Patrick Riordan: ‘The Political Economy of Distributism: Property, Liberty, and the Common Good’ by Alexander William Salter

The distinction between economics and political economy is fundamental to the argument of this book. The difference between them is that in political economy explicit attention is paid to the ends and purposes of economic activity. Economics takes the ends as given and enquires about efficiency in the use of resources to those ends. The distinction is strikingly present in the author’s claims that while ‘the distributists [Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton] were often poor economic reasoners’ (minor claim), their ‘errors do not invalidate their most important arguments’ (major claim) (page ix). Political economy is concerned with ends, what makes for a decent society, among which the implied rights and duties flowing from human dignity are essential. Political economy is normative, being focused not only on what is done, but also on what ought to be done (page x). Distributism is a distinctive form of political economy, with its own view of the ends and purpose of economic activity, and hence a perspective on the corresponding means.

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Opposed to both capitalism and socialism, but not as somehow a midpoint between them, or a third way (page 8), distributism focuses on the link between property and freedom, and the link between economic freedom and political freedom. Where ‘capitalism concentrates productive property into fewer and fewer hands’ (page ix), distributism holds that the ‘ownership of the means of production should be as widespread as possible’ (page 8). The holding of property is an essential condition for economic freedom, and economic freedom is a necessary condition for political freedom: ‘societies cannot remain politically free unless they are economically secure and independent’ (pages ix-x). The freedom spoken of here is not simply a negative freedom from external interference: ‘freedom is a necessary condition of human freedom … re man’s personal nature, his being-in-community, with major implications for the scale and scope of institutions at all levels’ (page 8). Consistent with the Catholic inspiration there is significant emphasis on the family as a core social institution (page 75), and the embrace of subsidiarity as the principle that ‘when families and civic organisations can solve social problems, government ought not to interfere’ (page 26).

A popular essay on distributism is quoted as presenting an ideal: ‘In an ideal world every man would own the land on which, and the tools with which, he worked. In an ideal world he would control his own destiny by having control over the means to his livelihood’ (page 8).

Two chapters each are devoted to presenting the work of the classical distributists, Hilaire Belloc, and G.K. Chesterton. Belloc’s The Servile State (1912) and his Essay on the Restoration of Property (1936) are analysed in chapters 3 and 4. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World (1910) and his The Outline of Sanity (1926) are presented and discussed in chapters 5 and 6. While they collaborated, their styles were different, Salter labelling Belloc ‘the logician’ and Chesterton ‘the aesthetician’. Salter concludes that they spoke with one voice on the key issue: ‘When society gives men their due [i.e. property], they have a stake in the social and political infrastructure by which they secure their rights. Economic justice and political justice are mutually reinforcing components of social justice, understood in the context of Catholicism’s teachings on human dignity’ (page 126).

Salter stresses the influence of Catholic Social Teaching on the thought and writings of these two advocates for distributism. To explain this background Chapter 2 is largely a presentation of Catholic teaching, and it is accurate, clear, and readable. However, there is a slight danger of anachronism, since the sources used for presenting the church teaching include both the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2003), and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004). Both sources draw on Papal encyclicals and Vatican Council II Documents that were not available to Belloc or Chesterton. Here it is important to remember that Salter does not claim to present a history of distributism (page ix), but instead to present the classic texts of distributist thought (page 9). Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) was their principal source, as well as the later anti-liberal stance of Pope Pius XI, including at least in Belloc’s case his Quadragesimo Anno (1931), marking forty years since Leo’s encyclical.

A third author featured in this discussion of distributism is presented as one influenced by the two English authors, who although not himself a distributist, exemplifies for Salter how the deficiencies of distributist thought (the minor claim) could be compensated for with a more thorough incorporation of economic science, specifically price theory. Wilhelm Röpke’s work is presented in two chapters. Chapter 8 surveys his The Social Crisis of our Time (1942) and A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market (1960). Chapter 9 outlines his The Economics of the Free Society (originally published in German in 1937, the ninth edition of which was published in English in 1960). Salter shows how Röpke is motivated by the same concern as Belloc and Chesterton that predominant forms of economy are damaging humanity and preventing the realisation of human dignity and human fulfilment. Röpke points to the phenomena of proletarianization, and enmassment; against those trends he envisages property as the pillar of economic order, and advocates entrusting that order ‘not to planning, coercion, and penalties, but to the spontaneous and free cooperation of the people through the market, price, and competition’ (page 166). The importance of incorporating an economics based on price theory into the political economy of distributism is a conclusion flowing from Chapter 9.

What is the relevance of distributism, as a tradition of political economy, to twenty-first century concerns? Salter endeavours to situate the distributist themes of economic and political freedom, human dignity and the good society as the end of economic activity, within contemporary debates. Chapter 1 points to critiques of liberalism, advocacy for common good capitalism, and various attempts to integrate Catholic social teaching. Chapter 7 takes this concern further by suggesting how distributist thought might contribute to several directions of research already noted in the literature. Three projects in particular are identified. Investigation into state capacity, the link between economic and political freedom, and justice in exchange, could benefit from the distinctive distributist vision of economy serving human dignity and fulfilment.

These ideas of freedom, limitation of the state’s role, and common good, are not the preserve of distributism. As noted in this book, much needs to be done to clarify the relevant concepts and to articulate the vision of a humane economy, an economy ‘as if people mattered’. And then that vision and those concepts must be made politically significant by being disseminated to a wider constituency. I welcome and recommend this book as a valuable contribution to the task, drawing on one important strand in the tradition.

 

‘The Political Economy of Distributism: Property, Liberty, and the Common Good’ by Alexander William Salter was published in 2023 by The Catholic University of America Press (ISBN 978-0-8132-3681-0). 238pp.


Dr Patrick Riordan, SJ, an Irish Jesuit, is Senior Fellow for Political Philosophy and Catholic Social Thought at Campion Hall, University of Oxford. Previously he taught political philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London. His 2017 book, Recovering Common Goods (Veritas, Dublin) was awarded the ‘Economy and Society’ prize by the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation in 2021. His most recent book is Human Dignity and Liberal Politics: Catholic Possibilities for the Common Good (Georgetown UP, 2023).