Distributism is an idea which is supposed to have originated from a Papal encyclical in the 1890s. Being areligious I confess this rather puts me off. But this does not mean such a declaration cannot have a valuable core. Chesterton and Belloc, both Catholics of course, saw it as a ‘third way’ (although I’m sure they didn’t use the phrase) and as an alternative to both Socialism and Capitalism. It offered a method of avoiding both bureaucratic state socialism and capitalist monopolies, which few would now dispute are indeed both best avoided.
So what is it and why should we encourage it? Perhaps we should call it the ‘New Distributist Agenda’ so that we can take the general idea rather than being wedded to all the original detail. It favours widespread and diverse ownership of things among the broadest possible range of members of a society on the assumption that it makes that society better, because it gives every individual a stake. Ownership of physical things assists ownership of mental things. As we accept that ideas influence the distribution of material things so we also accept that distribution of material things influences ideas.
Indeed the fact that ‘stakeholders’ are constantly referred to in government and corporate newspeak is tacit acknowledgement of the appeal of the idea but it is generally evident that this has little to do with the facts – it seems rarely if ever to mean ownership. It should.
An obvious example of its appeal was a skill in Thatcherism – whilst industry and the unions were being destroyed there was much fanfare about ‘cheap’ shares for all in previously nationalised utilities. And then there was the opportunity to purchase at a discount housing that had previously been rented. Thatcher’s vision could be shown to be that of a property owning democracy. And the Tory housing proposals are, albeit with minimal resources, still using this same idea.
I think progressives should take the concept of widespread ownership for themselves as a core value. I am not suggesting that popular share ownership has been a success – it hasn’t. Encouraging cooperatives would be a much better distributist idea.
Indeed Gordon Brown’s child trust funds were a start on an endeavour to the same aim – sadly dogmatically closed down by the Conservatives. Rebooting them as an investment scheme for Green investment would be a quick win.
Increasing home ownership should be favoured too, as renewing your house rental contract every six months clearly doesn’t make for a secure family life or a stable community. People need to be able to put down roots and have a stake in the community, firstly by not having to move regularly and secondly by ownership.
Ownership seems to be an Anglo Saxon (and Celtic) preference. My gut feeling is that this is an atavistic thing – because we are a small island. We are all immigrants, who either like to look beyond the seas to the world or who, having washed up here, like to have something permanent to hold on to.
So the aims of the ‘New Distributist Agenda’ should be:
- Encourage the ownership of things to be as widely distributed as possible – including housing and business
- Encourage localism and decentralisation – especially finance
- Encourage cooperative ownership
The ideas could be airily dismissed as individualism for Socialists, but with these basic principles radicals would be able to show how their vision would be aimed at giving more power to the individual whilst at the same time benefiting the coherence of society. With the mention of power to the individual they would be able to counter charges of statism or accusations of anti-capitalism by the ever right leaning mainstream media. The ideas could also be called ‘aspirational’ and would enable markets to work better.
Indeed, if the distributist agenda is not properly embraced I fear that the dystopia of Ida Auken, a Danish MP, awaits: “Welcome to 2030, I own nothing, have no privacy and life has never been better.”