For understanding distributism, this very short book by Hilaire Belloc (the text of the essay runs 75 pages) was much more helpful than Chesterton’s Outline of Sanity. Belloc is very clear and precise in his writing, and his reasoning is careful to the point of tedium when he is making his own case.
The case he makes here is not for the whole of distributism (or so he says), but focuses solely on the very important issue of property and how ownership should be handled. I suspect, though, that this issue is the heart of the distributist philosophy. I also think it is the point at which distributism has the most to say to Christian agrarians.
When distributists talk about property, they are talking about means of production, namely those things with which a man can combine his labor to create wealth. Belloc argues that from the point of view of property, captialists and socialists are nearly indistinguishable, differing only about whether ownership will be given to an oligarchy (concentrated into the hands of a few rich people) or a monoply (given over to the state). The alternative is distributism, which sets society’s rules so that private property is widely held and more or less evenly distributed; Belloc argues that such distribution of property is necessary for a good society.
Modern capitalism has reigned for so long that we see it as a natural, almost God-given system of economic activity. And from a capitalist point of view a switch to distributism is almost unthinkable, because it would require some very heavy-handed government intervention to go there from where we are now. Belloc’s essay is very good at explaining that (1) distributism is in fact the economic system that has reigned in most places for most of history, and (2) the fact that we are used to doing things one way and would be hard pressed to change is no argument for the current way over a different way. When both systems are viewed as equally possible, Belloc argues, there are many reasons to prefer distributism over capitalism, most of them moral.
Oddly, Belloc tends to be cavalier and dismissive when mentioning alternatives he doesn’t like. For example, he is convinced that the only way to bring about even the beginnings of a return to distributism is by government preferences for it, mainly in the form of tax structures that make it cost-prohibitive to accumulate property or build a business past a certain limit. And so he does not even consider possibilities for moving toward distributism that don’t involve the government.
But they certainly exists; Chesterton points out that much could be done to prevent the growth of chain stores, a distributist bete noire, simply by individuals making the inconvenient and costly decision not to patronize them. And these are the kind of options that Christian agrarians should be seeking out.
Bottom line: Belloc’s argument that property (the means of production) should be widely distributed will be very helpful for people trying to figure out how an agrarian society should be structured. But his claim that such distribution can only be achieved through government intervention is something he merely asserts and doesn’t argue for. I think there is much we can do on an individual level to reach his goal, but we’ll have to look elsewhere for ideas about that.