DISTRIBUTISM is a long clumsy word which is coming into use for a very simple and normal thing: the system of society in which the average citizen possesses enough property to give him and his family economic freedom. There was a time when everyone took it for granted, especially in the United States, that the typical free citizen would be an owner—generally an owner of land and if not the owner of land then the owner of a business or the master of a craft. But today, wherever industrial capitalism rules—and it rules in our main industries, including our transport system—a perilous and unnatural state of things has come to pass. The b bulk of men are still called free citizens, for they are still politically free; but they are no longer economically free. They no longer possess the wherewithal to live. They live only at the mercy of employers who possess the means of life—the reserves of food and clothing and house-room and instruments of production—or by support from the community doled out by the officers thereof.
In the presence of this unprecedented arrangement of society, a new word had to be found for the old thing, which had been nameless mainly because it had been taken for granted and was universal. For myself I should have preferred the word Proprietary, though this is rather long and pedantic. But on the existing models of Socialism and Collectivism, it was agreed to take the word Distributism. As the Socialist desires or accepts an arrangement of society wherein the means of production are vested in the community (society itself, the collectivity), so the Distributist desires a society in which the means of production are distributed as property among the several units of the State—the families and the individuals which compose it.
Now to begin with, let me emphasize certain negative points with regard to this creed of ours, which was, within living memory, a matter of course, and yet now sounds so odd in the ears of many contemporaries. Distributism does not propose the equal distribution of the means of production among the several individuals or families of the State. That is a mechanical, inhuman conception opposed to, and even contradictory of, the spirit which has moved men to attempt a return (if it be possible) to a good distribution of private property. A man is not unhappy or degraded because another man is richer than he; his suffering only becomes inhuman and abnormal when he has not the wherewithal to live as a free man. One can be free without being rich, but one cannot be free without the means of livelihood.
Again, Distributism does not mean the possession of sufficient land or capital by all families or all individuals of the State. That might be the ideal, but it is not the practical goal which we aim at, which we think possible. There will always in practice be among men, even where property is well distributed and guaranteed a certain minority who cannot handle it, a certain exceptional number, large or small, who are incorrigible spendthrifts. What is more, there will always be a certain exceptional number, large or small, who not only have no appetite for economic freedom but positively dislike it, and prefer to shift onto other shoulders the responsibility of keeping them alive.
No, the goal of the Distributist in a society wherein so many of the citizens are economically free that they give their tone to the whole community. We all know the difference between a countryside where farmers live securely upon their own land, and industrial urban quarters where great herds of men turn to their ineluctable labor at the sound of the factory siren. In the one place there may be considerable numbers who possess nothing, who are working for hire under the farmers, or who are in domestic service with the wealthy of the neighborhood. But the tone of the place is a tone of ownership, of economic freedom. In the second instance you may have many a small shopkeeper possessing some economic independence, you may have many a man owning his own home, and not a few possessed if industrial shares or city or national bonds on a small scale, but the tone of the whole place is proletarianism, just as the tone of the first place is distributist.
Lastly, Distributism is not, most emphatically not, the ownership of the means of production in small units of simple instruments. It does not mean the return to the carpenter’s bench, the local blacksmith, the hand-weaver, and the hand printing press; nor does it mean, in transport, a return to the carrier’s horse and cart. A simple society, based upon small craftsmanship, may be preferred to the highly complex society based upon concentrated machinery; it may even be held that the small craft and the small industry alone are permanent and that our great modern concentrations must inevitably crash sooner or later; but all that has nothing to do with the definition of Distributism. A railway between two great cities involves high concentrations of capital, but it does not of itself involve the possession of capital by one or a few men. The capital may be possessed in shares, and those shares widely distributed. The management of a national loan involves high concentration of capital, but there is no necessity for the bonds being held by a few; they could just as well be held by individuals and families composing the mass of the community.
It is important to insist upon this last point because there is great confusion upon it. Not only do the enemies of well-divided private property and the Distributist program ridicule and belittle it as impossible in modern large industry, because modern large industry involves concentration of capital, but many friends of Distributism become muddled on the same point. They would like to see the resurrection of the small craftsman. They deplore the damage done to society by large industry, they forget that while small craftsmanship may be subjected to economic servitude, large industry might be held co-operatively by a guild or a great number of shareholders. There have not been wanting states of society in the past where the small craftsman was a slave. There have not been wanting states of society in the past and the present also where the small craftsman and the small farmer was a wretched dependant upon usurers and tax collectors. The two ideas of small craftsmanship, small husbandry, etc., and the distribution of ownership must not be confused. They have a common spiritual appeal, but they are not identical.
From this list of what Distributism is not, let us turn to consider what the social philosophy of Distributism is.
We desire a better distribution of private property in a least a sufficient amount to secure freedom of action to the average man. It is natural to man to own, and to use his possessions under the action of his own will. To have one’s life ordered by other men with no authority other than their possession of the means of production is not the norm, consonant to human instinct. There are conditions where life must be controlled: for instance, for the ordering of an army or a religious group, or the saving of imperiled people such as shipwrecked men on a raft at sea. Among these you may and sometimes must suppress the action of individual will, and in some cases even such action of the will over material objects as we call ownership. The soldier acts under, the monk and member of a ship wrecked crew own nothing; the one because he has abandoned the natural human right of property for a particular purpose, the other because under highly abnormal circumstances he was compelled to do so. The shipwrecked crew can only save itself as a communist body; the monk can only fulfil his vocation as the member if a communist body. But in either case the whole point of such membership is that it is an exception to the common run; in the one case voluntarily, in the other (for the moment) inevitably.
When men are at once politically free and economically unfree (because they do not own the means of production and so cannot live save by leave of a master) they are called proletarian, and their general body is called the proletariat.
One might quarrel with that term also. It comes from an old Roman term which meant something very different. But here again things must have names and this is the accepted name for that very inhuman human condition. When a proletariat has come into being, that is, when there are so large a number of citizens dispossessed of any useful amount of property as to impose their spirit upon the mass of society, we talk of that society as Capitalist.
Here again is a bad term; there can be no production of wealth anywhere or anyhow without the use of capital; every society is capitalist in that sense. When a man talks of abolishing capital in industry he might as well talk of abolishing air in breathing. The discussion turns not on whether there should be capital but on who should control it. The term Capitalist, however, has come to be used as a sort of shorthand for a society in which a minority, control the means of production, and the rest, the proletariat, live at the will of such controllers. Capitalist in that sense the industrial areas of the world have become—and we know the result. The attempted combination of political freedom with a lack of economic freedom is not permanently workable, and meanwhile there is constant confusion, loss, and a direct opposition of interests between those citizens who actually produce the wealth by which they live and those who control the production of that wealth—and control the producers at the same time.
Of the innumerable evils proceeding from so unnatural and abnormal a state of affairs, the worst are, as always, spiritual evils.
This ephemeral but acute phase of social history which we call Capitalism and for which Proletarianism would be a better word, subjects free men arbitrarily to the will of other citizens, their political equals, and compels them to this subjection through the mere power of many. There is no bond of duty such as co-exists with Status; there is no obligation of loyalty, not any mutuality of service. The man who has nothing must work for the man who has the goods, and as both are completely free, the man, who has nothing can legally be deprived of his livelihood at any moment at the caprice of the man who has the goods. The material evils accompanying this spiritual evil of degrading subjection with no moral sanction to enforce it, are insecurity of livelihood for nearly all, and a permanent measure of insufficiency for a great part of society.
It should have been clear that such a state of affairs could not endure one it had become widespread. So long as it was confined to a comparatively small proportion of the people, it would hobble along though with great friction; when it becomes the rule, when the mass of men are wage-earners at the mercy of a minority of capitalists, it is certain that the wage-earners if they remain politically free will rebel. We know the for that rebellion has taken with free labor—interference by conspiracy and combination: strikes on the one hand and lock-outs on the other—all the elements of a simmering civil war. To restore peace and achieve a stable society there are only three policies possible. Either we must abolish capitalism by putting the means of production into the hands of State officials, in which case all citizens will lose their freedom and becomes slaves of a Communist State. The half-free proletariat will lose such freedom as they have, and the wholly free possessor of capital will lose his entire freedom.
Or, as a second policy, we can enslave the proletariat; compel them by force to work for the profit of owners. In other words, we can re-establish private slavery. That is a very stable arrangement of society and a permanent one; we all came out of it and it would be natural that we should return to it. Indeed, anyone with a long vision may think to foresee our return to it and perceive already the beginnings of the Servile State.
If we reject these two solutions—the Communist solution and the Servile State—there remains the Proprietary solution, the setting up of a social system in which ownership is the general rule and universal popular freedom is accompanied by widespread economic freedom; a state of society in which the normal citizen owns land or housing or both and has a share of profits from commercial enterprise, from State bonds or in general revenue from investment, as well as revenue earned by his own labor. We know well that such a state of society can be for we belonged to it in the immediate past; the United States within living memory was a Distributist society, and Denmark almost wholly so. The government of Italy today is aiming at Distributism; the independent Irish have made it the main part of their political program.
Inevitably the obstacles to its achievement are very great. Many would pronounce them insurmountable. First, as always, come the spiritual factors. Men have grown used to capitalism and have come to think in terms of wage-earner and employer. It is difficult to go back to another mood. Next, our existing laws are nearly all in favor of large accumulations through the action of competition. Increasing rapidity in the transmission of information and orders, work in the same way; so does the increasing efficiency of the machine.
But all these factors making for the putting of control into a few hands can be counteracted. You may preserve the expensive centralized machinery in transport and manufacture, but you may divide its shareholding individually. You may aid the division of accumulation by differential taxation weighing heavily upon great accumulations of wealth, but we do not use it for the furtherance of better division. Were we to do so, better division could be achieved. It is not enough to super-tax the rich man; you must use the proceeds to build up property of the small man, both by subsidy and by giving a premium upon purchase of capital and law by the small man with a penalty for purchase by the big man. Your differential tax can gradually extinguish the chain store and the department store; and in the very important department of public investment you can see to it that the small subscriber is favored when State or municipal bonds are issued, and the large one handicapped.
With s sufficient will to create small property, well distributed throughout the community, the thing could certainly be done: the difficulty would be when once it was done to keep it stable. The two forms of slavery, Communism and personal slavery, remain stable of themselves; but, just as political freedom requires for its maintenance a permanent attitude of alert defense, so does economic freedom—and a permanent attitude of alert defense is difficult to maintain. Moreover, if it is left to competing individuals, un-co-ordinated, it is impossible to maintain.
Therefore in order to make the Proprietary State stable, you must have laws (or customs with the force of laws) which make it difficult for the small man to alienate himself and yet safeguard him in his share of the means of production. Laws of hereditary succession will do this, so will the natural play of differential taxation, which profits the small purchaser at the expense of the large purchaser whenever there is a transfer of capital or land. But the best instrument of all for maintaining the stability of small property is the Guild.
If we can re-establish the Guild we shall have done the trick. With men incorporated in chartered guilds having the power of the State behind them, small property, once achieved, will be secure. The Guild regulates its own affairs, it sets limits to competition within its boundaries, it provides for a succession of new free guildsmen by apprenticeship (which is a form of initiation), it sets the price of the goods produced (another check on competition), it regulates the method of production also, it has every advantage and every power for dealing with property after a fashion that shall maintain it in spite of the threat of competition. If we are to build the Distributist State, the Guild must be the keystone of that arch, and until men are trained in the idea of the Guild, until the Guild is set up and begins working before their eyes, the attempt to restore a Distributist State will be in vain.
And there is the last proviso, the Distributist State to be secure must include large fields of State action, not only political but economic. Whatever is of its nature a monopoly must be under State control, more or less developed. You cannot have a Distributist State without a strong executive to safeguard the small man permanently against the aggression of the great. In most communities of the Middle Ages, this function was performed by an official called a King; the name does not matter, but the office is all-important. A society without a strong, centralized executive is a society inevitably doomed to plutocracy.
~Hilaire Belloc: in The American Mercury (July 1937 issue).