16 March, 2018

Witt and Richards on Belloc: Part 3

Continued from Part 2

In an exchange with Witt and Richards sort of on this topic (Pearce 1, W&R 1, Pearce 2, W&R 2), Joseph Pearce accused the pair of conflating Belloc’s views with socialism—an accusation they warmly denied.
…we clarify that Belloc was not a socialist. He did tend toward a zero-sum view of property and wealth typical of socialist thinkers, but that did not make him a socialist. As with Tolkien, so with Belloc: We think it is better to take thinkers’ views on their own terms, rather than affix to them labels they did not embrace and that obscure important distinctions. 
And I’d agree that they do not exactly conflate Belloc’s views with socialism—but that’s not to say that Pearce is wholly unjustified in his assertion.  As we saw at the close of Part One, they make the gratuitous supposition that Belloc’s views, in effect, require the jettisoning of the principle of subsidiarity.  More, they then move on to another really egregious mistake: thinking he’s some kind of egalitarian.  First, they say
In the form proposed by Belloc, distributism calls for the machinery of the state to actively redistribute “productive property” and then keep it well-distributed through a variety of taxes and regulations.  “We must seek political and economic reforms,” he wrote in his Essay on the Restoration of Property, “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.”  The implication is plain: if land and capital are “unequally” owned, the state needs to equalize the situation by using its coercive powers to confiscate private property and redistribute it along presumably more egalitarian lines.  (161)
A little later, they add “Belloc seems to have unwittingly embraced what Austrian economist F.A. Hayek observed and lamented: ‘A claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers.’”

Now, this is all quite absurd.  Egalitarianism is not the issue here.  Economic freedom is the issue.  The good being pursued by the Distributist is simply not—NOT—an equal distribution of property.  That’s ridiculous.  The good being pursued is economic freedom.  To be economically free, I require productive property.  But I do not require productive property equal with yours.  “There is no advantage moral or social in land and capital being exactly distributed and there is no possibility of their being universally distributed.”  (Essay, 13)  In short, when Witt and Richards draw their “implication” from Belloc, that property must be “equally” distributed, they do so only because they’ve grossly misunderstood him, conflated his fundamental ideals with those of the socialists, and quite simply botched the whole thing.  They do not take him on his own terms.

And it gets worse: go back to the last bit, with the embedded quotation from Hayek.  They take Belloc to be an egalitarian.  They say egalitarianism requires totalitarianism.  And then they say this: “Perhaps this goes some way toward explaining why Belloc, Chesterton, and other distributists, such as A.J. Henty, (sic—that’s Penty) were sympathetic to the French Revolution and to the Fascism of Mussolini’s Italy (though Chesterton changed his mind of that more quickly than Belloc did).”  So, the idea is, that because Belloc is a closet totalitarian, it’s no wonder he loved fascism.

I won’t bother dealing with this in detail here, but I will direct the interested reader to chapter 9 (“Foreign Affairs and Fascism”) of Jay Corrin’s fairly critical book G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc: The Battle Against Modernity for a relatively thorough discussion of the matter.  Belloc’s reasons for admiring Mussolini had nothing whatever to do with his preference for totalitarian regimes.  And if he did favor totalitarian regimes—which he didn’t—the reason couldn’t be that he wanted to enforce egalitarianism, because he didn’t.

Really, right from the point where they first introduce Distributism, they distort.  Leave aside the fact that the very first sentence about Distributism goes (as all critics of Distributism so inevitably do) to the nostalgia charge.  Sigh.  No, ignore that bit.  As I say, it’s inevitable.  What really bothers me is this: “The original distributist idea is not that everyone should be a full-time farmer, but that every family should have “productive property” so it could have a sense of independence and security, knowing that, if need be, the family could grow its own food.”  (157)  They add the footnote that “Chesterton and Belloc sometimes included tools for a trade in this category, even when such tools weren’t strictly farm related.”

This is almost wholly wrong. 

Distributism does not hold that every family should have productive property.  That’s an egalitarian dream.  Or nightmare.  It’s not possible.  Plenty of people are simply not cut out to be owners of productive property.  The Distributist aims to see productive property so widely distributed that economic freedom gives its color to the whole.  (See the Essay, p. 4)  As I quoted in just above, “There is no advantage moral or social in land and capital being exactly distributed and there is no possibility of their being universally distributed.”  (Essay, 13)

More, farming as such has little or nothing to do with Distributism.  It’s true that in a fully Distributist state, there will be a great many small farmers.  (And I’ve argued elsewhere that Distributism must be agrarian.)  But Distributism as such is about widely distributed private property—productive property—the Means of Production—which Belloc painstakingly explains in the first pages of the Essay, and at greater length in Economics for Helen.  It’s simply not true that sometimes Belloc includes non-farming elements in his notion of productive property.  He always does: he makes himself perfectly clear about what the Means of Production are.  And it is those Means that the Distributist wants to see widely distributed. 

Witt and Richards also target guilds in a very funny way.  Funny for two reasons.  First, it’s funny they’d target guilds, given that they apparently think that Distributism requires nearly everyone to be farmers—what would you need guilds for?  But ignore that.  The second funny thing is, well, the objections are just kind of bad. 
For instance, guilds, much beloved by Belloc and other distributists, are effectively powerful cartels that control prices and restrict entry into various trades, thus preventing less skilled workers from competing, and becoming more skilled, by accepting lower wages.  (162)
As I say, these are bad objections.  First, tt is true that a guild would restrict entry into various trades, just as, say, licensing requirements today restrict entry into the trades—and you surely can’t legally hire an unlicensed electrician at a cheaper rate so that he can become more skilled.  But the idea that guilds would prevent less skilled workers from competing is bizarre.  The whole point of an apprenticeship system, such as any guild naturally includes and governs, is to take an unskilled person and allow him to become skilled under the direction of a master.

They go on “Guilds, like any cartel, need coercion to be maintained.  In modern societies, this means the state would need to enforce the guild rules—essentially corporatism, or what we have already called cronyism—unfit men bossing other men around.”  Again, bad objection.  Yes, there would be rules in a Distributist state just as there are in our current state.  From the standpoint of hypothetical libertarian utopianism that may seem bad.  From the standpoint of reality, it would be (so says the Distributist) the replacement of some very bad rules with some very much better rules.  And part of the better-ness of those rules would be that in a guild you would not have unfit men bossing other men around.  (This is a reference to a line from Tolkien, by the way.)  You’d have fit men instructing other men.  The guild would be run by masters of the trade.  Not by bureaucrats.  That’s part of what makes guilds better than governmental “programs.” 

Related to this discussion of guilds is Witt and Richards’s failure to grasp the place of the division of labor in Distributism.  They write, “though he officially accepted the need for a division of labor, Belloc seemed to understand its value less well than Marx did.”  (160)  In the text this is wholly unmotivated.  No footnote, no argument, no explanation: nothing.  And predictably nothing, for it could not be motivated, not properly.  It is simply false.  Again, at the very outset of the Essay, Belloc mentions “Difference of Occupation” as one of the two fundamental forces operating as limitations on an idealized form of economic freedom.  Difference of Occupation, division of labor, is quite simply foundational to Belloc’s whole conception of society.  It’s right there on page two.  Page two.

Let’s come to a close with this.  Witt and Richards really have as a kind of trump card the point that people don’t want Distributism.  Roughly put, they start and end with it.  They say, first, “owning any kind of business is risky, and many people prefer a regular wage to the vicissitudes of entrepreneurship.”  (159)  And, later, “Most upper middle class people, if they wanted to, could take a cue from Sam Gamgee and buy a small farm.  Apparently they don’t want to.”  (165)  (Keep in mind that Witt and Richards think—except when they’re attacking guilds—that Distributists want everyone to be a farmer.)  Belloc is well aware. 
The state of society in which we are now living in England has largely forgotten what property is.  Men talk in terms of employment and wages.  When they talk of ownership the word calls up in their minds the ownership of large property by a few.  Whether there remains today in England a desire for economic freedom (that is, for property) sufficient to nourish the beginnings of a change, nothing but experiment can decide.  Increase of revenue, not ownership, is the object of most men.  Ownership is certainly not the object of most men; if it were, there would have been a successful protest long ago against the wage-earning system.  (Essay, 14)
In short, Witt and Richards make the same observation about the mental state of most men that Belloc made 80 years ago.  They think, however, that in it they’ve discovered an objection to Distributism.  And perhaps they have, in the sense that there may just not be, in contemporary America, sufficient desire for economic freedom to nourish the beginnings of change.  But that’s no knock on Distributism, it’s a knock on what we’ve become—which is what Belloc was aiming to help us change.  We didn’t listen then, and I expect we won’t now.  But that doesn’t mean we should criticize without first listening. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Because we have moved to our new site at https://practicaldistributism.com, commenting on this site has been turned off.

Please visit our new site to see new articles and to comment. Thank you!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.