Monday, July 25, 2016

Missing the Point, I: What Was Missed


A short time ago, while we were in the throes of composing the series on Woodrow Wilson and the Federal Reserve, we came across a posting in a FaceBook group devoted to “distributism,” distributism being a somewhat loose theory of political economy developed by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc advocating political democracy supported by widespread capital ownership, with a preference for small, family-owned farms and artisan businesses.
"Don't look at me! Adler's the one who alluded to distributism!"
Latter day distributists have let some things fall by the wayside, notably Chesterton’s recommendation of something vaguely resembling the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) invented by Louis O. Kelso.  That is, if economies of scale demand a large enterprise, Chesterton declared that the workers should own shares in the enterprise. (There's a faint possibility Chesterton picked up the idea from Peter S. Grosscup, one of Theodore Roosevelt's "Trust Busters," who seems to have been acquainted with Archbishop John Ireland as well, both being friends of Roosevelt, and both serving on the same committee in 1907.  Grosscup advocated corporate reform to enable ordinary people to become shareholders in America's corporations as small ownership disappeared, and wrote a series of articles in major magazines at the turn of the last century to that effect.)
The FaceBook posting was simply a link to an article, “G.K. Chesterton’s Uncommonly Sensible Views of the Law,” with the note that people might find it interesting, particularly since the article was by Mr. Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, an organization (according to the website) established “to promote the writings and thoughts of G.K. Chesterton.”  The ACS's “simple mission is to bring Chesterton to as many people as possible in as many ways as possible.”
Now, right up front we have to apologize for commenting on Mr. Ahlquist’s piece.  By the standards employed by the editorial staff of Gilbert! magazine, the official journal of the American Chesterton Society, the article was published eleven years ago and is therefore irrelevant.
"Oh, man . . . that is, like, so ten minutes ago."
If that sounds a little odd, the fact is that we were recently severely chastised by said staff for posting a link to an article that referred to Chesterton in a somewhat dismissive fashion.  This was on the grounds that 1) the piece is seven years old — ’nuff said — and the author is 2) an idiot, 3) a useless old crank, 4) has no sense of humor, 5) is laughable, 6) embarrassing, 7) colossally ignorant, 8) intellectually dishonest, and the article is 9) seven years old, 10) seven years old (third mention of this damning point), and 11) drivel.
If that’s not enough, the author “should have been chased right out of academia.”  Like the late, great Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up, you know.”  The comments are verbatim.  We withhold the name of said editorial staff only to spare the blushes of the ACS.
"You couldn't make this stuff up."
It may seem a trifle ironic that we agreed up to a point with said editorial staff and disagreed with the author of the article.  We only posted the article to generate some discussion on the points raised . . . which had little to do with Chesterton, but a great deal to do with possible distortions of Chesterton’s thought and work by latter day Chestertonians.
Therefore let us state up front that we do not consider Mr. Ahlquist’s article irrelevant simply because it is eleven years old.  That would be rather silly in any event, as Mr. Ahlquist’s declared mission in life is the promotion of the writings and thoughts of a man who died eighty years ago, and we ourselves rely on the work of people, some of which lived 2,500 years ago.
Furthermore, lest there be any doubt, let us state explicitly that we are not going to call Mr. Ahlquist an idiot, a useless old crank, humorless, laughable, embarrassing, colossally ignorant, intellectually dishonest, or a discharger of drivel.  We'll leave that and similar ad hominem hysteria to others who seem to be better at it.  At the risk of having these and other accusations leveled at us, however, we admit that we (gasp) disagree with Mr. Ahlquist . . . which might be safer than agreeing with his editorial staff.  We think he missed the boat on some points Chesterton made repeatedly.
First, however, some common ground.  What Mr. Ahlquist wrote appears to be in agreement with the legal philosophy of the Just Third Way, at least superficially.  The problem is he didn’t say enough, nor did he get to the heart of the matter.
"Lex ratio, not lex voluntas, Dude."
Specifically, Mr. Ahlquist went right by the main point Chesterton made about human law.  This is understandable for two reasons.
One, Chesterton did not make it obvious, except — possibly — to those familiar with the work of the solidarist jurist and political scientist Heinrich Rommen and the “Great Books” philosopher Mortimer Adler (who taught philosophy of law at the University of Chicago), and who might be able to correlate the work of Chesterton, Msgr. Ronald Knox and Abp. Fulton Sheen together with some often overlooked late nineteenth century movements and events.
Two, and possibly more critically, Chestertonians and distributists, by and large, have shifted away from lex ratio (law is reason) and embraced lex voluntas (law is will).  They are thereby not prepared to discern Chesterton’s rather pointed criticism of the sea change that took place in western thought at the dawn of the modern age, and which runs through all of his work in one form or another: the triumph of the Will over the Intellect — which we will discuss tomorrow.
#30#

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