This Is My Opinion of Evangelii Gaudium
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The Problem with Distributism

Or rather a problem, I should say, but a fairly big one. I brought it up the other day to someone who has studied economics and worked in that field. She had never heard of it, so later I went looking around on the web for some sort of quick intro. And almost everything I found gave the impression that it is some sort of specifically Catholic idea. Search for "what is distributism?" and Google immediately gives you this definition, from the Wikipedia article: 

Distributism is an economic philosophy that developed in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century based upon the principles of Catholic social teaching, especially the teachings of Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum and Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno....

And the first of the search results is this FAQ from The Distributist Review, which begins:

Distributism finds its roots in the social and economic theories articulated in the documents of the Catholic pontiffs, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum.”

The page is a good summary, and I don't mean this as a criticism; after all, what it says is true. But it, and everything else on the first page of search results (including a couple of pieces arguing against it), leaves the impression that distributism is some Catholic thing, based mainly on the authority of the Church and of interest mainly to Catholics, and rather traditionalist Catholics at that. If I were a non-Catholic, possibly not well disposed toward the Church,  I'd certainly think that, and probably pay no more attention.

But although the ideas have been propounded mainly by Catholics, there's no intrinsic reason for that. And it's certainly not a doctrine of the faith. It's a tribute to the general good sense of Catholicism that distributism emerged from it, but there's nothing in it that isn't accessible and acceptable to ordinary reason and common sense.

I know this is all pretty obvious, but it just struck me forcibly when I brought up the subject with a non-Catholic. I don't know how it can be done, but I doubt distributism will ever gain much influence until or unless it can break out of this Catholic ghetto.


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I think that might be why E.F. Schumacher went rather easy on the Catholic terminology in Small is Beautiful.

I've never even thought about that before, but it really seems to be true. Thing is, this is exactly the kind of course that the seminary, and probably many Protestant seminaries, would be interested in. Somebody ought to look into that.


It's been a long-standing dream of distributists that sympathetic left-ish types would take to it. Never seems to get very far, though, I think in large part because the left nowadays is so much a "lifestyle" (read sexual) program. Though there is Small is Beautiful (which I haven't actually read).

Yes. That's one of those books that's sitting around on my shelf. I think I've read at least two pages.


And the free-marketers don't take to it because it requires more state control than they want.

I have only read one chapter of "Small is beautiful" which was entitled "Buddhist Economics." It's brilliant.

By the time he published it, Schumacher had converted to Catholicism, I think, but kept the chapter title on the basis that more people would be turned off if he changed it to "Catholic Economics" or made references to Catholic Doctrine etc.

Yes, I think this is the main problem with Distributism, Maclin. Perhaps it's really only feasible if it rises almost accidentally out of a failed Capitalist system. Although that seems more likely to yield Belloc's Servile State.

Unless we could somehow make "Small is Beatiful" our main text.

I'm not certain that a culture which was not generally saturated in Catholic Morals could produce a distributist economy, although as you say, "there's nothing in it that isn't accessible and acceptable to ordinary reason and common sense."

I am now amusing myself (in a black way) with the thought of a post-Christian, anti-Catholic society embracing distributism and diligently seeing to it that pornography, surrogacy and gamete-donation, and gay adoption etc. all be strictly localised. :P

Belloc seemed to think, however, that such a society would certainly head straight back to slavery (though not using the word), so I wonder, is it possible for such a society to embrace distributism?

Good post, Maclin. It occurs to me that I don't think I've ever discussed distributism with non-Catholics IRL.

I read small is beautiful before I knew Schumacher was a Catholic. It warmed the cockles of my youthful, antiestablishment, back-to-nature heart. I didn't even hear of Chesterbelloc until years later--except Chesterton's St. Francis.

That is why we need new words. First, of course, distributism is obscure. How obscure? Well, when I just typed it the spell-check highlighted it as a non-word. Second, if anyone hears the term and wants to learn more, they,like your friend, finds something like the Distributist Review, with a lot of overt Catholic, even devotional, stuff. It was not always thus. I have a book I picked up, probably thirty years ago, that is an anthology of issues of the old GK Review, Chesterton's weekly, from the thirties. Aside from the odd ad for a theological book there is very little of that sort of thing, nor are all the writers Catholic. (Of course it is also eye-opening, not least that many distributists supported Mussolini, even when he invaded Ethiopia!) But yeah, we need new words.

Something I wrote last spring on the topic:

One problem the promotion of distributism faces is the absence of a distinctly economic discourse. The only economist who appears to produce distributist literature is a fellow from Australia named Race Matthews. His own publications favor the promotion of credit unions and producer co-operatives. There is nothing objectionable about either, it is just that one suspects the limited extent of the ambo of such institutions is not really due to public policy defects.

The most obtrusive promoter is a fellow named John Medaille, who professes to believe that economics is malarkey. Somehow, I think this sort of mentality will crimp the development of distributism as a program or a basis for critiques.

I don't know Race Mathews's work, though I've seen his name around. I have a book by Medaille of which I've never actually read more than the first chapter or so. Though I thought it seemed interesting, when you get right down to it I'm not interested enough in economic matters to invest a lot of reading time in them. I think the book is called Toward a Truly Free Economy or something close to that. I have seen bits of Medaille's work around the web and been put off by his snarkiness.

One can espouse certain distributist ideas without being a full-on distributist. I'd say that some of the Front Porch Republic writers fall into such a category -- distributist-leaning conservatives, perhaps, rather than fully committed distributists. Presented in this way the ideas would get more of a hearing, and would actually be found to have much in common with certain economic ideas of the the older conservatism of the Kirk/Weaver sort.

Writers of the FPR/Kirk/Weaver stripe also seem to have less propensity than some of the distributists--those who do seem to present it as a deduction from papal teachings--to seem like abstract system-designers.

True, although you will sometimes hear criticisms about FPR-types that their ideas aren't concrete enough.

And I think that's a valid criticism, though they tend not to be as near-ideological as do some of the Catholic Social Teaching proponents--it's the problem with most of the discussion from that general quarter (in which I include myself). It tends to be a lot of bookish types, including a fair number of academics and quasi-academics, who are good at thinking and writing but aren't anywhere near actual politics and/or business. We need people who can bridge that gap.

Race Mathews wrote "Jobs of Our Own." I thought it was pretty good. And it seemed pretty readable, not too dry/academic.

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