One night in 1900, deep within one of those gray British metropolises that he once called "the interior of a labyrinth of lifeless things," G.K. Chesterton discovered a kindred spirit. At the Mont Blanc Restaurant in London's Soho district, a man approached him and opened a decades-long conversation with the remark, "You write very well, Chesterton."

As the evening progressed, Chesterton became increasingly excited. He had discovered in this man—the cantankerous, visionary historian and author Hilaire Belloc—a lifelong friend and intellectual partner.

George Bernard Shaw imagined this partnership as a monstrous quadruped, the "Chesterbelloc," whose best-known idea issued from the Belloc half and was blithely accepted by the Chesterton half. That idea was distributism, a "third economic solution" distinct from both capitalism and communism.

Chesterton saw capitalism as legalized pickpocketing, for it channeled wealth from many workers to a few capitalists. Communism was hardly an improvement, Chesterton wrote, for it only "reform[ed] the pickpocket by forbidding pockets."

Both systems effectively abolished private property, a move that Chesterton insisted damaged the Christian dignity of the common man. "Every man," he said, "should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven."

To restore common dignity, then, a Christian nation should give individual workers control over their own land, labor, and finances. To fulfill this progressive ideal, the nation should look back to the Middle Ages.

Roots of the dream

Hilaire Belloc was indeed the original theorizer of distributism. Born in France in 1870, Belloc spent a brief period in his youth at the feet of Cardinal Henry Manning. The aged ...

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