Against Distributism: Who Does the Distributing?

This article comes to 1P5 from an anonymous Catholic.

Distributism is an economic theory, articulated by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, that has garnered interest in Catholic circles. While this economic system hasn’t developed in America as a political movement, it received praise in some Catholic circles as “the Catholic third way.” This title seems unfitting due to the fact that Distributism fails to make mention of the Catholic magisterium, Holy Scripture, or any aspect of Catholic tradition. Furthermore, it is never mentioned as a licit option in the magisterium. These omissions of authority are not necessarily damning in themselves, but they create an unstable foundation that ultimately leads to economic solutions against Catholic social teaching. This piece will lay out Distributism’s proposed plan of property confiscation, as articulated by Belloc and Chesterton, and the Church’s condemnation of same.

Belloc in his work Economics for Helen defines the Distributist State as “a state of society in which the families composing it are, in a determining number, owners of the land and the means of production as well as themselves the human agents of production.” If this is a voluntary arrangement from various parties, then there is no issue with Catholic teaching. This is not the case with Belloc, who demands the coercive power of the state to be used in his work An Essay on the Restoration of Property. “The third proviso,” Belloc writes, “is that in this attempt to restore Economic Freedom, the powers of the State must be invoked.” The specific power of the State that is utilized to achieve this Distributist state is property confiscation.

Belloc details this plan of his third proviso on establishing a Distributist State:

There must be some official machinery for fostering the propagation of small property just as there is official machinery today fostering the destruction of small, widespread property by large owners: and 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. All the powers of the State have been invoked by Capitalism to restore servile conditions; we shall not react against servile conditions unless we avail ourselves of the same methods. (An Essay on the Restoration of Property)

This form of confiscation would exhaust an individual’s private property in its various forms, such as wealth, capital, and land, for the betterment of the lower classes.

In Belloc’s 1911 debate with a Fabian socialist, J. Ramsay MacDonald, he critiques the Fabian socialists for not confiscating enough wealth by passing only the income tax (emphasis added):

No. Income tax does not fall upon capital; that is the point. I own capital, and I own land. You have not touched my capital and my land. He said he had confiscated so much out of a shilling of my income. I despair when on an economic matter requiring a clear definition and clear thought … a leader of economic thought comes forward and calls that the confiscation of the means of production. You have not advanced one step towards getting the land or towards getting the capital[.] … I am telling you that the drift of actual, so-called Socialist legislation is not towards Socialism at all, but towards this established, confirmed, and secure division between owners and non-owners. (Socialism and the Servile State)

Belloc despairs that the agenda of the Fabian socialists is not sufficient to confiscate the means of production. In the above quotation, he pushes for the confiscation of capital, land, and not merely income so the distinction of owners and non-owners will be broken. He desires an action similar to the socialists’ in terms of property confiscation, but he laments that the means of production will be owned by the state and not the general population.

G.K. Chesterton shares Belloc’s desire for a vast seizure of property:

But if they [the English people] want a domestic England, they must ‘shell out,’ as the phrase goes, to a vastly greater extent than any Radical politician has yet dared to suggest … for the thing to be done is nothing more nor less than the distribution of the great fortunes and the great estates. We can now only avoid Socialism by a change as vast as Socialism. If we are to save property, we must distribute property, almost as sternly and sweepingly as did the French Revolution. If we are to preserve the family we must revolutionize the nation. (What’s Wrong with the World)

Some would say Chesterton was being merely hyperbolic, yet later on, in this same work, he advocates “buying out” the various landlords. He thought if these buyouts proved not to be successful or were not tried, then “there will almost certainly be a crash of confiscation,” and this confiscation would be at the intensity of the French Revolution, as noted with the previous citation. Furthermore, Chesterton’s plan for property confiscation was specified among his six-point plan in The Outline of Sanity: “(2) Something like the Napoleonic testamentary law and the destruction of primogeniture.”

The Church would condemn these various proposals, because these acts are socialistic in themselves. They would take the possessions of the rich and give them to the poor, which is a socialistic act.

The Distributist rebuttal to this claim would be that Chesterton and Belloc were against socialism, so this condemnation cannot apply to their work. The issue is that their definition of socialism, the government owning the means of production, is not the magisterium’s comprehensive definition.

Pope Leo XIII condemned socialism in its entirety and defined one of the aspects of socialism as the state taking the possessions of one man and giving them to another.

But Catholic wisdom, sustained by the precepts of natural and divine law, provides with especial care for public and private tranquility in its doctrines and teachings regarding the duty of government and the distribution of the goods which are necessary for life and use. For, while the socialists would destroy the ‘right’ of property’, alleging it to be a human invention altogether opposed to the inborn equality of man, and, claiming a community of goods, argue that poverty should not be peaceably endured, and that the property and privileges of the rich may be rightly invaded, the Church, with much greater wisdom and good sense, recognizes the inequality among men, who are born with different powers of body and mind, inequality in actual possession, also, and holds that the right of property and of ownership, which springs from nature itself, must not be touched and stands inviolate. For she knows that stealing and robbery were forbidden in so special a manner by God, the Author and Defender of right, that He would not allow man even to desire what belonged to another, and that thieves and despoilers … are shut out from the Kingdom of Heaven. (Quod Apostolici Muneris)

There is economic inequality that exists as an effect of the natural law, and it should be respected by the state for the sake of the common good. Leo drives home this point in Rerum Novarum, where he discusses legal protections for the rich.

There is the duty of safeguarding private property by legal enactment and protection[.] … [I]f all may justly strive to better their condition, neither justice nor the common good allows any individual to seize upon that which belongs to another [emphasis added], or, under the futile and shallow pretext of equality, to lay violent hands on other people’s possessions.

These legal protections are further reinforced by Pope Pius XI, quoting Leo XIII’s condemnation of property confiscation through the form of excessive taxation: “[I]t is grossly unjust for a State to exhaust private wealth through the weight of imposts and taxes. ‘For since the right of possessing goods privately has been conferred not by man’s law, but by nature, public authority cannot abolish it, but can only control its exercise and bring it into conformity with the common weal’” (Quadragesimo Anno).

The common good requires not simply preventing the confiscation of the rich’s possessions. In fact, it requires the protection of the upper classes’ property through the form of legal enactment and protection.

Some would argue that that this presentation is misleading, and it would lead into the error of liberalism — i.e., no state regulation of or intervention in the free market. Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum provides that “[t]he law … should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.”

How should the law favor ownership? Pope Leo XIII lists numerous options, such as the right to strike, time to practice one’s Catholic faith, time for rest, safe working conditions, the right to join a union, a just wage, and low taxes. Also, certain types of property can be owned by the State, such as the road system, since they carry with them a dominating power that could greatly harm the general welfare. But aside from these narrow exceptions, property confiscation is not listed as a licit option for the law to favor ownership; indeed, it is condemned by the Church.

The economic solutions of Belloc and Chesterton here cited contradict Catholic social teaching and should be rejected as licit options in modern society. This is a rebuttal of modified versions of Distributism insofar that they push these erroneous socialist principles. And socialism should be rejected in all of its forms — not due to the nature of its efficacy, but rather to affirm Pope Pius XI’s condemnation: “Socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.”

Image: delta407 via Flickr.

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