Distributism is a Catholic social philosophy that, as Thomas Storck writes, “seeks to subordinate economic activity to human life as a whole, to our spiritual life, our intellectual life, our family life.”  Unfortunately, distributism is frequently debated or discussed in terms of macroeconomics—a national economic system.  But the more important activity is already occurring at the microeconomic level: the family or small business level, where distributism is put into practice on a routine basis.  There is more to economics than macroeconomics.

The root of economics, the Greek oikonomia, refers to household management, an area of inquiry within microeconomics.  This has not stopped critics, the curious, and even proponents from trying to place distributism in a macroeconomic straitjacket, defining its legitimacy in terms of “society.”  Eric Pavlat writes in Crisis (July 2010),

Perhaps I have a skewed vision of Distributism.  But when I try to envision a Distributist society, I see a town in the Wild West.  The federal government is so distant as to be 90 percent irrelevant. There’s a general store, a bar, an inn, a post office, a sheriff’s office, and a blacksmith.  Maybe a cobbler and leatherworker, too.  Ooh, and a barber.

The curious also confine their thinking on distributism to macroeconomics.  One example: Annamarie Adkins of ZENIT, a Catholic news service, asked a proponent, “What does a distributist society look like?  Are there any examples anywhere in the world?”

Proponents of distributism are also susceptible to this thinking.  Distributists, in the early 20th century, argued about whether a distributist society would allow modern machinery, limit the devices, or abolish them.  G.K. Chesterton, a leading distributist of the era, was capable of explaining distributism in microeconomic terms, saying of Saint Martin of Tours, “The point is that he was a true Distributist.  He gave half his cloak to the beggar.”  But this example is overshadowed by Chesterton’s debates with George Bernard Shaw, a socialist, which focused on the societal question—and bitter fights in G.K.’s Weekly (1925-36) about machinery’s relationship to “the nature of true Distributism.”

Chesterton also argued that imagination plays a crucial role in distributism.  But this role is overlooked in examples that rely on a society-wide, macroeconomic approach.  Imagination leads to an analysis of distributism in smaller, practical terms.

For example, practicing distributism at the family level has the potential to reduce the occasion for envy, one of the seven deadly sins.  In his social encyclical Rerum novarum (1891), Pope Leo XIII says that the family is “a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State.”  Thus, in his view, the family has a right to private property, including inheritance.  The equitable distribution of family estates, large and small, is a commonplace, yet overlooked, dimension of practical distributism.  A family’s economic assets can include real property, savings, financial instruments such as stocks and bonds, and other goods.  Family assets are distributed across generations, from fathers and mothers to sons and daughters and grandchildren.  A father, in planning an estate, should not merely distribute the family’s assets to the eldest son but include other children.  The distribution should be just, with each family member receiving an equitable share.  The allocation can be annual, in the form of a gift, or one sum when an estate is settled.

In the United States, the current annual gift-tax exclusion is $14,000; an estate-tax filing is required for those with combined gross assets and prior taxable gifts exceeding $5.3 million.

Any gift, small or large, plants the idea early in youth that distributism should be practiced within a family.  When we were young, my brother and I received one dollar bill apiece from an uncle at family gatherings.  An aunt distributed $25 savings bonds to nephews and nieces as high-school graduation presents.  Another aunt routinely distributed checks to nephews and nieces on birthdays.

A Michigan foundry worker and his homemaker wife, since deceased, met picking vegetables during the Depression.  They saved, lived within their budget, invested wisely, and later made annual gifts up to the gift-tax exclusion limit, reducing their own estate while helping their children.  In each instance, practical distributism has influenced their descendants to continue these practices.  Indeed, this sort of giving strengthens the family household, the foundation of Christian civilization, against an intrusive, all-encroaching state.

Even small distributive gifts compound over time, creating benefits for successor generations.  A modest $25 annual gift, even in the near zero-percent interest-rate regime engineered by the Federal Reserve, will compound to more than $500 by the time an infant reaches adulthood.  Several gifts distributed in this manner may help a family member pay for a semester or year of college or trade school.  Another benefit: The distributive process is voluntary and noncoercive.  Thus, distributive gifts create the potential for successor generations to avoid or reduce indebtedness.

Money and financial instruments are not the only goods than can be distributed at the microeconomic level.  Tools, private archives and libraries, and family histories, oral or written, can be passed down from generation to generation.  Private knowledge and insights should be distributed, not held close to the vest, to children and grandchildren.  One might conclude, “So that’s why grandfather left the old country.”  Or, “That’s how Mom and Dad survived the Great Depression.”  Today’s parents have their own lessons to impart to children and grandchildren.

A greed-based approach, by contrast, could be said to emphasize the storing up of consumer goods and as much money as one can without regard for one’s family.  This approach sometimes finds expression in the slogan “Die Broke.”  “After all, no one ever helped me,” these adherents might argue, ignoring the fact that every individual on earth is the product of at least two others.

Practical distributism is consistent with voluntary giving to charities and the Church in a manner similar to its practice within families.  “Die Broke” is an example of what economists term “short-term time preference.”  Certain classes of criminals are also notorious for this type of outlook, which emphasizes instant, instead of delayed, gratification.  Contrast the short-term with the long-term time preferences of rainy-day funds, nonconspicuous consumption, and estate distribution described in the following:

There are many ways to come to the aid of the Church.  The most useful, in Our opinion, is to establish in each diocese a fund to which the faithful can contribute an annual offering collected by men and women selected from the more noble families . . . These people should also be the principal givers. . . .


[Pious] associations would contribute more to the common good if they gave the sum of money which some of them are accustomed to spend on public shows to the diocesan fund.

Finally, if the wealthier of the faithful want to follow the laudable custom of their ancestors and to exercise their kindness by making provision in their wills for religious associations or other pious groups, We strongly encourage them to bequeath a portion of their fortune to the bishops so that the bishops, provided with resources, might guard the interests of the Church and their own dignity.

This description of practical distributism at the micro level of the diocese and bishopric is from Leo XIII’s encyclical Paternae (1899).

Marxian socialism, which reserves for the state the power to make economic decisions at the macro and micro levels, is in conflict with distributism.  “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist,” Pius XI declared in Quadragesimo anno (1931).  The variation of capitalism based on Ayn Rand’s notion of selfishness as a virtue also conflicts with distributism because the Randian, at the microeconomic level, elevates the self, not the family household full of children.

Chesterton, in The Uses of Diversity (1921), wrote, “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.”  Every practical distributist is a capitalist distributing revenue streams at the household level.  Some distribute portions of their wages and interest, including dividends, while larger enterprises are able to share profits.  “Our society is so abnormal that the normal man never dreams of having the normal occupation of looking after his own property,” Chesterton observed in Commonwealth.  “When he chooses a trade, he chooses one of the ten thousand trades that involve looking after other people’s property.”  Practical distributism begins with the concept of looking after one’s own property, no matter how small or large an estate.  It is fulfilled when human imagination conceives of benign ways to distribute that property within the family household across generations.