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More Chesterton, Apropos of a Certain Notion of Inevitability

My purpose in posting the following is not to endorse what many might be tempted to surmise, namely, the forcible recreation of some hypothetical ideal peasant society, for such an objective, in any case, would be wholly infeasible. Rather, my purpose is twofold: first, to encourage a re-evaluation of a particular myth of inevitability, a notion which owes more to a forgetting of the historical contingency of a tradition of political economy, now assumed as the unalterable backdrop of our world-order, than to any actual necessity; and second, to observe that the threat, so often urged against even the faintest suggestions of distributism, of an augmentation of state power over society, is omnipresent and has many causes. In point of historical fact, such a growth of governmental power has occurred in tandem with the expansion of corporate power, both as a facilitator and a competitor. The matter is not so much one of eschewing certain objectives for reason of the fear of state power, for this threat is coextensive with political society itself, but of the prudent and judicious means by which the ownership of productive property can be made more widespread. It is a question, in other words, of what one might call an 'ownership society'.

About fifteen years ago a few of us began to preach, in the old New Age and New Witness, a policy of small distributed property (which has since assumed the awkward but accurate name of Distributism), as we should have said then, against the two extremes of Capitalism and Communism. The first criticism we received was from the most brilliant Fabians, especially Mr. Bernard Shaw. And the form which that first criticism took was simply to tell us that our ideal was impossible. It was only a case of Catholic credulity about fairy-tales. The Law of Rent, and other economic laws, made it inevitable that the little rivulets of property should run down into the pool of plutocracy. In truth, it was the Fabian wit, and not merely the Tory fool, who confronted our vision with that venerable verbal opening, "If it were all divided up to-morrow —"

Nevertheless, we had an answer even in those days, and though we have since found many others, it will clarify the question if I repeat this point of principle. It is true that I believe in fairy-tales — in the sense that I marvel so much at what does exist that I am the readier to admit what might. I understand the man who believes in the Sea Serpent on the ground that there are more fish in the sea than ever came out of it. But I do it the more because the other man, in his ardour for disproving the Sea Serpent, always argues that there are not only no snakes in Iceland, but none in the world. Suppose Mr. Bernard Shaw, commenting on this credulity, were to blame me for believing (on the word of some lying priest) that stones could be thrown up into the air and hang there suspended like a rainbow. Suppose he told me tenderly that I should not believe this Popish fable of the magic stones, if I had ever had the Law of Gravity scientifically explained to me. And suppose, after all this, I found he was only talking about the impossibility of building an arch. I think most of us would form two main conclusions about him and his school. First, we should think them very ill-informed about what is really meant by recognizing a law of nature. A law of nature can be recognized by resisting it, or out-manoeuvring it, or even using it against itself, as in the case of the arch. And second, and much more strongly, we should think them astonishingly ill-informed about what has already been done upon this earth.

Similarly, the first fact in the discussion of whether small properties can exist is the fact that they do exist. It is a fact almost equally unmistakable that they not only exist but endure. Mr. Shaw affirmed, in a sort of abstract fury, that "small properties will not stay small." Now it is interesting to note here that the opponents of anything like a several proprietary bring two highly inconsistent charges against it. They are perpetually telling us that the peasant life in Latin or other countries is monotonous, is unprogressive, is covered with weedy superstitions, and is a sort of survival of the Stone Age. Yet even while they taunt us with its survival, they argue that it can never survive. They point to the peasant as a perennial stick-in-the-mud; and then refuse to plant him anywhere, on the specific ground that he would not stick. Now, the first of the two types of denunciation is arguable enough; but in order to denounce peasantries, the critics must admit that there are peasantries to denounce. And if it were true that they always tended rapidly to disappear, it would not be true that they exhibited those primitive customs and conservative opinions which they not only do, in fact, exhibit, but which the critics reproach them with exhibiting. They cannot in common sense accuse a thing at once of being antiquated and of being ephemeral. It is, of course, the dry fact, to be seen in broad daylight, that small peasant properties are not ephemeral. But anyhow, Mr. Shaw and his school must not say that arches cannot be built, and then that they disfigure the landscape. The Distributive State is not a hypothesis for him to demolish; it is a phenomenon for him to explain.

The truth is that the conception that small property evolves into Capitalism is a precise picture of what practically never takes place. The truth is attested even by facts of geography, facts which, as it seems to me, have been strangely overlooked. Nine times out of ten, an industrial civilization of the modern capitalist type does not arise, wherever else it may arise, in places where there has hitherto been a distributive civilization like that of a peasantry. Capitalism is a monster that grows in deserts. Industrial servitude has almost everywhere arisen in those empty spaces where the older civilization was thin or absent. Thus it grew up easily in the North of England rather than the South; precisely because the North had been comparatively empty and barbarous through all the ages when the South had a civilization of guilds and peasantries. Thus it grew up easily in the American continent rather than the European; precisely because it had nothing to supplant in America but a few savages, while in Europe it had to supplant the culture of multitudinous farms. Everywhere it has been but one stride from the mudhut to the manufacturing town. Everywhere the mudhut which really turned into the free farm has never since moved an inch towards the manufacturing town. Wherever there was the mere lord and the mere serf, they could almost instantly be turned into the mere employer and the mere employee. Wherever there has been the free man, even when he was relatively less rich and powerful, his mere memory has made complete industrial capitalism impossible. It is an enemy that has sown these tares, but even as an enemy he is a coward. For he can only sow them in waste places, where no wheat can spring up and choke them.

To take up our parable again, we say first that arches exist; and not only exist but remain. A hundred Roman aqueducts and amphitheatres are there to show that they can remain as long or longer than anything else. And if a progressive person informs us that an arch always turns into a factory chimney, or even that an arch always falls down because it is weaker than a factory chimney, or even that wherever it does fall down people perceive that they must replace it by a factory chimney--why, we shall be so audacious as to cast doubts on all these three assertions. All we could possibly admit is that the principle supporting the chimney is simpler than the principle of the arch; and for that very reason the factory chimney, like the feudal tower, can rise the more easily in a howling wilderness.

But the image has yet a further application. If at this moment the Latin countries are largely made our model in the matter of the small property, it is only in the sense in which they would have been, through certain periods of history, the only exemplars of the arch. There was a time when all arches were Roman arches; and when a man living by the Liffey or the Thames would know as little about them as Mr. Shaw knows about peasant proprietors. But that does not mean that we fight for something merely foreign, or advance the arch as a sort of Italian ensign; any more than we want to make the Thames as yellow as the Tiber, or have any particular taste in macaroni or malaria. The principle of the arch is human, and applicable to and by all humanity. So is the principle of well-distributed private property. That a few Roman arches stood in ruins in Britain is not a proof that arches cannot be built, but on the contrary, a proof that they can.

And now, to complete the coincidence or analogy, what is the principle of the arch? You can call it, if you like, an affront to gravitation; you will be more correct if you call it an appeal to gravitation. The principle asserts that by combining separate stones of a particular shape in a particular way, we can ensure that their very tendency to fall shall prevent them from falling. And though my image is merely an illustration, it does to a great extent hold even as to the success of more equalized properties. What upholds an arch is an equality of pressure of the separate stones upon each other. The equality is at once mutual aid and mutual obstruction. It is not difficult to show that in a healthy society the moral pressure of different private properties acts in exactly the same way. But if the other school finds the key or comparison insufficient, it must find some other. It is clear that no natural forces can frustrate the fact. To say that any law, such as that of rent, makes against it is true only in the sense that many natural laws make against all morality and the very essentials of manhood. In that sense, scientific arguments are as irrelevant to our case for property as Mr. Shaw used to say they were to his case against vivisection.

Lastly, it is not only true that the arch of property remains, it is true that the building of such arches increases, both in quantity and quality. For instance, the French peasant before the French Revolution was already indefinitely a proprietor; it has made his property more private and more absolute, not less. The French are now less than ever likely to abandon the system, when it has proved for the second, if not the hundredth time, the most stable type of prosperity in the stress of war. A revolution as heroic, and even more unconquerable, has already in Ireland disregarded alike the Socialist dream and the Capitalist reality, with a driving energy of which no one has yet dared to foresee the limits. So, when the round arch of the Romans and the Normans had remained for ages as a sort of relic, the rebirth of Christendom found for it a further application and issue. It sprang in an instant to the titanic stature of the Gothic; where man seemed to be a god who had hanged his worlds upon nothing. Then was unsealed again something of that ancient secret which had so strangely described the priest as the builder of bridges. And when I look to-day at some of the bridges which he built above the air, I can understand a man still calling them impossible, as their only possible praise.

What do we mean by that "equality of pressure" as of the stones in an arch? More will be said of this in detail; but in general we mean that the modern passion for incessant and restless buying and selling goes along with the extreme inequality of men too rich or too poor. The explanation of the continuity of peasantries (which their opponents are simply forced to leave unexplained) is that, where that independence exists, it is valued exactly as any other dignity is valued when it is regarded as normal to a man; as no man goes naked or is beaten with a stick for hire.

The theory that those who start reasonably equal cannot remain reasonably equal is a fallacy founded entirely on a society in which they start extremely unequal. It is quite true that when capitalism has passed a certain point, the broken fragments of property are very easily devoured. In other words, it is true when there is a small amount of small property; but it is quite untrue when there is a large amount of small property. To argue from what happened in the rush of big business and the rout of scattered small businesses to what must always happen when the parties are more on a level, is quite illogical. It is proving from Niagara that there is no such thing as a lake. Once tip up the lake and the whole of the water will rush one way; as the whole economic tendency of capitalist inequality rushes one way. Leave the lake as a lake, or the level as a level, and there is nothing to prevent the lake remaining until the crack of doom — as many levels of peasantry seem likely to remain until the crack of doom. This fact is proved by experience, even if it is not explained by experience; but, as a matter of fact, it is possible to suggest not only the experience but the explanation. The truth is that there is no economic tendency whatever towards the disappearance of small property, until that property becomes so very small as to cease to act as property at all. If one man has a hundred acres and another man has half an acre, it is likely enough that he will be unable to live on half an acre. Then there will be an economic tendency for him to sell his land and make the other man the proud possessor of a hundred and a half. But if one man has thirty acres and the other man has forty acres, there is no economic tendency of any kind whatever to make the first man sell to the second. It is simply false to say that the first man cannot be secure of thirty or the second man content with forty. It is sheer nonsense; like saying that any man who owns a bull terrier will be bound to sell it to somebody who owns a mastiff. It is like saying that I cannot own a horse because I have an eccentric neighbour who owns an elephant.

Needless to say, those who insist that roughly equalized ownership cannot exist, base their whole argument on the notion that it has existed. They have to suppose, in order to prove their point, that people in England, for instance, did begin as equals and rapidly reached inequality. And it only rounds off the humour of their whole position that they assume the existence of what they call an impossibility in the one case where it has really not occurred. They talk as if ten miners had run a race, and one of them became the Duke of Northumberland. They talk as if the first Rothschild was a peasant who patiently planted better cabbages than the other peasants. The truth is that England became a capitalist country because it had long been an oligarchical country. It would be much harder to point out in what way a country like Denmark need become oligarchical. But the case is even stronger when we add the ethical to the economic common sense. When there is once established a widely scattered ownership, there is a public opinion that is stronger than any law; and very often (what in modern times is even more remarkable) a law that is really an expression of public opinion. It may be very difficult for modern people to imagine a world in which men are not generally admired for covetousness and crushing their neighbours but I assure them that such strange patches of an earthly paradise do really remain on earth.

The truth is that this first objection of impossibility in the abstract flies flat in the face of all the facts of experience and human nature. It is not true that a moral custom cannot hold most men content with a reasonable status, and careful to preserve it. It is as if we were to say that because some men are more attractive to women than others, therefore the inhabitants of Balham under Queen Victoria could not possibly have been arranged on a monogamous model, with one man one wife. Sooner or later, it might be said, all females would be found clustering round the fascinating few, and nothing but bachelorhood be left for the unattractive many. Sooner or later the suburb must consist of a hundred hermitages and three harems. But this is not the case. It is not the case at present, whatever may happen if the moral tradition of marriage is really lost in Balham. So long as that moral tradition is alive, so long as stealing other people's wives is reprobated or being faithful to a spouse is admired, there are limits to the extent to which the wildest profligate in Balham can disturb the balance of the sexes. So any land-grabber would very rapidly find that there were limits to the extent to which he could buy up land in an Irish or Spanish or Serbian village. When it is really thought hateful to take Naboth's vineyard, as it is to take Uriah's wife, there is little difficulty in finding a local prophet to pronounce the judgment of the Lord. In an atmosphere of capitalism the man who lays field to field is flattered; but in an atmosphere of property he is promptly jeered at or possibly stoned. The result is that the village has not sunk into plutocracy or the suburb into polygamy.

Property is a point of honour. The true contrary of the word "property" is the word "prostitution." And it is not true that a human being will always sell what is sacred to that sense of self-ownership, whether it be the body or the boundary. A few do it in both cases; and by doing it they always become outcasts. But it is not true that a majority must do it; and anybody who says it is, is ignorant, not of our plans and proposals, not of anybody's visions and ideals, not of distributism or division of capital by this or that process, but of the facts of history and the substance of humanity. He is a barbarian who has never seen an arch.

— Chesterton, An Outline of Sanity.

Comments (39)

Geesh, it's as if F. Hayek never lived and never wrote.

GKC's lunatic view of political economy (and its ideological relatives) has been soundly, roundly, and irreversibly refuted in The Road to Serfdom. That book has been before the world now for more than 60 years. There's really no excuse for advocating anything like Chesterton's so-called "distributism" any longer.


The Road to Serfdom is not received truth, nor do your taunts constitute a refutation. Some of us think F. Hayek interesting but radical, unbalanced. This may make us heterodox in your eyes, but can you not allow the possibility that our views might have valid basis in experience?

Some of the most dangerous ideas are those one needs a smattering of sophistication to understand. Embracing selected facts and having a deficient species of elegance, but devoid of real wisdom, such ideas let the inexperienced feel themselves superior to the merely unlearned. You may disagree (indeed I do not doubt that you do), but it seems to me that Hayek's ideas are of this kind.

If Chesterton lived today he would undoubtedly adapt his views to the facts on the ground. The problem with Hayek is that his views are ideological, preconceived, immune to disturbance by facts on the ground.

Michael Bauman writes: GKC's lunatic view of political economy (and its ideological relatives) has been soundly, roundly, and irreversibly refuted in The Road to Serfdom.

No, Hayek was arguing, quite well, against central planning. Chesterton's Distributism is the antithesis of that because it advocates a massive decentralization of ownership, where property and business is neither concentrated in the hands of a few gov't officials or a few capitalists (who always seem to get quite cozy, and often interchangeable, with the gov't officials).

I tend to concur in the judgment of Oakeshott, who quipped concerning the mythology that grew up around The Road to Serfdom that an ideology of 'no planning' was still an ideology.
My recollection, moreover, is that the later Hayek understood that the organic development of order he was concerned to protect occurred within the framework of a legislative order, which was itself, in part, the product of reasoned deliberation; law, in any event, is not a product of spontaneous, gradual evolution, the way some economic practices might be thought to be.

Finally, in my judgment, for all of the erudition displayed in The Road to Serfdom, The Servile State has proven more subtle and penetrating, inasmuch as the former analyzed a potential ratcheting effect of increasing socialization, while the latter grasped that capitalism could at once impose its own forms of regimentation and progress towards de facto socialization, and summon forth the competing interest with which Hayek was concerned.

"Hayek was arguing, quite well, against central planning. Chesterton's Distributism is the antithesis of that because it advocates a massive decentralization of ownership."

Remember too that the property in question has to do specifically with land, not just with money, stocks etc. To the Distributists and Agrarians, widely distributed property meant land, not wealth in general. So in that sense Distributism need not mean "redistribution of wealth." Indeed one of the Southern Agrarians stated that an unfortunate triumph of commercial capitalism was the convincing of the average man that owning stock in a company and owning a piece of land were the same thing.

One economist who did a good job of reconciling Hayek-type observations with a critique of the more unbridled sort of capitalism was Wilhelm Ropke -- see his book A HUMANE ECONOMY, or the study of him by John Zmirak called WILHELM ROPKE: SWISS LOCALIST, GLOBAL ECONOMIST, both published by ISI.

"No, Hayek was arguing, quite well, against central planning. Chesterton's Distributism is the antithesis of that because it advocates a massive decentralization of ownership, where property and business is neither concentrated in the hands of a few gov't officials or a few capitalists..."

That's the kind of statement that always makes me either see red or shake my head, depending on how mellow I'm feeling. And this "massive decentralization of ownership" takes place how, _exactly_? Without any exercise of sufficient central power to _make_ it take place? Or perhaps the State withers away after it's engaged in a "massive decentralization of ownership"? I swear, it sounds like the Chestertonians believe in a spookier and far more implausible "invisible hand" than do the capitalists. It's an "invisible hand" that massively decentralizes ownership and does nothing else, especially nothing else bad.

I am afraid that this old chestnut, concerning the inevitability of statist tyranny descending upon the world if the people so much as whisper that the distribution of property might need to be altered, causes me to perceive the world as through a fine, red mist. For it simply presupposes that it is categorically impossible for the people, acting through their representatives in a republican polity, to deliberate prudently and rationally regarding the incrementalist reforms by which an ownership society might be fashioned; according to this line of argumentation, any such policies, however benign, however minimalist, will entail the probability of tyranny, presumably by virtue of the bare fact that the proceedings are political in nature.

I find this altogether Manichean, and wish no part in such notions. On the other hand, if the contention is not categorical, then it is difficult to comprehend the incandescent fury that attends the apprehension of the distributist claim. For, in that instance, the risk of governmental abuse attends virtually all political proceedings, this one no more than any other.

Moreover, some conservatives who propound this line of critique seem to be in the thrall of what is, frankly, a form of magical thought; within the spell of this thought, the actual Western history of the growth of state power concomitantly with the growth of corporate concentration, both as facilitator and rival, has not occurred, and the manifestation of corporate power known as globalization will not entail the diminution of self-government - which would arrive as a shock to virtually every intellectual who has ever analyzed the phenomenon of globalization. The Invisible Hand is always beneficent, it would appear; and government is always pernicious, and The Market always wondrously benign.

No, the point is that the danger of tyranny is omnipresent in political society, both in a federal government capable of providing for the common defense - surely, it will be recollected that this was a concern among the founding generation - and in a republican society examining the minutia of political economy. The argument that there is something distinctive about the latter sort of deliberation impresses me as nothing so much as an implicit argument against politics qua politics.

And I am no anabaptist or anarchist.

Finally, the notion, implicit in this argument which I am rejecting, that there is something unique about the political deliberations that would occur in a distributist programme, strikes me as misapprehending the nature of justice: it supposes, not that there are two extremes that must be avoided, or kept at bay, but that there is but one: the excesses of political power.

What the distributist is concerned to achieve is the favouring of private ownership over corporate ownership (private collective ownership, that is, with the managerial caste running things for the absentee nominal owners); there are numerous proposals and practices towards this object, some of which are discussed in John Medaille's excellent book, The Vocation of Business, to which I had hoped to devote much discussion, only becoming sidelined by successive bouts of ill health, a move, and further ill health.

I'm too ignorant of distributism to say how distributism proposes to go about adjudicating property claims differently from what we have now, and I should probably educate myself. But discussions of it always strike me as somewhat surreal. I find myself agreeing that significant concentrations of power and wealth in an aristocracy are inevitable on the one hand, and if distributism denies this (I don't know that it does) then that radically undermines the reality of its claims. But on the other hand the notion that politics - all politics - doesn't inherently distribute and redistribute property on some implicit or explicit moral basis strikes me as equally unreal. What ought to be on the table is not whether property will distribute and redistribute in response to the mandates of politics, because that is like having whether the sun will or will not be permitted to rise on the table. What ought to be on the table is not if there should be a moral basis for distributing and redistributing property, but simply what that moral basis ought to be.

That probably makes straw-men of the positions of both sides.

"Chesterton's Distributism is the antithesis of that because it advocates a massive decentralization of ownership..." This was the sentence I was responding to. You don't think "massive decentralization of ownership" sounds like something other than "minimalist"? And maybe just a teeny bit other than "prudent"?

"The Invisible Hand is always beneficent, it would appear; and government is always pernicious, and The Market always wondrously benign."

I once asked a wise college professor about this view. He said, "Everyone reads Adam Smith's WEALTH OF NATIONS, but they ignore his THEORY OF MORAL SENTIMENTS." The point: even Smith realized that capitalism, like democracy, only works with a moral people, and that there are, therefore, hazards inherent in the system. One of these potential hazards is the undue accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of immoral/amoral capitalists.

I would agree that if distributism proposed, as a viable possibility, the existence of a society bereft of a de facto aristocracy, it would be somewhat surreal. However, my intention is merely to question both the degree of concentration which obtains in the United States, coupled with the character or quality of our aristocracy of wealth and "merit": an aristocracy ought to be the better, ruling part of a people, and not an alienated claque actively subverting its people in the process of augmenting its privileges.

I'm not advocating a wholesale Five-Year-Plan in a distributist vein; but rather an incrementalist, prudential programme, whatever that might turn out to entail. However, I cannot even discuss small and prudent measures without having the grim spectre of socialism summoned forth from the abyss, in order to dispel the very suggestion.

And this "massive decentralization of ownership" takes place how, _exactly_?

You could start by making limited liability partnerships illegal and removing legal personhood to corporations.

"...making limited liability partnerships illegal and removing legal personhood to corporations."

What are the drawbacks of such a proposal? Material drawbacks _do_ count, and _should_ count, as we are talking about prudence, and material harm to the people of a country must be considered as part of a prudential judgement.

Chesterton's allusion to Naboth's vineyard is interesting. The King had to have Naboth murdered before he got his hands on his vineyard, because Naboth would not sell it to him. For property was inviolable in Israel, as it should be.

What the distributists have to understand is that the thing that would make property so valuable for the poor man is the same thing that would make it impossible to take from the rich man.

Maximos is right in my view.

I'm not advocating a wholesale Five-Year-Plan in a distributist vein; but rather an incrementalist, prudential programme, whatever that might turn out to entail. However, I cannot even discuss small and prudent measures without having the grim spectre of socialism summoned forth from the abyss, in order to dispel the very suggestion.

Maximos disputes the false choice between market anarchy on the one hand and Bolshevism on the other. Such a choice resembles the false choice between a wart and its removal by pistol shot. It is not even a matter of position along a linear spectrum, for Bolshevism, like the pistol shot, is the extreme of the wrong axis altogether.

I suggest that there exists a point beyond which sufficiently extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of the few would offend all but the most ardent plutocrat. The United States has not nearly reached such a point yet, but the fact that the point exists should inform us that the definition of right as "that which the undistorted market ordains" is deficient.

The point is central. "That which the undistorted market ordains" is not necessarily much more desirable than "that which the unmowed lawn grows." The market will ordain something, the lawn will grow something, but neither may serve the interests of the people.

The United States has not nearly reached such a point yet

I think that it would be fair to say that the United States nearly reached that point during the age of the "Robber Barons" and that, without regulation, would fairly quickly reach it again. How near to the tipping point are we wandering now, as indicated, for instance, by the gap between CEO salaries and those of their employees?

"...would offend all but the most ardent plutocrat."

"...as indicated, for instance, by the gap between CEO salaries and those of their employees?"

I'm never offended by gaps in and of themselves. I have always rejected the idea that a gap in income (or money spent on kids in school, or test scores, or whatever), simply as such, is a cause of grievance. Perhaps that makes me "the most ardent plutocrat." Oh, well.


I'm trying hard to understand what still seems to me unthinkable: How some respondents believe that when it comes to political economy, the truly faulty analysis lies with Hayek, the Nobel laureate, and not with Chesterton, the rank amateur, and with his utterly unworkable distributionism. Hayek literally had decades of economic history to back up the explanations proffered in The Road to Serfdom; Chesterton had none -- none. I simply cannot think of a single instance where his plan has raised the poor out of poverty. Indeed, I cannot think of a single instance where his plan was ever put into effect, let alone succeeded. Yet, I'm asked to believe that Chesterton's views are grounded in reality and that Hayek's are merely theoretical. I'm told that Hayek's argument undermined central planning (and it did), but that somehow his analysis does not apply to distributionism, as if one could implement it without government oversight and central planning.

I have a Theory: Jim Wallis is multiple-posting on this forum (wink).

Indeed, I cannot think of a single instance where [Chesterton's] plan was ever put into effect, let alone succeeded.

What would you point us to as an example of an instance where Hayek's plan was put into effect and succeeded?

It is not the bare existence of increasingly massive gulfs between CEO salaries and the wages received by employees of those same companies, but the nature of the economic practices which sustain such lavishly crapulent compensation packages that are grounds for concern - namely, the reductive obsession with the maximization of the value of shares of ownership, which, under the conditions of globalization, mandates unceasing downward pressures on factor shares to labour, via outsourcing of production, insourcing of labour, unilateral abrogations of benefit obligations (courtesy of the intersection of bankruptcy law with the implications of limited liability incorporation), and so forth. Not to mention the inordinate degrees of political influence that such institutions, and their stupendously compensated technocratic directors, can, and do in fact, command.

For the record, my reservations regarding the Hayek's analysis in The Road to Serfdom center on the possible (I am not willing to declare categorically on one side of the question) presupposition of the naturalness of capitalism-as-we-know-it, when, in reality, capitalism-as-we-know-it is as much an artifactual structure as any other politico-economic system devised by man. Such an assumption would function as the foundational premise of all of those breathless expatiations upon the perils of rejiggering the architecture of the economic order; if what exists economically is presupposed to be identical with what exists economically by nature, ontologically, then it follows of necessity that any 'interference' with the nature of things cannot but be deleterious. Again, as I have argued, it is not that such dangers do not, in fact, exist, but rather that they are more generalized, and that, consequently, some Hayekian analyses are reductive.

... presupposition of the naturalness of capitalism-as-we-know-it ...

Success has a thousand fathers, and failure is an orphan.

The beauty of viewing Hayek's ideological position on economics - or whatever economics it is that we wish to stump for - as just "nature in action" is that every success can be attributed to it, and every failure attributed to its usurpation and perversion. Communism after all is only a failure because the capitalists interfered with the nature of things out of greed, stealing the surplus value created by workers when we apply the LTV to production, blah blah blah, world without end, amen. There can't possibly be anything wrong or unnatural about communism as such, now, can there? We just haven't seen the ever-elusive real communism yet.

If we are going to compare Hayek to Chesterton - and I don't claim any special expertise on the economic theories of either - it is important to compare them on the same terms, rather than rigging the discussion to produce whatever outcome we happen to want.

That was why I asked for an instance where we can say unequivocally that Hayek's plan was put into effect and succeeded. When since 1944 has the libertarian economic utopia been realized in practice? Sauce for the goose, and all that.

I'd just feel happier if Chesterton's economic friends on these threads would come out and say, "Yeah, Chesterton was an extremist and does seem to have had an overly rosy view of the joys of medieval peasantry. We're just taking him for a kind of general inspiration but we don't really have his divide-property-up-relatively-evenly-forever-by-force-of-law goals in mind."

By the way, the penalties for poaching deer were _increased_ in the Modern Period? Really? Maybe increased over what they had been for a while before, but I have trouble thinking of anything much worse than flaying alive, which is what rumor has it the penalty was during the reign of the Plantagenets.

Eh. Chesterton was assuredly a romantic, and his ideal of a predominantly peasant society had become, in all probability, unachievable sometime before the Whiggish Treason and Plot, er, "Glorious Revolution". Perhaps later, but why quibble at three-hundred years' remove? But an extremist? Nah. It was hardly indicative of extremism to gaze with horror upon a social order that would compel peasants, such as my Irish forbears, to choose the risks attendant upon poaching over the gnawing hunger that accompanied 'honest wage-labour' (Better to be hanged than to starve to death, said they.) It was a mark of moral sanity to experience revulsion at such grotesqueries, and to wish for a restoration of what preceded them, even if such wishing proved to be mere romanticism.

I obviously fail to perceive that a particular expression of the ideal of more-equitably distributed property invalidates the concept generally.

The penalties themselves could not really be increased in ferocity, but the stringency of enforcement was increased (it had been somewhat lax), and the number of "offenses" to which severe sanctions attached was expanded.

Did they flay them alive? In the 19th century? The 18th? (I know they did still hang, draw, and quarter traitors in the 18th century, so I s'pose it could be.)

I'll take "romantic" if I can't get "extremist," and I should be at least cautiously pleased at the admission a) that Chesterton wanted a predominantly peasant society and b) that it is "unachievable." I wish I didn't detect a note of regret for the latter, though. :-)

They hanged poachers, and the legislation was enforced more consistently than previously. Sorry about the ambiguity.

No one will ever get me to regret wishing that the peasantry had been accorded better treatment, for the obvious reason that I cannot bless the mistreatment of my own ancestors. Not that I walk around bearing some sort of grudge about things that transpired hundreds of years ago, extending into the middle of the Nineteenth Century; I'm just not going to sanctify the proceedings of the time, merely because they are said to have represented "progress". It's more than history and political economy; it's family history.

Then there's probably plenty you should regret about what their lives were like and perhaps even what was done and could be done to them when they _were_ peasants, even in the supposedly "good old days" prior to the enclosure of the commons, etc., etc. What I meant when I said I "wish I didn't detect a note of regret" is that it sounds as though you regret that we can't bring back a pre-modern peasantry; that is, you admit it's unachievable but sound a bit as though you wish it were. That, I think, would not be a good thing for mankind, as well as for many specific men, even if it were achievable. Really, it wasn't such an ideal world as all that.

Of course it was hardly ideal; I would never gainsay the argument to that effect. But what seems incontestable to me is that things became much worse for a long period of time before they became better, and that the "getting worse" was the result of substantive injustices, acts that were, quite simply, illicit to perform.

As regards modernity, well, I don't exactly pine for the restoration of the medieval peasantry, but I do believe that modernity has been ruinous in any number of dimensions. In any event, a more equitable distribution of property does not entail a recreation of the living conditions of 1485.

I think Jeff has proven his second point quite well. Bring up Distributism and people see Red. They start brandishing Hayek when Hayek in fact was arguing against Distributism's polar opposite. They also start confusing Chesterton with Robert Mugabe. GKC was not, unless my memory fails me, arguing for an immediate, forcible breakup of estates and corporations. He was working to convince his contemporaries that distribution of wealth and ownership among the many was a desirable goal which should be worked to toward, that as he put it, "the problem with capitalism is there are too few capitalists." And there are many ways in which Americans could do this today: Buy from local farmers and merchants. Support and demand media outlets that pay more attention to the way WalMart, Toll Brothers, et al. bully local elected officials, then to the latest shenanigans of famous blondes. Overhaul or scrap the agribusiness giveaways of federal farm bills and subsidies. I'm sure we could all think of others.
And, as far as the whole flaying-for-poaching debate, just because one may admire some aspects of another culture or time, doesn't mean one wants to bring it back in its entirety. I can admire Russian folk art with out wanting to go on a pogrom, I can whistle Dixie without longing to own blacks, etc.

Lastly, it seems as though no one read Jeff's opening sentence.

I read Jeff's first sentence. I've been trying to figure out just what it means, inasmuch as I think Chesterton _did_ pine for the days of medieval peasantry. GKC hardly tries to hide his romanticized admiration. What his route to try to get to it would have been, I don't know. I do know that I disagree with the goal.

I think getting rid of federal farm bills and subsidies is a great idea. Let's do it as soon as is feasible. Let's also stop making all broccoli and orange growers, etc., belong to a huge group that puts up advertisements for them. Somehow I don't think that's enough agreement to proceed on, though.

Federal agriculture legislation promotes consolidation under the auspices of the largest growers and conglomerates, as well as production for the national and international markets. Abolition of this vast tissue of - essentially - corporate welfare would provide the foundation for a renascence of smaller-scale, localized agriculture, which would also engender a greater diversity of regional variants and markets. It would be an excellent place of beginnings.


The gap in perspective seems impossible to bridge. A free marketeer observes that markets

  • efficiently allocate resources to production,

  • ration scarce goods without central planning,

  • prevent shortages,

  • encourage industry and discourage sloth,

  • limit corruption, and

  • fully engage the most effective, best informed, most energetic, most honest agents available to represent a family's interest: the family's own father and mother.
All these observations are true---and one does not doubt that you could add to the list. However, a market is still only a means to an end; it is not an end in itself.

There are needs free markets do not serve. All too often, free-market advocates (not necessarily you, Lydia) treat such needs with pre-emptive contempt, denying their very legitimacy. But what of the need for a father of modest talents to provide for his family in dignity, in such a manner that his wife and children can look up to him in his role as provider? What of the need to soften the corrosive, seemingly unlimited crassness of commercial mass culture? What of the need to prevent monopolists from restricting production to multiply their own profits? Does it not matter when a company is sold and its workers, our neighbors, are unrooted, laid off, transferred hither and yon?

Chesterton was a man of his time. Surely his specific treatment of the peasantry seems dated now, but that is not why he remains relevant. He remains relevant because he speaks to a sense that good ends exist that markets do not promote, and that prudential statecraft harvests lumber from the hills of the past to bridge the social gaps markets leave in the present. To distort the market is not to destroy it. Chesterton realized this. On some level, Hayek did not.

Now, admittedly, my analysis may be flawed. I am no Hayek or Chesterton and I know it, but would it really serve a purpose to nitpick? The overall point is that the market is a tool suitable for some social purposes and not others. The market is not a sacrament, nor is one who seeks fruits also from other trees a sinner. Balance and prudence are called for. It seems to me that this is part of Maximos' point. I think it a good point. Don't you?


Howard, it seems to me you are taking the perspective that Chesterton's romanticized (and I would say gravely historically uninformed and misplaced) yearnings for the fictional days of a happy peasantry is just a sort of vague and general inspiration for present-day crunchies, agrarians, paleoconservatives (but not paleolibertarians), etc., and their own policy proposals, which would not--hopefully--return us to the days of the peasantry.

I'm a social conservative with a great respect for the value of the free market and for the human value and worth of material prosperity. My and Jeff's disagreements go a good deal deeper than saying that we need to (for example) limit the crassness of the market, insofar as that refers to outlawing the sale of particular goods. I might go a good ways on that, outlawing not just hard pornography but also soft pornography, state and private lotteries, and returning to censorship on movies and greater limitations on what foul language can be piped into people's homes via television. I'm not a doctrinaire libertarian. As I've said on other threads, the libertarians would certainly not offer me a membership card.

Where Jeff and I most consistently disagree is when it comes to looking at the overall _economic_ results of an unregulated aspect of the market and saying that those results are "unjust"--e.g. because wealth is concentrated "too much," because workers in some industry or level of society make "too little," or because "too many" people are employees, aka "wage slaves." The Just Price and Equal Outcomes Appreciation Module got left out of my economic mental software package. I just never seem to sympathize with those sorts of judgements.

Does it matter when a company is sold and its employees are uprooted? Sure it does. My own town has gone through quite a bit of it, though fortunately for me, personally, it's touched my friends and neighbors directly rather than my own family. But I positively blanch at the idea that somehow we ought to *do* something by way of the coercive power of government to _prevent_ sales of companies that are supposedly unjust or disloyal to communities or whatever. That has "cure is worse than the disease" written all over it in letters a mile high to me.

As for a man's ability to make enough to support his family on a single income, I'm all in favor of that's being the case, but I definitely believe that the legislative proposals I've heard to that end tend to be poor ones. I absolutely do not believe that massive rises in the minimum wage are an economically intelligent means to that end.

I'm a hawk on immigration, maybe even one of the biggest hawks around this particular blog. When people talk heatedly about the evils of "rounding people up," my inclination is to shrug first and then ask a few mild-mannered questions later. And if enforcing immigration laws will also make it easier for an American man of modest talents to support his family, so much the better. But I don't think such an end can be legislated directly.

I tend to be open to protectionism in some tariffs but to want to tie that to the evils of the other country--e.g., how it treats its own citizens, or whether it teaches its people to hate us. If protective tariffs levied against horrible regimes will also help American workers, all the better. But ironically, paleos of various stripes tend to think that trying to influence another country's policies is the _one_ reason for which you _shouldn't_ engage in trade restriction! That's "interfering" and comes to be thought of very nearly as an act of war. Tariffs solely to protect American workers, on the other hand, are looked on with much more sympathy. My priorities are the other way around; still, we might find some points of agreement--on trade with China, for example.

So "the market is not a sacrament" and "the market is a tool good for some purposes but not others" are truisms I'm willing to grant in some sense. I just doubt very much that I will mean by them what Maximos means by them, at least not at many points.

Maximos, on farm subsidies: Would I be wrong to think that these were politically promoted in the past as "helping the farmer"? That's certainly my strong impression--that they were attempts to appeal to your sort of person, to the agrarian sort of person, to say that the government and all of us should subsidize farms because we would be so much worse off culturally if the farms disappeared, or whatever. We had a duty to help them. If that ended up helping the big farms at the expense of the small farms, then I guess that would just be an example of the law of unintended consequences of exactly the sort I fear for all sorts of "adjusting the market" legislation also sold to us under the rubric of "helping the poor ____________."

Lydia, one seldom receives so unexpected, satisfactory or disarming an answer. I have read it in detail and can find no word in it to dispute.

Maximos, I seem to have been unhorsed on the rhetorical field of battle. That's one less spear to your colors today, I fear.

In the end, wasn't Chesterton trying to work out an idea of a modern society in which the means of generating great surplus wealth would result in ends more compatible with his idea of Christianity than are the ideas and mechanisms of capitalist economists?
Wasn't Chesterton a man who did not want to compartmentalize his Christianity, but rather to posit his faith in the message of the Gospels as essential to every human enterprise?
I don't recognize the presence of Christian thinking in any of comments above. In talking about Chesterton's thoughts concerning a hypothetical economic system as having been refuted by, for instance, Hayek, you are removing the discussion from the area of morality and into the arena of pragmatic utilitarianism. By referring to Chesterton as a "romantic" or especially as an "extremist," you are forgetting that Jesus Christ is an extremist.

In my estimation, Lydia's willingness to countenance certain protectionist measures on the grounds that a trading partner engages in wicked practices, whether this wickedness assumes the form of compelling women to kill their own unborn children, utilizing salve labour, inculcating lunatic doctrines of religious supremacism, etc., though not on the grounds that companies possess obligations towards their own communities, reverses the natural order of moral obligations. I haven't the slightest objection to the proposal that American commerce with the People's Republic of China ought to be re-examined, for reason of the multifarious injustices of the communist (de facto fascist) regime; however, the avoidance of cooperation or collaboration with such a regime is a matter of avoiding some degree or other of remote material cooperation with those evils, whereas the obligations of American companies towards American employees, particularly those of the communities in which such companies are located, are direct and immediate. Our obligations towards those nearer to us outweigh our obligations to those more distant.

One of those obligations, quite independent of such details of workplace regulation as the rate of the minimum wage, is to ensure - by means that will vary from nation to nation, context to context - is to ensure, to the extent possible, that an ordinary family man is able to fulfill his obligations in a dignified manner. The outsourcing of the principal means by which an ordinary man of average endowments may be enabled to achieve this end, combined with the insourcing of competition, is a straightforward violation of the obligations of wealthy towards the societies they effectively govern. An average man cannot sustain his family in dignity if he must compete with the labours of inhabitants of third world nations divergent both culturally and economically. It is imperative that it be appreciated that globalization is essentially an economic system created of, by, and for a combined cognitive/economic overclass, and that those not belonging to this class, or having no interest in its works and pomps, face a gradual leveling down of their life prospects.

As regards farm subsidies, well, the problems are more complicated than the bare fact of the subsidies themselves, and the omnipresent factor of unintended consequences. Subsidies for a particular crop will have differential effects, depending upon the market position of the farm receiving them; a modest, production-based subsidy to a small farmer producing primarily for local markets might enable him to scrape by, but not to truly prosper, while an analogous production-based subsidy to a larger farmer who produces for national and international markets, and thus avails himself of the tax-deduction (read: de facto subsidy) for transportation costs, and may also be employing illegal labour, will realize certain 'economies of scale'. Beyond even this consideration, many agricultural regulations have been deliberately structured so as to privilege larger producers - and, in tandem with the preposterous existence of subsidy programs to millionaire 'farmers' and agribusiness concerns such as ADM, it is the abolition of these regulations that ought to be commencement point for reform.

Where the political implications of Christianity are concerned, I suppose that I'll sidestep the direct discussion by observing that Christianity cannot be reduced to bourgeois respectability; and while this is an observation typically made by those who would style themselves "Christian leftists" or "Christian progressives", it is no less true for all of that, and it is quite baffling that conversance with Christian history could be thought to yield another conclusion. That is to state nothing more controversial than that Christianity cannot be reduced, in its social expression, to manifestations of the "Protestant Ethic", whether positive or negative in ethical colouration; moreover, Christianity cannot be manifest as the unlovely spectacle of a veneer of piety overlaying a grasping, immanent acquisitiveness, as Eric Voegelin - in my paraphrase - explicated the religious ethos of Whiggery and Puritan sectarianism in Revolutionary England.

It is necessary merely to contemplate the nature of the Christianity that Christianized the Empire, that disseminated the Gospel and brought the Church to the barbarians without the Empire, a Christianity characterized by institutional vigour and - this is perhaps most crucial for moderns - a fundamentally ascetical temperment. That Christianity took its bearings from the sacerdotal authority of the Apostolic succession, and from the spiritual authority of monasticism, which exemplified a manner of living then regarded, in certain respects, as a fulfillment of the Kingdom of God already present in the World as, in, and through the Church. Succinctly stated, that Christianity bore witness to the reality of this world as a proximate good, a manifestation of the love of God, an analogy of the perfections of God's plenitude, but a proximate good nonetheless; this world, and the multiplication of its comforts and pleasures, could not be apprehended as the highest object of human strivings. Stated in terms of modernist political thought, Christianity was radically anti-utilitarian in orientation, and monasticism itself attested to the reality of modes of social interaction and reciprocation other than those of ordinary exchange, and could not but qualify and condition the latter.

Most generally, the monastic notion of renunciation, of renouncing the world in order to redeem it, being against the world for the sake of the world, acted as a marvelous leavening agent in a world still shaped by pagan concepts of authority. The modern analogue of the consequences of this transformation would involve a recognition by the elites of our world that the noblest expression of authority consists, not of the pressing of every advantage, the exploitation of every opportunity, but a form of abnegation, a refusal to utilize such privilege for purposes of which one is the foremost beneficiary. It would mean the difference between rulership as the acquisition of worldly glory and honour, and rulership as a fundamentally sacrificial or ascetical calling, within which one renounces many of the advantages that one could command precisely for the benefit of those over whom one bears authority.

I would not characterize this as extreme, though it is radical in the ancient sense of that much-abused term, expressing as it does the profoundest depths of a Christian ontology.

That is all beautifully put. And I quite agree that the word "radical," in its original meaning of "rootedness" is more appropriate than the word "extreme" in connection with the message of Christ. That said, however, any serious attempt to apply Christian principles to the American economic picture would surely be characterized as an insurrection of leftist extremists. Most likely there would be urgent calls to have such efforts outlawed as seditious.

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