Saturday, December 18, 2004

Book Review: Essay on the Restoration of Property


Title: Essay on the Restoration of Property
Author: Hilaire Belloc
Publisher: IHS Press
Excellence: 4 stars
Summary in a sentence: A primer for why industrialized free market capitalism just ends up nowhere and how we can take little steps to restore a little sanity in our own little lives.

There are so many “secret reports” and websites that attack what they think distributism is. But so few – I would venture to say none – of the writers of these “reports” or editors of these websites have ever read one single page of anything ever written in defense of distributism. These people often paint themselves as fierce defenders of Catholicism but they ignore St. Thomas Aquinas’ first rule of debate – to know the enemy you have to read them – and if distributism is “the enemy,” you have to read about it before you begin pontificating, so as not to sound ridiculous, which most of these people usually do.

As to report on what modern day “distributists” are doing – that is not what I hope to do in this review (and frankly, I don't know any modern day distributists - distributists are by definition doers, not talkers, and someone who talks on and on and on about distributism but does nothing concretely to further it (e.g. buying land or becoming debt free) in his own life is no distributist, but rather a windbag) – I hope to explain a bit about Belloc’s book, and parenthetically explain in his words what distributism is, and explain that it is pointless to sit around and talk about ideas all day long but to note that action is what is necessary. Action here being defined as a holistic mode of life, not as a revolution where I steal someone else’s property and “distribute” it. Alas, such ideas reveal the inability of someone to read beyond a title – much like someone saying that because I live in a republic that I am a Republican. No, sorry, just because I believe in “Distributism” doesn’t mean I believe in distributing someone else’s land and money.

Let’s begin with the name – Distributism. It’s a bad name – insofar as it doesn’t really express the underlying motive – that is, Catholicism. Distributism is an attempt to form a more Catholic economic system – as opposed to throwing up my hands, saying that Capitalism is inevitable, participating in its worst excesses in my personal life, and then saying that we have to be “in the world” and it’s not our job to “change society.”

In the Directors’ Introduction to this work, the consequent of following such thinking is laid bare as “an easy escape for those who do not wish to have comfortable lives and convenient assumptions challenged and exposed.” Often these same people defend capitalism without ever having studied the principles of its operation, conveniently ignoring that it is a very new system in the history of man, and was operatively a part of the Protestant Revolt. These people defend something they cannot even define.

In St. Thomas Aquinas’ On Kingship the Angelic Doctor states: “That a man may lead a good life, two things are required. The chief requisite is virtuous action…The other requisite, which is secondary and quasi-instrumental in character, is a sufficiency of material goods, the use of which is necessary for human action.

A sufficiency of material goods – do we have that today? Nope. The high priest of Capitalism – the United States of America – has the highest debt ratio of any country in the world – and we have “wealth” (read: we have over-inflated housing prices) which has no basis in reality – because our dollar is not tied to anything of worth, and because other nations artificially hold together our bonds, because they fear to have their boat swamped if this whale were to splash – but do we really think this state of affairs will last forever?

These blind defenders of capitalism are almost always Americanists. Having grown up in a climate where America has seemingly always reigned supreme, they can’t imagine a universe where other people just don’t simply bow down before American hegemony. Their minds are so rotted with arrogance that they can’t possibly conceive of a world in which other countries rise up (in their own self-interest) to push American influence out of their “neck of the woods” (read: Iran, North Korea, China, India, Pakistan, Russia). These Americanists would have you believe we could take on all of these countries at once…and win. Their refusal to study economics, capitalism, American history, and world history has cost them the ability to see facts dead on.

They claim that despite 400 years of existence, Capitalism has never been given the chance to be practiced in a Catholic sense. And if it were to, it would be wonderful. The Communists say the same thing about their economics – if only they would be given a chance!

Here is the reality: “’Survival of the fittest’ does not produce order, harmony, and well-distributed bliss when the operative principle is not an ‘indifferent’ and inanimate Mother Nature, but rather the capacity of fallen Man to desire an infinite amount of wealth, regardless of the consequences for himself and his neighbor.” (p.9) This sentiment echoed what a cousin of mine, the Head Concierge of Ballys Las Vegas, once told me about why the house always wins – “Stevie, it’s because these people know how much they are willing to lose, but they have no idea how much they are willing to win – so they keep letting it ride.” That is what is at the root of capitalism – there is never “enough.”

Here’s another objection: “Belloc and Chesterton were amateur economists and the Popes have never condemned capitalism.” First of all, if today’s fragile economic state in which fortunes are won or lost on whether or not the Fed raises interest rates is a result of “professionals” would someone please send in the amateurs? I know dogs that could handle national economies better, and I don’t know many dogs. Furthermore, let’s source this quote: “…it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure.” At this point I assume the pose and voice of Dana Carvey in his famous “Church lady” skit on SNL and say “ Hmmm, what could that be, could that be um….Capitalism?” And before I can even say it was Pope Pius XI in Quadregesimo Anno they already have their fingers in their ears saying “la la la la la.” When they are sure that I’ve stopped speaking they quickly retort:

Well, no system is perfect, Stephen, it’s called original sin.” Okay. So because something is bad, we should go along with it, instead of taking small steps, within the law, to do better? Don’t follow? I don’t blame you, their reasoning is pockmarked with emotion and is often utterly lacking in any serious research, reading, and thinking about these matters. These people just go with their gut, failing to realize that ideas involving large amounts of people (in this case, the entire human race) aren’t simply decided on “guts.” They need to be thought out and reasoned.

With these preludes aside, let’s dive into Belloc’s work and hear what distributism is from a distributist, not from a purveyor of “secret reports.”

Belloc says in the preface: “It will be noticed in the first place, that I have not dealt with the matter as a general, but as a particular, problem. I have discussed only opportunities for restoring property in modern England. I have given my reasons for so restricting the field. With English society affording today an extreme example of the destruction of property as an institution, to show the possibility of its restoration here is to show the possibility of its restoration anywhere.” (p. 19)

So there it is – a statement of purpose. Belloc wants to discuss these ideas to show that it can be done in England – and that if it can’t, it cannot be done anywhere.

He continues: “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, and our effort must everywhere be particular, local, and, in its origins at least, small.” (p. 21)

So much for the idea of worldwide revolution. Belloc is practical – he says start small, start locally. Making too much sense already? Don’t worry, there’s more.

What I certainly know is that failing such a change, our industrial society must necessarily end in the restoration of slavery. The choice lies between property on the one hand and slavery, public or private, on the other. There is no third issue.” (p. 22)

Mind you, having read Belloc’s classic “The Servile State” put out by those “revolutionary” types at Liberty Press is almost a sine qua non for reading this work – but Belloc tries to precise his ideas:

The capitalists keep men alive by exploiting them at a wage, and when they cannot do this, still keep them alive in idleness by some small subsidy.” (p. 29)

If, then, we regard economic freedom as a good, our object must be thus to restore property. We must seek political and economic reforms which shall tend to distribute property more and more widely until the owners of sufficient Means of Production (land or capital or both) are numerous enough to determine the character of society. But is economic freedom a good? Unless we regard it as a good the search for methods by which property may be restored is futile or harmful.” (p. 29)

What? He’s realistic? And he doesn’t want to overthrow the government? Something is afoot here – more common sense! Belloc understands that unless you agree that a society based on property (the goal) and not a society based on debt (what we live in today – the single asset of most people, their home, is often not owned until they are nearly dead) is a good to be desired, change is pointless. Further, unless we do it through the government that is given to us, it is futile.

Belloc continues:

The defenders of Capitalism tell us that it may have destroyed men’s economic freedom; under Capitalism a man can less and less choose what he wants nor express his personality and character in the arts; but at least Capitalism has given him in far greater numbers a far greater mass of material goods than he had before it arose. The Communist goes one better. He says, “Yes: and under my system, by suppressing economic freedom altogether we shall give him yet more material goods, and we shall see that everybody gets them in almost unlimited amount.” (p. 32)

And then Belloc in three simple provisos, completely cuts the legs out from those who attack distributism as “socialism” or “anti-Catholic.”

Three provisos must be kept clearly in mind before we approach the problem and attempt its practical solution.

The first proviso is that in the restoration of property we are not attempting, and could never reach, a mechanical perfection. We are only attempting to change the general tone of society and restore property as a commonly present, not a universal, institution.

The second proviso is that we cannot even begin such a reform unless there is a favorable state of mind present in society, a desire to own property, sufficient to support and maintain the movement and to nourish institutions which will make it permanent.

The third proviso is that in this attempt to restore Economic Freedom, the powers of the State must be invoked.
(p. 33)

The death-blow is delivered to the purveyors of the “secret reports.” Belloc shows his “amateurish” notions by 1) saying that we can’t be perfect in what we are trying to do – meaning original sin can’t be done away with, 2) we can’t proceed unless we begin to win hearts and minds by discussing these ideas and ideals and make them desirable, and that 3) this can’t be done without governmental support.

But that’s not realistic! Right, but voting Republican will stop abortion, won’t it? Or will it? Catholics have been banging their heads against that wall for years, and now with a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court Catholics still can’t stop abortion. Yeah, realism, anyone?

He continues:

"Property being a personal and human institution, normal to man, will always be, and must be, diversified. There is no advantage, moral or social, in land and capital being exactly distributed and there is no possibility of their being universally distributed." (p. 36)

Another chestnut roasted – i.e. Distributists want to steal your land and give it to someone else so that everyone can have an equal slice. What do Distributists think? Ask one, not a “secret reporter.”

On page 40 Belloc addresses a common objection to the attempt of Distributism:

Perhaps private property could have been restored under simpler conditions, but in modern society, with its use of machinery and rapidity of communication, it is too late to make the attempt.”(p. 40)

Belloc answers:

Capitalism only arose after the safeguards guaranteeing well distributed property, private property, had been deliberately broken down by an evil will insufficiently resisted.” (p. 41)

He continues:

"And though it is true that unchecked competition must ultimately produce the rule of ownership by a few, yet it is also true that mankind has always felt this to be the danger, and has instinctively safeguarded itself against that danger by the setting up of institutions for the protection of small property, and that these institutions have never broken down of themselves, but always and only under the conscious action of a deliberately planned hostile attack."
p. 43

The rest of the book deals with the underlying premises that make capitalism so deeply entrenched in our society. Belloc again dissuades us from being discouraged by the whole and analogizes our task as to the idea of taking a tree down with only having shears. If we take off all the leaves, the tree will die. So we must begin with our hands and shears.

I highly recommend the book. At less than 150 pages it is a fast and fascinating read.

I’ll close the review with a series of Belloc’s quotes.

A false and poisonous philosophy having produced industrial capitalism with its herd of wage slaves, and having destroyed normal economic freedom, we must re-establish a sane philosophy – or rather religion – whence right institutions would necessarily proceed. We must convert England to a right religion before we can make Englishmen free.” (p. 54)

This quote further backs into a corner these so-called “fervent Catholics” who just want the Mass and don’t want to mess with Economics. They consider it ridiculous to turn men’s minds to property – but do you think they’d admit it was similarly ridiculous to convert the world to Christianity? We don’t judge the rightness of tasks by their plausibility. If it’s right, it’s right. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. We don’t justify wrongness. That’s not Catholic. We may at times tolerate wrongness, but only after we’ve made sufficient attempts to Catholicize the matter. That’s Catholic. The old saying “there is a Catholic way to brush your teeth” has some prescience here.

Our effort at restoring property does not aim at perfection nor even at any large universal upheaval of the existing system. It aims at making a beginning.” (p. 74)

The only economic difference between a herd of subservient Russians and a mob of free Englishmen pouring into a factory in the morning, is that the latter are exploited for private profit, the former by the State in communal fashion.” (p. 94)

It cannot be too much repeated and insisted upon that the ideal of property does not comport equality in property – that mechanical ideal is contradictory of the personal quality attaching to property.” (p. 89)

What is distributism? Living of “your own” whenever possible, avoiding debt at all costs, and living within your means. Put that way, it sounds a lot like another –ism – that is, Catholicism. Distributism is “a” way to be more Catholic in day to day living. It is not “the” way. Let those with better ideas make theirs known and seek to convince and persuade, not denounce what they clearly do not know anything about from their private little reports that no one reads anyways.

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