In our previous posting on this subject, we completed a brief overview of the lost debate between G.K. Chesterton and G.B Shaw. Today we begin an equally brief summary of the last debate between the two “metaphysical jesters,” as one commentator termed them. (William B. Furlong, GBS/GKC, Shaw and Chesterton: The Metaphysical Jesters. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1970.) And so our story begins. . . .
|(Left to right) G.B. Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton
Hilaire Belloc mounted the dais, glowered at the crowd in the approved manner, and took his seat. After some caustic remarks that the uninitiated might have been tempted to regard as witty, or worse, humorous, he commenced the evening’s festivities. The event had been organized in support of the Distributist League founded a short time before but already in serious financial difficulties. His opinion of the “cranks” who were drawn to the organization and to the movement was too well known to leave anyone familiar with the situation in doubt about his feelings. (A.N. Wilson, Hilaire Belloc. London: Penguin Books, 1986, 343.)
“They are about to debate,” rumbled Old Thunder, referring to the disputants G.K. Chesterton and G.B. Shaw. “You are about to listen.” One can imagine Belloc breaking off momentarily for what the audience might assume was a dramatic pause or comic timing, but which really would have been a silent expression of disgust.
“I am about to sneer.”
It was October 29, 1927, the final debate between Chesterton and Shaw. For two decades or more the pair had been arguing the same point and had never managed to resolve the issue or even reach a conclusion other than they could not reach a conclusion. Twenty years had gone by with Shaw stubbornly refusing to acknowledge Chesterton’s principles, and Chesterton declining to cater to Shaw’s lack of them.
Nothing was resolved during the debate. Shaw insisted that no one had the right to own land or anything else as private property. This was on the grounds that some owners abused their rights, using them to oppress others. Further, Shaw declared that Chesterton’s allowed exceptions, such as his admission that in his opinion the coal mines as a national resource should be state-owned, invalidated distributism’s general prescription for broad-based private property.
Chesterton insisted with equal or greater vehemence that distributism is based on the fact that everyone has a natural right to own and that abuse does not invalidate use; the proper way to prevent owners from taking advantage of non-owners is to turn everyone into owners. He then made a profound statement that summed up — at least for him — what he called “the Catholic standpoint”: “Mr. Bernard Shaw proposes to distribute wealth. We [the distributists] propose to distribute power.”
Shaw dealt with Chesterton’s point by dismissing it: “My main activity as an economist of late has been to try to concentrate the attention of my party on the fact not only that they must distribute income, but that there is nothing else to distribute.”
Chesterton’s declaration of the ultimate purpose of distributism being to distribute power was rooted in an exalted and sublime understanding of the human person. Distributist philosophy assumes that man is destined for more than the animal existence Shaw’s focus on mere income implied.
For Chesterton, the primary importance of private property is not to sustain life or maintain a standard of living — although enjoyment of the fruits is an important aspect of capital ownership. Rather, private property in capital is important because, as American statesman Daniel Webster (1782-1852) observed, “Power naturally and necessarily follows property.”
|George Bernard Shaw
Essential human dignity demands that each human being have access to the means of acquiring and developing virtue, that is, of becoming more fully human. Acquiring and developing virtue requires power, and power ordinarily requires private property in capital.
Social Catholicism, the social Gospel, however one expresses it, does not therefore consist of reorienting religion away from God and to humanity, especially collective humanity in any form. All that does is institute what Fulton Sheen called “religion without God,” an inversion that puts man at the center, and makes God the servant of man.
Rather, Catholic social teaching is concerned with structuring the social order so as to provide the proper environment within which people can acquire and develop virtue, thereby fitting themselves for their proper end. This in turn requires that every person have control over his or her own life, and that means private property in capital.
Nor is this a new idea, nor was distributism the first attempt to apply it or at least present it. From the earliest times it has been recognized that what Aristotle called “the good life” — the life of virtue — requires a level of capital self-sufficiency. This is not merely to provide consumption power, but to secure the economic basis to support social identity and life in the pólis, the organized community.
As far as Aristotle was concerned, a non-owning worker, even though nominally a free citizen, was less than a slave. A slave as an owned thing had status as the possession of his owner. A non-owning worker, dependent on wages for his subsistence, had no status at all; he was a “masterless slave.” (Politics, 1260a36-1260b7) As William Cobbett (1763-1835), the “Apostle of Distributism,” declared centuries later,
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. (William Cobbett, A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland (1827), § 456.)
One of the more astonishing things Jesus did during His earthly ministry was to treat the poor and non-owners as fully human as everyone else — but not more so. That is the sense of the comment about a camel being able to pass through the eye of a needle easier than a rich man can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In a society that regarded earthly wealth as a sign of special favor from God, Jesus was not saying that the rich are inferior to the poor, just that they are no better.
Nor, according to Jesus, is wealth to be despised, or there would be no merit in giving it up as a counsel of perfection. Management and ownership of wealth is, in fact, presented in the Gospels as a means of growing in virtue.
|Judea Has Talents!
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Parable of the Talents. (Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27.)
It is a straightforward story, although more understandable to Jesus’s listeners than to modern readers. A rich man is preparing for a journey and calls in three slaves. The thought occurs whether it is a coincidence that many of the rich men in Jesus’s parables are obvious stand-ins for God.
Many modern translations of the parable use “employee” or “servant,” but that changes the point Jesus was making. The rich man called in three slaves.
To the first slave he hands over five talents, an enormous sum of money; a talent was six thousand drachma, and one drachma was a day’s pay. To the second he hands over two talents, and to the third, one talent. When he returns, he rewards the first two who doubled the money by means of prudent investments by giving them the money and freedom and punishes the third who buried it in the ground.
|Good and faithful slaves got money and freedom
On the surface the story as a story makes no sense to modern readers until they learn that it was not uncommon in the ancient world for a master to select favored slaves and prepare them for manumission, especially if it could be done profitably. Giving intelligent and entrepreneurial slaves management of a sum of money or capital — it was called a peculium — gave them the opportunity to prove to their master that they were ready for freedom. (See John A. Crook, Law and Life of Rome, 90 B.C.-A.D. 212. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1967, 188-189, 241.) Those who did not even try to take advantage of such an opportunity were obviously worthless slaves and unfit to “share their master’s joy” as freedmen and partners.
The religious point of the story, of course, is that people should use the gifts God gave them to benefit themselves and others and prove themselves worthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus gave a familiar example to illustrate the point and drive it home to His listeners — free men own and manage private property to the benefit of everyone, while slaves do nothing even for themselves with what they are given.
Slaves are, in fact, not considered human — and Chesterton was concerned with giving modern wage and welfare slaves the wherewithal to become capital owners and lift themselves out of servitude. As we will see in the next posting on this subject, society was becoming increasingly inhuman as well as inhumane. The problem was what to do about it.#30#