Having explored the intellectual and psychological roots of Chesterton’s social thought, that is, the origins of Distributism, I would now like to return to the issue of how applicable it is to our own time and consider what it has to say of value to us living in the early part of the 21st century. To do this, I will focus on two authors who have written extensively on Distributism in the context of our present-day history and society. One is the American author John Médaille, whom I’ve already mentioned, the other is an English writer Phillip Blond.
John Médaille is the co-founder of this international journal, The Distributist Review. He is a businessman and an academic at the University of Dallas. His 2010 book, Toward a Truly Free Market , is something of a primer on distributist philosophy. It offers a practical perspective on present-day economies, particularly the United States, providing suggestions on such areas as taxation, employment and health care.
Médaille’s principal achievement, I think, is to present the economic case for Distributism, as distinct from the moral case. He does not question the importance of a moral underpinning for a just social order—in fact, he wants economics to be seen again as a humane science, which is embedded in human institutions and concerned with human dignity and social justice, not a physical science uninfluenced by human intentions and needs or devoid of social meaning and impact. But he believes that the moral principles have already been elucidated. What is now needed is a presentation of Distributism in economic terms. Is it economically feasible—and beneficial?
For example, an important chapter in Médaille’s book is his distributist proposals on health care. Health care is an extremely vexatious area, especially in America, but Médaille believes that Distributism can provide some useful answers to practical problems. The U.S. spends vast amounts on health care—proportionally more than any other country—and yet a significant percentage of the American people (nearly 50 million) lack medical insurance and, by the usual measures (life expectancy, infant mortality, preventable diseases, etc), the U.S. falls behind most other developed countries. There is not time here to go into the details of Medaille’s proposals, but they are focused on the underlying causes of dissatisfaction with the health care system—in particular, the need to curb the monopolistic nature of medical patents and the monopolistic power of professional treatment—especially where this is unduly, Medaille believes, reserved for doctors when it could be spread across a range of health professionals as a new approach to ‘first-line care’.1
To turn now to Phillip Blond. He is an English philosopher and theologian who is increasingly recognised as an international social and political thinker. He is quite young—in his 40s. After studying politics and philosophy he did his doctorate at Cambridge where he met John Milbank, the founder of the theological school known as Radical Orthodoxy (an Anglo-Catholic movement which is highly critical of modern secularism), who became a friend and mentor of Blond.
In a short time, he has attracted enormous public attention as a distinctive intellectual, starting with a series of articles in the British Press and culminating in a book called Red Tory (2010). ‘Red Tory’ is ‘Red’ in the sense of wanting economic justice, especially for the poor, and it is ‘Tory’ in its belief in ‘virtue, tradition, and the priority of the good.’2 Red Toryism is, in Blond’s understanding, a revival of an old and radical tradition of political and social progressive conservatism applied to the 21st century. It combines social and economic strands—the social vision of a communal and cooperative culture with a political economy of widespread ownership of property.
Blond strikes at least two important connections with the Chestertonian heritage of social thought. One is the fundamental insight that true freedom and responsibility rest decisively on broadly based ownership—on a breaking up of concentrated wealth and power, in the economy and in the State. The second is that the economy is intrinsically connected with society, and that it is impossible to separate economic decline and social breakdown.
The real crisis in Britain [Blond says] is the destruction of human relationships, [which is] the foundation of society…. [The] poorer you are, the lonelier you are, the more costs you incur for the state, because human sociability is linked with wealth, health and all sorts of indicators from mental illness to obesity.3
Thus, Blond believes that economics needs to be reunited with ethics—as it once was. He reminds us that Adam Smith, the 18th century author of The Wealth of Nations and often regarded as the father of modern economics, was a professor of moral philosophy.
While Blond draws on these earlier insights about the importance of private ownership and the interdependence of the economy and society, I think he has developed this tradition of social thought in important new ways. Moreover, he has achieved a distinctive rhetoric, a defining language, for expressing this tradition to a new generation. He generally avoids the term ‘distributism’, for example, sharing Chesterton’s view that it is ‘awkward’ and inelegant. He uses the term ‘ownership’ rather than ‘property’, as denoting more fully the condition which forms the basis of economic and social freedom.
In developing this tradition of social thought, Blond reveals sharp insight into the connections between the market and the state, and the ways in which they tend to conspire, now on a global scale, to pervert the functioning of a truly free market. Blond believes that the emblems of today’s ‘free market’ are monopoly finance, big business and a deregulated system of global capitalism. The benefits have mainly accrued to the top, the middle class has experienced a rise in income but it is offset by huge debt, and the poor have sunk lower. “This type of free market, says Blond, “has effectively stripped the poor of capital, converted them into a new serfdom and gradually increased the number of that class by debt and low wages.”4
Blond has, of course, as we also have, the great advantage of experiencing fully what Chesterton could only foresee—the unfolding of economic trends with huge social and even spiritual consequences. He has been able to see, in the hundred years since Chesterton began writing, the impending collapse of two states—the old welfare state (born in the time of Chesterton) and the new market state (which developed after Chesterton died, and is an extraordinary alliance of political and financial power). Both of these states are proving unsustainable. The welfare state cannot survive in its present form because the demographic decline of the West means that the recipients of the welfare state are growing at a faster rate than the taxpayers who support them. The market state can only continue, weighed down as it is by massive and growing debt, by being bailed out by governments. Private debt becomes public debt, with taxpayers’ money propping up failed private enterprises of concentrated wealth—what Blond calls ‘a massive public underwriting of private risk’.5 The private risk, of course, was finally not accepted by those who lost money, as they did not hesitate to seek government handouts—and thereby become dependent on the state. Thus, in both cases, the welfare state and the market state, the essentially monopolistic condition of the economy has not changed.
Blond recognises the fundamental affinities between Big Business and Big Government which Chesterton and Belloc perceived, but he has seen new manifestations of their essential likeness. He believes that the ruling ideological orthodoxies of recent decades, whether based on government control or market license, have failed. Both the Right and the Left, as traditionally defined, have run out of steam. These conventional divides—of the Right and the Left—are increasingly obsolete and irrelevant. The sub-title of Blond’s book, in fact, is ‘How the Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It’; and the motto of his think-tank, ResPublica, is ‘Changing the Terms of Debate’, a clear indication of the radical nature of its purpose. The Right is essentially pro-market and the Left tends to oppose everything except the state. In practice, as Chesterton argued, they both ultimately fail because they share a common flaw—the market-driven Right and the statist Left have both conspired in concentrating wealth.6 They have both caused ordinary people to be disempowered and disenfranchised. The social effect of this succession of mistakes—of an unrestrained market, on the one hand, and an unlimited state, on the other—is profound. Blond believes that we have become ‘a bipolar nation’, which involves the state and the citizenry in a perverse relationship—a state that is centralised and bureaucratic, presiding over a citizenry which is fragmented and disempowered, and increasingly made up of isolated people and groups that no longer constitute a community. The result is a highly dysfunctional society.
How to combat these conditions which now seem so entrenched? As an alternative to this combination of an unrestrained market and an unlimited state, Blond proposes what he calls ‘a new political settlement’. He advocates a ‘conservative radicalism’, a social philosophy which is largely distributist in its inspiration and intention. He recalls Edmund Burke’s famous statement on the importance of the little platoons of family and civic association, which are, Burke said, ‘the first principle of public affections’.7 So Blond sees the need for a self-organizing citizenry—networks of self-help which can transform a community. (In Australia, we think of the manifestations of this after the Brisbane floods, when huge numbers of volunteers emerged to help communities clean up their houses and streets.) Blond sees emerging, as a successor to the welfare state and the market state, a new social entity, which he calls the ‘civic state’. Such a state challenges the passive dependency of state welfarism, on the one hand, and the entrenched imbalances in access to capital, on the other hand, which have characterised the neo-liberal market philosophy. He believes that the civic state will begin to rebuild a spirit of social cohesion and an approach to decision-making which takes account of social as well as economic factors.
Blond proposes specific solutions, mainly aimed at freeing the poor from welfare dependence through the generation of asset independence—of ownership of property. He recommends recapitalising the poor, and helping ordinary people gain new assets; relocalising the banking system, and breaking up big business monopolies and developing local capital so as to open the pathways to asset ownership. All of these initiatives are designed to foster a spirit of local participation, leading to new and vibrant local communities and creating what Blond calls ‘a myriad of reciprocal and mutual duties and responsibilities’.8 The ultimate purpose is to create multiple centre of wealth, innovation and ownership.
How is the breaking up of large entities, whether public or private, to take place in practice? The challenges are unmistakable—in particular, the extent to which the ideal of distributed ownership can be reconciled with present-day commercial and political realities. On the one hand, the broadening of ownership and the spur to active citizenship at the local level, such as the ‘Big Society’ in Britain is promoting, has to allow for the economic aspirations of the most ambitious and hard-working, and not act as a brake on entrepreneurship. On the other hand, the political need for large public entities, providing vital services such as electricity, and the community value of large private companies offering economies of scale, such as car manufacturers, are clear and difficult to deny.
Chesterton himself recognised these commercial and political realities. In The Outline of Sanity, he noted the importance of ‘a sense of proportion’ in any social and economic order, and in his debate with Bernard Shaw, he accepted the need for balance between individual ownership on a wide scale and public ownership in certain areas of corporate service.
In contemplating a future in which distributism could be applied effectively, John Médaille and Phillip Blond focus on the economic and social factors. This emphasis is entirely appropriate—and making the economic case (as distinct from the moral one), showing how Distributism could work in a modern economy, has probably been underplayed in the 120 years since Rerum Novarum appeared. The social factors, too, are obviously crucial, and as Chesterton himself did, and Phillip Blond is now strengthening, the connections between society and the economy need to be more clearly and fully laid out. However, apart from the economic and social realities, there is another factor of importance—and that is the psychological aspects of distributism. How open to such change—the wide distribution of property—is the community at large?
- Medaille, Toward a Truly Free Market, 207-222.
- Phillip Blond, Red Tory: How the Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It (London: Faber, 2010), 35.
- Ed West, ‘We Have Killed History in Our Country,’ [interview with Phillip Blond], Catholic Herald (15 October 2010), 7.
- Ibid., 7.
- Phillip Blond, “The Question: What Economic System Would Really Benefit Humanity?,” The Guardian (30 January 2009).
- Phillip Blond, “The Austerity Drive Must Not Derail the Winning ‘Big Society’,” The Guardian (3 October 2010).
- Phillip Blond, “Rise of the Red Tories,” Prospect (28 February 2009).
- Phillip Blond, “Medieval Thinking,” The Guardian (30 September 2008).