Tuesday, September 27, 2011

William Thomas Thornton and Distributism, Part I

The response to "All Things Thornton" is mildly astounding. It's not every day that an obscure 19th century economist experiences a revival . . . especially when much of what he says runs directly counter to everything they've been teaching in the colleges and universities about economics and finance since 1844. So, to satisfy the growing Thorntonist Movement(tm) (you got the pun there, we hope), here's a short series on Thornton and distributism.

At first glance, William Thornton's proposal for vesting the people of Ireland with direct ownership of at least a part of the arable land of the country seems to be a virtual blueprint for an arrangement of society that in the early 20th century G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc would call "distributist." As described by Chesterton, the chief spokesman for the duo that George Bernard Shaw ruefully termed the two-headed "Chesterbelloc" beast, distributism is the economic arrangement of society into a system where a sufficiently large number of people directly own the means of production. This approach posits ownership of capital as the primary means of generating income. There is a preference, socially and legally, for the small, family-owned enterprise. As Chesterton put it, distributism is "a policy of small distributed property." (G. K. Chesterton, "The Beginning of the Quarrel," The Outline of Sanity. Collected Works, Volume V (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 1987), 45.)

Given this definition, Thornton's A Plea for Peasant Proprietors reads like a distributist manifesto put together by someone with practical experience in the "real world." One of the flaws of distributism, however (admitted by its founders), is that it is rather vague both as to specifics and on how to achieve the desired results. Reading one of Chesterton's romantic fantasies or clever essays, we are struck with the unreality of his realism. There are a number of profound insights into human nature, but very little about the "grunt work" that occupies most of the time of the happy villagers and carefree cottiers who will presumably inhabit the distributist idyll once (by some unspecified miracle) it is established.

It becomes obvious that, for all the similarity of language and goals, Thornton's homely practicality is in sharp contrast to Chesterton's idealistic flights. Where Chesterton has suppositions and reasonable-sounding if unproved hypotheses, Thornton has statistics and hard data to back up a careful analysis. Chesterton continually matches wits with ideologues and ridicules the practicality of the worldly; Thornton matches the experts fact for fact, meeting them on their own ground and beating them on it.

For all his talk about commons and cows, there is very little in Chesterton about such mundane subjects as drainage and that inevitable, unpleasant, but extraordinarily necessary and valuable byproduct of livestock: manure . . . which Thornton mentions more than thirty times in this single work. Thornton might give in to the temptation to use a little overblown language once in a while. This was, after all, expected when writing of the Irish, those masters of the English language, as Carlos Fuentes reminded us. Thornton might, for example, refer to the contents of the farm urine tank as "libations to the Sterculine Saturn." This cleverness, however, seems to be presented as a bit of comic relief while making an important point. It is never itself the point of a passage as it so often seems to be with Chesterton.

Chesterton rambles on about how it should be possible to lead the simple life and enjoy one's self on a small bit of land. Thornton explains exactly how much land there should be, how long it should take to develop and get into full production, what crops to plant, and how to maintain fertility of the soil — and even the amount of backbreaking toil to be expected and how many hours of it per day can be expected. Where Chesterton hints that simple technology is to be preferred, Thornton states precisely why the spade is often preferred to the plow on small plots of ground, and duly acknowledges the beneficial effects of advanced machinery, even railroads — when appropriate. Chesterton might rhapsodize over a pint and a pipe. Thornton would tell you how to grow and cure tobacco and brew beer. It is difficult to imagine Thornton sending a telegram from a distant town to his wife asking where he was supposed to be.

With respect to the "small is beautiful" aspect of distributism, Thornton would have had little sympathy for the idea that "big business" or anything beyond a vague "human scale" or not produced on a small farm or in the village workshop is somehow anti-human. As he made clear in the article he contributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica,

"The extended use of iron and steel in the construction of agricultural implements is materially adding to their durability, and generally to their efficiency, and is thus a source of considerable savings. While great improvement has taken place in this department, it too commonly happens that the village mechanics, by whom a large portion of this class of implements is made and repaired, are exceedingly unskilled, and lamentably ignorant of the principles of their art. They usually furnished good materials and substantial workmanship, but by their unconscious violation of mechanical laws, enormous waste of motive power is continually incurred and poor results are attained. This can probably be remedied only by the construction of the more costly and complex machines being carried on in extensive factories, where, under the combined operation of scientific superintendence, ample capital, and skilled labor, aided by steam power, the work can be so performed as to combine the maximum of excellence with the minimum of cost." (William Thomas Thornton, "Agriculture," Encyclopedia Britannica, 7th Edition (1875).)

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