The Conservative Case for a Commons Way of Life


| 7/21/2014 8:56:00 AM


Tags: Commons, Community, Conservatives, Distributism,

Seattle farmers market

In the early-to-mid-20th Century the Distributists—led by English authors G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc—took a dim view of both socialism and corporate capitalism. As conservatives they did, however, believe in private property—so much they thought it should be “distributed” as widely as possible among the whole population.

At its root, the Distributist movement sought a practical, community-oriented alternative to the inequality of capitalism and the bureaucracy of socialism. To fulfill this vision, Distributists advocated for family farms, family-run businesses, a return to craftsmanship and community self-reliance. When large enterprises were inevitable, such as industrial factories, they advocated worker-run cooperatives to give people a greater share of ownership.

Chesterton noted, “There is less difference than many suppose between the ideal socialist system, in which the big businesses are run by the state, and the present capitalist system, in which the state is run by the big businesses. They are much nearer to each other than either is to my own ideal; of breaking up the big businesses into a multitude of small businesses.”

Chesterton and Belloc excelled at writing essays, but not at organizing a political movement. Beyond several well-attended conferences and a scattering of local projects, Distributists never established a successful course toward achieving their ideals.  Distributism was not adopted as an economic system in any nation, although the “Green” peasant parties of Central Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s enacted similar policies to keep people on the land.

A full-blown Distributist movement never emerged in the United States, but its ideas were embraced in the mid-20th Century by influential figures from Catholic Worker founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin to Bishop Fulton Sheen to historian Garry Wills. Chesterton and Belloc were guided by Catholic Social teachings, especially Pope Leo XIII whose 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum embraced social justice as a core Catholic mission. But not all Distributists were Catholic.