The Distributist

Distributism is an approximate name for an approximate thing. That, to begin with, is where it is something more and less than socialism, or the optimist organizing forms of Capitalism. It aims at the more equal distribution of private property, especially in the primary forms of property such as land. But it does not necessarily expect to cut up the country into the precise pattern of a chessboard. Whereas the Utopian Capitalist or Collectivist does expect that his pattern of concentric rings will remain exactly as it is, with its rings unbroken. The difference between the ideas lies deep in the moral philosophies from which they sprang; the first Distributists in the modern English group, if not necessarily Catholics, were men with that sort of common sense which is actually produced by the complexity of Catholicism. For common sense does not come with simplicity, in the sense of mere simplification. Intellectual simplification is never far from fanaticism. It takes all sorts to make a church; it takes all sorts to make a Distributist state; in one sense it includes those who are not Distributists. Just as we wish economic power balanced between various citizens, and not trusted blindly to one monopolist, so we want social and moral power balanced between different types and tenures, and not all blindly trusted to one monotonous ideal. We do not so much wish the world to be Distributist as wish it to be more Distributist; but not necessarily more and more Distributist....

We may begin any such explanation either at the live end or the dead end; but the duties of modern scientific discussion require us to begin at the dead end. I mean that there is now an unavoidable custom of describing all human things in material or mathematical formulas: margins and multiples and mechanical reactions and the rest. Bowing my head to this ritual, I would explain with all solemnity that the Distributist believes that the modern movement is solely and exclusively centripetal. In an older and more human language, he is so eccentric as to feel more affection for a fountain than for a whirlpool. He recognizes that the whirlpool is a most exact and exquisite spiral curve, very scientific when recorded in charts and diagrams; and that the fountain, in comparison, is liable to splash people rather indiscriminately. But he would rather be splashed than drowned; and he is firmly convinced that the heart of the modern whirlpool is hollow and is the dwelling-place of death....

In short, in so far as most families, or many families, or even a few families, have access to actual production, independent of the new centralized organizations, those families alone are free. They are free in the perfectly practical sense that they cannot be instantly starved out, if they oppose the powers of the world on any point of justice or self-respect. Now what we remark about this form of freedom is that the world has apparently forgotten all about it; not that the world fails to perfect it or universalize it, but that the world utterly despises and destroys it; that the world is engaged in strengthening and tightening up vast centralized systems under which it cannot exist at all, anywhere, anyhow, or for anybody. And we start by saying that the total loss of this true economic independence, as a basis for political and spiritual independence, is one vast blunder to which the world is bound and to which the world is blind....

Distributism, so far, is a tendency to reverse a tendency. But the Distributist does not necessarily think that one tendency is to be trusted forever at the expense of everything else. He only points out that Centralization is now in fact being trusted at the expense of everything else. This distinction must be kept in mind when we consider whether he has any chances of success; or how far he may be already succeeding....

The Commonweal

October 8, 1930

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About the Author

G. K. Chesterton, who will write for The Commonweal, contributes to this issue an article in his most vigorous vein.

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