Monday, December 15, 2008

Developing the Distributist Program: Part Four

by Jay P. Corrin

In October 1927 Chesterton introduced more specific reform measures and suggested that Distributism might even be brought about through the existing machinery of government. This was Chesterton at his most optimistic, for at this juncture he had hopes that the necessary changes could be effected almost entirely by one financial act. The first part of Chesterton’s proposed legislation called for a special “Tax on Turnover” which would serve to weaken the operation of trusts, combines, and all forms of big business. According to this plan, Britain’s dying agricultural sector would be revived by breaking up large landed estates; the government could draw up a tax on undeveloped land, making it unprofitable for those who hoarded real estate for tax write-offs and speculation. Parliament would be purged of plutocrats by a section of the act making it mandatory for all M.P.’s to disclose the source of party funds used in their campaigns. These funds could be subjected to crippling direct taxes, the revenues from which would be used to finance land banks for would-be farmers. The sale of titles could be made financially prohibitive through a high sales tax, and the banks were to be reformed or even abolished by stabilizing currency rates. This same all-encompassing financial act would also help reduce the national debt by requiring that all profits over a 6 percent dividend be turned over to the Exchequer.

Chesterton’s second proposal was that the government should replace the present overextended marketing set-up with local or regional systems. In place of huge marketing centers, such as Covent Garden, London, each major city could be divided into several distribution centers. Every area would possess its own central market, supplied by nearby farms and tapped by small shops in the immediate vicinity. These regional distribution centers, managed jointly by suppliers and retailers, could eliminate the profiteering middleman.

Chesterton’s proposal for far-reaching government legislation smacked of Fabianism, but he sincerely believed that the burdens of its enforcement could be eased if the acts were worded in a way that would be intelligible to the average citizen. A special Distributist Chancellor of the Exchequer, not being “a servant of the F.B.I., or the financiers, or the oil magnates, or any other system of wirepulling or back-stair politics…could word his act in a clear, simple language, having nothing to conceal, nothing to ‘give away.’ and no axe to grind.”

Although Chesterton’s suggestions were intended to revolutionize British society completely, his approach was distinctly gradualist. Voluntary accession to Distributism was essential for the lasting success of Chesterton’s ideals. Men could not be coerced onto the countryside or into trade guilds because that would destroy the personal freedom that Distributists fought to protect. Similarly, a draconian confiscation of wealth and property would have the effect of undermining the love of ownership that Distributists were trying to revive. Unlike socialism or communism, Distributism was not a thing that could be “done” to people; it was an approach to life that could only be fulfilled through the approval and active participation of people. To Chesterton, Distributist reform really meant moral change:

“It must be done in the spirit of religion, of a revolution and of…a renunciation. They must want to do it just as they would want to drive invaders out of a country or to stop the plague.”

Distributism by fiat would destroy its ultimate purpose, which was to encourage a new society of independent, responsible freeholders. Such a state could only be achieved by free choice. Since the people would not attack the evil of monopoly capitalism until they learned to hate it, Chesterton felt it essential that his followers initiate moral reform by showing modern civilization to be hateful. Thus the most practical line of action for Distributists was to educate the public about the moral evils of modern society.

Belloc’s proposals for bringing about Distributism were contained, in their most complete form, in An Essay on the Restoration of Property (1936) and The Crisis of Our Civilization (1937). These books were both more detailed and more pessimistic about reform than The Outline of Sanity, for by 1936 Belloc had almost given up hope of ever turning the tide against capitalism, socialism, and big government. He disavowed any attempt to provide general schema for the restoration of freedom and property, because contemporary society had deteriorated beyond the point of salvage. The ultimate renewal of small ownership could never be achieved through any single reform scheme or administrative action by the state, but only through a change in mood: “It is too late to reinforce it by design…our effort must everywhere be particular, loca1, and in its origins, small.”

Chesterton agreed that Distributism could never be achieved through laws or the instruments of government; its success depended upon the will of the individual citizen. This explains why both Chesterton and Belloc remained vague about the political and economic steps needed to bring about Distributism. In a very practical sense, Distributism could only be accepted as a meaningful alternative if people were first made aware of the insidious diseases of capitalism and collectivism. The implementation of Distributism first required a revolution in values and ideas: political change would come after the requisite moral transformation.

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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