Chesterton, Belloc, Leo XIII, and distributism

About a book about a magazine, within which is talk about distributism and its well known proponents, GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc .

The Bookman is pleased to present this excerpt from a forthcoming book, Land & Liberty: The Best of ‘Free America’, which is edited and introduced by Allan C. Carlson, with a preface by Sir Roger Scruton. It will be published by the Wethersfield Institute.

First, an intro to a Southern U.S. back-to-the-land movement:

The Agrarian revival of the 1930s is most commonly associated with the Twelve Southerners linked to Vanderbilt University, who produced I’ll Take My Stand at the beginning of the decade. For the most part, their project was literary and theoretical: an intellectual defense and revitalization of an agricultural civilization in the Old South. The “Northern” response came from the circle of writers and activists who launched the journal Free America in 1937.

One of the twelve, 

. . . Herbert Sebastian Agar, descended from an old Louisiana family. After prep school, he gained a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton, the latter in English. After teaching in a private school in New Jersey, he left for London, England, in 1928, where he became literary editor of The English Review and a correspondent for the Louisville Courier-Journal. He took still another editorial post at G. K.’s Weekly,the journal owned and edited by the novelist, poet, essayist, and Christian apologist Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Here he found answers to his question in the Distributism of Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.

Its “basic idea” . . . 

. . . was simple. As Agar frequently stated, “power follows property.” Political democracy could function well only within a system of economic democracy, where productive property—homesteads, land, tools, and natural resources—was widely distributed among families. Put another way, true liberty could only exist within a nation where the great majority of citizens were holders of real property.

Belloc and Chesterton drew their initial inspiration for these matters from the 1891 Papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, in which Pope Leo XIII examined the growing “social question.” In this new age, Leo observed, liberal or capitalist economies saw ever more property being concentrated in ever fewer hands, along with a surging number of families left trapped in a new form of poverty—what Belloc later called “the servile state.”

The solution to this crisis offered in Rerum Novarum was that the law “should favor ownership [of land and homestead], and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.” It was in this way that “the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty [might] be bridged over.” The means to this end included land reform that transformed tenants into farm owners, the promotion of productive homesteads, limits on retail chain stores, the decentralization of industry, and worker participation in the ownership and control of necessarily big enterprises.

This task, Agar explained, was as much a moral challenge as a political and economic one. Where contemporary Liberalism tried to find some way to reconcile restricted ownership with political freedom, without any prospect for success, this new Conservatism “offers risks and responsibilities rather than bread and circuses.” The instinctive desire for property ownership was still alive in America, Agar argued; “it is the task for conservatives to foster it.”

Enough for now. But so far the argument limps badly, too idealistic, bordering on if not melting into utopianism and in any event a general guide pointing a largely agreed-on goal — agreed on by non-socialists anyhow.

The “as much a moral challenge as a political and economic one” part raises a flag, to be sure, in that it’s looking for a degree of morality that probably is more than a nation can expect form most of its citizens. 

Mainly, however, the problem lies with the alleged preferential option (uh-uh) of Pope Leo for “land reform that transformed tenants into farm owners, the promotion of productive homesteads, limits on retail chain stores, the decentralization of industry, and worker participation in the ownership and control of necessarily big enterprises,” is a pretty fair description of New Deal and outright socialist options.

GK was a lovable man who fought a good fight for common sense and Christianity as a quite readable journalist and Belloc a more interesting but probably less lovable but immensely stimulating writer. As social philosophers, however, ah dunno.

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