The Political Economy of Distributism: Property, Liberty, and the Common Good
Alexander William Salter (Catholic University of America Press, $32.95 pb, $97.95 hc, 238 pages)
Distributism, popularized at the beginning of the 20th century by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, is an economic system that draws upon Catholic social teaching and emphasizes a human dimension to the economic sphere, although its advocates are often vague in their prescriptions. The distributists of the early 20th century argued that both unfettered capitalism and centralized planning (socialism) dehumanized economic life and thus the economy needed to be rescaled to a human level. Chesterton and Belloc represent the pinnacle of distributism’s popularity, with their criticism of the centrality of materialism in both capitalist and collectivist thought. Distributism has much to recommend as a critique of alternative economic arrangements and is even attractive as an ideal, although in practice it is not clear how a socio-economic system would regress (for lack of a better word) to human-scale enterprise without the assistance of a central planner — and all the flaws this visible hand would entail. More fundamentally, is it realistic to believe that all property, from land and wages to good and labour, can be optimally distributed, that is, distributed justly? There seems to be a renewed interest in distributism and Alexander William Salter’s book The Political Economy of Distributism is the most thorough contribution to the discussion in recent years, yet he, too, avoids articulating a specific economic program. Salter outlines the principles of Catholic social teaching from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and several papal encyclicals, before turning to Chesterton and Belloc and finally the German economist Wilhelm Röpke. Ultimately, Salter finds distributism wanting as much as he is attracted to an economic system founded on human dignity. Distributism’s greatest contribution to political and economic thought – and this is where Salter excels – is in recognizing the connection between private property and individual liberty. When that tie is severed, freedom is imperiled. Ultimately, Salter offers no new way forward to achieve distributism as a socio-economic system, although some of its goals might be incorporated into some form of common-good capitalism, and it is not difficult to imagine a fairer and more just world if it were to happen.