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The Essay on the Restoration of Property

March 11, 2010
Hilaire Belloc’s Essay on the Restoration of Property is a fantastic paradigm-rocker.  In it, he sets forth the shocking, but ultimately quite sensible claim that, far from being opposites, capitalism and socialism are essentially of the same genus; socialism just takes capitalism a bit further--to it’s logical conclusion.  How could this be?  Because both are the rejection of private property.  But wait, hold on a minute--I thought capitalism was all in favor of private property.  Well, not really.  With the rise of modern capitalism, the possession of real, productive property, which was once widely distributed among the majority of the population, was rapidly concentrated in the hands of a small minority of the population, leaving very few small proprietors and producers, and enslaving most of those that remained to the control of banks.  Socialism is simply taking the next step--if we’ve already dispossessed most people, and concentrated the means of production in the hands of a few, let’s just go ahead and concentrate them in the hands of one entity that is at least looking out for the welfare of everyone.  

The result, of course, in either case, is loss of freedom: 
“The possessors alone remain to enjoy economic freedom, the disposessed--the very great majority--are deprived of it; but there is already at least security of some revenue for nearly all, and there can, with proper organization, be sufficiency for all as well.  The only good lost to the masses, if it be a good, is freedom.  For in such a state of society (the Servile State) the determining note is lack of freedom: the determing mass of society have no experience of economic liberty.  The master class directs and is free: but society thinks and acts in terms of wage earners.  The masses are kept alive, they are taught by a subsidy in childhood, treated by a subsidy in illness, and maintained by a subsidy in old age, widowhood and incapacity from accident.  Soon no one of them may be suffering either hunger or cold or lack of any plain material necessity consonant to the type of civilization in which they live.  But their activities are at the mercy of their masters.” 
In other words, we, who pride ourselves in living in such a very free society, faced with the prospect of boundless choice, are actually like hamsters, so long confined to their cage and fattened by indolence that their hopes, horizons, and imagination have shrunk to the point that they imagine themselves to be living in a paradise of free entertainments, and can wish for nothing more than their prefab food pellets.
The solution, of course (and here Belloc has the Old Testament clearly on his side, although he doesn’t use it--indeed, the almost total lack of reference to Scripture or Church in this book was a big weakness) is to structure one’s economy such that property is once again widely distributed, and big producers are prevented from devouring small producers, so that we have a society of genuinely free men no longer alienated from the products of their labor.
Belloc is eloquently pessimistic about whether this is feasible: 
“Respect for reality compels me to say that the Restoration of Property when that institution has all but disappeared is a task almost impossible of achievement.  If it were quite impossible of achievement it would not be worth while wasting breath or ink upon it.  It is not quite impossible of achievement; at least, it is not quite impossible to start the beginnings of a change.  But the odds against a reconstruction of economic freedom in a society which has long acquired the practice and habit of wage slavery is difficult beyond any other political task.  I do not know whether it be possible to start even the beginnings of a change.  I doubt heavily that it is possible to plant successfully even the small seedlings of economic freedom in our society, here, in England, today.  What I certainly know is that, failing such a change, our industrial society msut necesarily end in the restoration of slavery.  The choice lies between property on the one hand and slavery, public or private, on the other.  There is no third issue.”
Belloc insists that the rise of modern capitalism was by no means a social or economic necessity: “It is not true that capitalism arose inevitably from the necessary development of economic institutions under the doctrine of private proprty.  Capitalism arose only after the safeguards guaranteeing well-distributed private property had been deliberately broken down by an evil will insufficiently resisted.”  But, on the other hand, he does not thereby believe that the market, left to itself, will continue in an idyllic state of freedom and equality: “once restored, Property must be constantly sustained or it will lapse again into Capitalism.  Private property acting unchecked, that is, in the absence of all safeguards for the preservation of the small man’s independence, tends inevitably to an ultimate control of the means of production by a few; that is, in economics, to Capitalism, and therefore, in politics, to plutocracy.”  
Here is the reconciliation of these two statements--“Though it is true that unchecked competition must ultimately produce the rule of ownership by a few, yet it is also true that mankind has always felt this to be the danger, has instinctively safeguarded itself against that danger by the setting up of institutions for the protection of small property, and that these institutions have never broken down of themselves, but always and only under the conscious action of a deliberately hostile attack.”  
Probably the strongest section in the book is his account of the seven reasons why the market, unfettered, will tend toward increasing centralization: 1) overhead charges; the larger an organization, up to a very considerable size at least, the lower its overhead costs will generally be, proportionately.  One can administer ten thousand retail stores under a single corporation for a much lower average cost than ten thousand men can administer ten thousand independent retail stores.  2) Information.  The larger an organization, its ability to publicize itself will be exponentially greater (there’s some great remarks on the evils of advertising in this section).  3) The power to obtain credit: a larger entity can get credit much more easily, at much lower rates of interest, and can continue to hold a line of credit even when insolvent, because the lenders are afraid of letting it collapse.  4) Underselling.  We all know this phenomenon with Wal-mart; the bigger organization sells at a loss for a while in order to drive the smaller competition out of business.  5) Ease of accumulating capital.  This one’s a bit more complicated, but the essence is that a big wealthy organization can afford to set aside money to accumulate capital much more easily than a small producer.  6) Political influence.  The large organization can easily put all sorts of pressure on a parliamentary political system to enact laws and policies friendly to it.  7) Judicial influence.  The larger organization can often afford to take legal advantage of the smaller organization, because the latter simply cannot afford the costs of carrying on a court case, even one they ought to win.  (It’s particularly remarkable that Belloc had already noted this danger in 1936, a danger that has spiralled out of control since.)
There is, however, a weakness in the book, and that is that Belloc’s pessimism about seeing this restoration of property mean that he rests what little hope he has on the State.  This is odd, given that he sees so clearly the collusion of state and big business, and even says at the end, “Parliaments are necessarily the organs of plutocracy.  There is no approach through them whereby the small man can have effect in the economic field.”  Apparently he hopes for the ending of the Parliamentary system of government, being convinced that monarchy is much more favorable to distributism.  Early on, he seems to say that a top-down fix is not the answer: “The evil has gone so far that, though the preaching of a new doctrine is invaluable, the creation of new and effective immediate machinery is impossible.  The restoration of Property must essentially be the product of a new mood, not of a new scheme.  It must grow from seed planted in the breast.  It is too late to reinfuse it by design, and our effort must everywhere be particular, local, and in its origins, small.”  
But later on, he explicitly rejects the idea that the solution is to be found in changing the philosophy, the religion, of the society; it’s too late for that, he says.  If anything is to be done, it will have to be done soon, and resolutely.  “No such reformation as we are contemplating can be undertaken or continued without State power....We shall find as we proceed in our search for Economic Freedom, that we cannot follow it for any distance without calling in the powers of the State, to contrast with, and as far as possible to destroy, the usurped powers of Big Business.”
To this end, he recommends a system of differential taxation, carefully calculated to make life more difficult for the big producer and easier for the small producer.  “It will be objected, of course,” he says, “that for such a system you would need an extension of bureaucracy, that the definition of the various categories will be difficult, etc.  It is true that in all these reforms we shall have to extend, for the moment, bureaucratic action.  The nature of the modern world is such that we cannot escape from being helped by the State in our reforms.”
In general, he would prefer to avoid State ownership, but says that it will be necessary in certain situations.  Repeatedly he speaks of the need for the State to artificially foster the isolated and feeble seedlings of small property ownership at the expense of the rest of society, and is unapologetic about what this requires: “You cannot start a new peasantry save at the expense of the diseased society surrounding it; and if you are not prepared to impose that sacrifice your peasantry will never be established.  It must begin as a social luxury, and, while it remains in that initial ‘luxury’ stage, it must like all luxuries, be extravagantly paid for.”
Now, I am perhaps not so opposed in principle to all of this as you might think.  If the government is responsible for administering justice and providing for the common good, and there is indeed a serious structural injustice, one that the government helped create, then there is certainly something to be said for having the government go to work to undo the harm it did, and “artificially” restore a juster order.  I am certainly not wholeheartedly in favor of that proposition, but I could seriously entertain it.  But on a pragmatic level, I have deep doubts.  If it be true, as Belloc recognizes clearly, that governments, at least of the sort we now have to reckon with, are almost chronically unable to avoid getting in bed with big corporations, how could we genuinely trust them with such a project?  In this irreligious and secular age, how can we hope that more corruption, rather than more care for their citizens, will be the end result?  And, if society as a whole is screwed up, how will a top-down imposition work?  It will simply prompt an uprising by the monied interests, who will use all the means at their disposal to bring the government back under their control; plus, it simply will not take root among a citizenry indisposed to take on the responsibilities of real property-ownership.  
Personally, I think Distributism’s best chance for success lies in being “particular, local, and in its origins, small,” in particular, focusing on local church initiatives.  Church communities and denominations, if they’re really serious about these ideals, can go a long way to nourishing free, just, well-distributed economic organizations in their midst.  Of course if the State really desires to help out in some way, they should rejoice, but they shouldn’t put too much hope there.  It will be a long, slow, hard process of swimming upstream, but it seems more likely to pay off in the long run.  


I have to say, I find these kinds of posts maddening.

With the rise of modern capitalism, the possession of real, productive property, which was once widely distributed among the majority of the population, was rapidly concentrated in the hands of a small minority of the population, leaving very few small proprietors and producers, and enslaving most of those that remained to the control of banks.

Well what you mean by "real, productive property"? What makes property "real" and "productive"? Why is it good for property to have these features? Why is it more awesome for a guy to own a farm and do back-breaking work on his farm all day than it is for a guy to earn a wage and rent an apartment in a city? Why is it more awesome for Old Man Smithe to spend his time and energy manning the floor of Ye Olde General Shoppe than it is for him to work in a cubicle somewhere? What are five concrete examples of "real", "productive" property, vs. "not real", "not productive" property?

Also, I think there's a tendency here to ignore socialism's successes. You say

If it be true, as Belloc recognizes clearly, that governments, at least of the sort we now have to reckon with, are almost chronically unable to avoid getting in bed with big corporations, how could we genuinely trust them with such a project? In this irreligious and secular age, how can we hope that more corruption, rather than more care for their citizens, will be the end result? And, if society as a whole is screwed up, how will a top-down imposition work? It will simply prompt an uprising by the monied interests, who will use all the means at their disposal to bring the government back under their control

It seems to me that many countries have been successful in striking a grand bargain, where in return for the inevitable advantages that the wealthy elite enjoy, the masses enjoy a redistribution of resources such that they and their families get health care, child care, education for the kids, pensions for the elderly, paternity and maternity time, and in some cases even vacation time. These policies did not "simply prompt an uprising by the monied interests" who then reversed everything; on the contrary, those policies are embraced across the political spectrum. Even here in America, the little swath of socialized medicine that exists--Medicare--has been zealously defended by the Republicans to score points against the Democrats. "Keep the government's hands off of Medicare!" they shout. You think Medicare's not entrenched? You think the "monied interests" could get it abolished? How about Social Security? Not a chance.

So I think you're unduly pessimistic and fatalistic about the prospects of government-driven redistribution of wealth. You often say, "Well this will never happen", when in fact that very thing has happened, many times over.

March 12, 2010 at 2:37 AM  

I'm sorry these posts are maddening, but really, this was 2,000 words long as it was, and I couldn't take the time to offer a complete argument for Belloc's position. If you're interested, read Servile State and Essay on the Restoration of Property; though even there, Belloc tends to assume that his readers will either see things his way or not, and if they don't, he doesn't spend a huge amount of time trying to prove his presuppositions.

The answer to both of your objections, briefly, is freedom. The wage-earner in the apartment has scarcely anything of real value that he can call his own; his livelihood and residence are at the mercy of others; although he may be content and secure, he is not free.

The successes of socialism that you point out, are the gaining of security at the cost of freedom. The first bloc quote I posted is relevant here. Redistribution of income is not the same as redistribution of property, because it makes for a society of dependents, rather than independents. With socialism, the lower strata of society become ever more dependent and ever less able to take responsibility for themselves--they become, to use my melodramatic metaphor, hamsters in a cage, happy and fat, but stuck.

Because socialism is simply a development of capitalism, rather than its opposite, like distributism, the monied interests can find ways to go along with it much more easily.

March 12, 2010 at 8:55 AM  

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March 18, 2010 at 5:13 PM  

Hi Brad,

I had a chance to do some study on distributism a few summer ago (Interestingly I was turned on to this movement by Eugene McCarraher, who from what I can tell now, has no use for their position at all). I’ve been ruminating on the things I read ever since. There is a lot in what they write that is appealing, and yet several questions that remain troubling.

I think you're dead on in pointing to “freedom” as the key for the Distributists. And I think freedom for them is primarily understood, as you say, as independence (of course, they are not thinking of this in terms of they hyper-atomized liberalism that we find ourselves within today). Thus, their “independence” and “freedom” are still largely tied to a local culture that places the family as the highest value.

However, I think your rightness about the ChesterBelloc position gets at what I think is really wrong about it. For example, the premium it places upon human independence-as-freedom, while not the same thing as the individualism-as-freedom we see today, is still largely problematic from the perspective of the Cross. If we are to be slaves to Christ, and thus fundamentally understand ourselves as dependent upon both God and our brothers and sisters in Christ’s body, then should my freedom really be found at a fundamental level through the “power and the strength of my hands”? I would think that there should be, at a minimum, a more nuanced discussion of how Jesus, Paul, and the Apostolic church understood freedom in light of property ownership.

This gets at second major problem, which is that the Distributists seem to have a declension narrative at work that I don’t think appropriate. As Christians I don’t think declension narratives are helpful ever (can we really point to a time when we had it “right”), so why should we want to place so much emphasis on how the medieval synthesis got it right and how we should, to the best of our ability, try to return to this way of structuring our life? Now I’m not saying that the analysis that Belloc offers is not helpful, because I think it is. And it is helpful to point out the problems with both capitalism and state socialism. However, positing a cultural and political hierarchy as the means to our cultural and political salvation seems, well, not particularly cruciform if not downright naïve.

My final concern with the Bellocian position, therefore, is that it is the family and not the church that is central to their position. In all that I have read, distrubtism is about family values and common sense. And while I think that the family is a good thing and the common sense actually makes good sense when it comes to our politics and economics, I’m left wondering how the body built upon the rejected cornerstone should think about such matters. In other words, what does any of this have to do with Christ crucified and the resurrection life that we then participate in? I mean, this “system” sounds like every other system: it promises to save us from death. It’s just that the Distributists, in my estimation, offer a better or more humane “system” than does state Socialism and Capitalism. But in the end, as Christians, we are called to die so that we may rise.

What would a political economy of death and resurrection look like? I'm not sure this is it.

March 18, 2010 at 5:16 PM  

Hey Christian,
It’s great to hear from you here. Remarkable to see that we’ve had such similar interests in this area.
In general, I think your concerns are spot-on, and articulate very neatly some of the questions I’ve been having. “Freedom” is a good thing, at least when it’s the kind of bounded freedom, freedom-in-relation, that the distributists have in mind, but it seems rather modern to predicate even that revised notion of freedom as our highest good. You’re also absolutely right about the troubling and remarkable absence of the Church in their account.
As far as declension narratives, I generally agree, though I disagree when you say “I don’t think declension narratives are helpful ever.” I think declension narratives are unavoidable--whenever we try to make sense of our present situation, we tell ourselves some kind of story about how we got where we are; and as we are surely, in a number of important respects at least, in a bad situation presently, many of those stories will take the form of a Fall from an earlier, better state. It seems to me that the important thing is that we always take such narratives with a grain of salt, recognizing the temptation to idealize the past, to say that the “grass is always greener.” We should be able to construct progress narratives at the same time, showing how, even if we’ve declined in important ways, our present situation is not without value--this keeps us from seeing the solution to our ills as a simple return to the past. This, I think, is the way to handle declension narratives, rather than abandoning them. I especially think they can be valuable when they cut against the grain of established prejudice, as Belloc’s does. If we assume that the Middle Ages were a time of repression, followed by greater and greater economic freedom, it is worth learning at least some respects in which the opposite was the case.

To my mind, distributism is something of an Old Testament economic ideal. That’s why it rings so true at first, but then seems so lacking. In its concern that each family receive his own share of the land, ensuring some kind of equality and freedom, it follows very much the social laws of the Pentateuch; presumably, like the Pentateuch, distributists would also want structures and practices to help hoist folks who had fallen into poverty back up to their former status, so the system is not without charity. However, charity is certainly not the dominant note, as it is in New Testament economics. Individual security seems valued more than community.

To me, then, the value of distributism is as a stepping-stone back onto the right track. As it stands now, most Christians are far from sharing even an OT economic ideal, much less an NT one. We don’t even know how to taste milk, much less solid food. So, if we’re to get back on track, we need to take baby steps--first at least rediscover the ideals of distributism, then enrich them with the communal demands of Christian charity (that’s more of a logical sequence than a temporal sequence; obviously both need to be taught at the same time).

March 22, 2010 at 5:33 AM  

An example of the kind of more radical New Testament perspective against which distributism has to be balanced can be found in the quotes from Basil and Chrysostom I just posted.

March 23, 2010 at 10:37 AM  

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