Distributism is an economic philosophy that developed in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, based upon the principles of Catholic social teaching, especially the teachings of Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum.
According to distributists, property ownership is a fundamental right and the means of production should be spread as widely as possible among the general populace, rather than being centralized under the control of the state (state socialism) or by accomplished individuals (laissez-faire capitalism). Distributism therefore advocates a society marked by widespread property ownership and, according to co-operative economist Race Mathews, maintains that such a system is key to bringing about a just social order.
Distributism has often been described in opposition to both socialism and capitalism, which distributists see as equally flawed and exploitive. Thomas Storck argues that “both socialism and capitalism are products of the European Enlightenment and are thus modernizing and anti-traditional forces. In contrast, distributism seeks to subordinate economic activity to human life as a whole, to our spiritual life, our intellectual life, our family life”.
Around the start of the 20th century, G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc drew together the disparate experiences of the various cooperatives and friendly societies in Northern England, Ireland and Northern Europe into a coherent political ideology which specifically advocated widespread private ownership of housing and control of industry through owner-operated small businesses and worker-controlled cooperatives. In the United States in the 1930s, distributism was treated in numerous essays by Chesterton, Belloc and others in The American Review, published and edited by Seward Collins. Pivotal among Belloc’s and Chesterton’s other works regarding distributism include The Servile State, and Outline of Sanity.