Catholic social teaching is as old as Catholicism; the Scriptures themselves teach the basics of economic justice. Our Lord reminds us that the laborer is due a just wage for his work, for example; the Didache tells us that greed is wickedness, and that “advocates for the rich” shall be condemned. Christian thinkers from St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas and beyond have dedicated themselves to political and economic thinking in light of the Catholic faith. However, formalized economic teaching from the Magisterium is a relatively recent thing; its pioneering document was that of the great Pope Blessed Leo XIII, Rerum novarum.
Rerum novarum has been received less than enthusiastically by modern economic thinkers; some, even Catholics, argue that it was based on ignorance or even that it has since been changed. Nevertheless, the correct attitude of the Catholic toward this great encyclical was enunciated early on by Pope St. Pius X, in his own encyclical Singulari quadam:
Therefore, in the first place, we proclaim that the duty of all Catholics is… to hold firmly and to confess fearlessly the principles of Christian truth, handed down by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, especially those which Our most wise predecessor explained in the encyclical letter Rerum novarum.
This is binding teaching, to which the Catholic owes faithful acceptance. Rerum novarum, and its daughter encyclicals from later popes, is the blueprint for Catholic economic thought, the schematic to which all our bricks and mortar must conform.
Rerum novarum was unpopular in some circles because it identified deeply rooted flaws in all the currently popular economic systems, particularly those called capitalism and socialism. Against socialism, for example, Leo XIII unequivocally defended private property; against capitalism, however, he insisted that the state had the right and duty to limit the use of private property. Against socialism, he defended the legitimacy of the wage contract; against capitalism, he insisted that wages must be just, and that the justice of a wage is not dependent merely upon the going market rate. He affirmed that the rights of individuals must be respected; but he also held that the government should make a special effort to protect wage-earners against the richer classes. The great pope also defended many other practices condemned by capitalists, including the use of state authority to resolve labor disputes; the mandating by legal authority of Sunday rest; the injustice of unrestrained competition; and the injustice of wage contracts, even if freely agreed to by the worker, which do not allow “proper rest for soul and body” or which are insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.”
Pope Leo identified four primary problems with the prevailing economic situation: the lack of workingmen’s guilds; unrestrained competition; usury; and the concentration of property into few hands. All of these problems, though, really point to the last; the lack of a reasonable alternative to the guilds, the unrestrained competition of our so-called free market, and the usurious practices of our business all result in the overconcentration of productive property into the hands of a few, wealthy capitalists. This remains the defining characteristic of our current system.
At first, this assertion seems counterintuitive. As one prominent Distributist has pointed out, “when we waltz into our local Wal-mart,” it appears that there is “a rich variety of products provided by a vast number of firms, a situation which affords entrepreneurs many opportunities to enter the market and workers many places to sell their labor.” But while our economy appears to be diverse in this way, in reality the producers’ club is quite rarified. Almost all beers, for example, are produced in factories owned by only two companies, Anheuser-Busch InBev, which holds 50% of the American market, and SABMiller, which owns a tad less than 30%. This takes up offerings like all the various Bud brands, Coors, Miller, Molson, Beck’s, Labatt’s, Busch, Bass, Stella Artois, and more (not to mention some Mexican beers owned by Grupo Modelo, of which 50% is owned by InBev). This is only one example, and not even the most egregious. Optical products|eyeglass and sunglass frames particularly are almost all owned by Luxottica. You may buy some Ray-Bans, Chanels, or Oakley’s; but they are all owned by Luxottica. Lenscrafters? Luxottica. Sunglass Hut? Luxottica. Pearle Vision? Luxottica. And so it goes. The media–even on the Internet–are owned and run primarily by only eight companies: Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, News Corporation, NBC Universal, Viacom, Time Warner, and Disney. A whopping 93.5% of server processor microchips are made by Intel; another 6.5% are made by AMD. The list goes on and on.
And such market concentration is a definite problem, as the Pope himself pointed out. Indeed, the fact that “the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few” is a problem so severe that it has laid “upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.” Nor is this mere hyperbole; as the great Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc observed, wealth is necessary to human existence, and “[t]herefore, to control the production of wealth is to control human life itself.” Capitalist society’s tendency toward the ever-increasing concentration of the means of producing wealth, then, is also a tendency toward the control of life by the owning few, exercised on the non-owning many. This limits the economic, and therefore political, significance of the bulk of the population while giving the few owners of productive property a great deal of power over the state.
The great pope ended his encyclical with an appeal to Catholics throughout the world:
We have now laid before you… the means whereby this most arduous question must be solved. Every one should put his hand to the work which falls to his share… Those who rule the commonwealths should avail themselves of the laws and institutions of the country; masters and wealthy owners must be mindful of their duty; the working class, whose interests are at stake, should make every lawful and proper effort.
And Catholics responded, attempting to imbue their societies, so corrupted by the revolution, with the principles of a Catholic social order. They devised systems which would apply those principles toward definite goals in particular societies. One such system acquired the name “Distributism.”
Distributism attempts to resolve these problems by recourse to an ancient principle of social interaction, distributive justice, the concept from which Distributism takes its name. Justice in general is, of course, “the greatest of virtues, and ‘neither evening nor morning star’ is so wonderful.” More specifically, distributive justice is that virtue “according to which a ruler or steward gives to each one according to his own worth.” The importance Distributism places on distributive justice is supported by Leo XIII himself, who taught that maintaining distributive justice toward all classes of society is “the first and chief” of a ruler’s duties.
Distributism applies the principle of distributive justice to property, particularly to productive property. Pope Leo taught us that “[t]he law… should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners,” noting that “[m]any excellent results will follow from this; and, first of all, property will certainly become more equitably divided.” It is clear, further, that Pope Leo is speaking here of the distribution of productive property, not property simply, for he continues by arguing that this policy would greatly increase production, and the only type of property he specifically mentions is land, the epitome of the productive asset.
The just distribution of productive property defines Distributism; indeed, one of its founding lights, Hilaire Belloc, defined what he called “the distributive state” in just those terms. While in a socialist society none are owners, and in a capitalist society only a few are owners, in a Distributist society most are owners of productive property. This is the defining characteristic of Distributism: the widescale distribution of productive property throughout society, such that ownership of it is the norm, rather than the exception. Such distribution is the best way of ensuring that the economic rights of man are respected; that men can pursue their livelihoods with the greatest possible independence; and that society can exist as a single harmonious whole, without the vicissitudes of class hatreds and constant economic unrest which plague all of our current systems.