As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, George Bernard Shaw was as insistent that socialism is the universal panacea for all problems (as long as you don’t eat meat or drink alcohol) and that distributism is just another name for Fabian socialism* as G.K. Chesterton was adamant that Shaw was full of . . . nonsense.
|Shaw: Marxism and Fabianism are the same|
*And that Fabian socialism and Marxist communism are simply different words for the same thing. According to Shaw, “Under [Joseph Stalin] the Soviet government has turned communism into Fabianism. But the Communists won’t take our name so we must take theirs. After all, Russian communism is nothing more than the program the Fabians have been preaching for forty years.” (“Shaw’s Greatness Declared Vapid,” The Washington, DC Evening Star, November 27, 1931, B-11.)
The basic problem was what to do about the alienation of the human person from society. Do we turn him (or her) into a dependent of the State or community by guaranteeing all wants and needs, or do we structure our institutions to make it possible for people to take care of themselves, with an assist from others or the government only when necessary?
Distributism developed as an antidote to a society that, while materially prosperous in many ways, was increasingly inhuman, and obviously so. It was also a fundamentally different world from the one that had always existed.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, human labor and land were the predominant factors of production. Being wealthy meant someone had more worldly goods than others or of better quality. Poverty meant someone had less.
|Smith: "invisible hand" a metaphor for the system|
As Adam Smith (1723-1790) pointed out, a rich man’s wants and needs were at that time essentially no different from those of a poor man. Rich people found it much easier to satisfy their desires, but regardless how luxurious their clothing or exquisite their food, they could only wear one suit or dress at a time and their stomachs could hold no more than anyone else’s.
Human labor was the key to the system. Virtually nothing could be produced without significant human input.
A rich man might own a vast estate, but no corn could be grown unless he employed field hands to care for the livestock, clear and plant the fields, and harvest the crops. He needed to employ someone to provide carriage for the grain in order to get it to and from the mill, to pay the miller to grind it into flour, the baker to turn it into bread, the cook to prepare it as part of a meal, the butler to serve it, and the maids to clean up afterwards. As Smith concluded,
The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, by the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. (Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Part IV, Chapter I, §10.)
|Machinery is more productive than human labor|
Obviously, the flaw in the argument was Smith’s assumption that human labor was and would always be an essential input into the production of marketable goods and services. In 1759 when Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and even a decade and a half later when he published The Wealth of Nations in which he reiterated his “invisible hand” theory, he could be excused for making that assumption. The effects of advancing technology had not yet become noticeable, except by machinery’s capacity to supply a greater abundance of goods at higher quality and lower cost than could the artisan and craftsman.
Ordinary people were being replaced by machinery at a tremendous rate as technology advanced. Nor was it a one-to-one replacement of machinery for people, for machinery is phenomenally more productive than human beings.
Given the cost of a machine less than or equal to the cost of people’s wages, human beings lost out every time. Nor was this cruel heartlessness on the part of employers, although there were certainly all-too-frequent instances of that.
|Belloc: "It's the (wage) system, stupid."|
The simple fact is that someone who uses relatively inexpensive machinery to produce a loaf of bread that sells for one dollar is going to sell more bread than someone who employs relatively expensive human labor to produce a loaf of bread that sells for two dollars. Ultimately, the employer of labor will not be able to compete and will either purchase machinery or go out of business.
Why did the workers not purchase the new machinery? Whether something is produced by means of one’s labor or by means of one’s machinery, it is still a marketable good or service and the owner, whether of labor or capital, is entitled to the full stream of income. As Belloc remarked,
There is no conceivable link in reason or in experience which binds the capitalization of a new process with the idea of a few employing owners and a mass of employed nonowners working at a wage. Such great discoveries coming in a society like that of the thirteenth century would have blest and enriched mankind. Coming upon the diseased moral conditions of the eighteenth century in this country, they proved a curse. (Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State. Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund Classics, 1977, 100-101.)
Nor was there an animus against machinery per se. The cosmic or mythical meaning assigned to the revolt of the Luddites and their clones in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is modern opinion superimposed on people who would have been completely baffled by their status as “rebels against the future.” (See Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995.)
|Aristotle: Free men without ownership are masterless slaves|
Luddites and others were not rebelling against the future but fighting for it. They had no objection whatsoever to machinery in and of itself. What they were protesting was machinery that they did not own and that therefore deprived them of their ability to be productive and generate an adequate income. Miners did not destroy the steam pumps that made their work possible, but weavers did wreck the power looms that made their work impossible.
Without access to the means to be productive, more and more people were alienated from full participation in the common good of society. Like Aristotle’s nominally free but non-owning worker, the modern wage worker had legal and, to a degree, political equality, but this was not supported by social or, especially, economic equality. And that was a problem.
What was needed was a realistic vision of a just society that presented a viable alternative to capitalism, characterized by concentration of capital ownership in the hands of a relatively small private sector élite, and socialism, characterized by concentration of capital ownership in the hands of a public bureaucracy. Distributism, a policy of widely distributed private property with a preference for small, family owned farms and artisan businesses, was one possibility.#30#