‘Common Good’ Conservatism’s Catholic Roots

The antimarket right should remember that political liberty proceeds from economic freedom.

By Alexander William Salter

     Sen. Marco Rubio and G.K. Chesterton. / PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES


It’s no secret that U.S. conservatives and big business are falling out. 

Skepticism on the right toward corporations is at an all-time high. 

Many within the GOP regard woke capital as the greatest threat to American liberties. 

In fact, conservatives are rethinking the social role of markets in general. 

If free enterprise has lost the power to inspire the U.S. right, what’s the alternative?

Sen. Marco Rubio, in a 2019 address at the Catholic University of America, drew on Catholic social teaching to condemn the excesses of free-market capitalism and managerial-state socialism. 

“What we need to do,” Mr. Rubio asserted, “is to restore common-good capitalism—a system of free enterprise in which workers fulfill their obligations to work and enjoy the benefits of their work, and where businesses enjoy their right to make a profit and reinvest enough of those profits to create dignified work for Americans.”

Especially among Catholic intellectuals, there’s a growing enthusiasm for common-good politics and economics. 

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “By common good is to be understood ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” 

Common-good thinkers are comfortable with government interventions into the economy to achieve these ends.

Defenders of free markets, including me, took for granted the supremacy of laissez-faire. 

That many allies have embraced market skepticism shows we must double our efforts to engage and persuade. 

A natural place to start is the attempt within the Catholic intellectual tradition to embody common-good principles in political and economic institutions: the philosophy known as distributism.

Distributism flourished during the early 20th century, when Catholic intellectuals such as Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton wrote about the moral challenges of industrial capitalism. 

Property ownership is central to distributism. 

In fact, distributists claim the chief problem with property is that there isn’t enough of it: Property tends toward concentration, resulting in a proletarianized society with no stake in the social order. 

To uphold the common good, private property must be dispersed.

Few economists, Catholic economists included, think highly of distributism. 

They regard it as a utopian scheme permeated with economic fallacies. 

Indeed, the classic works of Belloc and Chesterton are full of dubious economic claims. 

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to dismiss distributism. 

What matters is the social vision and its relevance to common-good capitalism. 

John Neville Keynes, father of John Maynard Keynes, distinguished the “science of economics” from the “art of political economy.” 

The former is analytic and precise; the latter imaginative and humane. 

Distributism isn’t scientific, but it is artful, and it offers much to learn about both liberty and the common good.

Economic freedom is generally thought of as downstream from political freedom. 

The first task is setting up good “rules of the game” for politics. 

This protects the rights of citizens, including the freedom to produce and consume. 

Belloc and Chesterton asked: Where did political freedom come from? 

Free institutions of the West didn’t arise in a vacuum. 

Events dating to the fall of the Roman Empire produced conditions that protected laborers against the capriciousness of aristocrats. 

Over centuries, slaves became serfs, serfs became peasants, and peasants became free yeomen. 

Economic independence, meaning control of productive resources, gave rise to political liberty.

For those who dream of restoring and keeping liberty, the distributists show the insufficiency of legal reforms and policy analyses. 

Free institutions can be sustained only by a society of propertied households. 

Why would a worker who owns nothing but his labor consent to a system that protects property rights and due process, important as those institutions are?

Political ideology isn’t reducible to self-interest, but protecting freedom requires giving ordinary families a stake in self-governance. 

As any economist will tell you, that which nobody owns, nobody cares for. 

You can’t “own” a political system, but you can certainly create buy-in for one. 

In a democracy, all citizens are supposed to be the shareholders of the realm. 

The distributist insight is that this is more than a slogan. 

It is a prerequisite for government by discussion among free and dignified equals.

Distributism offers a way of thinking about businesses, markets and the common good that cuts across traditional political divides. 

On inequality, distributism aligns more closely with progressivism. 

On the administrative state, distributism aligns more closely with conservatism. 

But both are for the same reason: a commitment to government by citizens, not technocrats. 

The “democratic faith is this,” Chesterton wrote: “that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves,” including “the laws of the state.”

Common-good capitalism tries to revive Jeffersonian-Jacksonian economic populism without the morally troublesome aspects of these traditions. 

Distributism fits well with this political turn on the American right. 

The common good is worth taking seriously, and the distributist perspective deserves a hearing.


Mr. Salter is an associate professor of economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University and a fellow at Texas Tech’s Free Market Institute.

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