We've decided that a short break from extended analyses of everything that's wrong with the world is in order . . . so we decided a short piece on William Cobbett, the "Apostle of Distributism," is in order. To start off, of course, we begin with a quote from the man who wrote, What's Wrong With the World (1910), G. K. Chesterton. The postings on Cobbett for today and tomorrow are adapted from the foreword to our annotated edition of The Emigrant's Guide from 1829, available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. (BTW, The Emigrant's Guide is available for a limited time on Barnes and Noble at a 10% discount, as is Dr. Alamgir's new book, Notes from a Prison.
"The chief mark of the modern man has been that he has gone through a landscape with his eyes glued to a guidebook, and could actually deny in the one, anything that he could not find in the other. One man, however, happened to look up from the book and see things for himself; he was a man of too impatient a temper, and later he showed too hasty a disposition to tear the book up or toss the book away. But there had been granted to him a strange and high and heroic sort of faith. He could believe his eyes." (G. K. Chesterton, William Cobbett, 1926)
Thus did Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the co-founder (with Hilaire Belloc) of the distributist movement, describe William Cobbett in his all-too-brief biography of the great early 19th century political commentator. Cobbett was author of the "Peter Porcupine" letters, The Poor Man's Friend (1829) and the iconoclastic A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland (1827), among a vast body of other works, including a seemingly endless stream of books, magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets. Cobbett's output is even more astonishing when we consider that he taught himself to read and write after he reached adulthood while serving in the British Army. (Sources differ on this, others maintaining that he taught himself to read and write earlier, or that his father taught him.)
Chesterton being Chesterton, he focused primarily on Cobbett's economic thought — which was really political, both in the usual meaning of the term today and in the more antique sense of the study of the creation and distribution of wealth as "political economy." Both men were concerned with the economic (and thus political) disenfranchisement — the lack of power — resulting from concentration of the ownership of the means of production in the hands of a political and economic elite. Chesterton called this condition either "capitalism" (if the elite was private) or "socialism" (if the elite was public). Cobbett called it "tyranny" — when he wasn't calling it something worse.
Many otherwise thoughtful people assume as a given that capitalism and socialism are the only possible alternatives for an economic system. Some people who explicitly reject one or the other accept them under different names, evidently believing that changing the name is to change the thing named. Thus, many people outraged at the injustices and greed inherent in a capitalist system see no alternative to socialism as a system to make a better life possible for most people.
We will take a look at the problems caused by this assumption in tomorrow's posting. For a more complete analysis, of course, read our edition of The Emigrant's Guide or, better yet, the free download of Capital Homesteading for Every Citizen.