginning, then: Some Distributist on this thread advocated a “planned economy” whereby an equitable servitude be laid that restrains real property alienation on the basis of geography. Tell me: From where does that governmental power derive (since it doesn’t hail to the US Constitution)? Certainly not the US Constitution. Certainly not Thomas, who as I quoted above locates for “coercion” only the bases of criminal law and prosecution of foreign wars.

    Do you see how I’m candidly trying to respond to a moving viewpoint (since Distributism is not a real macroeconomic theory, and you can disown ALL historic instances of likely outcomes)? And already, given the above endorsement of an unreasonable, discriminatory restraint of alienation, I call it an overreach. Maybe it’s just me though, who lived his childhood in 3 different states and whose parents would by your Utopianism not have been allowed to own a home…

    An that’s without correcting for “hollow out.”

    Bear in mind, “hollow out” only works in one direction. The nature of gov’t power being what it is, EVERY OTHER planned economy in world history wound up with a gov doing more than it initially purported. You see, I have ample 20th Century reason to believe that a planned economy will wind up being affected by a more aggressive gov involvement than first purported. Pardon my memory of 20th century central planning.

    • TGordon,

      You really try to sound quite reasonable while refusing to actually be so. To begin with, restrictions on alienation of property are not servitude. I suppose they could be in certain extreme circumstances, but not in the case I outlined. Your characterization of this restriction as servitude is deliberate and misleading. It is also amusing because the system you endorse – capitalism – renders the vast majority of the people to be complete dependents on a progressively smaller portion of those who accumulate productive capital and who use their economic power to manipulate the power of government in their favor against the masses. Yes, it may be true that they are not successfull all the time, but they are enough to make it quite clear that, while it may be technically true that capitalism will allow anyone to become wealthy, a more accurate statement is that it allows anyone to become one of the few wealthy while leaving the rest dependent on them for the basics of life. I invite the readers to decide which system is more accurately described as servitude.

      You claim that capitalism is the only economic system which has been the largest material enricher in the history of the human race. Your assertion that all the world huddled in poverty prior to the advent of capitalism is simply wrong. It is true that many techicological developments have been made during the reign of capitalism, but there is nothing about distributism that prevented technological development. The pivotal invention often referenced as the birth of this technological development is the blast furnace which enabled the better refinement of metals and opened the world to vastly improved products. However, the blast furnace was invented in Europe when its economic society was essentially distributist around two centuries before capitalism (and even eariler than that in the Far East where the economy also could not be called capitalist). It, and its benefits to further technological development in Europe, were lost due to the Reformation.

      In regard to even the general claim that capitalism has been a material enricher of humanity, one only has to look at the circumstances of the working classes in late 19th and early 20th Century Europe and America to see that this is one of the greatest falsehoods since a serpent discussed the benefits of eating a certain fruit with a woman. Oh yes, wealth was certainly generated in large amounts, but that material enrichment did not benefit the overwhelming majority of the people. They, living in what is commonly referenced as the highest hey day of capitalism huddled and starved in abject poverty while their capitalist masters enjoyed the high life. So much for that claim.

      Distributism existed in all but name prior to capitalism, and not only were people not huddled in poverty during that time, as is frequently charged, it was a society living under essentially distributist principles that first broke through the Three Estates system of classes and opened the door for people to better their own position in society through their own diligence and work.

      You claim that distributism is a “moving” thing and not a macroeconomic system. That is curious because you also accuse it of being a “planned economy” that subjects the populace to an all-empowering state. I’m sorry, but it is you who are doing the moving in this case. If you ever bothered to actually study distributism, you would know that the state or federal levels of government are almost completely uninvolved in local economic matters. However, it has become abundantly clear that you would rather use straw man arguments to try and discredit a system you don’t truly know. Well, that is the kindest conclusion I can draw from this. As another example, you ask whence a local community can have the power to restrict land purchases to residents. You don’t have to agree with distributism to know the answer to this. The answer is subsidiarity. You also failed to acknowledge that I only claimed that it had the authority, I never actually said that this was necessary for distributism. It could only be done if it is considered to be for the common good of the community that the local businesses should not be crushed by those who don’t even live in the community, that their economic activity should not enrich people in other communities or even countries at their own expense. Capitalism, at least your brand of capitalism, would deny them this. Talk about servitude.

      And, finally, let’s discuss your claims about capitalism. You have made it clear in several statements that you view any government “meddling” outside of protection against things like theft and fraud means that the economic system – whatever it may be – is not capitalism. Well, history clearly shows that such a circumstance has never existed. You can go all the way back to Adam Smith and his ficticious “invisible hand” of self interest and there has never been a period of time throughout Europe or the U.S. where the government has not meddled in economic affairs to some extent beyond the clear limit you have said is the defining requirement of capitalism. What are we to conclude from this?

      There is only one conclusion that can be reached, and that is that, despite your claims, it is capitalism that has never actually been tried. Under what economic system were the material gains you credited to capitalism made? It certainly wasn’t capitalism because all of those gains were made in eras of government meddling in economic affairs. The closest we have ever come to what you claim is essential to capitalism started toward the end of the 19th Century – and I’ve already discussed what that brought. It wasn’t the material enrichment of the masses.

      And what did that glorious period of capitalist enrichment bring us? A socioeconomic situation so bad that masses of people actually thought socialism would be a great alternative!!! Congratulations.

  29. Wessexman, whether or not the likes of you be “skeptical”, the school of Salamanca changed the world (as Catholic thinkers always do) by first endorsing free market principles and effectually bringing wealth and abundance to the world in an altogether game-changing way. Whereas ALL THE WORLD together huddled in poverty prior to the advent of free enterprise, it’s advent changed the world.

    Another radical injustice of Distributism is that without saving/enriching a SINGLE life, it’s being hailed as better than the greatest material enricher of the human race.

    • I’m not sure what you mean by dense quote. You didn’t quote anything from Aquinas. As I said I’m not an expert on Aquinas, and do not have the time to search through his works for this discussion, but it the School of Salamanca as free market heroes is known libertarian revisionism. The economy and politics of the Middle Ages hardly resembled a free market capitalist ideal, and yet St. Thomas did not declare himself resolutely against the economic and political systems around here.

      I’m British, so what the U.S constitution says is of little importance to me.

      Anyway, the most striking thing about your reply is your clear overprioritisation of growth and economic outcome. The traditional Christian and traditional conservative believes that what is most important is faith and spirituality, after that what is important is the permanent things, as T.S Eliot and Russell Kirk put it: family, community, virtue, culture and arts, nature, and so on. It is should be a goal to have a stable and relatively prosperous economy of course, or at least have all the necessities and necessary luxuries for a civilised life, but the proliferation of consumer goods and economic growth of modernity should be a matter of supreme indifference to the traditionalist and traditional Christian (even leaving aside his hostility to some side effects).

      You comments seem to imply that growth and consumer goods should be a major priority of life and society, even that there is some ultimate progress for man and society in the relative material prosperity of modernity. This seems a strange position for a traditional conservative. It also seems strange from a Christian point of view. If it is correct, why did Christ spend so little time preaching about technological development? Why did he not reveal to us the secrets of the internal combustion engine or the blessings of the stock exchange? Why did not the Fathers and Divines of the Church, including Aquinas, not spend far more time exploring and promoting such development and less time on religious matters?

      Also, I fail to see how some restraints on alienation equate to a centrally planned economy. That seems a clear case of a false dichotomy to me, one that free marketeers are fond of (either live by the ideal or be a socialist). And the free market ideal doesn’t resembles hardly any historic economy, especially modern capitalism, so I’m not sure why distributists are unrealistic and free marketeers are not. Indeed, certain restrictions, impositions, and interventions by the government are normal: actually existing capitalism has a huge amount of state interventionism to prop it up.

  30. Nothing like debating “not an experts,” who combat dense quotes with “scepticism.” Afraid Thomas remains an unequivocal advocate of property and contracts right based revolutions.

  31. Like Wessexman, I don´t think Distributism means some kind of “distributive apocalypse” taking properties from here to there. Like capitalism or socialism, but being different to both, it can´t be totally pure in the real world. In our capitalists countries the states Budget uses to be more that 50% of the GNP. In the socialist counties there´s allways some sort of private property (house, clothes,..). So a pure capitalism and pure comunism are not possible. It happens the same about Distributism. A goverment could promote “distributism” just helping small family bussiness and discouraging oligopolies, promoting quality in production, “buy local” and so on. It doesn´t involves a big charge of compulsion and violence, in my opinion.

  32. What intrigues me about this whole dialogue is not its content but the fact that it seems to be such a pressing issue for so many of you; i.e., who said what, what they meant by what they said, the import of what they said and why they said it; and what system, whether political or economic, affords the greater benefits on the world; and so on. What accounts for THE FACT THAT these are all such serious issues, whilst comments on most other issues are relatively sparse? That’s what interests me personally: the question of why this is such an object of ferocious debate, while other, equally debatable issues, are nearly ignored. No doubt man is a “political animal” and has always found such issues of immediate importance. I suppose it’s because socio-economic and political issues are the theoretical issues which have the most PRACTICAL effect on people’s lives. Still, there are a lot of other theoretical issues which have practical effect that people don’t seem to be quite as vigorous about.

  33. Editor’s Note: Please note that it is our judgment that the conversation here has run its course. Comments for this essay are now closed. Thank you for your contributions to this interesting debate.

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