by Dale Ahlquist
The fictional fantasy in The Club of Queer Trades reflects Chesterton’s genuine hope for a just society. He spent his life arguing that such a society was really possible. Argumentation is about persuasion. Chesterton wanted to convince the world that there was a better social structure than either Socialism or Capitalism. But it was not a system that could be imposed on a society; it was something a society had to learn about and then choose. Distributism, he argued, is not something “done to people,” but “done by people.”56 Like Christianity, Distributism has not been an ideal tried and found wanting, but found difficult and left untried.
Fundamental to the Distributist philosophy is the idea of property, that each family should own its own land, which is not only a family’s haven, but also its tool, its means of support. Small, local government is better than big government. Small, local business is better than big business. The law must protect private property and the family not only against intrusion from the state, but against intrusion from huge companies, which are not accountable to anybody. The family should not be dependent on either the government or mega-corporations. The ideal is independence— liberty.
The whole point of liberty, and only point of democracy, is expressed in the word self-government. The word implies that a man should not be governed by another than himself; but it also implies that a man should be governed by himself. It implies that there is a moral authority in man, because there is a moral authority above man; and that the divine part of human nature has legitimate rule over the bestial. But it also implies that over large parts of his life at least, he must exercise this moral authority himself, and if it is taken from him he becomes a slave.57
Democracy can work only if it recognizes that the basic unit of society is the family. The family is itself a tiny kingdom. The family has greater authority than the state. It should make the basic decisions about life. In a broken society, that is, a society of broken families, individual rights trump family rights and the family is undermined. That is how we have come to see the rise of homosexual rights, abortion rights, and a myriad of other little bizarre special interests that were once unimaginable in a normal society. The State has replaced the natural authority of the family and has become, in turn, a very unnatural authority over the family, doing by coercion what was previously accomplished by a much greater force—love. The force in the family is not a hammer, it is a magnet. But when the State is the authority, the force is a hammer.
We have forgotten the first principles. We have forgotten the first things. Chesterton still reminds us that “the first things must be the very fountains of life, love and birth and babyhood; and these are always covered fountains, flowing in the quiet courts of the home.”58 Chesterton’s Distributist philosophy is centered on the first things of home and family. Property, of course, is a necessary component in creating “the quiet courts of the home.”
Property, however, is not an entitlement. It is an ideal, something that must be achieved, and a just society should try to achieve it for everyone, distributing property as widely as possible. It is a matter of justice. But how can it be done? This is the giant question when it comes to Distributism. Let the arguments begin. It can only be accomplished by persuasion and not by coercion. But at some point, it involves the rich helping the poor, which must be done directly, without government programs or private foundations. “The obligation of wealth,” says Chesterton, “is to chuck it.”59 The beggar is a man “who offers you [the opportunity] to fulfil your own ideals.”60
It is supposed that charity makes a man dependent; though in fact charity makes him independent, as compared with the dreary dependence usually produced by organisation. Charity gives property, and therefore liberty. There is manifestly much more emancipation in giving a beggar a shilling to spend, than in sending an official after him to spend it for him.61