What’s Wrong with the World

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The romance of property.

I came upon this passage in Belloc's The Servile State and found it thoroughly fascinating, on several levels:

Either they would put property into the hands of most citizens, so dividing land and capital that a determining number of families in the State were possessed of the means of production ; or they would put those means of production into the hands of the political officers of the community, to be held in trust for the advantage of all.

The first solution may be called the attempted establishment of the DISTRIBUTIVE STATE. The second may be called the attempted establishment of the COLLECTIVIST STATE.

Those who favour the first course are the Conservatives or Traditionalists. They are men who respect and would,if possible, preserve the old forms of Christian European life. They know that property was thus distributed throughout the State during the happiest periods of our past history; they also know that where it is properly distributed to-day, you have greater social sanity and ease than elsewhere. In general, those who would re-establish, if possible, the Distributive State in the place of, and as a remedy for, the vices and unrest of Capitalism, are men concerned with known realities, and having for their ideal a condition of society which experience has tested and proved both stable and good. They are then, of the two schools of reformers, the more practical in the sense that they deal more than do the Collectivists (called also Socialists) with things which either are or have been in actual existence.

According to Belloc (writing back in 1913) the Collectivist or Socialist, meanwhile, "proposes to put land and capital into the hands of the political officers of the community, and this on the understanding that they shall hold such land and capital in trust for the advantage of the community. In making this proposal he is evidently dealing with a state of things hitherto imaginary, and his ideal is not one that has been tested by experience" or Western history.

Now the first thing to notice here is that that last remark so dated as to be refuted by fact. More than that: refuted by the most pulverizing fact of the 20th century. I mean the calamitous cavalcade of cruelty and depravity and fraud that was the fact of Socialism in operation; I mean Collectivism far from imaginary or untested but rather horribly real and tyrannical.

Belloc favored the Distributive State, and I think that the judgment of history favors his wisdom on that point.

But what of this talk of "the old forms of Christian European life," these "happiest periods" of "social sanity"? Well, Belloc was a mediaevalist, of course. He believed that the Modern Age was on balance a decline from a great achievement, not a progression away from a failed form. Like Chesterton he may have overreached in his claims for the greatness of the Middle Ages. He may have fancied that the mediaevals lived a life much like that of Tolkien's Shire, and conveniently neglected some of the terrors of their age. Fair enough.

But if their romance of the Middle Ages was exaggerated, the fact of the misery of Socialism in practice is hard to exaggerate. It was as close to Mordor as can has been accomplished by men.

I invite any reader intrigued by all this to read Belloc's book. A fine edition at a very reasonable price is available from Liberty Fund. One of the treats of this prescient essay is Belloc's lucid narrative of Christian civilization's great gradual transformation of the slavery of Greek and Roman antiquity into the stable structure of distributed property enjoyed during the High Middle Ages.

Comments (4)

Belloc's _Servile State_ is still an excellent antidote for collegian socialism. It is original enough to appeal to those students who can't quite swallow the claims of free market apologists, especially under present circumstances.

Reading it will cultivate an independence of thought which can challenge socialism from an unexpected side. There is a respect and love for property in Belloc which does not come through in modern pro-market rhetoric, which tends to celebrate individualist creativity or an abstract "productivity," rather than productive work per se.

Yet I wonder how thoroughly Belloc's claims have been investigated.

Belloc claimed that the "capitalist" or anti-distributed state of property arose from the dissolution of the English monasteries and the transfer of their wealth to English lords. Was this another eccentricity of Belloc, or have historians supported his interpretation?

Apparently Chesterbelloc's contention that slavery was abolished in the middle ages was an eccentricity of the histories of their time, and refuted by later evidence showing slave markets in medieval France.

Hmmmm. Lawrence Brown certainly shared Belloc's view of the monasteries. (See my other post.) Thomas Woods' How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization argues for it from another angle. I have seen detailed arguments at places like the Mises Institute showing how much more the Schoolmen knew of economics that the moderns like to admit.

Kevin and Paul,

A good place to start is to dive into the economic history literature. Deirdre McCloskey (who is admitedly a somewhat eccentric scholar) is a good place to start.

Even better might be Gregory Clark's "A Farewell to Alms" which I just picked up and was discussed extensively on "Marginal Revolution."

Interestingly, McCloskey criticizes Clark, who then responds here to McCloskey and other critics.

Modern technology is at a point where the distributive state is probably not really possible. Today, it'd be extremely difficult to own the productive property needed to make complicated goods like medicine, vehicles, weapon systems, computer hardware and complex industrial materials. Distributists need to make peace with Capitalism and respect the fact that in many industries, the only way to bring products to market in a way that most people can afford will be through economies of scale built on huge enterprises.

Capitalism ignores the human element, and the future should be a fusion of Capitalism and Distributism as a bulwark against collectivism. Left to their own devices, both of those philosophies are painfully naive about certain facts about human nature and modern economies. Capitalism is certainly naive in the way it assumes that humans are rational, rather than rationalizing.

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