Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Three Key Books on Common Sense, III: The Dangers of Distributism

In 1928, G.K. Chesterton had a debate with his friend, the noted Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw.  Hilaire Belloc, possibly a little out of character, acted as moderator.  From the first (and probably based on prior experience attempting to argue with Fabians such as Arthur Penty), it was evident that Belloc expected nothing would be decided:

"I am about to sneer."
I am here to take the chair in the debate between two men whom you desire to hear more than you could possibly desire to hear me.  They will debate whether they agree or do not agree. From what I know of attempts at agreement between human beings there is a prospect of a very pretty fight. . . . I do not know what Mr. Chesterton is going to say.  I do not know what Mr. Shaw is going to say.  If I did I would not say it for them.  I vaguely gather from what I have heard that they are going to try to discover a principle: whether men should be free to possess private means, as is Mr. Shaw, as is Mr. Chesterton; or should be, like myself, an embarrassed person, a publishers' hack.  I could tell them; but my mouth is shut.  I am not allowed to say what I think. At any rate, they are going to debate this sort of thing. I know not what more to say. They are about to debate. You are about to listen.  I am about to sneer.”

Summing up, Shaw insisted that distributism and Fabian socialism are the same thing, that he and Chesterton were in fundamental agreement.  Chesterton insisted that distributism and Fabian socialism are not the same thing, and that he and Shaw were not at all in agreement.  In short, Shaw refused to agree that they were not in agreement, and Chesterton refused to agree that they were in agreement.

G.B. Shaw: "Am I being agreeably disagreeable, or disagreeably agreeable?"
Naturally, this sort of agreeing not to disagree can get complicated when you try and figure out where it is that you are agreeing not to agree.  It may be a good way of avoiding coming to actual blows, but it does nothing to resolve or even clarify the issues.  One side continues to insist that the other side really agrees with them and is only being disagreeable in refusing to agree, while the other side continues to insist that the others really don’t agree with them and are only being disagreeable in refusing to disagree.  As Belloc concluded,

J.H.P.R. Belloc: "Neither.  You're dodging the real issue."
“I was told when I accepted this onerous office that I was to sum up.  I shall do nothing of the sort. In a very few years from now this debate will be antiquated. . . . I am surprised that neither of the two speakers pointed out that one of three things is going to happen. . . . This industrial civilization . . . will break down and therefore end from its monstrous wickedness, folly, ineptitude, leading to a restoration of sane, ordinary human affairs, complicated but based as a whole upon the freedom of the citizens. Or it will break down and lead to nothing but a desert. Or it will lead the mass of men to become contented slaves, with a few rich men controlling them.  Take your choice.”

The option that Belloc desired, of course, was “a restoration of sane, ordinary human affairs . . . based as a whole upon the freedom of the citizens.”  He believed that was the goal of distributism.

"Three acres and me? Who's paying for this?
Distributism, however, as Chesterton and Belloc vaguely conceived it, embodies three flaws or weaknesses that inevitably lead to one of the other two choices.  More accurately, it leads to both, one necessarily following the other: most people slaves controlled by a rich elite, breaking down into a desert and final collapse.  The three flaws in classic distributism are,

·      The fixed belief that only past savings can be used to finance new capital formation.  This necessarily restricts capital ownership to those who own or control past savings, meaning a rich private élite (capitalism) or a State bureaucracy (socialism), unless those with capital voluntarily (and uncharacteristically) distribute their wealth to the poor.  Since this is unlikely to happen on the required scale, society is locked into its present pattern, and the Distributist State will remain a pipe dream until the inevitable collapse.

Back to the land: "We ate the cow."
·      A preference for small, family owned and operated farms and businesses instead of the size of an enterprise being determined by the free market.  Since the market as it currently exists is far from free for everyone (or anyone, for that matter), and maintaining artificial controls to regulate the size of business requires a vast increase in State power, society is locked into its present pattern, and the Distributist State will remain a pipe dream until the inevitable collapse.

·      No understanding of the act of social justice . . . or of social justice itself, for that matter.  In general, “social justice” is taken to mean either individual acts of charity or justice on a large scale, or organizing to demand that other people do something, then condemning the others when those others don’t do as they are told — neither of which has anything to do with social justice, strictly speaking.  (See “Pope Francis and the Just Third Way” for a more consistent and accurate understanding of social justice.)  Since this means that nothing ever gets done (although it generates a great deal of self-satisfaction and a feeling of immense virtue for scoring off others), society is locked into its present pattern, and the Distributist State will remain a pipe dream until the inevitable collapse.

Social justice or just making things worse?
Essentially, by embodying these three flaws, distributism as conceived by Chesterton and Belloc was a no-starter.  By insisting on adhering to principles of the natural law regarding life, liberty, and private property embodied in Catholic social teaching, and at the same time bound by the artificial constraints imposed by the “slavery of past savings,” distributism could neither move forward nor stay where it was.

Consequently, distributism began moving backwards.  This was a development that seemed consistent with the thought of Chesterton and Belloc as well as Catholic social teaching.  It was, however, the antithesis of everything for which Chesterton and Belloc struggled, as we will see in the next posting of this series.