Arguments for Distributism have become predictable. Most include an historical homage to long established tradition: Look for mention of guilds, agrarian reform, and Aristotle’s theory of the polis. Catholic authors typically proceed to locate their claims in the magisterial teaching of modern Catholic Social Teaching: Look for mentions of Rerum novarum or any one of the subsequent encyclicals, which commemorate its anniversary (see here, p. 42ff.). Next, there are the literary sources, which can be mined for any number of bombastic or polemical gems. Chesterbelloc can always be depended upon to deal one’s opponent a good drubbing. And yet, the appeal to tradition, magisterial teachings, and some of the best contrarians of the age leave most unmoved.
This same disconnect between theory and practice is evident in the lives of distributists themselves. In short, many “so-called distributists” are hypocrites. While decrying the evils of modern technology and insistently re-proposing the perennial appeal of agrarian life, many distributists continue to avail themselves of all of modernity’s amenities and fail to take their principles to their conclusion. I count myself among these conflicted adherents. I extol the virtues of a simpler life and persist in a vocation that traditionally places me at the center of the world’s largest cities. Embarrassing. With the force of Aristotelian-Thomistic anthropology, a deeply felt pastoral nostalgia, and even “patron saints” of the movement like Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P., how is it that these arguments wield such anemic purchase?
I think that discourse on the subject may suffer at times from a practical despair. To even mention the word may conjure the specter of Judas Iscariot and send the imagination to the very pit of hell. And yet, I am not here speaking of a spiritual, that is, volitional phenomenon, but rather what originates as a pre-volitional movement of the senses. I mean despair as a passion of the irascible appetite, namely, the movement of the sense appetite regarding a good not possessed and perceived as impossible to obtain, from which the soul flees. In short, distributism, while perhaps appearing to be a nice idea is widely perceived as simply impossible at a gut level. As a result, many have begun to develop an aversion and exasperation with its conclusions, its argumentation, and even its adherents.
While a thorough defense of its feasibility in the current age is beyond my competency (observe the writer vacating his responsibility and thereby confirming the reader in his suspicions), I can merely say that the difficulty of the proposal, which many elide with impossibility, should not be the occasion of any scandal or surprise. This is the case for the simple reason that its goals, whether the propounded Distribution can secure them or not, are nothing short of the heights of human attainment. Distributists allege that their principles, when adopted and carried to their term, are ordered to the most noble of ends, which culminate in the very contemplation for which the human person is created. And so, while the margin of possibility may seem narrow, the undeniable importance of the goal merits the sustained scrutiny of what may seem a moribund monument to ages past.