THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Little More on William Cobbett, Part II

As we saw in yesterday's posting, many people are firmly convinced that the only two possible economic systems in the world are capitalism or some variety of socialism. Capitalism being discarded as heartless, greedy, and cruel, the only alternative is socialism — which is heartless, envious, and cruel. Nor does it have to be called socialism. It is only necessary that socialism's substantial nature be present. That, as Karl Marx clearly stated in The Communist Manifesto (1848), is the abolition of private property in the means of production.

Unfortunately, socialism — by whatever name — has more flaws than capitalism. Believing private property in the means of production to be the root cause of injustice, socialists either abolish private property outright, or redefine it in ways that result in its effective abolition. What they miss is that capitalism, properly defined, is not a system based on private property, per se, but on concentrated ownership of the means of production as a necessary, even beneficial thing. As John Maynard Keynes, the architect of the modern welfare State (that uneasy marriage of capitalism and socialism), declared dogmatically at the start of his career, "The immense accumulations of fixed capital which, to the great benefit of mankind, were built up during the half century before the war, could never have come about in a Society where wealth was divided equitably." (John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, 1919, Chapter 2, Section III.)

The solution to capitalism, then, is not to concentrate ownership of the means of production even more so in the hands of an impersonal State, but to spread ownership out through just means that respect the dignity of all people, not only those recognized as fully human by those who seize power. This means that (attractive as the prospect might appear to outraged arbiters of the behavior and moral standing of their fellow man) it is wrong to confiscate the wealth of some for redistribution among others to enhance the latter's quality of life. This violates the human dignity of those whose property rights were violated. The end, contrary to the dictum of Machiavelli, does not justify the means.

Confiscation and redistribution to meet an emergency, such as plague or famine, or even individual dire necessity is a separate case that, in any event, is not a blueprint for the way society should be run, but an expedient to meet an emergency. It is an application of the "principle of double effect," whereby something that is not objectively evil, that is, evil in and of itself, may be done on a temporary basis as an expedient in order to achieve an end whereof the intended good outweighs the unintended evil.

In light of the necessity of keeping both ends and means consistent with universal principles, what the interfaith Center for Economic and Social Justice ("CESJ") calls the "Just Third Way" appears to offer an acceptable alternative to both capitalism and socialism. The Just Third Way is an arrangement of society, with emphasis on the economy, based on the dignity and sovereignty of every person. "Dignity" is not just a handy catch phrase, however. It means recognition and protection of the inalienable rights possessed by each and every human being, consistent with universal — "natural law" — principles of justice. "Inalienable rights are also referred to as "inherent" or "absolute," i.e., not subject to be taken away or their exercise inhibited or prevented except for just cause and due process by duly constituted authority.

These human rights, such as life, liberty, and property, are derived from a transcendent source of natural law and universal moral principles. The Just Third Way uses the Aristotelian/Thomist view of the natural law as based on human nature, as opposed to the view of, e.g., Grotius and Puffendorf, that the natural law is based on direct revelation from a deity. Within this system all social institutions and laws are structured to be subordinate to and supportive of the dignity, sovereignty, and full development of each person within a just social order. To this end the Just Third Way promotes — as a fundamental human right — access to the means of acquiring and possessing the full rights and powers of private property in income-generating capital, as well as in one's own labor.

William Cobbett agrees. As he explained in many of his writings, but never more forcefully than in A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland (1826),

Freedom is not an empty sound; it is not an abstract idea; it is not a thing that nobody can feel. It means, — and it means nothing else, — the full and quiet enjoyment of your own property. If you have not this, if this be not well secured to you, you may call yourself what you will, but you are a slave. . . . You may twist the word freedom as long as you please, but at last it comes to quiet enjoyment of your own property, or it comes to nothing. (§ 456)
William Cobbett may have been an unwitting adherent of the tenets of the British Currency School and believed the only way to acquire and possess private property in the means of production is to cut consumption and save. He agitated against inoculation against smallpox, thought potatoes unhealthy, and even committed the unforgivable crime in the eyes of today's liberals in thinking the United States the greatest country on earth where England's mistakes were corrected. He put the cap on his radicalism by maintaining that taking public welfare or a State pension made you a slave of the State, whether or not you felt yourself entitled to it.

Cobbett had one distinct advantage over today's economists and politicians, however. He knew that ownership of an adequate stake of the means of production — with ownership an absolute right of every human being, even while the exercise of that right is necessarily limited — is virtually the sole means most people have to secure and enjoy their other natural, absolute rights of life, liberty, and the acquisition and development of virtue to become more fully human — the "pursuit of happiness." He was truly the apostle not only of distributism, but of the Just Third Way.