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 cardinal's tireless social activism inspired Pope Leo XIII's De Rerum Novarum (1891), the encyclical that launched a century of Catholic action on behalf of the poor.

Manning's chief intellectual contribution to that encyclical was his teaching of "subsidiarity," the principle that no area of a people's social life should be administered by any larger body than necessary, lest administration become oppression.

Two decades later, Belloc feared that just such oppression was beginning to swallow up England. He sounded the alarm in The Servile State (1912), the first clear statement of distributism's principles.

He argued that the essentially capitalist British establishment was absorbing the age's widespread socialist concern for the poor, and that the result was a distorted charity that amounted to slavery. Already captive to wage labor and to the usury of the big banks, workers now faced, in Liberal social legislation, oppressive regulations that extended into their homes and families.

George Orwell, author of 1984, later said that Belloc had foretold "with remarkable insight" the development of the modern welfare state. But Belloc did not stop at prophecy. He went on to insist that the solution to this oppression lay in England's history—in the serfs, freeholders, and guildsmen of centuries past.

These laborers had enjoyed, in the view of Belloc and Chesterton, virtually untrammeled freedom, because they owed no more than token dues to those over them. The English could recapture that freedom if their government distributed land more equitably and supported shared-ownership models of labor.

In 1926 the "Chesterbelloc" and a group of earnest compatriots established the Distributist League. A think tank and political agitation group, the league spread its message through pamphlets, raucous public debates, and the pages of Chesterton's frequently insolvent publication G.K.'s Weekly.

League membership peaked at 2,000 in 1928. After this brief heyday, though, the group floated out of view. It capsized in the 1940s, swamped by dissension within and the tidal wave of industrial capitalism without.

Criticism and support

The most persistent critique of distributism—voiced from Chesterton's time to the present—is that its vision of modern Western nations filled with self-sufficient guilds, small farms, and cooperatives was simply never practicable.

Catholic intellectual and social commentator Richard John Neuhaus voiced this criticism when, in a 1995 issue of First Things, he wrote of distributism as Chesterton's "unfortunate foray into economic theorizing," a tissue of "poetry and preachment" with no modern relevance.

Indeed, distributism had little to show for itself in Chesterton's England. A few starry-eyed proponents formed a distributist Catholic model community at Ditchling, England, in 1913, but it soon collapsed. Other distributists preferred to quarrel interminably over how far to emulate medieval culture.

Then there was Chesterton himself. Distributism's most famous advocate had no great grasp on the workings of economic systems. Even his own household's economy seemed to mystify him.

The story is told of his return one day from a trip on which he had managed to misplace his pajamas. When his exasperated wife asked, "Why did you not buy a new pair?" he replied plaintively, "Are pajamas things that one can buy?"

Chesterton was, however, far from naïve. Critics miss the guarded realism in his "distributist novels"—The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), The Ball and the Cross (1909), and The Return of Don Quixote (1927).

The utopian attempts of these stories run aground on human folly (or, in one case, reach fulfillment only by the improbable intervention of a friendly millionaire). These novels thus reveal Chesterton's deep sense of humanity's sinfulness.

A moderate with little time for quasi-medieval experiments, Chesterton relegated revolutionaries to his novels. In the real world, he joined other distributists in advocating gradual measures such as the institution of taxes and tariffs to support small enterprises.

The Distributist League failed to create an effective program out of these measures, but the effort is not over. Distributist ideals still inform such ventures as the American Catholic Worker Movement, the Antigonish Movement (preserved at the Coady International Institute) in Canada, and the Mondragon Cooperative Company of Spain.

Distributism has also continued to garner articulate advocates. In the 1970s, E. F. Schumacher's "back-to-the-land" bestseller Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973) briefly made a modified distributism the most fashionable economic and political creed in the world. Today, conservative Catholics and some left-leaning political theorists argue that distributism holds answers for many economic problems.

In this age of impersonal, multinational corporations, the distributist program of small property, self-sufficient labor, and communal collaboration retains an undeniable appeal. This may be one more area in which G.K. Chesterton still has something to teach us.

Chris Armstrong is a doctoral student at Duke University.