Joseph Pearce, whose work we appreciate, has issued a critical response in The Imaginative Conservative to our new book from Ignatius Press about J.R.R. Tolkien’s political and economic vision. Or rather, he has issued a critical response to a short answer one of us gave in an interview about the book.
Mr. Pearce begins: “In a very interesting interview in Catholic World Report on October 30, Jay W. Richards, co-author of The Hobbit Party, a new book examining the political thought of J. R. R. Tolkien, sought to distance Tolkien from the political views of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.”
Mr. Pearce goes on to argue that our effort is misguided and, to recapitulate his argument made elsewhere, Tolkien was indeed a distributist very much in the mold of Hilaire Belloc.
In particular, Mr. Pearce takes issue with this paragraph of the interview:
For instance, in his Essay on the Restoration of Property, Belloc wrote that “the effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice.” In contrast, in “The Scouring of the Shire,” Tolkien describes a group of bossy outsiders who have infiltrated the Shire, “gatherers and sharers . . . going around counting and measuring and taking off to storage,” supposedly “for fair distribution.” It’s not a complimentary picture. Given Tolkien’s views about the use of coercive power to achieve presumably laudable goals, it’s hard to imagine him signing off on the details of Belloc’s program.
Mr. Pearce argues that obviously Tolkien had no problem with Belloc’s call since he has the hobbits use force as the handmaid of justice when they drive out the bossy outsiders. For that matter, Mr. Pearce notes, Richards himself argues for the just war tradition in the same interview (and, we might add, in The Imaginative Conservative a few days ago, and in our book), which advocates the use of force.
Mr. Pearce asserts that this reveals a contradiction in our interpretation of Tolkien. But, of course, Belloc’s essay, as the title indicates, is about his vision for redistributing property among the economic classes and keeping it well distributed, and not about self-defense in war. There is nothing self-contradictory in advocating force for self-defense (as Tolkien did) but not for distributist policies. Hobbits used military force to reclaim what was stolen days before, not to redistribute private property more “equitably.”
One could argue, perhaps, that in Belloc’s view, property had been stolen from the poor several generations before through this or that unjust policy, and that Belloc simply wanted to redress that. Still, a policy proposal that includes state power, stiff and preferential tax regimes and cartel-like guilds to redistribute property to an economic class some of whose ancestors got a raw deal is one thing. A defensive war to repel a hostile and oppressive invader is quite another. In any case, Tolkien never advocated any such policies, and there are many reasons to think he would have opposed them.
In the book, while exploring some significant common ground, we draw out the distinctions, explaining why we think Belloc’s proposal for redistribution of property would not achieve its desired goals of less government but rather the opposite—more government—and discuss why we are convinced that, despite the similarities, there was important space between Belloc’s views and Tolkien’s.
Interestingly, though, Mr. Pearce does concede that Belloc advocated force for the redistribution of property. We agree. There just is no evidence that Tolkien would have concurred with Belloc on this point.
Mr. Pearce also suggests that we conflated Belloc’s distributism with socialism. But Mr. Richards does not do this in the short interview, and we do not do it in the book. Rather, we clarify that Belloc was not a socialist. He did tend toward a zero-sum view of property and wealth typical of socialist thinkers, but that did not make him a socialist. As with Tolkien, so with Belloc: We think it is better to take thinkers’ views on their own terms, rather than affix to them labels they did not embrace and that obscure important distinctions.
So, we do not conflate distributism and socialism. Mr. Pearce, however, does seem to conflate our commitment to ordered liberty and limited government with libertinism when he describes Mr. Richards as an adherent to the “nonsensical creed of the free market libertine.” This simply is not the case. We have a trail of published works articulating our actual views. And we spill pages of ink in The Hobbit Party articulating Tolkien’s (and our own) commitment to ordered liberty, to the rule of law, to what has been referred to as freedom for excellence (as opposed to mere freedom to do what you want to do), to the role of virtue, families and the mediating institutions of civil society.
In The Hobbit Party, we cite Joseph Pearce’s work approvingly and try our best to be fair to him and to others with whom we disagree on this or that issue. We were especially inclined to do so in the case of Mr. Pearce since we share so much common ground with him in other areas. Our hope is that if Mr. Pearce reads and reflects on our book he will find a few things to cheer about, even if he continues to take a different view of Tolkien’s political vision.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.