XCVI – Distributism for Beginners (No. 3)

Before we go further on the comparitive economics, lets look at the Social underpinnings of Distributism. For this we turn to the foundational encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

Of The New Things

The first order of the encyclical Rerum Novarum (henceforth abbreviated ERN) is to establish that private property is a component of natural law. This makes it an inviolable law of God and principle of society, and furthermore is antecedent to affairs of State. In other words, The state does not own property, and allow citizens to own it privately; rather, the State is composed of private citizens who leverage their property for the same ends. Consequently, The fruits of that property naturally belong to the owner thereof. This may sound very libertarian, but the similarity ends there.

ERN carefully notes that the natural law extends only to ownership of property. The use of that property ought to be governed by the law of Christ, that man should not hoard but rather keep what he needs and give the rest to his neighbor, or to care for the poor. ERN elaborates on this principle at length, but it generally considers great accumulations of property a stumbling block to virtue; the soft vice of excess which weakens the moral foundations of society.

In terms of property, the State is properly ordered to facilitate the virtuous use of private property, not to administer that use. The State is, or ought to be, properly ordered towards God, and there are other encyclicals that deal with how citizens relate to the state which I am keen to look at but which may be tangential to this issue for now.

From all this, we can distill four guiding social principles for Distributism. First, that Private Owernship is naturally granted to us by God. Second, the fruits of our private property rightly belongs to us. Third, the State is a beneficiary of and facilitator to the virtuous use of private property, but has no standing to administer or distribute that property. Finally, the use of private property ought to be guided by a Christian conscience.

All of this spells out what we already knew: that Distributism is a Social Policy for the use and exchange of property, not an economic policy for the public good.

Why Is This Different?

All economic systems have a social aspect to it, but Distributism seems to me to have been the first to spell it out explicitly. Socialism is indeed intended to benefit the public good, but with the belief that the best party to determine and administer the public good is the State. It can’t be denied that Socialism is successful if that is it’s goal, but it fails at meeting the needs spelled out by ERN. Capitalism, likewise, comes from the libertarian belief that Economies will sort themselves in the most efficient way if they are given the space to do so, and the accumulation of capital and drive for innovation will, by necessity, benefit the public good. Likewise, Capitalism is successful in it’s stated goal. It’s the unintended consequences of both systems that necessitated a document like ERN. The exponential growth of Capital following the industrial revolution in the 19th Century was answered by the bloody rise of Socialism in the 20th. Laborers needed to organize to protect themselves from the former; society needed principles and structure to defend itself from the latter. After two world wars and a cold one, we find ourselves in the tense middle ground, wherein the State and corporations are in rivalry for power.

The innovation that Distributism offers is going to sound like common sense to Catholics, but it’s the idea of putting Human Beings first. How can we build an economic system that preserves human dignity first in owning property, then in using it, then in reaping its fruits?

As we move forward with our investigation of Distributism, we have three considerations now that we have our guiding social principles:

  • What is the role of the worker, and how does he prosper?
  • What is the role of the State, and how does it help the worker to prosper?
  • What is the role of the market, and what form does it take given the new structure?

We press on! AMDG

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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5 thoughts on “XCVI – Distributism for Beginners (No. 3)”

  1. The Christian doctrine of charity to the poor has been undermined by the socialist doctrine of justice to the poor. Theft is one way to acquire property, but the socialist doctrine is that all property is acquired by theft. I am not a rich man myself, and I recognize that rich men often act against my interest, but I think it a gross injustice to say that every rich man is a thief. Greed is certainly a sin, but so is covetousness, and an ugly strain of covetousness runs through most socialist thought.

    I wonder if covetousness and greed don’t feed off of one another. If I were an honest rich man surrounded by a grasping and covetous horde asserting its “right” to my riches, I might very well begin to entertain greedy thoughts of keeping it all for myself. And if I were an honest poor man confronted by a miser sitting on his hoard of gold, I might very well think he deserved to have his throat split. But the decay of charity runs both way, and we only hear about half of this decay from the Church.


  2. Discussions of Charity remind me of Zippy’s writings about Usury. Loans used to be a form of Charity–there was no expectation of return, so no profitable interest. Monks would use loans to give to the destitute, and if they got back on their feet as a consequence, they would be morally (if not legally) obliged to return the loan to the monks who helped them. Charity has these elements: 1) Giving willingly 2) to someone who needs it 3) with no expectation of profit.

    Justice to the poor in the manner you describe is a distortion of that charity. In this school of thought, the wealthy ought to be obliged to give money (negating criteria #1), to others who may or may not need it (negating criteria #2), and because the wealthy have no choice #3 isn’t even an option any more. When Charity is suffocated, there’s no room for neighborliness. When the hordes clamor for your reserves, prudence almost requires that you put the walls up. The “Atlas Shrugged” mentality is a natural consequence of redistributive socialism.

    So I think you’re right that covetousness and greed feed off of one another. Love of neighbor, by your recent article, implies first that people have to start helping each other. Then charity can function as it should again. Entitlement helps no one.


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