Distributism is not a new idea—it wasn’t conceived by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. As Belloc explains in The Servile State, their idea was a return to certain economic principles of medieval Europe—a guild system, wider ownership of the means of production, etc.—in order to right the injustices of capitalism. But distributism goes back further than that, to Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus in the second century B.C., and the theory’s proponents would do well to learn from the tragic failures of the Gracchi.

Plutarch tells us that the two brothers were among the most virtuous men of their day. Tiberius, ten years older than Gaius, served with great distinction in the army and showed himself not only an excellent tactician but, in his famous dealings with the Numantines, a peacemaker also. He then returned to civilian life and was elected a tribune—a representative of the interests of the common man and one of the highest offices in the Roman Republic.

As Rome grew the army was no longer made up of farmers who tilled their fields six or nine months out of the year, so that by the time of the Gracchi, the citizen farmer class upon which the Republic had been built was basically extinct. The rich could buy out the farms of whomever they wished, and more and more common families left their lands and moved to the capital, where they lived as dependents on the public.

In an attempt to save the Republic, Tiberius moved to redistribute the land and prevent the rich from buying it up in large tracts. Whatever Tiberius’s intentions—and they were certainly noble—this was revolution, and the Senate reacted. Tiberius, who had with such skill arranged peace between his army and a barbarian tribe, became swept up in the political repercussions of his attempt to return Rome to her former glory, and was assassinated.

Gaius tried to accomplish the leveling that his brother had not, but he too made an enemy of the Senate and died violently. Plutarch says of them in his account:

What could be more just and honorable than their first design, had not the power and the faction of the rich, by endeavoring to abrogate that law, engaged them both in those fatal quarrels?

In his defense of distributism for the journal Dappled Things, John C. Medaille argues that it is the only political-economic system capable of rendering distributive justice which is not a “cure worse than the disease.” Substantial government intervention or workforce unionization present dangers too “massive,” he says, to consider. But if there is anything to be learned from the failure of the Gracchi, it is that a distributist system is, if not totally impossible to implement, certainly a cure worse than the disease.


  • Roger McKinney

    Distributists not only ignore history, they ignore economics.
    It’s the same old thing: bread and circuses to keep the masses distracted. It’s
    a form of extortion, too. The bread and circuses are like protection money to
    the mafia.

  • Greg

    The article by Medaille includes examples that, upon closer inspection, are simply capitalism with the right to free contracts with the result that some chose to enter into contracts with specific provisions for sharing the profits of a collaborative enterprise. This is nothing new, just a way to use the free contract provisions of capitalism.

    In cases where the government redistributes the wealth we are no longer in distributism but rather socialism. We have crossed the line away from free contracts.

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  • J.E. Rendini

    One doesn’t see the Gracchi invoked too often these days. And I don’t see what relevance they have to Distributivism. Chesterton and Belloc weren’t advocating the forcible redistibution of property and they weren’t ignoring economics. They were pointing out some of the real problems with the society of their day, as John Medaille at Dappled Things does so today. The complaints are real. Despite capitalism’s enormous successes, it is a middle class movement that cannot survive the decay of middle class virtues. The stagnant earning power of white men, the loss of leisure time, the pressure on family life and its growing dysfunction and economic dependence, the shifting of adult women into the workforce with its attendant pathologies for children and disastrous decline in fertility rates – these are all real problems that cannot be addressed by capitalist Panglosses reciting that all is well in this, the best of all possible worlds. All is not well. We’ve been eating the seed corn for some time and calling it prosperity.

    Having said that, I’ve never heard a practical solution from a Distributivist. As Medaille says himself, “Space does not permit me to deal with the question of how this {Distributivism] may be implemented within the traditions of American society, law, and constitutional government. Suffice it to say that which has been implemented can be implemented.” Well, unfortunately, pointing to a Spanish manufacturing cooperative and some mutual insurance companies, as he does in his article, does not pass muster. These seem to be exceptions that prove the rule. The problem is that, in an economy as advanced as ours, in a society as dependent on the inter-dependence of such deep divisions of labor as ours is, a broad application of Distributivist principles does not seem easy. Rather than an alternative to capitalism, it seems Distributivism may well be just a series of tweaks on capitalism.

    Also, we need to meditate deeply on Leo’s “Rerum Novarum.” While it is everything Medaille says it is, it is also an explanation of how man, through his work, actually comes to own things. Man does NOT simply become the steward of God’s creation, he – in his “concrete reality,” as JP II liked to say – actually becomes a subordinate maker of that creation. The Lord is generous: He actually deigns to allow us individually to participate in his creative act and to exercise a proprietary dominion over what we make analogous to His own dominion over all creation. This is the origin of private property and the reason why “Thou shalt not steal” is one of the Ten Commandments. Redistribution of property is theft, whether in the dark of night by a solitary thief or in the light of day by the public pronouncements of a legislature.

    Leo also states that, to the extent the State is well run and has just laws, it will need to intervene specifically on behalf of the poor less often. He does not advocate publicly funded benefits for the poor, but that they be allowed to keep the fruits of their labor to fund their own retirements, free of the crushing burdens of excessive taxation. If Distributivists come up with some tweaks to free market capitalism that can help families accumulate and pass own their own wealth, they are worth listening to. 

    • http://blog.acton.org/archives/author/kspence Kenneth Spence

      Distributists do have some valid criticisms of capitalism. But the article in Dappled Things makes the claim that distributism is the least poisonous way of dealing with a number of social injustices—that the repercussions will be smaller than for widespread unionization or substantial gov’t intervention, the two other solutions Medaille cites. In this posting I disagree, and I think the Gracchi provide a valuable historical illustration of the folly of the distributist project—that is their relevance.

      • Luke Daxon

        Hello Kenneth

        I am interested in the debate and curious to know which valid criticisms you think the distributists make of capitalism.

        It is interesting to note that Jefferson, who died half a century before Belloc and Chesterton were born, had a strong agrarian bent and disliked the concentration of wealth in a few hands, as well as the spread of wage labour. I say neither that I agree nor disagree with him, but his choice of words in a letter to Madison in 1785 is quite striking:

        “The property of this country is absolutely concentered in a very few hands, having revenues of from half a million of guineas a year downwards. These employ the flower of the country as servants, some of them having as many as 200 domestics, not labouring. They employ also a great number of manufacturers, and tradesmen, and lastly the class of labouring husbandmen. But after all these comes the most numerous of all the classes, that is, the poor who cannot find work. I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands?……..Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.”

        http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s32.html

        Regards

        Luke

        • http://blog.acton.org/archives/author/kspence Kenneth Spence

          Thanks Luke–Jefferson’s words are striking indeed, especially compared to the Declaration of Independence

      • Roger McKinney

        Ken, I don’t think distributist have valid criticisms of capitalism. They have valid criticisms of the US, but most of their criticisms apply the the socialist elements, not the free market sides.

        Or the problem is with human nature and not with an economic system. Distributist gripe endlessly about greed when they should know that greed has been with mankind since the fall. And there is no reason to believe that it is worse today than at any time in the past.

        Some corporations are out of control, but that’s because politicians sell their power to the highest bidder, which is the opposite of capitalism.

        Falling real wages are a direct result of over regulation and taxation of industry by the state.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-H-Smith/1491302672 Michael H Smith

      Mr. Rendini, you say it all: “Redistribution of property is theft, whether in the dark of night by a
      solitary thief or in the light of day by the public pronouncements of a
      legislature.” The core purpose of government is to protect our God-given rights from such force or fraud to be left alone by other individuals or collectives to live and pursue our dreams. The extent of the role given the federal government to “regulate” or encourage commerce has caused more argument than any other. It needs to be looked at. Numerous articles and books — I am thinking of Allan Carlson here— tell of the disintegration of the family. Let’s try an experiment: Take one state or nation and apply our Constitution, in all its original beauty, with a strong, Christian and educated people, and see how the family does. Stupid and immoral people cannot be free, educated an moral people will not tolerate theft and slavery.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-H-Smith/1491302672 Michael H Smith

    Distributism is no coherent economic system, but emotion based, however noble its intent. To return to family farms, small businesses, home manufactures— even in a small part of our overall economy we must look to other causes than capitalism for the forces tearing the family apart. A century of the growth of government would be a good start.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-H-Smith/1491302672 Michael H Smith

    Distributism is no coherent economic system, but emotion based, however noble its intent. To return to family farms, small businesses, home manufactures— even in a small part of our overall economy we must look to other causes than capitalism for the forces tearing the family apart. A century of the growth of government would be a good start.

  • Roger McKinney

    There is a consensus that the US is a capitalist nation. If so, then I don’t know what capitalism is and neither did Adam Smith. This country stopped being capitalist with the election of FDR. The differences between the US and socialist nations in Europe are trivial. In some areas we are more socialist than they are and in a few areas we are slightly less socialist. The index of economic freedom shows several socialist countries that have freer economies than the US.

    It’s simply wrong to call the US a capitalist nation. Just because you have limited property rights and a small amount of freedom in markets does not make a nation capitalist. China is a clearly socialist and yet maintains a limited free market and private property.

    Most of the social ills that people are complaining about on this blog are the result of socialist programs introduced since Hoover.

    As for the morality of Americans, the idea that capitalism or socialism determines the character of the people is pure Marxism. It is not Christian at all. People choose their own character and those individual choices determine the character of society. There are many influences on those personal choices, but absolutely no determinants.

    I have no problem with people forming co-ops or shopping only at mom and pop stores, as long as it’s voluntary. But like fair trade coffee, you’ll find it doesn’t accomplish what you think it should. Reducing the cost of goods for the poor requires mass production on a large scale. The only people who shop at mom and pop stores exclusively are wealthy people.

    At least one economist has recognized that WalMart has done more for the poor of the US than all of the government aid programs.

    • Miller_g

      Well said, Roger.  And I’m not being sarcastic.  In spite of a disagreement on another post, I think your analysis here is sound.

    • Martial_Artist

      Mr. McKinney,

      You are correct with regard to the nation’s economy having become no longer captalist (or free market), but you are in error as to the timing. It most certainly began not later than the era of the Progressives and Trust Busters (the other President Roosevelt), who temporally preceded his fifth cousin, both in office, and in aiding and abetting the functional destruction of the free market economy of these United States.
      Pax et bonum,
      Keith Töpfer

  • http://blog.acton.org/archives/author/kspence Kenneth Spence

    The laws of the Gracchi did not “vaguely resemble” distributism–they matched it exactly. I defy you to make a meaningful distinction.

    I think I should not judge your comment too harshly though, since your sentence “And this is what passes muster as an ‘argument’ in this day and age” is clearly an attempt at irony.

    • John

      Even if I were to admit that their policies “matched it exactly” (and that’s saying a lot, because you don’t actually explain what their policies WERE, other than that they somehow or another sought to redistribute land, which could mean totalitarian communism as much as it might mean distributism) the only point your post makes is that if you try to promote distributist policies you might get assassinated. To me that says a lot more about the Gracchi’s political opponents and the political climate of the day, than it does about distributism as an economic idea.

      And to suggest that the only way to build a distributist society is through the sort of “revolutionary” policies  promoted by the Gracchi – the sort of policies that might piss people off enough to try to assassinate you – seems rather silly to me. There is a wide debate about how one might go about promoting distributism in practice – and certainly there are reasonable, incremental policies that won’t result in one’s early and violent demise.

      The only lesson I can see distributists can take from this historical story is that they might want to pack a good .44, or get a decent bodyguard. To go from two politicians getting assassinated to “proof” that distributism is “certainly a cure worse than the disease” is a leap so vast that it boggles the mind.

      • http://blog.acton.org/archives/author/kspence Kenneth Spence

        “The only lesson I can see distributists can take from this historical story is that they might want to pack a good .44, or get a decent bodyguard.” Q.E.D.

        (Also, I have assumed in writing this posting that the reader knows something of Roman history and of Western history in general. If that is not the case, then by my definition of politics (and the distributist’s), we can’t have much of a discussion at all.)

        • John

          Point taken about my ignorance of Roman history. That’s somewhere on my rather vast intellectual to-do list.

          Still, my point stands.

  • Joe DeVet

    Since the Gracchi simply failed to implement a kind of Distributism, but never actually did, their unfortunate experience does nothing to refute the claims of the Distributists.

    Now, I do believe the claims of the Distributists need to be refuted, because they are simply fatuous, self-contradictory, and wildly utopian.  It seems to me the Distributists’ claims themselves, rife as they are with internal contradictions are their own best refutations.  One inconsistency is the way Distributists criticize other systems, like capitalism, as if they have an alternative system to offer.  However, when pressed to describe how their system would work, they routinely resort to describing how (presumably) virtuous individuals would act, not how a system would work. 

    They never actually describe a system.  Because in doing so, the most critical self-contradictions of Distributism would become clear.  One needs only to listen to the first 3 words of GK Chesterton’s description to see the problem.  He said, “Give a man…[a farm, a house, a boutique shop to run, eg] and [happy things would result].”  “Give a man” begs these questions:  who does the giving, and who owned the property before it was given?  One can easily see that the government is the only authority which could give in such a manner.  One also sees that the prior owner would have been the one who owned the property by virtue of having earned it.  Thus, while Distributism claims to support private property and minimal government, in its very implementation (as a system) it would destroy private property and require a large, tyrannical central government.

    • http://blog.acton.org/archives/author/kspence Kenneth Spence

      Your comment points at exactly the reason the history of the Gracchi is instructive…

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  • http://profiles.google.com/branewalker Sean Choate

    By the article’s reasoning, abolition of slavery was a bad idea, too, since it resulted in at least one assassination (or is the threshold 2 assassinations before it becomes a bad idea?)

  • Stephen

    What the failure of the Gracchi teaches us is that the plutocracy will go to any length to protect itself. You conclusion is, effectively, one should leave the plutocrats alone to do whatever they want because if they get angry everyone will pay. Might is right and we should be content with that when our houses get repossessed.

  • Rapallo22

    Thanks for the historical example. Your analysis is correct, however, your conclusion is dogmatic and false. Capitalism is based on greed.

    Currently the roof of salaries does not depend on
    productivity, but on greed driven power.

  • http://www.acton.org/ John Couretas

    When did the distributist economy in Taiwan come to an end, if it ever existed? See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Taiwan Did MacArthur impose distributism in post-war Japan? If so, please offer details.

    • João Pedro

      That’s beside my point. Granting that the Gracchis were, so to speak, the grandfathers of Distributism (as Mr. Spence seems to suggest in his post), my point was to acknowledge why they failed in Rome while MacArthur had success in Taiwan. The answer lies not in Distributism but (as Stephen hinted here about a year ago) in Power.
      As far as I know, MacArthur did not fully implement Distributism in Japan. Check, for instance, http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/japan/japanworkbook/modernhist/occupation.html (“Economic Changes”).

      • http://www.acton.org/ John Couretas

        yes but the Wiki article I linked talks about Taiwan developing a capitalist economy. I believe Japan, which MacArthur had some business with after the war, is also a capitalist economy. Can you explain why Taiwan, at least, is not today a “distributist economy.”

  • pj

    I did not follow the logic of your argument. The rich took over, and that refutes that distributivism works?