A Distributist Society

The original version of this paper was delivered at the third annual G. K. Chesterton Conference, sponsored by the G. K. Chesterton Society of New York City, at Fordham University, November, 1983.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton died in 1936, the same year that the poet Allen Tate and Herbert Agar, Chesterton’s leading American political disciple, edited Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence, an important collection of essays defending Distributism and outlining the steps needed to transform the United States into a Distributist society.’ Taken together, these two events symbolize the trans-Atlantic migration of the Distributist movement from the British Isles to America. Founded by Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, the Distributist movement opposed big business, economic centralization, socialism, and government bureaucracy, while favoring a return to the soil and the strengthening of small business. According to the Distributists, a healthy social order required the widespread distribution of property. The ownership of property fostered individual responsibility and freedom, strengthened the middle class, and prevented the emergency of what Belloc described in his 1912 book as The Servile State. Only if property was widely distributed could a society avoid the private economic collectivism of plutocracy on the right and the public economic collectivism of socialism and communism on the left. As Chesterton once remarked, property was like manure — it was good only if spread around.

The thrust of Distributism is indicated by the various names considered by the English Distributists for their organization before they settled on the Distributist League. They included the Cobbett Club, the Luddite League, the League of Small Property, the Cow and Acres, and the Lost Property League. There was even some thought given to naming it the League of Little People, which would have been rather ironic considering Belloc’s and particularly Chesterton’s rather substantial girth.

Some recent students of Chesterton and Belloc have argued that Distributism was of little importance and their real significance lay elsewhere. Thus J. M. Cameron’s review in the New York Review of Books of A. S. Dale’s biography of Chesterton argues that Chesterton came to Distributism late in life, that he was persuaded by others, particularly Belloc, to become a Distributist, and that he never took it seriously. “Neither Chesterton nor his collaborators looked carefully at possible ways to bring about a Distributist society or looked hard at the problems imposed by the existence of a vast urbanized population.” Actually Chesterton and Belloc’s commitment to economic and political decentralization and the widespread distribution of property was longstanding and crucial to their political, social, and even religious outlook. Their admiration for the Middle Ages, for instance, stemmed in part from their belief that in the medieval era property was widely distributed and the Catholic Church protected the small property owner.

As early as the first decade of the century, Belloc and Chesterton defended the individual proprietor and warned against political and economic centralization. In What’s Wrong with the World (1910), Chesterton wrote that the “real vision” of mankind was “the idea of private property universal but private, the idea of families free but still families, of domesticity democratic but still domestic, of one man one house.” During the following years, Belloc and Chesterton continually defended Distributism in debates and speeches, and constantly discussed the importance of private property in essays, books, and poems. Chesterton’s major work supporting Distributism, The Outline of Sanity, appeared in 1927, two years after he had founded GK’s Weekly to disseminate Distributist and Catholic ideas, ideas which he believed went hand-in-hand. Chesterton hoped GK’s Weekly would appeal to those he termed the “small men.” Chesterton’s last decade was devoted almost exclusively to the magazine, and in 1936, in one of his last political statements, he noted that from the beginning his basic political instinct had been “to defend the rights of man as including the rights of property; especially the property of the poor.” As George J. Clipper wrote in his biography of Chesterton, private property was “the fundamental underlying concept” of Chesterton’s political and economic thinking.

England proved unresponsive to the Distributist message, and the Distributist league, except for a few back-to-the-land experiments, remained a debating society for elucidating Distributist principles. This suited Chesterton since he valued good conversation and companionship more highly than the spade work necessary to formulate a Distributist program attractive to large numbers of Englishmen. Furthermore, neither Belloc nor Chesterton were particularly optimistic about the future of private property in England, believing that any revival of property would more likely occur in continental Europe and particularly in France. Actually Distributist principles were more highly valued and more widely practiced in the United States, that strange land across the ocean where resided John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and J. P. Morgan, the symbols of modern capitalism and industrial-financial plutocracy.

Belloc and Chesterton had a passing acquaintance with the United States. Both visited America, and Chesterton wrote two travel books describing his impressions of America. Chesterton in particular was favorably impressed by the individualism, the democratic impulses, and the numerous farms and country villages he encountered in the United States. Both, however, were dismayed by the country’s large-scale industrialization, its plutocracy, and its pervasive advertising and salesmanship. For Belloc and Chesterton, the history of England and the United States was a declension from a golden age of property ownership. England’s golden age was the Middle Ages with its guilds and strictures against interest and price gouging, while the American golden age was the Nineteenth Century Jeffersonian republic. Since the American Civil War, the political principles of liberty, democracy, and property had been warring with the reality of modern capitalism. The American dilemma was that, in contrast to industrial England and Germany which made no pretense to being democratic, Americans prized both democracy and its mortal enemy industrialism. “Upon the issue of that struggle,” Chesterton wrote in What I Saw in America (1922), “depends the question of whether this new great civilization continues to exist, and even whether anyone cares if it exists or not.” Chesterton’s prognosis for America was somber. Plutocratic capitalism was menacing the democratic ideal “with terrors and even splendours that might well stagger the wavering and impressionable modern spirit.”

Chesterton’s dire prediction of a plutocratic future for America was echoed during the 1930’s by the country’s leftist intelligentsia demanding that the public collectivism of Washington replace the private collectivism of Wall Street, Pittsburg, and Detroit. But while Chesterton lamented the wounds suffered by property ownership, left-wing intellectuals welcomed the emergence of big business as ushering in a collectivist future. Fortunately, neither the fears of Chesterton nor the hopes of the New Republic or the Nation would come to pass.

Chesterton’s excessively pessimistic scenario for American stemmed in part from the belief that a stable and strong Distributist society would have to be permeated with Catholic social principles. Since America was overwhelming Protestant and lacked a true Catholic peasantry, its defenses against the spirit of industrialism would necessarily be weak. In contrast to America, Chesterton (and Belloc) believed that property ownership had a much better chance of surviving in Catholic France. “It was the Catholic poetry and piety,” Chesterton wrote, “that filled common life with something that is lacking in the worthy and virile democracy of the West.” If American democracy “becomes or remains Catholic and Christian,” Chesterton concluded, it “will remain democratic. In so far as it does not, it will become wildly and wickedly undemocratic.” Without religion, the American plutocracy “will riot with a brutal indifference far beyond the feeble feudalism which retains some shadow of responsibility . . . Its wage-slaves will either sink into heathen slavery, or seek relief in theories that are destructive not merely in method but in aim; since they are but the negations of the human appetites of property and personality.” For Americans to believe that democracy has meaning, they must believe that life itself has meaning. And yet “there is no meaning in anything if the universe has not a centre of significance and an authority that is the author of our rights.”

American history of the past half century has confounded Chesterton’s neo-Weberian, Catholic analysis just as it has refuted the predictions of the American Left regarding the demise of private property and the inevitability of economic and political collectivism. Both Chesterton and the Left underestimated and misunderstood the attachment of Americans to property and entrepreneurship. The widespread distribution of property, both the idea and the reality, has been central to the American experience since the colonial period. The literature promoting immigration to the colonies emphasized the opportunity to acquire land. With land virtually limitless, fee simple ownership was the norm during the colonial period, while economic dependence was infrequent and generally temporary. In the South, plantation farming existed only because of slavery. In the Hudson Valley, where tenants worked on vast estates, the “patroonship” system was continually challenged, particularly in the 1760’s by a group called the “Westchester Levellers.” It is thus not surprising that the Declaration of Independence identified the ownership of property with the “pursuit of happiness,” that the early state constitutions guaranteed the right to own property, and that the first amendment to the Constitution provides that no one can be “deprived of life, liberty or taken for public use without just compensation.”

Jefferson was, of course, the most famous proponent of a society of widely dispersed agricultural holdings and the widespread distribution of property. Farmers, he claimed, were “the chosen people of God.” This most urbane of Americans wrote to John Adams in 1811, “I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the production of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth.” His acquisition of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 would, he believed, provide enough land to insure the nation remaining an agricultural paradise for centuries.

Other prominent Americans agreed with Jefferson. In his first annual message to Congress, Andrew Jackson declared, “the wealth and strength of the country are its population, and the best part of the population are cultivators of the soil. Independent farmers are everywhere the basis of society and true friends of liberty.” The Homestead Act of 1862, which provided 160 acres of the public domain to any citizen after five years of continuous residence, would, it was hoped, guarantee the future of the United States as a nation of self-sufficient, agricultural proprietors.

With the growth of industry and business during the nineteenth century, the argument that agriculture was the sole means to happiness diminished, although the belief in the sanctity of private property remained as strong as ever. Prior to the Civil War, the states passed general incorporation laws allowing anyone to establish a business through incorporation after paying a nominal fee. When that greatest of Americans described the United States as the last, best hope of mankind, he had economic independence in mind. “This is the just and prosperous system,” Lincoln declared, “which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and improvement of condition to all.”

The other side of the coin to this belief in the beneficence of agriculture and the widespread distribution of property was a loathing for factories and large cities. Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia suggested, “While we have land to labour . . . let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench, or twirling a distaff . . . let our workshops remain in Europe.” In 1787 he wrote to Madison, “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries, as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled up upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.” An American song of the nineteenth century declared,

Come, boys, I have something to tell you,

Come near, I would whisper it low;

You are thinking of leaving the homestead.

Don’t be in a hurry to go.

The city has many attractions,

But think of the vices and sins,

When once in the vortex of fashion,

How soon the course downward begins.

Chorus: Stay on the farm, stay on the farm,

Though profits come in rather slow.

Stay on the farm, stay on the farm;

Don’t be in a hurry to go.

Americans, it was hoped, would remain sowers of oats rather than sewers of coats.

This hostility toward large cities became especially prominent after the Civil War with the acceleration of urbanization. The YMCA, the prohibition movement, the religious revivals of Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday, the settlement house, and the progressive school were part of a comprehensive religious and social welfare program to deal with what was termed the “urban problem.” As the largest of American cities, New York naturally was the focus of those fearful of the threat posed by the metropolis to American values. New York was the scene of many nineteenth century novels pointing out the pitfalls of urban life. Often, as in The Belle of the Bowery (1846) and Female Depravity, or the House of Death (1852), innocent country girls were corrupted by city slickers, an anticipation of the farmer’s daughters stories popular a century later. In 1873, Anthony Comstock established the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice after making the amazing discovery that salacious literature circulated in the city. Writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and Upton Sinclair attacked Chicago for also being heartless and materialistic.

By 1929, many Americans no longer believed that rural life and the widespread distribution of property lay at the core of the American experience. By that time, the United States was the world’s leading industrial power and, according to the misleading definition of the Census Bureau, was more urban than rural. Economic collectivism, the continuing growth of the city, and the atrophying of entrepreneurship were, it was argued, inevitable by-products of modern technology. The emergence of a seemingly permanent working class and a strong labor movement, along with the transformation of Main Street into Chain Street seemed to some to spell the end of the American dream of social mobility within a propertied society.

For English and American Distributists, the Great Depression was a decisive crossroads in Western history. Either the West would continue its declension along the path of economic collectivism leading to the servile state, or it would embrace a conservative counter-revolution to restore the widespread distribution and turn back the advocates of economic and political collectivism. The English and American Distributists differed, however, in their models for a good society. Largely Roman Catholic, the English Distributists admired the Middle Ages and argued that the Reformation had paved the way for oligarchy and dispossession. The English Distributists even had a fringe element which sought to restore the guild system and abolish the legislative branch of government, and sympathized with fascism as supposedly an anti-oligarchic, pro-religious movement. The American Distributists, in contrast, were primarily non-Catholics and looked to antebellum America as their model. While the English Distributists embraced the social teachings of the popes, especially Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the American Distributists espoused Jeffersonianism.

The nation’s economic collapse in 1929 proved beyond a shadow of doubt that its economic structure was unstable and in need of serious reform. The contributors to Who Owns America? argued in 1936 that the classic social and political principles of Jefferson were still valid, that government should be primarily concerned with protecting the family farmer, the corner shopkeeper, and the small industrialist from the depredations of the giant banks, corporations, and chain stores, and that democracy was impossible in any society where property was not widely distributed. Who Owns America? appeared to most members of the American intelligentsia to be anachronistic and reactionary. The major thrust of reform, they argued, should be to carry the collectivism of modern capitalism to its logical conclusion with the government assuming the power of the plutocracy to direct economic affairs.

The columnist Dorothy Thompson wrote in 1938, “two souls dwell . . . in the bosom of the American people. The one loves the Abundant Life, as expressed in the cheap and plentiful products of large-scale mass production and distribution . . . The other soul yearns for former simplicities, for decentralization, for the interests of the ‘little man,’ revolts against high-pressure salesmanship, denounces `monopoly’ and ‘economic empires,’ and seeks means of breaking them up.” This has been the great American conflict since the emergence of the factory system in the early nineteenth century, the struggle which Chesterton described as the war between democracy and capitalism. The protest of our most sensitive writers — Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck — against the supposedly dehumanizing impact of industrialization and mechanization have not prevented the overwhelming majority of Americans from welcoming the economic opportunities afforded by modern industrialism and the creature comforts pouring out of our factories. We might vacation with Thoreau at Walden Pond, but we live with Ford, if not in Detroit, at least in Grosse Pointe.

The pragmatic and pluralistic temper of Americans prevented either the Distributist or collectivist program from being politically implemented. The Distributist argument that American capitalism in the 1930’s had reached a crisis proved incorrect. Large-scale capitalism did not collapse, the banks and chain stores retained their economic might, and the government greatly increased its power over the economy. And yet liberty did not disappear, while the family farmer and small businessman remained important. The importance of Distributism thus lay not in its specific political program but rather in its principles which still resonate in contemporary America.

The majority of Americans still value highly the owner-ship of property, entrepreneurship, and rural life, while disdaining industrialization and urbanization. Back in the 1960’s, when the space program was in its infancy, William Chamberlain noted in the bucolic Wall Street Journal, “Perhaps it is not an accident that America’s pioneer astronauts usually come from small town backgrounds where neighborly living standards are better preserved and traditional religious and moral values are more strongly cherished.”

Consider for a moment the image in the mass media of New York and other large American cities. Attitudes have changed little since early in this century when Hamlin Garland described Manhattan as “a city of aliens, with a vast and growing colony of European peasants, merchants, and newly rich, who know little and care less for American tradition.” Movies picture New York as the nation’s cesspool, the habitat of drug pushers, murderers, prostitutes, corrupt big businessmen, and the mentally deranged. Many of these films, such as “The French Connection,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Klute,” “Waiting for Mr. Goodbar,” and “Wait Until Dark” have been both artistic and financial successes. The American cinema has argued that the only thing holding back the waves of criminality in the metropolis is self-appointed vigilantes such as Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson. For Hollywood, the American city is a good place to leave, which Art Carney does with his cat in “Harry and Tonto” and Marsha Mason with Richard Dreyfuss in “The Goodbye Girl.”

Nor is there any affection in recent films for the quaint ethnic life of New York. For example, Tony, the protagonist in “Saturday Night Fever” is a low-paid clerk in a paint store in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. His world consists of pizza parlors, leather jackets, rumbles with the “spics,” scoring with the girls, and dancing on Saturday night when he is king of the 2001 Odyssey disco. His mother is a religious fanatic, his father communicates only by shouting and slapping, and his brother recently left the priesthood, claiming he became a priest only because of his parents’ “dreams of pious glory” and “religious fantasies.” Tony’s future, as his dancing partner Stephanie tells him, is a “road to no place.” Her life is equally dismal. Shopping at “Bonwit Taylor,” inventing stories of conversations with Joe Namath and Laurence Olivier, practicing ballet once a week, and drinking tea with a lemon in the manner of Manhattan sophisticates, Stephanie’s attempts to acquire a veneer of culture are pathetic and fatuous.

Television, which is probably a better barometer of popular sentiment because of its need for a mass audience, presents the same dreary picture of the large city. Series such as “Baretta” and “Kojak” argue that the major features of urban daily life are drugs, murder, prostitution, bodies falling out of hotel windows, and political corruption. Television also stresses the loneliness of urban life. The city’s inhabitants are continually portrayed as alienated and without any sense of belonging. Rhoda and Brenda Morgenstern both struggle to succeed in the big city as liberated women, but they would be better off if they returned home, got married, and had some kids. Archie Bunker spends his time drinking at the corner tavern, watching television, insulting his son-in-law, and fracturing the English language. His daughter and son-in-law don’t respect him, while his “ding-bat” wife is far more intelligent than he. Furthermore, he has a dead-end job and has no chance to improve the economic position of his family. A comparison of “Kojak” and “All in the Family” with the “Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie” reveals the demographic preferences of Americans, at least as they are perceived by the mass media.

The most important American social development of the past half-century has been the emergence of suburbia as the home of what very shortly will be an absolute majority of Americans. In 1912, Hilaire Belloc wrote that suburbanization was the first step in the restoration of property. He wanted the English government to guarantee loans for small land purchases, claiming “there is a universal tendency making for private ownership of houses and small plots just outside our great urban centers, and here a revolution upon a great scale could be effected.” Belloc’s suggestion has been enacted in the United States through the VA and FHA programs.

The essence of American suburbanization is the desire of tens of millions of people to simultaneously enjoy the economic benefits of an industrial-urban economy while fashioning a lifestyle incorporating the traditional American distaste for cities and factories. The names of our suburbs evoke a pastoral image — Short Hills, White Plains, Spring Valley, Ridgewood. Suburbia’s streets are named Forest Drive, Pleasant Valley Way, and Northfield Avenue, while its housing developments are called Holly Farm Estates, Springdale Homes, and Crestmont Village. Such evidences of an industrial-urban civilization as sidewalks, street lights, and electric and telephone cables are often eliminated or disguised, while fire hydrants and mail boxes are painted green.

The homes of suburbia reflect this anti-urban, anti-industrial ethos. The majority of suburbanites live in detached houses, while most of the rest reside in what are called “garden” apartments. The key room in the suburban house is the family room which comes equipped with knotty pine walls, hanging house plants, and fake beams spanning the ceiling. The suburbanites’ favorite hobbies are feeding and cutting the lawn, growing vegetables, and eating outdoors with the flies and mosquitoes. Crabgrass has become our national flower. On those occasions when suburbanites desert their “estates, they travel in their Country Squires along roads with such names as the Garden State Parkway and the Palisades Parkway to their summer homes in the mountains or along the shore where they can enjoy an even more bucolic existence. On occasion, they will frequent “country” clubs where they visit greens, sand traps, and water hazards. During the week they will take their children to the Boy Scouts or the Campfire Girls where they will learn to light a fire without a match and to differentiate between the tracks of a bear and a fox.

This distaste for industrialization extends to the American workplace. Our factories are often isolated in what are termed industrial “parks.” Everything possible is done to make the American worker feel he is not a small cog in a gigantic machine along the lines of Charlie Chaplin’s movie “Modern Times.” And every year hundreds of thousands of Americans reenact the perennial American dream of going into business for themselves. The country is replete with independent insurance agents, travel agents, accountants, lawyers, doctors, salesmen, contractors, and tradesmen. Since the mid-1950’s, American white-collar workers have outnumbered blue-collar workers, and every year the working class diminishes in size. Small business has remained the most important segment of the economy, and its prominence has been accentuated by the technological revolution which disseminates information widely and cheaply. Finally, the emergence of giant pension programs managed by large insurance companies has resulted in most Americans owning, if only indirectly, part of American industry and business.

The Distributist ideal of a nation of independent proprietors living close to the soil is alive and well in America. Our president owns a ranch, our leading home computers are called the Apple and the Peanut, our largest city is known as the Big Apple (and not the Big Smokestack), and American equestrian skills continue to be displayed in Madison Square Garden. For every athletic team known as the Oilers, Steelers, Packers, Jets, and Boilermakers, there are several called the Cowboys, Redskins, Cubs, Lions, Tigers, Bears, Cornhuskers, Indians, Longhorns, and Trailblazers. To paraphrase Jefferson, “we are all Distributists, we are all agrarians.”


  • Edward S. Shapiro

    Edward S. Shapiro is professor emeritus of history at Seton Hall University.

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