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Belloc-essay on property reflections

The recent posts on distributism and the many comments in response raised a number of interesting questions and also revealed that a number of readers, including myself, were to varying degrees perplexed as to both distributism’s aims and methods of implementation.  While John Médaille’s five part series on distributism clarified a great deal, the discussion inspired me to return to one of the original proponents of distributism, Hillare Belloc, in order to understand something of the intellectual heritage of a view of political economy about which I had only heard that it was “perhaps good in theory, but utterly impracticable.”  What follows is the first of a few reflections on Belloc’s An Essay on the Restoration of Property, one Belloc’s three works in which he advocates a distributist economy. 

A Matter of Mere Semantics?

Some comments in response to the recent posts on distributism suggest that the term “distributism” smacks of redistribution — the idea that wealth should be taken from the have’s and given to the have not’s.  While I agree that distributism does perhaps bear this unfortunate connotation, Belloc’s works on distributism contains language that elucidates the main premise of distributism.   Additionally, Belloc uses another name for his economy that may help to eliminate the terminological confusion that “distributism” might somehow be synonymous with what could be called “redistributism.”

In his Essay on the Restoration of Property, Belloc describes distributism as a society in which sufficiency and security are joined with freedom because “property is so well distributed and so large a proportion of families in the State severally OWN and therefore control the means of production as to determine the general tone of society.”  Belloc contrasts this type of society, where many, if not most, families own property, with a capitalist one, where the private ownership of property is concentrated in the hands of very few, as well as with a communist one, where most, if not all, property is owned by the state.  Thus, according to Belloc, distributism aims principally at two things: (1) more widespread ownership of private property; and (2) the economic freedom that results from the the ownership of private property.

While Belloc often describes the type of economy he is advocating as “distributist,” he also refers to it as “proprietary,” due to the idea that a truly free economy requires the widest distribution of private property as possible.  Given that “distributism” refers principally to a society where the private ownership of property is wide spread, it would certainly be clearer and more accurate to use another of Belloc’s terms to describe this type of economy; that is “Proprietary economy.”  This term not only highlights distributism’s emphasis on the more widespread ownership of private property, but avoids the admittedly off-putting connotation the term “distributism” carries with it.

Admittedly, this terminological substitution could be mere sematics without substance. Even if “Proprietary economy” avoids the untoward connotation of a wholesale redistribution of property, the question raised in several comments related to the posts discussing distributism still remains; namely, how we would institute such an economy if, in fact, our economy is not sufficiently proprietary?  There is nothing in Belloc’s description of a proprietary economy that requires that the government redistribute property to ensure that a large proportion of families own property.  But it does appear to be true that one way to accomplish this goal might be to do exactly that.

Now if government redistribution of property is the only way to make the transition from a non-proprietary state  to a proprietary one, then however good the end of wide spread ownership of property may be, many of us would consider the means of getting there too treacherous, for it offends our distaste for excessive government intervention in the market. Nevertheless, in this case it may still be worth asking whether such government intervention is not the evil we suppose it is, especially given the good Belloc believes can only be achieved through a proprietary economy.  My next reflection on Belloc’s work will consider this question as to whether the death knell for distributism, as some comments have suggested, is that a proprietary economy can only be established through such drastic and intolerable means.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Neither Chesterton nor Belloc were satisfied with the name "distributism," and your suggestion to speak more of "proprietary economy" is a good one. Two points on distributism itself, however:

    One, The name "Distributism" should be seen more in the light of distributive justice rather than forced redistribution of property. DJ, which had been a standard part of political economy from Aristotle through Mill, was abandoned by the neoclassical economists, who believed all economic questions could be answered through commutative justice alone, expressed in the equations of marginal utility. But in fact MU does not provide a complete description of the economy, and the sign of this is that economists are constantly being taken by surprise by the actual performance of the economy. Basically, they can't call busts and they can't call booms; they are little better off reading the economic tea leaves than the less trained but more savvy readers. It amuses me that Nouriel Roubini has become the economic equivalent of a rock start merely for doing what any competent economist should have done.

    Two, distributing property is not so much a question of what the gov't should do as what it should stop doing. These vast piles of capital are gathered under gov't protection; the higher the piles of capital, the thicker the walls of gov't necessary to protect it. The great state and the great corporation have grown hand in hand, the one feeding the other. The ability of these corporations to get subsidies, externalize their costs, get concessions from gov't, etc. is well known. In fact, they are not so much economically efficient as politically efficient. And the law provides a legal framework for capital accumulation that did not exist in former times. For example, without the limited liability laws, you would not see the kind of corporations that we have. They want it both ways: property with absolute rights and minimal risk. But no other form of property is like that.

  2. Thanks, John. I appreciate your comment. I am new to distributism and am certainly no economist, so your insight into the actual economic policies that would advance distributist principles in our current economy is helpful.

  3. So far, the ownership of stocks or shares, individually or in such things as pension plans, has perhaps been the most effective means of ensuring widespread and growing ownership. When Mrs Thatcher took power, fewer than 5% of British families owned shares outright and when she stepped down it was nearly 25%. Add shares in pension funds and the number gets much larger, and it is probably very much higher altogether in America.

    The chink in the armour seems to be weakness in corporate governance and in insufficient regulation of employer (and union) pension fund management. Financiers tell me that unless a company underperforms enough to drive off its share holders, its managers have carte blanche to pay Lucullan salaries and bonuses, the foxes tending the chicken coop. Some day I would expect to see American shareholders escape from this trap and enforce financial discipline by contracting external firms to scrutinise corporate management – also better regulatory policing of company management of pension funds . This seems a more promising path than government redistributing anything for it almost inevitably goes to elites, political cronies and the officially-approved (and politically driven wish to court) minorities du jour.

    Stephen Masty

  4. I would say that the following would be a good start (from the Constitution of Eire, 1937):

    DIRECTIVE PRINCIPLES OF SOCIAL POLICY

    ARTICLE 45

    The principles of social policy set forth in this Article are intended for the general guidance of the Oireachtas. The application of those principles in the making of laws shall be the care of the Oireachtas exclusively, and shall not be cognisable by any Court under any of the provisions of this Constitution.

    1 The State shall strive to promote the welfare of the whole people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice and charity shall inform all the institutions of the national life.

    2 The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing:–

    i That the citizens (all of whom, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood) may through their occupations find the means of making reasonable provision for their domestic needs.

    ii That the ownership and control of the material resources of the community may be so distributed amongst private individuals and the various classes as best to subserve the common good.

    iii That, especially, the operation of free competition shall not be allowed so to develop as to result in the concentration of the ownership or control of essential commodities in a few individuals to the common detriment.

    iv That in what pertains to the control of credit the constant and predominant aim shall be the welfare of the people as a whole.

    v That there may be established on the land in economic security as many families as in the circumstances shall be practicable.

    3 1° The State shall favour and, where necessary, supplement private initiative in industry and commerce.

    2° The State shall endeavour to secure that private enterprise shall be so conducted as to ensure reasonable efficiency in the production and distribution of goods and as to protect the public against unjust exploitation.

    4 1° The State pledges itself to safeguard with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community, and, where necessary, to contribute to the support of the infirm, the widow, the orphan, and the aged.

    2° The State shall endeavour to ensure that the strength and health of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children shall not be abused and that citizens shall not be forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their sex, age or strength.

  5. Good job clearing the (re-)Distributism hurdle… beware the pit of “Private Property.” Most private property is non-productive and will (accidentally) confuse the issue.

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