The WorldCom default on its loans, amounting to some $4 billion (plus an additional $3.3 billion just revealed), is just the most recent example and testament to the virtual reality that has become a substitute for an economic system in which real men own real property and from that real property operate real businesses making real products, which in turn would produce real profits. As G.K. Chesterton states it, “Now what is the matter with the financial world is that it is a great deal too full of imagination, in the sense of fiction.” What is most amazing about this state of affairs is not so much the hazardous state into which corporate and financial America has placed the wage-earning families of the world, but rather, that so few men are asking the obvious question concerning the theoretical basis for a system in which so many are placed at such risk because of the self-interested actions of so few. With corporate collapses like Enron, WorldCom, and Kmart, with national defaults on bank loans as have never been seen before in human history by nations such as Russia, Argentina and, soon, Brazil, would not such a re-evaluation of the fundamentals of the Liberal Capitalist system, universally triumphant-at least in theory-since the break-up of the Soviet empire in 1991, be at the forefront of every thinking man’s mind, especially the thinking men who inherit the religious and intellectual traditions of Chesterton, Belloc, Pope Leo XIII, and Pope Pius XI. The reason this is not on every thinking Catholic’s mind is, I believe, simple. Too many Catholics, who should know better, reject or ignore the warnings and admonitions which issued from the popes from Leo XII to Pius XII, and have, also, remained ignorant of the critiques of the Liberal Capitalist system which have issued from Catholic intellectuals such as G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. With this said, we must also state that there are those who see the problem, know the Church’s Social Teaching, and, yet, reject the solutions the Church proposes to the economic situation of the age. Such enthusiasts of the Liberal Capitalist System have recently published a number of articles to this effect in various American Catholic journals. Their outright rejection of the economic teaching and practical agenda for Catholic social and economic reconstruction, as offered to us by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum and by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno, is often subtly laden with a hint of irritation that anyone would seek to challenge a system which, so obviously, “works.” There are those on the other extreme, who identify with the Social Teachings of the Church, but who only are interested in an immediate implementation of that teaching in their own lives and not in any theoretical defense of the need to resort to the Social Teachings. If most of us cannot “do” now, why spend time reading about or discussing the matter?
G.K. Chesterton, in his newly re-published 1926 book The Outline of Sanity, answers the objectors who ask, “Why deal with this topic at all?” by making the following analogy:
A man has been lead by a foolish guide or a self-confident fellow traveler to the brink of a precipice, which he might well have fallen over in the dark. It may well be said that there is nothing to be done but to sit down and wait for the light. Still, it might be well to pass the hours of darkness in some discussion, about how it will be best for them to make their way backwards to more secure ground…. The formulation of any coherent plan of travel will not be a waste of time, especially if there is nothing else to do.
With this one thought, Chesterton justifies his “string of essays,” which were published as The Outline of Sanity in 1926 and recently republished by IHS Press, and which serve as what “might rightly be called a Manual of Distributism, for it outlines the essential principles of Distributism as well as the broad strokes necessary to bring society back to its senses.”
Distributism is an economic and social program, based upon the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church and very closely identified with European pre-World War II Corporatism, which seeks to provide an alternative vision to that given to the world by Liberal Capitalism and Socialism. The basic insight of this alternative system, also advanced by Hilaire Belloc in such books as The Servile State and Economics for Helen, is that Capitalism and Socialism, contrary to much that has been believed by the American Catholic during the post-World War II period, have the same internal dynamic in which economic wealth, consisting in “capital” and “property,” is increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, whether those hands are federal government bureaucrats or Fortune 500 stockholders and business executives. This basic thesis of Distributism is often surprising to those who have thought on questions of economics, using the notion that Capitalism, as it is especially practiced in the United States, is based upon “freedom of individual choice” and the easy acquisition of private property. In contrast to this common perception of Capitalism, Chesterton defines Capitalism as,
that economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.
With Chesterton’s definition of Capitalism in mind, it is not surprising that the Directors of IHS Press have decided to open the book with a quotation from Richard Weaver in which he states,
Respecters of private property are really obligated to oppose much that is done in the name of private enterprise, for corporate organization and monopoly are the very means whereby property is casting aside its privacy.
It is not merely that Capitalism’s impetus is towards a consolidation of capital and enterprise in the hands of fewer and fewer men, which ought to concern a Catholic who desires to see the Social Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ extend itself into the economic realm of the family, the community, and ultimately, the nation. The economic meltdowns of the last few years have indicated the fallacy that underlies the very system itself. This fallacy is that if you have a system in which all men seek, and are even encouraged to seek, after their own private economic well-being, the community and nation as a whole will be the beneficiary of that economic self-seeking. The greatest evil, according to the Liberal Capitalist ideology, is any type of governmental interference in the private bargaining between employer/employee, seller/buyer, and international financial institution/ local borrower. This is in marked distinction from Chesterton’s attitude towards the necessary role the government has in directing the economic activity of a nation so that monopoly does not exist. Chesterton goes so far as to state, concerning his belief in the need for governmental action for the sake of the economic common good, “The present problem of capitalist concentration is not a question of law but of criminal law, not to mention criminal lunacy.” Those whose sole focus is still upon the potential threat from a revived Communism in Eastern Europe and especially in KGB-dominated Russia, often overlook the monopoly that the moneylenders have over the capital of the Western nations. In response to this, we can quote Chesterton who states, “‘What are we coming to, with all this Bolshevism?’ It is equally relevant to add, ‘what are we coming to, even without Bolshevism?'” In this regard, Chesterton’s indictment of the lands without Bolshevism must be seriously considered by those who have become insensitive to the determinative penetration of our own land by Liberalism in all of its forms. Chesterton’s indictment includes the following:
A great nation and civilization [i.e., the British] has followed for a hundred years or more a form of progress which held itself independent of certain old communications in the form of ancient traditions about the land, the hearth, or the altar. It has advanced under leaders who are confident, not to say cocksure. They are quite sure that their economic rules were rigid, that their political theory was right, that their commerce was beneficent, that their parliaments were popular, that their press was enlightened, that their science was humane. In this confidence they committed their people to certain new and enormous experiments; to making their own independent nation an eternal debtor to a few rich men; to piling up private property in heaps on the faith of financiers; to covering their land with iron and stone and stripping it of grass and grain; to driving food out of their own country in the hope of buying it back again from the ends of the earth … till there was no independence without luxury and no labor without ugliness; to leaving the millions of mankind dependent on indirect and distant discipline and indirect and distant sustenance, working themselves to death for they know not whom and taking the means of life from they know not where.
The Directors of IHS Press are correct to refer to The Outline of Sanity as a “manual of Distributism,” but they are more to the point when they state that this book “outlines the essential principles of Distributism as well as the broad strokes necessary to bring society back to its senses.” We would miss the point of this text if we did not take seriously the word “sanity” in its title. To the contemporary consumerist Technicolor insanity, Chesterton seeks to counterpoise the “sanity of the Distributist balance.” This “balance” involves many different aspects. The most obvious is the “balance” between the personal and social nature of property, in opposition to the liberal individualist and the left-wing collectivist. The other “balance” which Chesterton advocates in this text is the balance between technological means of manipulating nature and means which are in accord with the basic physical, psychological, and spiritual structure of man. One of the primary purposes of The Outline of Sanity is to challenge the universal assumption, just as much in vogue in 1926 as in 2002, that the technological “advance” is “here to stay” and that nothing, certainly not a book or a movement touting an idealistic agrarian utopianism, will impede that advance. One must simply accept the inevitable and recognize that technology is, in itself, neither good nor bad, but our thinking makes it so. To this mechanistic and determinist view of history and human life (one which, supposedly, fits in perfectly with the idea that man must be absolutely free in the market place), Chesterton points out what is so self-evident that is has been forgotten when this issue is considered:
The aim of human polity is human happiness…. But happiness, the making glad of the heart of man, is the secular test and only realistic test…. There is no law of logic or nature or anything else forcing us to prefer anything else. There is no obligation on us to be richer, or busier, or more efficient, or more productive, or more progressive, or in any way worldlier or wealthier, if it does not make us happier.
With this, we have located the most forceful message of this text:
It is time that man exercise his free will and decide to regain the fullness of his individual, familial, and community life by renouncing or tempering his involvement with an economic system, and with its technological substructure, which rips from him two of his most precious commodities, his own labor and the fruit of it. How can a man be happy, with a truly human happiness, unless his own work is controlled by his own will and not subordinated to the profit-making demands of the owners of capital and the means of production? How can the God-ordained nature of work be realized if neither his hands nor his mind manipulate materials provided to him directly by the Hand of Almighty God according to forms that are derived, through the agency of the human intellect and imagination, from the natural created structure of the world?
So, what can we do to regain the precious commodities of our own work and our own real property? What is the plan and what is Distributism’s vision for the future? Here is where the publishers of this text have provided us a service. Contrary to those who state that any projection of a state of affairs that is in marked contrast to the current state is simply wishful musing or, what St. Thomas would call simple velleity, Chesterton states, “In our movement as much as any other, there must be a certain amount of this romantic picture making. Men have never done anything in the world without it.” It is with this recognition in mind that we must consider the simpler life of property and self-sufficiency that the Distributists put forward as the solution to the modern economic and social problems of the Capitalist Age. Their agenda was incremental, as must be all agendas that are not backed by men of great power or great financial resources. Before the future can hold anything for those men seeking after justice, both social and economic, the future must be imagined in all of its explicit detail and ambiance. Without this kind of “romantic picture making,” the future will necessarily resemble our opponents’ worldview, rather than our own worldview. Such “new imaginings” can only come to the young generation through the process of education. In this regard, Chesterton finds a problem because,
At present we have education, not indeed for angels, but rather for aviators. They do not even understand a man’s wish to remain tied to the ground. There is in their ideal an insanity that may be truly called unworldly…. What is wrong with the man in the modern town is that he does not know the causes of things; and that is why, as the poet says, he can be too much dominated by despots and demagogues. He does not know where things come from.
The sane worldview outlined by Chesterton in The Outline of Sanity, a world of landowning and land-tilling small farmers and independent, rural-based craftsmen is a marked departure from the world in which we presently survive, because for those who have the Faith and a real, concrete sense of the civilization that the Faith fashioned for itself and its own, “surviving,” rather than flourishing in a land according to our desire, is our momentary lot. What The Outline of Sanity can do is to provide us with both the vision of a society and economic order in accord with our true natural and supernatural destiny, along with advising us as to how to form that “social circle” of “men who know the end and the beginning and the rounding of our little life.” Let us get the vision and get to work! Real work.