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.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Chesterton and Shaw: The Idea of Distributism

In the previous posting on this subject, we closed by noting that a realistic vision of a just society should present 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, appeared to be one possibility.

Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson
Distributism is not, of course, an ideal — the concept of a perfect society would have appalled Chesterton with his knowledge of human faults and frailties, especially his own — but an idea.  It is, in a very real sense, the non-fictional counterpart of Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s utopian satire, The Dawn of All (1911).*  Motivated by the social conditions they all observed, Benson’s novel was published at about the same time Chesterton and Belloc were giving form to what was later misleadingly labeled “distributism” — misleading because it suggested to some people (such as Shaw) re-distribution.
* For a more in-depth analysis of Benson’s The Dawn of All, see Michael D. Greaney, So Much Generosity: An Appreciation of the Fiction of Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson.  Falls Church, Virginia: Universal Values Media, Inc., 2013, 151-158.
Surprising many, distributism is not a program for establishing an ideal society, any more than The Dawn of All is a blueprint for the same.  Chesterton, in fact, very carefully refrained from presenting a program.  He was wise enough to know that he lacked the wisdom as well as the expertise to do so.  For his part, Benson knew the “science” he used to help carry his plot — as well as the mystical time travel by means of which he inserted his protagonist into it! — was pure fantasy and meant to be so.
G.K. Chesterton
Distributism was formulated and The Dawn of All was written as “counterblasts” to an increasingly soulless and materialistic Edwardian society.  Neither one was favored as a personal lifestyle by its originator.  Chesterton’s life and livelihood depended completely on a modern civilization with advanced communications, production, and distribution; Benson shuddered at the thought of living in the world of the future he imagined from the vantage point of 1911.
Benson’s and Chesterton’s accomplishments were therefore not designs for ideal societies.  Instead, they were the presentation of ideas that if taken in the spirit in which they were given would start the wheels of thought and innovation turning.  Benson’s and Chesterton’s common goal was to get people to realize that the world did not have to be locked into capitalism or, worse, socialism.
Benson knew that his science in The Dawn of All was far-fetched (to say the least!), but that was not the point.  Through satirical exaggeration, he showed that a world in which Catholicism was universal (or nearly so), and which embodied everything the Edwardians believed wrong with organized religion, could be far more human, and certainly more humane than the impersonal and alienating State- or collective-worshipping society of Edwardian England that was heading into socialism.
Nor was Chesterton completely blind to the drawbacks of an entire society characterized by small, family-owned farms and artisan businesses — possibly the greatest of which being that he and his fellow journalists would have had to do physical work instead of telling other people how to live their lives.  That, too, was not the point, which was to get people to realize ownership of capital did not have to be concentrated, either in private hands or in the State.
Hilaire Belloc
Mere income, as Chesterton tried to make clear to Shaw, is not sufficient; simply meeting people’s material needs is not enough: man does not live by bread alone.  That, not the involved technical reasons why the proposal could not work, is the reason Belloc rejected “social credit” when discussing the problem of making it possible for ordinary people to own capital:
Another point in which the reader may think me guilty of omission is the absence of any full discussion upon the new schemes of Social Credit.  I have just touched on them in the last section of the essay, but only very briefly.  My reason is this: That such schemes (notably the chief one, the Douglas Scheme) do not directly advance, nor are directly connected with the idea of property.  They are only concerned with the idea of income.  They propose, especially the Douglas Scheme of credit, to restore purchasing power to the destitute masses of society ruined by industrial capitalism. . . .
The object of those who think as I do in this matter is not to restore purchasing power but to restore economic freedom.  It is true that there cannot be economic freedom without purchasing power and it is true that economic freedom varies in some degree directly with purchasing power; but it is not true that purchasing power is equivalent to economic freedom. (Hilaire Belloc, An Essay on the Restoration of Property.  New York: Sheed and Ward, 1936, 9-10.)
Distributism had an obstacle, however, that the imaginary world of The Dawn of All did not have.  Depending on one’s belief system, Benson’s fictional global triumph of the Catholic Church is either inevitable or impossible; his science was fantastic, but just because science cannot solve a particular problem one way does not preclude other ways.
In either event, the question was out of the hands of ordinary people.  Effectiveness of evangelization and invention of scientific wonders are not the matter of everyday life.
Chesterton’s and Belloc’s society characterized by widespread capital ownership, however, is definitely relevant both to individual life and what Aristotle called the bios politikos, “the life of the citizen in the state.”  How each human person engages in the production of marketable goods and services involves both individual life and social life, individual good and the common good — and a modern economy in which production is largely the result of capital absolutely requires widespread ownership of that capital if ordinary people are to be full members of society.
And the problem?  How widespread capital ownership can be accomplished without violating the natural law that underpins Catholic social teaching and that of all other natural religions and philosophies.  And that means no redistribution, except as a temporary expedient in an emergency under the strict requirements of the principle of double effect.
Two assumptions therefore stood in the way of Chesterton and Belloc developing a viable means of implementing the Distributist State in a just, equitable, and financially feasible manner.  These were, one, the belief that the only way to finance new capital formation is to cut consumption and accumulate the excess of income over consumption in the form of money savings.
Given the cost of even simple technology and small plots of arable land, this meant that even after a lifetime of austerity and saving very few people would be able to purchase capital, whether land, simple technology, or a small business.  Nor would most people have the strength and energy left after a lifetime of toil and saving to make the endeavor financially viable.
Two, limiting the pool of capital available for widespread ownership to what is already owned by others means that, unless private property is abolished or redefined (and coercive redistribution abolishes private property), capital ownership will remain concentrated.  Only an exceptional individual will voluntarily divest himself of wealth in any way that diminishes his own power.  That is why the rich typically leave vast wealth to foundations that are then dependent on them instead of giving significant amounts directly to the poor.
As a result, both Chesterton and Belloc avoided giving any specific means by which the Distributist State could be implemented and maintained.  As Belloc explained in An Essay on the Restoration of Property (1936), published the month following Chesterton’s death,
All reform depends upon some clear doctrine postulated and developed.  No reform (it would seem) can hope to prosper which does not advance a programme covering all the field.  I have not attempted to do so. . . . Now my reason for such slight dealing with such a major problem is that I believe it, to-day, insoluble by general means.  The evil has gone so far that, though the preaching of a new doctrine is invaluable, the creation of new and effective immediate machinery is impossible.  The restoration of Property must essentially be the product of a new mood, not of a new scheme.  It must grow from seed planted in the breast.  It is too late to reinfuse it by design. (Ibid., 10-11.)