According to distributists, property ownership is a fundamental right, and the means of production should be spread as widely as possible, rather than being centralized under the control of the state (state capitalism/state socialism), a few individuals (plutocracy), or corporations (corporatocracy). Distributism, therefore, advocates a society marked by widespread property ownership. Co-operative economist Race Mathews argues that such a system is key to bringing about a just social order.
Distributism has often been described in opposition to both socialism and capitalism, which distributists see as equally flawed and exploitative. Further, some distributists argue that socialism is the logical conclusion of capitalism, as capitalism's concentrated powers eventually capture the state, resulting in a form of socialism. Thomas Storck argues: "Both socialism and capitalism are products of the European Enlightenment and are thus modernizing and anti-traditional forces. In contrast, distributism seeks to subordinate economic activity to human life as a whole, to our spiritual life, our intellectual life, our family life." A few distributists were influenced by the economic ideas of Proudhon and his mutualist economic theory, thus the lesser-known anarchist branch of distributism of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement could be considered a form of free-market libertarian socialism due to their opposition to both state capitalism and state socialism.
Some have seen it more as an aspiration, which has been successfully realised in the short term by commitment to the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity (these being built into financially independent local cooperatives and small family businesses), though proponents also cite such periods as the Middle Ages as examples of the historical long-term viability of distributism. Particularly influential in the development of distributist theory were Catholic authors G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, the Chesterbelloc, two of distributism's earliest and strongest proponents.