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Distributism Needs a New Name

Dale Ahlquist at Plough

Photo by Roman Bozhko / Unsplash

How about "localism"?

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.”

Read the rest at Plough