I’ve wanted to begin writing on Distributism for awhile now. I would like to address myself to both to conservatives and liberals, and to religious and non-religious people, since my strong hope and suspicion is that there’s a lot of new, common ground to be found here. But it's hard to know where to begin an introduction when addressing such different groups of people, and when the subject has so many arms and legs. The best way, I think, is to be very brief.

“Father’s got the sack from the water-works For smoking of his old cherry-briar; Father’s got the sack from the water-works ’Cos he might set the water-works on fire.”

One of our favourite authors1 heard in this song “a compact and almost perfect summary of the whole social problem in industrial countries like England and America.”2 He extracted six well-padded points from it, let me shave these down to two.

On Capitalism: “Got the Sack”

“This idiom … involves the whole of the unique economic system under which Father has now to live. …He can now, by industrial tradition, only be a particular kind of servant; a servant who has not the security of a slave. If he owned his own shop and tools, he could not get the sack. If his master owned him, he could not get the sack. The slave and the guildsman know where they will sleep every night; it was only the proletarian of individualist industrialism who could get the sack…”

On Socialism: “From the Water-Works”

“The water-works which employed Father is a very large, official and impersonal institution. Whether it is technically a bureaucratic department or a Big business makes little or no change in the feelings of Father in connection with it. The water-works might or might not be nationalized; and it would make no necessary difference to Father being fired, and no difference at all to his being accused of playing with fire. In fact, if the Capitalists are more likely to give him the sack, the Socialists are even more likely to forbid him the smoke. There is no freedom for Father except in some sort of private ownership of things like water and fire. If he owned his own well his water could never be cut off, and while he sits by his own fire his pipe can never be put out. That is the real meaning of property, and the real argument against Socialism; probably the only argument against Socialism.”

Third Way

The core argument of Distributism, then, is that only by owning their own means of living can families be really free and secure. Capitalism allows for this, but it also comes with built-in mechanisms to subvert and disincentivize it — this I believe we have all seen, but I will discuss it at length in another article (see Lemonade-Stand Distributism). Socialism removes the concept of property and, with it, freedom and security for families. The goal of Distributism is that every family possess and retain ownership of their livelihood, and it describes a framework in which every aspect of civic life may be brought to defend that ownership.

1 Yeah, G. K. Chesterton, one of the greats, etc. Neil Gaimann even likes him a lot. He was one of Distributism’s biggest original thinkers, so he’s bound to turn up in any discussion of the topic. I feel it’s fitting to use his writing as an introduction and an illustration, but I intend to give him as little exposure as possible — I’ll explain why in a later article. 

2 A Comic Peasant Song from Eugenics and Other Evils by G. K. Chesterton, 1922