But the critique of the distributists goes further. Extraordinary personal virtue may effectively free a few families, but is not enough to create a society characterized by freedom — not when capitalists have rigged the game as thoroughly as they have. The redistribution of property would necessarily require state intervention, because the concentration of property would be protected by the rules of that game. Belloc’s distributist order was one where society remained powerful, families mostly free, and the state mostly contained. He theorized that taxes would go up in capitalism’s Servile State, to subsidize the wage-earners and dependents, but would be constrained in his ideal.
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.