Distributism (also known as distributionism or distributivism) is an economic ideology 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.
According to distributists, property ownership is a fundamental right and the means of production should be spread as widely as possible rather than being centralized under the control of the state (state socialism), a few individuals (plutocracy), or corporations (corporatocracy). Distributism therefore advocates a society marked by widespread property ownership. Co-operative economist Race Mathews, argues such a system is key to bringing about a just social order.
Distributism has often been described in opposition to both socialism and capitalism, which distributists see as equally flawed and exploitative. Thomas Storck argues that “both socialism and capitalism are products of the European Enlightenment and are thus modernizing and anti-traditional forces. Further, some distributists argue that socialism is the logical conclusion of capitalism as capitalism’s concentrated powers eventually capture the state, resulting in a form of socialism. In contrast, distributism seeks to subordinate economic activity to human life as a whole, to our spiritual life, our intellectual life, our family life”.
Some have seen it more as an aspiration, which has been successfully realised in the short term by commitment to the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity (these being built into financially independent local cooperativesand small family businesses), though proponents also cite such periods as the Middle Ages as examples of the historical long-term viability of distributism. Particularly influential in the development of distributist theory were Catholic authors G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, the Chesterbelloc, two of distributism’s earliest and strongest proponents.
More recently Pope Francis has brought distributism back into discussion, denouncing unfettered capitalism as tyranny in his 84-page apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium:
Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills… A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which has taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits.