In the scheme for establishing a Distributist society, that is, a society of widespread property ownership, that Hilaire Belloc sketches in his book, The Restoration of Property, the chief means that he proposes is a system of taxation, whereby concentrated masses of property will be subject to such a high rate of taxation that, in order to avoid this tax, their owners will sell off the excess property thereby helping to make the society’s property better distributed among more owners. So, for example, if someone owns one or perhaps two or three stores, his rate of taxation will be normal, but if he owns a chain of stores, then his rate of taxation will increase so substantially and quickly that he would have no economic incentive for further expansion.
Now such a conception of taxation has seemed to some as confiscatory and immoral, an attack on man’s natural right to own property, a right which the Church has ratified and defended. But is this really so?
As a way to begin our discussion let me quote from Belloc’s friend and fellow Distributist, G. K. Chesterton.
“I am well aware that the word “property” has been defied [defiled?] in our time by the corruption of the great capitalists. One would think, to hear people talk that the Rothchilds and the Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property; because they are enemies of their own limitations. They do not want their own land, but other people’s…. It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the forms in one estate; just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.” (Part I, Chapter 6)
Chesterton’s remarks here actually hark back to even older writers, namely, Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, in fact to one of the most important concepts of philosophy, the concept of the final cause—that for the sake of which something is done. This concept is one of the missing elements in much of modern thought; ignorance of it has rendered many of our modern discussions of important issues pretty much useless.
Consider the question of sexuality. Mankind, men and women, have certain sexual organs which generally produce pleasure. If that were all there was to the matter, one could reasonably argue that any use whatsoever of these organs for the sake of pleasure was right and good, and that anyone who favored restrictions on our sexual activity was obviously a killjoy, someone who hated his own body and who fit Mencken’s definition of a Puritan as someone who feared that someone, somewhere, was having fun.
But sexuality is not simply a characteristic which corporeal creatures happen to possess. Clearly we and other animals are sexual creatures because we need to reproduce. This is not to say that our sexual activity is only justified when its intention or result is procreation or that there are not other perfectly legitimate purposes for marital intercourse. But procreation is surely the most fundamental of the purposes of sex, because it is the very reason we have these powers. All the other goods involved with sexuality, such as fostering love between spouses, legitimate pleasure, and so on, are tied in to this basic or fundamental purpose.
This can be illustrated more clearly by the other great human bodily appetite, the desire for food. Obviously humans need to eat, and we have the capacity to eat in order to nourish and preserve our bodily life. And as with sexuality, not all our eating need be directly intended for that fundamental purpose alone. For as with sex, eating has other legitimate but secondary purposes: the good fellowship of a meal, for example, and the pleasure of good food and drink. That eating and drinking is a very real and necessary good is further demonstrated by the fact that doing so has even been raised by God himself into a sacrament. But if we divorce our eating and drinking from any connection with its primary end of bodily health and preservation, what do we end up with? Obesity, diabetes, alcoholism, cirrhosis of the liver. The Roman epicures who vomited up their food so they could enjoy another round of dishes sought to enjoy the secondary effects of eating severed from its primary purpose, but I think that even today most of us would regard their behavior as unnatural and perverse.
Neither food nor sex need be used exclusively for their fundamental purposes, but we humans do not have the right to break their connections with those purposes, connections established by the very nature of man as God created us. Since this is not a treatise on the morality of our use of either food or sex, I will not draw out in detail the moral consequences that follow from this. But we should simply remember that food and sex have natural purposes, and that we will bring suffering upon ourselves and upon society if we forget this fact. This is not a narrow moralism, but rather a morality which stems from the human body itself, and which, if we ignore it, will cause suffering to the body itself.
The basic purpose of something, then, acts as a limit on it in the sense that whenever our use of any process or thing disrupts the very purpose for which that process or thing is primarily intended, there is at least a potential moral problem present.
But what does all this have to do with property? Well, just as our morality about food and sex must be in accord with their primary purposes, so it is with property. But does property have a purpose?
Just as our sexual organs are not simply so many appendages which just happen to adorn our bodies, so it is no accident that God made man in such a way that he has a natural capacity and need for external goods. Property too has a purpose, and again, as in the case of food and sex, it is not too difficult to discern what it is.
It is for providing the things we need for human life, for supporting one’s family, for obtaining the essential goods upon which a culture that is truly human is based. Surely the acquisition of external goods is not an end in itself, but is for the sake of our family life, our community life, our intellectual life, our spiritual life, or as Pope John Paul II put it in Centesimus Annus, as “necessary for one’s personal development and the development of one’s family” (no. 6).
As I noted above, when something has a purpose, that purpose acts as a limit on its use. The purpose judges and controls the morality of the thing or action according as its use contributes to or detracts from its end. If this is so, then what about property?
Each of us needs certain external goods in order to survive. And society as a whole needs certain goods if we are to live a life befitting us as rational creatures made in God’s image. But what goods we need and how many of them are determined for the most part by our basic natures. That is, one man can only eat so much food or wear so many clothes. If I have fifty pairs of shoes, in all probability I will keep most of them in my closet and never or rarely wear them, because that number of shoes has no rational relationship to my need for shoes. If I own ten houses, probably I will spend very little time in most of them. And so on. Our temporal needs, as determined by the human nature which God gave us, should be the regulator of our acquisition and use of external goods. As St. Thomas wrote in the Summa Theologiae, ” … the appetite of natural riches is not infinite, because according to a set measure they satisfy nature; but the appetite of artificial riches [i.e. money] is infinite, because it serves inordinate concupiscence … ” (I-II, q. 2, a. 1 ad 3).
Now perhaps we are beginning to see how Distributism and its proposals for property ownership fit into a Catholic vision of man and society. Property has its proper purpose; therefore it has its proper limitations. If society, via law or custom, makes acquisition of greater wealth than is necessary for a rational satisfaction of our human nature difficult, it is not acting in an unreasonable manner nor imposing anything which is contrary to legitimate human freedom. If laws against polygamy are just, it is hard to see how Hilaire Belloc’s proposed taxation of excessive concentrations of property could be unjust. Both restrict only disordered human freedom.
The retort that is most often made to what I just said is very simple. It consists in the question, “Who will decide? And what is to prevent restrictions on property ownership that might be reasonable at first from degenerating into a tyranny?” In the first place, if a Distributist society were ever established, it ought to err on the safe side by allowing a somewhat greater concentration of property than was perhaps strictly necessary. Moreover, I should note here that distributists do not favor an artificial leveling of Income. Some will always be richer than others; some poorer than others. What we seek to eliminate are the disparities of income that create real social problems, problems of concentration of power and problems of poverty. But there will always be differences in income, and far from this being an evil, it is an occasion for the exercise of that charity which will be necessary even if a more just state of society is ever introduced.
But I do acknowledge the truth that lies behind both questions my imaginary objector poses. Yes, rulers and their bureaucracies, even without becoming tyrants, can become officious busybodies, as we read about in some of the regulations of the European Union, or as George Ill’s government did to the American colonists. And worse than stupid busybodies, real tyrants are not unknown to history. But such fears concern, or ought to concern, all human laws, not simply those designed to establish and support a Distributist state. That is, there seems to me no reason why we need fear that a government will abuse its power over our property any more than over any other area of our life. Modern governments have plenty of opportunities to abuse power, and there are many more direct ways of silencing opposition or doing away with troublemakers than by excessive tightening up of laws on property ownership.
Moreover, in many ways a Distributist state will be in a better position to resist tyranny. Belloc, for example, insists that in a Distributist regime, the population will be more attached to its property, and thus will be fiercer defenders of it than in a capitalist society. Why is this?
Because in a capitalist society wealth is conceived mainly for exchange and any connection with its owner is purely accidental and usually temporary. But where property is conceived of as having a real connection with a man, a different attitude prevails. “Permanent wealth naturally attaches to ownership of land. Commercial accumulations are impermanent. Again, this state of mind makes the confiscation of private possessions, whether partial by excessive taxation or total by State-ownership, seem less unnatural than it seems to a society of owners and producers. For since wealth has become unstable under the action of competition, its coming and going seem natural—its permanence exceptional. The banker acquires a greater moral right to his credits than has a landowner’s son to his patrimony.”
In our commercial society, when someone buys a house, more often than not he sees it as an investment as much as a home. In the recent housing boom that occurred in the United States, people were glad to be able to buy houses not so that they could become rooted in a place and a piece of land, but so that their investment could appreciate and they could resell again and make a profit. Such an attitude toward property is worlds away from the attitude that Pope Leo XIII advances in Rerum Novarum (no. 35) as a justification for the ownership of private property. “Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which is their own; nay, they learn to love the very soil which yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of the good things for themselves and those that are dear to them.”
Secondly, under Distributism, there will be more owners of significant property than under capitalism. More people will derive at least part of their income from their own property, and thus will have a greater incentive to defend it and to band together with others to do so, whenever necessary.
And thirdly, if a true Distributist order were ever instituted, there would be less government, not more, than we have today. This is because many tasks which are now performed directly by the government would be performed by intermediate bodies which, while not strictly speaking voluntary associations, would neither be governmental organs nor departments. They would be those entities which Pope Pius XI discussed in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, and suggested are “if not essential to civil society, at least a natural accompaniment thereof” (no. 83). Such bodies, best called occupational groups, would undertake most of the economic regulation and coordination now done by governments, and would be subject to only general supervision by the state. If this were ever done, men’s minds would gradually be freed from the notion that society consists of “only individuals and the state,” and we would be closer to restoring “the highly developed social life which once flourished in a variety of prosperous and interdependent institutions … ” (ibid., no. 78).
Leo XIII was “well aware that private property is not an absolute value … ,” wrote John Paul II in Centesimus (no. 6). The main reason, I think, why a Distributist approach to property arid the economy is resisted is because most people, including most Catholics, no longer think in terms of final causes. That is, they never ask why something exists, what its purpose is, and thus it is conceived to be simply there, as “an absolute value.” Secularists extend this error to man’s sexual appetite, but they simply are extending an erroneous notion already widespread. Our first task is one of education, therefore, to teach ourselves once again that all things created by God have a purpose, and fit into a hierarchy of ends and means, and that to give something “an absolute value” beyond its proper place in that divine-hierarchy is to create an idol of it; Modernity has generally done this with regard to property, but Catholics should know better.
The dispute between capitalism and Distributism, then, is not fundamentally a dispute about the details of property ownership, but about the very conception we have of property, of society, and at bottom of man himself. Just as both Pius XI and John Paul II point out that the root error of socialism is not economic, but an error about the nature of man, so the fundamental difference between capitalism and Distributism is a disagreement about the nature of man, about his purpose on earth and his use of the things of this world. If this is not clearly understood, then Distributism’s call for widespread ownership and for a legal structure that supports such distributed ownership, will be judged from capitalist presuppositions, presuppositions that place “an absolute value” on property because they do not acknowledge any hierarchy of human and divine goods. But when we recognize such a hierarchy, then we see things in a different light, and recognize that far from being contrary to man’s natural right to private property, Distributism respects it far more than does capitalism. For “It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate; just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.”
Originally published in Catholic Men’s Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 2 (Fall 2007).