Dorothy Day was, obviously, no big-business capitalist; however, to call her a socialist is iovershooting it. Day supported neither big business nor big government. Take, for instance, a quote of hers from a 1945 Catholic Worker piece: “We believe that social security legislation, now balled as a great victory for the poor and for the worker, is a great defeat for Christianity. It is an acceptance of the idea of force and compulsion.”
If Day was skeptical of government handouts, would she necessarily favor some more right-wing economics? Doubtful. In this same piece, Day attacked employers who paid their workers insufficient wages as well as economists who said such wages are impractical. Apparently, the market and its invisible hand were not sufficient when it comes to setting wages, in Day’s eyes.
Day professed sentiments that no politician now would dare utter: “We will all be registered and tabulated and employed or put on a dole and shunted from clinic to birth control clinic,” she said. “What right have people who have no work to have a baby?”’ How many poor Catholic mothers heard that during those grim years before the war!” Even famously arch-conservative Rick Santorum voted for funding to make birth control more available.
Is there some label, then, outside the left-right dichotomy, that we could better use to describe Day’s positions? One ideology that Day wrote about sympathetically was distributism, which advocates broadening property ownership to as many people as possible.
Distributists like G. K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc (or, more recently, David Cameron) wish to see issues handled at the smallest, or most local, level possible. National-level intervention would be considered only when all other levels— from the smallest family level up through neighborhood, parish, town, county, etc.— had been exhausted. This is what Day advocated when she said, “Certainly we all should know that it is not the province of the government to practice the works of mercy or go in for insurance. Smaller bodies, decentralized groups, should be caring for all such needs.”
In a political landscape where it seems that voters must choose between the Scylla and Charybdis of big government and big business, the wisdom of Dorothy Day and distributism could be what is needed to enact real change and to overcome the polarization that pervades modern American politics.