There’s plenty for the modern reader to choke on in distributist thinking. They were fiercely and unapologetically Catholic, and wanted to protect hearth and home. Belloc defended the gold standard (and was pretty improvident with money himself). They over-romanticized French peasantry and the late Middle Ages generally, and exaggerated Protestantism’s role in the Industrial Revolution. They exaggerated the role of Jews in finance and revolutionary politics, though they did both oppose Hitlerism very early on account of its anti-Semitism and eugenics. Their ideas have also been picked up occasionally by unsavory advocates of “third way”-style fascism.
But the distributists still have something to offer contemporary conservatives, namely the ideas that economic freedom is measured by the way families flourish; that economic freedom means more than just an income with a boss or a government agency at the end of it; that real freedom is the ability to say no to tyrants in both the public and private spheres. They could profit much from Belloc’s insights into how the plutocracy corrupts both representative government and the market. And they could also benefit from grounding their politics, as the early distributists did, not just in theories of liberty or trust in the invisible hand of the market, but in the supreme dignity of man.
The conservative case against capitalism. Michael’s essay is a good beginning answer to the question “Why should anyone care about distributism?” This is a topic I hope to write on in the future, but for now let me just note that a case for distributism needs to respond to two different (but related) concerns:
1) As Michael points out, the Chesterbelloc was inclined to an (often frankly ridiculous) idealization of the Middle Ages and especially the guild system, so any strong case for distributism must purge it of this dangerous nostalgia.
2) In order to argue that a large-scale move in a distributist direction would be a good idea now, you do not have to argue that it would always and everywhere have been a good idea. Indeed, one might even believe that Chesterton and Belloc were arguing for it prematurely. What the defender of distributism needs to argue is not that it is the perennially perfect model of political economy but rather that it is the model of political economy that the Western world, and especially America, needs today.