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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Chesterton and Shaw: How to Argue With a Socialist

In the previous posting on this subject, we left G.K. Chesterton smiling benignly down on an infuriated George Bernard Shaw.  Clearly Chesterton knew exactly what buttons to push to bring Shaw to a rapid boil in the shortest period of time.  The fact was that Chesterton had figured out how to handle an argument with Shaw: refuse to argue except on principle.

G.K. Chesterton
Had Chesterton allowed Shaw to draw him into a discussion on any specific point before having agreed on fundamental principles (the one thing Shaw refused to do), he would have fallen into the trap Shaw laid for him with his demand to know why Chesterton was not drunk.  Having experienced Shaw’s tactics early in their acquaintance, Chesterton knew what to expect.  He easily sidestepped it, putting Shaw on the defensive.
For this, Shaw had only himself to blame.  He had tipped his hand to Chesterton from the very beginning of their relationship.  Shaw never varied his tactics, even after his opponents had figured them out. 
Two years before the ideas that became known as distributism began to coalesce, Chesterton had already begun insisting on widespread capital ownership, that is, ownership of anything other than one’s labor by means of which marketable goods and services can be produced.  In a debate with Shaw on socialism held November 18, 1908, with his brother Cecil Edward Chesterton as co-panelist and Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc in the chair, Chesterton had declared,
G.B. Shaw
Socialists do propose, however moderate and however gentle their measures, to abolish any direct ownership of land.  But owning land is an idea of exactly the same sort to my mind as the idea of a religious symbol. . . . You cannot find any poem, tradition, legend, or fairy tale that does not assume it as natural that a man should own a piece of land.  That particular thing I ask you to assume for the sake of argument — the sense of owning your back garden, of actually owning it.  That thing is, it is fairly true to say, general in the literature and in the tradition of mankind. (Incomplete record of the debate of November 18, 1908, published in The New Age of March 18, 1909; quoted in Daniel H. Strait, “‘Fighting Friends’: The Chesterton-Shaw Debates,” Shaw, Vol. 23 (2003), 50.)
Having stated a specific application (ownership of a back garden) of a principle (the natural right to be an owner), Chesterton was now at the mercy of the sort of tactic at which Shaw excelled, viz., drawing attention away from the fact that he himself had made no reasoned defense of socialism.  The best way to do this was to point out any flaws, real or imagined, in the particular application cited by his opponent, and completely ignore the principle behind the application.
God looks exactly like this.
Nor is this difficult to do once attention is diverted away from the absolutes of the natural law such as the rights to life, liberty, and private property.  Absolutes of the natural law are perfect and cannot be changed because they are not merely based on God’s Nature but are God.
Applications of the natural law, on the other hand, such as the socially determined and necessarily limited rights of life, liberty, and private property, are based on human reason and experience.  Since no human being can know God and thus the natural law perfectly, any and all human applications of the principles of the natural law are necessarily flawed to some extent.
Little intelligence and minimal cunning are therefore needed to identify flaws and make the imperfect applications of principles, not the perfect principles behind the imperfect applications, the point of contention.  Realizing this, even if only unconsciously, socialists, modernists, and others such as adherents of New Age thought carefully avoid discussion of fundamental principles and insist on mistaking applications of principles for the principles themselves. 
Too much sneering, people.
Thus, and possibly with Shaw in mind, what Chesterton later characterized as unfair argument involves searching for flaws in some application of a principle espoused by the opponents, however immaterial or irrelevant, and then sneering at it.  “[I]t is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer.  That is why, in recent literature, there has been so little argument and so much sneering. (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”. New York: Images Books, 1956, 126.)
Nor did Shaw waste any time in doing so.  As he cleverly twisted Chesterton’s words,
With reference to Mr. Chesterton’s remarks re [sic] a man not possessing a back garden under Socialism, I contend that if Socialism is established in this country he will have a back garden.  I will pledge my honour that in the coming Socialist State Mr. Chesterton shall have his own garden.  Personally, I own six back gardens, but prefer to live where there is only an area. (Strait, “Fighting Friends,” op. cit., 51.)
Shaw’s possibly unconscious dishonesty is readily apparent.  He took Chesterton’s example, viz., owning a “back garden,” and instantly declared it to be the principle with which Chesterton was concerned.  Chesterton, however, had clearly framed owning a back garden as a symbol of land ownership, not the principle itself — he had stated so, explicitly!
An English back garden
Shaw’s response avoided the real issue, the natural right to own land (or anything else) and to control it and enjoy the income thereof within the parameters of the common good.  Instead, Shaw reassured Chesterton that under socialism he would have the back garden Shaw implied Chesterton had elevated to the status of absolute principle.
Chesterton, of course, came back and managed to point out a real rather than imagined flaw in Shaw’s rebuttal.  He also attempted to redirect the debate back to the principle of private property instead of scoring off one’s opponent with an underhanded debating trick.  As the somewhat stilted transcript of the debate has it,
Bernard Shaw had declared in the coming Socialist State he would pledge his honour that he (Mr. Chesterton) should have his own back garden.  Well, once Mr. Shaw told him privately that he would do anything, provided you did not put him on his honour.  His theory of property was that if a man owned two back gardens or six back gardens, he didn’t own one.  He could not experience that sense of possession that the ownership of one back garden gave. (Ibid., 52.)
The damage, however, had been done.  In the eyes of the audience Shaw had come out the winner.  He had redirected a debate on the importance of private property per se, to a condescending reassurance that no one would interfere with G.K. Chesterton’s selfish desire to have a back garden.  The point that Chesterton had tried to make regarding the personal empowerment that necessarily accompanies direct ownership had been completely nullified.