Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Pity the Distributist . . .


A standard opening for postings on this blog is that we like to get questions.  Next best, however, are questions that other people get and that they don’t seem quite up to answering — at least, not in any coherent fashion or in a way that actually addresses the question being asked.  Take, for example, a recent posting on FaceBook in which someone made a “rant” (the poster’s word) containing the following statement:
Among Catholics there are a tiny group of folks called “Distributists” who believe that big is bad and wealth should be redistributed by the State, by force if necessary, away from those who’ve earned it and to those who won’t/can’t.
Subsistence Farming
The posting was followed by a long string of comments, most of which were intended to show that the poster had no idea what distributism really is.  Links, comments, etc., came in a flurry, claiming that distributism was not socialism, but trying to make the case by giving favorable comparisons to socialist systems!  This didn’t really disprove what the poster said.  It tended, rather, to make the poster’s case. . . .
Ordinarily, we would have let this go by, but we had just seen a clip from the Tonight Show in which Johnny Carson and Charleton Heston solemnly recited some of the most ridiculous limericks and rhymed couplets with (almost) straight faces.  For some reason a couple of lines started running through our head, and rather than have them remain there and burrow in deeper as the day went on, we jotted them down, and filled in a few other lines around them.
Not sure why this came up in a search for "distributist images."
It’s not a “Clerihew” or a limerick, but then we’re not Chestertonian in any authorized sense of the term.  Anyway,

Pity the distributist,
Who has but one defect.
He contradicts,
And maledicts,
And all without effect.

Obviously, one of the issues here is that today’s distributists are doing a very poor job of either presenting or defending their position(s) if someone can make his or her point that distributism is a form of socialism simply by repeating claims spread by the distributists themselves.  The only conclusion a reasonable person who has actually read what G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc wrote can draw is that what passes in many cases today as “distributism” bears very little (if any) resemblance to what “the Chesterbelloc” were talking about.
The Fabian motto
The first line of defense that the distributists should have manned, of course, was the implication that distributism is a "Catholic" system.  The Catholic Church, however, is very clear that it has no "system" other than its own.  Putting "Catholic" in front of something virtually guarantees that suspicions will be raised.  Why, after all, if distributism is based on common sense and reason as Chesterton and Belloc insisted, is it necessary to put faith in there?  Chesterton himself gave a rather strong hint that putting things on faith that belong on reason is "bad" by quoting Aquinas in his debate with Siger of Brabant, demanding that the case be made not on "documents of faith," but "on the reasons and statements of the philosophers."  Claiming that distributism is a "Catholic system" is like putting up a billboard announcing it is second- or third-rate and can't stand on its own merits.

And if that wasn't enough . . . Judging from the comments appended to the posting, today’s distributists tout various forms of socialism as distributism, and then wonder why people call them socialists.  Fabian socialism and its offshoots such as guild socialism and social credit are greatly venerated.  They also admire the writings of Arthur Penty, Richard Orage, R.H. Tawney, E.F. Schumacher, and Henry George, all of whom either influenced or derived their thought from Fabian socialism.
R.H. Tawney, for example, was an Anglican involved in what is euphemistically described as “esoteric philosophy,” i.e., “New Age”; what Chesterton called “Esoteric Buddhism” and described its adherents as having “shiny pebbly eyes and patient smiles.”  Tawney was a member of the Fabian Society, serving on its Executive Committee from 1920 to 1933, and was termed the Society’s greatest socialist writer by co-founder Edward Pease.
To explain, Fabian socialism is a system with the goal of imposing socialism and total State control of every aspect of life throughout the world, achieving a heaven on earth through simple living, pacifism, and vegetarianism.  They were (and are), however, willing to admit that people not living the simple life, advocating violence, and eating meat could easily go along with the program . . . as long as they rid themselves of traditional natural law theory and admitted that the collective has rights that human beings do not.
The Fabian Emblem
Combining “mystical” New Age socialism with Marxist “scientific” socialism, Fabian socialism differs from Marxist socialism by using coercive State power — the tax system, legal system, the police, and the courts — instead of outright violence to impose its will on others.  The Fabian emblem is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Consequently, a lot of the negative views of distributism result from the fact that the term has been applied in ways never intended by Chesterton and Belloc. Developed as a private property-based alternative to Fabian socialism, many people who think of themselves as distributists are actually socialists.  They redefine private property and translate the preference for small enterprises into an absolute mandate.
Plus, while Chesterton was quite clear that by “distributism” he did not mean RE-distributism, redistribution is precisely what many distributists advocate, especially through the wage system that both Chesterton and Belloc detested. Belloc was adamant that owners have a right to income from capital just as much as from labor, yet many distributists insist that only labor is productive and is due all the results of production . . . making capital ownership completely meaningless. Belloc, in fact, wrote his classic The Servile State in 1912 to protest the Fabian proposal that everyone should be forced to work at a wage system job and get no income from capital.  The duo's frenemy, G.B. Shaw, once said that anybody who refused to work for a living should be killed.  We assume he was using hyperbole.
The easily corrected bug in the distributist system is that neither Chesterton nor Belloc understood money, credit, banking, and finance. They believed, in common with John Maynard Keynes and other modern authorities, that new capital formation can only be financed out of existing accumulations of savings. That means only the rich (capitalism) or the State (socialism) can own, for the rich own the savings, and the State has the power to take what some have and redistribute it among others.
This put Chesterton and Belloc into a dilemma. If they respected the rights of private property, the only way most people could become owners in a past savings framework was for the rich to give away their wealth voluntarily.  Like that’s going to happen.
If they did not respect the rights of private property, then the State could redistribute wealth . . . and “restore” private property by destroying it.  Which is happening all the time with the virtual worldwide implementation of Keynesian economics.  There is, in fact, an Australian commentator (who shall remain nameless because his case isn’t that good) who insists that Keynes was a secret member of the Fabian Society.
Anyway, bound by their principles, the best Chesterton and Belloc could hope for was for either a “change of heart” on the part of the rich, or a collapse of the system. Anything else would violate their basic principles, and thus common sense.
Had “the Chesterbelloc” known basic principles of finance as well as morality, however, they would have realized that the “secret” of the rich is to purchase new capital on credit that pays for itself out of its own future profits — “future savings.”. What keeps most people from owning capital is not an insufficiency of existing savings, but an insufficiency of existing collateral!
That is why in 1958, a few years after Belloc’s death, lawyer-economist Louis O. Kelso proposed that the risk premium on all loans be changed to an insurance premium, and broad-based capital ownership be financed with future savings instead of past savings, and collateralized with insurance instead of existing wealth owned by the borrower. This is the basic idea behind “Capital Homesteading,” which might be called an updated — and financially feasible — distributism that doesn’t try to circumvent private property or the laws of economics, but works with them: to achieve the desired goal.
#30#

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