Monday, 20 May 2024

Distributism: An Idea Whose Time Has come? (Part 1)

NATIONAL LIBERALS believe that the ideals of National Freedom and Social Justice are indivisible. For a healthy society to flourish a nation and its people must have both. National Freedom without Social Justice – or Social Justice without National Freedom – simply won’t do.

So is it possible to have both? The National Liberal Party – NLP – believes that it is and that Distributism provides the key. So what is Distributism? Distributism may be described as a political philosophy based on the contention that a just and sustainable social order can only exist in which the ownership of property and the means of production, distribution and exchange are widespread.

In this article Glasgow-based Andrew Hunter explains the ideas behind Distributism and provides a brief history of the wider Distributist movement in Britain. Please note that the use of the phrase ‘Third Way’ in this introduction does not imply any official link with any organisation or group of a similar name. As explained in the article. it is used to convey the idea of an economic position that is neither capitalist nor communist. This is the first of a two part article.

Distributism: An idea whose time has come? (Part 1)

Distributism is the name given to a socio-economic and political creed originally associated with Hilaire Belloc (left) and G. K. Chesterton (right).

RECENT YEARS have seen economic upheaval in the western world the likes of which has not been experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Once mighty banks have been brought to their knees and in some cases have gone under altogether. National governments have been forced to go cap in hand to international financial bodies to be rescued from bankruptcy. In turn, many across Europe and beyond have lost their jobs or face the threat of unemployment due to businesses failing and governments cutting their budgets. Insecurity and uncertainty over employment and pensions in old age are the fears of many these days.

In the face of these conditions many people have become aware for perhaps the first time in their lives of the forces that govern their livelihoods. People who previously had little or no interest in economic matters are reading the financial pages and looking for some way of restoring security to their own lives. In view of this, it might be apposite to look at a political and economic movement that first flourished during the turbulent days of the 1920s and 30s, namely Distributism.

The origins of Distributism are believed to lie in the 1891 Papal encyclical entitled Rerum Novarum, (‘On the Condition of Labour’). Pope Leo XIII wrote: “A small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the shoulders of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself”. The Pope’s concerns with the relationship between the owner and the worker were subsequently taken up by pioneers of the Distributist concept such as GK Chesterton, today better remembered for his Father Brown mysteries, and Hilaire Belloc. Both men were seeking a ‘Third Way’ between capitalism, (which tended to concentrate ownership and control in the hands of a few), and communism, (which concentrated ownership and control in the hands of the state). They were also inspired by the examples of co-operatives and friendly societies that grew in Victorian England. Today we still have the Co-Op and credit unions and the building societies that did not succumb to de-mutualisation. Distributists sought to bring about a social and economic system whereby there was widespread private ownership of property and workers controlled industry and participated in the share of its profits.
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