Distributism is an economic theory that advocates for the widespread ownership of the world’s productive assets, rather than their concentration in the hands of a few. It was developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, based on Catholic social teaching principles, especially Pope Leo XIII’s teachings in his encyclical Rerum novarum (1891) and Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno (1931). The theory asserts that the means of production should be owned by as many people as possible, rather than being controlled by a small number of wealthy individuals or corporations. The idea is to create a more equitable society where wealth is distributed more evenly, and people have greater control over their own lives.

In this interview, Alexander W. Salter discusses distributism and and his pick of books on the subject.

Alexander W. Salter is the Georgie G. Snyder Associate Professor of Economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University, the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at TTU's Free Market Institute, and an associate editor of the Journal of Private Enterprise. Additionally, he is a Sound Money Project senior fellow and a Young Voices senior contributor.

He is the author of, The Political Economy of Distributism: Property, Liberty, and the Common Good (Catholic University of America Press, 2023), The Spirit of '76: Libertarianism and American Renewal (American Institute for Economic Research, 2023). He is co-author of Money and the Rule of Law: Generality and Predictability in Monetary Institutions (Cambridge University Press, 2021) and The Medieval Constitution of Liberty: Political Foundations of Liberalism in the West (University of Michigan Press, 2023).

  1. The Servile State
    by Hilaire Belloc
  2. An Essay on the Restoration of Property
    by Hilaire Belloc
  3. An Outline of Sanity
    by G.K. Chesterton
  4. A Humane Economy
    by Wilhelm Röpke
  5. The Economics of the Free Society
    by Wilhelm Röpke
Five Books for Catholics may receive a commission from qualifyng purchases made using the affliate links to the books listed in this post.

What is distributism?
Distributism is a school of political economic thought that is explicitly rooted in Catholic social teaching. It is not solely Catholic. One does not have to be a Catholic to appreciate distributism. However, the progenitors of distributism in the early twentieth century rooted their teachings explicitly in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. In short, distributism holds that, politically and economically, the best kind of society is one characterised by widespread, diffused ownership of productive assets.

Distributists sometimes joke that they love private property so much they want there to be much more of it. They want the average household, the ordinary family, to own the means of production and sustenance for their livelihood.

How does distributism differ from capitalism?
The distributists often have unkind words for the system that we call capitalism. Most, such as Hilaire Belloc, think that capitalism tends towards monopolism. According to distributists, monopolistic capitalism’s key feature is that it tends to dispossess the masses of meaningful ownership of the factors of production. At the time, nominally there was private ownership by large corporate entities under capitalism. However, most families and most households did not own any productive assets. This meant that the conditions for a decentralised, free, and humane political economic order could not be met.

I have some reservations about the distributist indictment of capitalism. However, their ethical worldview, especially their concern for the dignity of ordinary families, is highly worthwhile.

"Distributists sometimes joke that they love private property so much they want there to be much more of it. They want the average household, the ordinary family, to own the means of production and sustenance for their livelihood."

In your view, is there an acceptable definition of capitalism from the Christian standpoint?
That is a very good question. I am an economist by training and so I tend to see capitalism as simply an economy characterised by private ownership of the factors of production. It is a private property economy, without respect to distribution.

What makes the distributist claim unique is that, unsurprisingly, they explicitly incorporate distributive claims into their definition of capitalism. They indict capitalism because they think that it necessarily tends towards monopoly and excess concentrations of wealth. In some of my writings, I have indicted capitalism. Many systems that explicitly self-identify as capitalist often provide political and economic insiders space to rewrite the rules of the game to favour themselves or other special interest groups. The retention of nominal private property rights, wealth, residual claimants, and such like, normally does good things in the economy. However, if, on top of that, some have preferential access to the commanding heights of politics and economics, they can often rig the game. We tend to view that as ethically suspect in capitalism and it is worth taking those defects seriously.

On the other hand, how does distributism differ from socialism?
Distributists do not like socialism either. Again, they want as much private property in as many hands as possible. By definition, socialism means the abolishment of private property rights and investing all productive control over production and distribution in the hands of some bodies, such as the government. Distributists see that as a recipe for tyranny and the trampling of human dignity. Historically, they are correct. Actual command economies or socialist economies are disastrous both in their performance and in their effects on the well-being of flesh and blood human beings.

While distributists are sympathetic to the socialist’s desire for greater economic equality, especially with respect to ownership, they do not go so far as to abolish private property. They frequently point back to St. Thomas Aquinas and the positive role he gives to private property in orienting us to both our temporal good and our ultimate good.

Inspired as it is by Catholic social doctrine, distributism differs from socialism not only in terms of its economic policy but also in its conception of the family and marriage, which underlies the Church's understanding of property. Distributists would also disagree with today's left-leaning advocates of social justice and radical inclusion.
That is a very good point. G.K. Chesterton is especially eloquent on this, particularly in What's Wrong with the World and The Outline of Sanity.

For distributists, the basic unit of society is not the individual but the family or household. Distributists are concerned with making households as economically independent, sustainable, and productive as possible. If each family has sufficient productive assets to be its own master economically, not only is it safe from being dictated to in the economic sphere, but it is also going to have a stake in the social order. Such households and families are going to have an interest in preserving a free state that respects human dignity. So, you need to think about distributism in the context of Catholic social teaching on the family.

This is one area where even non-Catholic Christians can find much that is valuable. The family is obviously a normative institution for all Christians, or at least it should be. It is important for providing intergenerational stability and is the institution that God has ordained to help us find our temporal and final good.

We need to think about more than just individuals and social groups, though, in any sane political and economic order, they should have an important, sacred space too. 

How does distributism differ from some recent proposals for a common good capitalism, whatever that is supposed to be?
Distributism predates the discussion about a common good capitalism. As you noted, that debate is fairly recent.

In my book, I argue that distributism is one way of envisioning, instantiating, and institutionalising common good capitalism. If you are concerned with reforming market economies to ensure that they serve the common good more explicitly and according to one's conception of the common good, then much of distributism’s teaching on the relationship between political and economic order, the importance of decentralised property ownership and a participatory, non-monopolised economy fits well with what some public figures, such as Senator Marco Rubio, have been calling for. They advocate a reoriented American political and economic order that incorporates a richer and more robust conception of the common good. Again, as an economist, I have some reservations about this. There is often a big wedge between good intentions and good results. However, I certainly believe it is a conversation worth having.

Currently, does any political party espouse distributism in its manifesto?
Neither of the two major political parties in the United States, the Republicans nor the Democrats, do so. There is a third party, the American Solidarity Party, which explicitly builds on both distributist principles and Kuyperian social teaching. Abraham Kuyper was  a Dutch Calvinist and a Prime Minister of the Netherlands in the early twentieth century. In his writings, he echoes a similar chord about the importance of decentralisation and a humane political, economic order.

Although the American Solidarity Party has not had great success yet, it explicitly incorporates these teachings into its paradigm.

You are Orthodox, not Catholic. Distributism develops within the Catholic tradition, even though a commitment to Catholic belief is not necessary to endorse or recognise any valid truth-claims that distributists make. Are there differences of substance between Catholic social teaching on economics and Orthodox teaching or merely a difference of method and sources?
It is difficult to talk about Orthodox social teaching. We do not have anything like the A Compendium of Social Doctrine. The Patriarchs have put out various statements n social matters, but it does not amount to a self-conscious body of teaching about the proper relationship between political, economic, civil society, and other social spheres.

I got into distributism because, late in college and early in graduate school, I was returning to Christianity. One of the pathways back was G.K. Chesterton. From Chesterton, I started reading Hilaire Belloc. This cultivated in me an appreciation for many of these ethical considerations. Previously, I had not thought they were that important. I also started reading Catholic social teaching. Though I ended up crossing the Bosphorus instead of the Tiber, I am still fond of these authors and their views on political and economic problems. That is why I am engaged in it as a research topic.

You are a sympathetic critic of distributism. To what school of economics do you belong?
That is increasingly a tough question. Perhaps in the years past I could give you a definite answer. I am more ecumenical in my economic beliefs than I was previously and less willing to identify with a specific school.

In some ways I am influenced by the Austrian School of economics; in other ways, by the Chicago school.

I see economics as a descriptive science that teaches us about the way the world works. I relieve economics as a social science from any burden of teaching us the way that the world ought to work. There is such a thing as scientific economics that can uncover true knowledge about the social world, no matter how we want it to be or not to be.

From there we need to take our economic teachings and apply them to moral issues. This is not an excuse to ignore morality but a call to understand what economics can and cannot teach us. The purpose of economics is to serve the art of political economy, the broader humanistic field that explicitly incorporates ethical and, I would argue, theological considerations. The basic truths of Christianity are true. Everyone should subscribe to them. So what Christianity teaches about society is true. In any normative ethical investigation about our common affairs, the revealed truths of Christianity need to play a role. I look for ways of bringing the social, scientific findings of economics to help us do that.

While I admire the Austrian economists, one of the problems I find is, without denying the validity of their economics, sometimes they incorporate underlying, implicit anthropological these. There is an underlying conception of man. Sometimes that is particularly clear, as in Rothbart and von Mises. Hayek is more nuanced. However, if I understood you correctly, you agree with their economics but I have some problems with the conception of politics or ethics that they bring in, whether implicitly or unconsciously.
What is admirable about economists like Mises, Rothbard, and even Hayek is that they understand when they are transgressing the positive-normative boundary. They understand where they are doing ethics and going beyond the bounds of social science. Often, I do disagree with their anthropology. Mises, for example, is a consequentialist: a rule utilitarian. He believed that we can devise social rules that allow everybody to get all they want. That is an interesting way of looking at ethical problems, but of course, for a Christian, there are situations where we should not get what we want. Oftentimes, we want sinful things. I can appreciate their contribution as economists without necessarily subscribing to their ethical beliefs.

However, Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard deserve credit for almost always being explicit about where their descriptive economics ends and their prescriptive ethics begins. Most economists are not that explicit. Today, many practicing economists smuggle in their ethical views under the auspices of positive value-free social science. It turns out that it is anything but value-free and descriptive. It smuggles in anthropology and ethics under a nominally scientific heading.

Now, there is nothing wrong with having ethical beliefs that inform our scientific analysis. However, there is a big problem when we do not recognise when we allow them to impinge upon our scientific studies.

Nobody could envision a doctor who does not care about human health. Presumably, every doctor becomes one because they are committed to destroying sickness and restoring health. That said, medicine is a science. The human body works in predictable ways. Some treatments have predictable consequences. To achieve your moral purpose, you need to use the science of medicine in the right way. If you conflate the moral purposes of medicine with its scientific practice, you are not going to help people get better. You are not going to understand what it is you are doing. In many ways, economics is similar. You need to be very clear about where your descriptive and prescriptive beliefs begin. Then you can be honest about how you think the world works and how you think it should work.

From what I gather, your position is that distributism gets something right and something wrong. It gets the political part of political economy right, or at least some aspects of it. However, it gets the economics wrong. Is that our fair assessment of what is right and wrong with distributism?
That goes a long way towards summarising my contribution in the book.

I advance a minor claim and a major claim.

The minor claim is that distributists, such as Belloc and Chesterton, often make errors in their analysis of how market economies work. In their indictments of capitalism—by which they mean market economies largely—they say lots of things that simply do not hold up under scholarly scrutiny. We have a better understanding now of how markets do and do not work.

Many economists will use that as an excuse to dismiss the distributists. They take it to be nothing other than a school of economic thought. My major claim is that even though the distributists commit small-scale errors, they are valuable to us on account of their big-picture vision. They offer a theory of the free society. They discuss which relationship between politics and economics helps both preserve and respect human dignity. In many ways, they are discussing the institutional prerequisites for maintaining human dignity. On that score, much of what they say is worth listening to. We should not dismiss them so quickly because of their errors in small matters. They get many interesting things right: their big-picture analysis of what can and often does go wrong in societies that are excessively materialistic or politically centralised.

Scholars such as Schumpeter, Rothbard, and Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson recognise the contributions that the Spanish Scholastics made to economics and its development. Are they even better on economics than the distributists?
I know many economists who think so. I have not read the Spanish scholastics all that much and so am not sufficiently schooled in their thought to say whether their vision differs significantly from that of the distributists and, if it does, whether it is the better.

In a debate, it is always important to consider the best arguments of each side. In your book, The Political Economy of Distributism: Property, Liberty, and the Common Good, you argue against some aspects of distributism. What counterarguments might distributists make in reply?
Many distributist would say that I rely too much on theory and not enough on practice. For example, I push back against their claim that capitalism, operating by itself, will tend naturally towards monopoly and concentration. I have good theoretical grounds and evidence to show that, ultimately, this is not sustainable.

Distributists will reply to that this is well and good in terms of ideal theory but not in real-world politics and economics. Economic power can buy political power; political power can create economic power. So, no matter how markets might work in the abstract, in any existing capitalist system insiders rewrite the rules of the game to favour themselves. That necessarily results in concentration, monopoly, and dispossession.

Of course, I have a reply to that and distributists might have a counterreply. Much of this debate hinges on the applicability of economic theory for describing our current circumstances. Obviously, as an economist, I believe in the power of the economic way of thinking. However, I am sympathetic to the objection that the economic way of looking at contemporary issues may be too abstract and rarified. Though I shall defend economic theory to my dying day, I am perfectly willing to have a conversation with somebody who thinks I am missing something and need to pay more attention to practical reality.

The title of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom sounds remarkably similar to that of Belloc’s The Servile State. Indeed, Hayek quotes Belloc appreciatively in that work. He even opens Chapter 8, “Economic Control and Totalitarianism” with a quote from Belloc. “The control of the production of wealth is the control of human life itself.” Is Hayek’s work inspired in part by Belloc or is he just one of many sources which influences it?
The latter: he is one of many sources.

Hayek appreciated the importance of private property. One reason was that, though he had an early flirtation with socialism after the First World War, he had read many authors who convinced him that a private-property-based economy was a necessary bulwark for both rationality and economic order. It ensured coherence in the economy and the protection of the basic human liberties that he cherished.

He was not strongly influenced by distributism. However, he was conversant with Belloc, maybe even with Chesterton. In some respects, he covers the same ground and themes as the distributists.

It is easier to spot their divergences, given Hayek’s future trajectory. My thinking about societies, the limitations of knowledge, the division of labour, private property, and such like, is very much in the Hayek strain.

However, Hayek picked that quote to introduce that chapter for a reason. He appreciated property’s role in coordinating social systems and preventing the tyranny of man over man.

The books you have selected to represent the distributist tradition are by its early exponents, Belloc and Chesterton. Do more recent proponents of distributism such as E.F. Schumacher, Joseph Pearse, or John Medaille update and improve the theory in any significant way?
They apply distributism to contemporary issues, though not always convincingly, in my view. It is not that I dislike their books. Rather, I advocate that the reader goes to Chesterton and Belloc, who set out the enduring principles. You need to ground yourself in the principles before you can apply distributism to particular political and economic problems.

Perhaps that is the academic in me speaking. I am always droning on my students about the fundamentals.

Distributists appeal not just to Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum but also to Pius XI’s 1931 sequel encyclical Quadrigesimo anno. There, Pius argues that society works better when orders or guilds do not just have an economic role in the labour market but a broader social role. The Germans talk of the vocational order (berufsständische Ordnung). What do you make of distributism’s corporatism?
There is something good and salutary in distributism’s corporatism. There is also something that I am hesitant about.

The good and salutary part is its recognition that you cannot silo off economic life from the other aspects of life. The economic impinges on the political, social, and the religious.  Worker cooperatives, trade groups, or even guilds can inform via institutional means a wider group of protections and associations that help us achieve the fullness of life.

At the same time, the guild system is meant to have, for lack of a better term, an institutional monopoly on who practices the trade and the terms under which they practice it. I tend to believe that the mediaeval guild system was used primarily to protect established insiders against competition from outsiders. I am not a fan of this idea of a permission-based society. As an economist, it makes me comfortable to tell people that, before they can make shoes, they need to get permission from those who are already making shoes. Immediately, we see the incentive problems. People do not like competition.  Giving a few groups veto rights over other entrants into the field is just another kind of monopoly. It is every bit as pernicious as a corporate monopoly.

The right way to strike this balance is to encourage the formation of worker cooperatives and similar groups, without necessarily granting them the legal privilege to veto or permit production and dictate the terms under which one produces. The long-term danger is not its impact on immediate distributions of income but innovation. In the long run, we only get economic growth by creating new production processes. We create new technologies. To do that, we need to discover and test them in actual economic practice. Giving established producers veto rights over experimentation and new forms of production would significantly hamper economic growth.

"For distributists, you need widespread ownership because you cannot build a wall of separation between political and economic power."

The corporatist argument also underestimates the risks of ideological capture. We are seeing ideological capture play out in many institutions nowadays. Those who do not toe the line in an industry or sector are excluded unfairly.
Unmitigated corporatism would make cancel culture even easier than it is.

Chesterton’s slogan for a distributist manifesto was “Three acres and a cow (for a family).” Obviously, this is a hopelessly fanciful proposal. I cannot imagine Chesterton ever managing to maintain himself with three acres and a cow, let alone work that land. However, some contemporary distributists and fellow travellers advocate agrarianism and a back-to-the-land movement. What are the merits of such a proposal?
The merit is that there is the immediate conferral of economic independence. If you are working your own land on your own terms, it is much harder for someone to dictate to you the terms of your sustenance.

The problems with that are obvious. There are about 8 billion people in the world right now. You simply cannot feed that population with small, decentralised farms. To propose agrarianism as a mass movement, we need to confront the fact that the calories from foodstuffs will become much scarcer and much more expensive. In the short run, that will cause significant human suffering.

I do not support distributism’s agrarian fancy. I am not against agrarianism per se, but the idea that we elevate farming and agriculture, among other realms of production. This does not help us confront the contemporary challenges to our political and economic order, if for no other reason that people are not all that willing to go out and farm. Farming is difficult and backbreaking work. There is a reason why millions of workers migrated from the countryside to the cities at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The cities were crowded and unsanitary. The work was often unsafe and the hours long. Still, in the estimation of the workers themselves, it was preferable to farming.

That poses a significant challenge to anybody who says that we can ground a widespread distributive revival on agrarianism. Agrarianism should be one plank among many in an overall distributist package. We should be able to apply these teachings to all sectors of the economy. Distributism should not be just another back-to-the-land movement. That would strip it of its universality and ongoing contemporary relevance.



The first book on your list is Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State (1912). Is this book the first major statement of distributism?

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