The Proudhonism of the Right.
The American Conservative
Distributism is the rather awkward name given to a program of political economy formulated chiefly by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, two of the most prominent English writers of the early 20th century. Both Catholics, they sought to turn the social teaching of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI into a concrete program of action. They rejected socialism, believing that private property was an essential component of human flourishing, but they also rejected the existing capitalist system as concentrating private property in far too few hands.
Distributism has garnered increased interest of late, due among other things to the social commentary of Pope Francis. Notwithstanding its Catholic origins, many non-Catholics have also embraced distributism over the years. Dorothy L. Sayers, E.F. Schumacher, and Christopher Lasch were influenced by its ideas, as has been the Spanish worker cooperative Mondragón.
Chesterton and Belloc shared a diagnosis for what they saw as the ills of the England of their day: the problem was not private property, as Marxists argued, but the fact that private property owners were scarce. As Chesterton put it in The Outline of Sanity: “The truth is that what we call Capitalism ought to be called Proletarianism. The point of it is not that some people have capital, but that most people only have wages because they do not have capital.”
When “Chesterbelloc”—as G.B. Shaw named the pair—talked about property, their focus was on capital goods, not consumption goods. They would not be impressed by arguments showing that, while American workers may be totally dispossessed of the means of production, at least they have 40-inch LCD televisions and smart phones.
Belloc understood what had occurred over the last several centuries of Western political development as a regression to conditions resembling those of the late Roman Empire, in which a few men owned great landed estates while the masses owned little or nothing in the way of productive property. In The Servile State, he wrote: