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    old man chiseling in a dim woodshop

    Distributism Needs a New Name

    G. K. Chesterton and company didn’t just decry what was wrong with the world. Their solution is as relevant as ever.

    By Dale Ahlquist

    November 21, 2022
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    • Paul

      Interesting reading. Basing our lives and influence locally means closer relationships to; our God, our families, our communities. Its what we value most and where we can be agents for our futures.

    • Alex Salter

      A fine article. Whatever we call it, the Chesterton-Belloc economic paradigm usefully moves the conversation from payments to property. Mere “incomes policy” cannot restore the character of a free state. This is one reason I’m skeptical of industrial policy—a political-economic landscape resembling that of the New Deal won’t make us free. Restoring a class of independent proprietors might.

    • John Wilson Jr.

      Public education is not a “slithery beast.” First this an ad hominem of sorts. I am not sure how to answer it because it offers nothing specific that provides a clue as to your reasons for calling it a “slithery beast.” I am assuming this is part of the conservative attack on education and I can respond to those attacks as I understand them, but without more specificity I have no way of knowing if I am correct in this. Education performs an important service to our children and to our nation. I am retired public school English teacher. I taught in the Watts area of Los Angeles and in rural Massachusetts. Conservative politicians of late have taken to demonizing education and educators. Granted I have only taught in two school districts, but as a reader of AP exams I have met teachers from all over the country who teach AP, as I do. I imagine most teachers vote Democratic, but I taught with teachers all over the political map. Conservative, Liberals, but mostly moderates. I am Caucasian and was hired the same year as an African-American history teacher. I think we were the only two Christians in our department (Humanities) though there were other Christians in the school. So we talked a lot together. Being more liberal than my friend, there was much we disagreed about, but we could talk easily and we respected each others differences. There also was not a lot of difference between what he taught and what other History teachers in the school taught, or what I taught and other English teachers taught. You cannot teach History without addressing the dark side of our History, any more than you can teach English without confronting controversial ideas, in fact this is what makes us different from totalitarian countries that teach propaganda, pretend there are no dark sides to their History and that uncomfortable ideas don’t exist. As an English teacher I taught literature and composition. It was my concern that students learn how to think, not what to think, and there is nothing unusual about me as teacher in the public schools. I know Plato was a great teacher because he taught Aristotle and Aristotle was one of the most effective critics of parts of Plato’s philosophy. I know I succeeded when students feel comfortable challenging what I think. I am more concerned with a student making an effective argument than with their agreeing with me. People need to be civil then. I want to understand why people who disagree with me disagree. As John Stuart Mill said “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” A good part of the problem today is that we would rather demonize each other than understand each other. C. S. Lewis once said, and I don’t remember his exact words, that he was a Conservative but the Gospel seems to side with the liberals. I found this insightful, not because he seemed to endorse my views, but because it suggests to me that when reading the Gospel it ought to challenge things we believe no matter what side we are on regarding issues of one kind or another. In the spirit of what Lewis said I have always attended Conservative churches (though theologically I am pretty conservative) because I believe it is important to be in environments where my views are challenged. That doesn’t mean my views are changed much, but it reminds me there is another side and that my side falls short in places, as does everyone’s. G. K. Chesterton is one of a few writers that have most profoundly influenced my beliefs. My views are very close to Chesterton’s “Distributism” (and I seem to recall reading that he did not like that term either, but went along with it because everyone else seemed to like it). I often tell people I am an Evangelical Christian Socialist, because if I tried to explain Distributism to most people they would probably call it Socialism anyway. But there are serious problems with Distributism. There are too many things we use and depend on that cannot be made at home, automobiles, refrigerators, computers, airplanes, and such. The pre-Industrial age that provided the model is difficult to adapt to the modern age. But I agree we have to find a way to craft a society that enables all to live more independently, which also means more freely, and more self sufficiently. But we also need to remember the Gospel does not want us to be too self sufficient, we have need of one another.

    • Gary Looper

      I am in favor of the local approach of “Distributism” described by Chesterton and Dorothy Day. But I am not in favor of “isms” and wish we would stop naming movements that way, as it necessarily divide people into “in” and “out” groups and sets forth an ideal that is not reachable, yielding weariness and hopelessness. "Localism,” as has “nationalism,” and “globalism,” will become another political football with teams aligned as enemies of one another. Love of neighbors, as Wendell Berry makes clear, requires local, face-to-face encounters with others. He calls it “affection” in one of his speeches, though I doubt that would fly in America, due its association with romance. “Act Local” is simple and less divisive, to me, and I will do that here in the urban center of Downtown Dallas, where a diverse 14,000 residents now live and work.

    People who get too far from fundamental things, from ploughing and reaping and rearing children, lose something that is never restored by any progress or civilization. —G. K. Chesterton

    In 1910, G. K. Chesterton wrote a book called What’s Wrong with the World. In it is found one of his most famous lines: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

    But what did he say was wrong with the world? Four things: big government, big business, feminism, and public education. The first two, which he nicknamed Hudge and Gudge, were in cahoots with each other, and largely drove the other two. The feminists, while imagining themselves to be achieving freedom and independence, had merely abandoned their positions of power and influence in the most fundamental unit of society – the family – and become wage slaves in factories and offices. As Chesterton quipped, “Ten thousand women marched through the streets shouting ‘We will not be dictated to!’ and went off and became stenographers.” Gudge was only too happy to grant them their “liberation” from the home and use them for cheap labor.

    Meanwhile, with the mother leaving the home and the father, also a wage slave, having already left, the only institution powerful enough to fill the parenting void was the state, in the form of public education. Chesterton makes the bold claim that never before in all of human history did the government have so much power over the private citizen as when it took over education. He says the state had less power over a man when it could send him to be burned at the stake than it does now when it sends him to public school. In the century since Chesterton wrote that book, the state has served to drive a larger wedge between parent and child, giving parents little say in what public schools will teach their children.

    The four things that are wrong with the world have one thing in common: they undermine the family.

    Hudge and Gudge are huge and powerful, feminism pervasive, and public education a slithery beast. The four things that are wrong with the world have one thing in common: they undermine the family. And if the family falls apart, so does the whole society.

    While flirting with socialism as a young man (as so many young men do, being aghast at the inequity of wealth and the crassness of a commercially driven culture), Chesterton soon realized that capitalism and socialism were remarkably similar. Both involve the majority of people working as wage-earners and not owning their own land or source of living. There is little difference between a clerk sitting at a desk in a tall corporate building and a bureaucrat sitting at a desk in a tall government building. There is little difference in a factory owned by Hudge and a factory owned by Gudge. Chesterton says, “It is cheap to own a slave. It is cheaper to be a slave.”

    Inspired by the writings of Pope Leo XIII, who in his 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum attacked both capitalism and socialism, Chesterton and his colorful colleague Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953) founded a movement that they eventually – and unfortunately – named Distributism. It was based on Pope Leo XIII’s idea that more workers should become owners. It favored small, family-owned business and trades, and a more agriculturally based and less industrially based society. As Chesterton says, “An agricultural country which consumes its own food is a finer thing than an industrial country, which at its best can only consume its own smoke.”

    old man chiseling in a dim woodshop

    Photograph by Alex Gruber

    Most importantly, Distributists are opposed to an economy based on the wage. “The opposite of employment,” argues Chesterton, “is not unemployment. It is independence.” The idea of people doing things for themselves – that is the opposite of dependence. Even in the case of larger and more complicated businesses that require many workers, the Distributists argued for employee ownership, where workers are stakeholders and not merely disposable wage slaves.

    While the Distributist movement gained a much larger following than most historians have acknowledged, and is even experiencing something of a revival these days, it has suffered from being dismissed. Conservatives (and capitalists) accuse Distributism of being too socialist, an enemy of free trade. Liberals (and socialists) accuse it of being too capitalist, an enemy of regulation and the public interest. But more often it is dismissed without a fair hearing – not only by established economists and academics but by most everyone else as well – simply because of its unfortunate name: Distributism. No one knows what it means, and usually people think it means something else. It is understandably conflated with redistribution, which means taking money from a wealthier segment of the citizenry and redistributing it to a less wealthy segment. Sort of like Robin Hood. Or taxation. Yet while the early Distributists recognized that some redistribution of land, wealth, and power would obviously be necessary to achieve their ends, redistribution was never their end goal nor what made their vision compelling to so many.

    It is for this reason that the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton recently renamed Distributism. Now, I wish to make it clear that we don’t have any special control over the word “Distributism.” People can keep using the old word if they want. But we introduced a new word because the old word was … well, it was no good!

    The new word we came up with is “Localism.”

    The advantage of the term “Localism” is that it already has a recognizable meaning: the support of local production and consumption of goods; local control of government; promotion of local history, local culture, and local identity; and the protection of local freedom. It is about directness and decentralization, whether in government or in commerce. It is opposed to globalism.

    There are many people who want to take responsibility for their own lives, but they are increasingly frustrated by the feeling that everything is out of their control, and they cannot even say who is in control. They are weary of the complexities and complications brought on by bureaucracy and regulation, with no one being answerable for anything.

    Localism means having control over the things that most directly affect you. Another term for this is “subsidiarity.” (But that’s another word that always has to be explained.) It means keeping accountable those who have any power that affects your home, your children’s education, your trade. As Chesterton says, you should be able to keep your politicians close enough to kick them. It means keeping your dollars in your community, buying from your neighbor and not from a remote corporation (or a river in South America). It means owning your own piece of the community. It means reconnecting with the land and with what you eat. It does not mean everyone has to be a farmer, but it means everyone should be in touch with a farmer. It means more people doing more things for themselves, which makes them less passive, less dependent, less helpless, less hopeless.

    And there is nothing more local than the family. There is nothing more local than the home. By Localism, we mean an economy and a political system based on the family.

    In spite of the fact that this idea resonates with people when they learn about it, Localism faces two major hurdles at present. First, people are not always allowed to do things for themselves. And second, people are not accustomed to doing things for themselves.

    But this can change. Our society can be transformed from the bottom up, through a grassroots revival. It starts with people learning there is another option and that there are little things they can begin to do to change the world around them, the world within their reach: where they spend their money, what they support, and how they choose to make a living. As Chesterton says:

    The whole object of real art, of real romance – and, above all, of real religion – is to prevent people from losing the humility and gratitude which are thankful for daylight and daily bread; to prevent them from regarding daily life as dull or domestic life as narrow; to teach them to feel in the sunlight the song of Apollo and in the bread the epic of the plough. What is now needed most is intensive imagination inward, on the things we already have, and to make those things live.

    Contributed By DaleAhlquist Dale Ahlquist

    Dale Ahlquist is president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton and publisher and editor of Gilbert magazine.

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