AN ESSAY ON THE RESTORATION OF PROPERTY
by Hilaire Belloc
(IHS Press, 104 pp, $19.95. Available from AD Books)
The following is a quote from a 1990s cult classic entitled An Incomplete Education: "To get a firm grasp on profit, and its counterpart, loss, you might want to consider the Biblical quotation, 'What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?' For an economist, the correct way to answer this question would be to calculate the revenues received from gaining the whole world and subtract the costs incurred by losing one's soul. If the difference (known as 'the bottom line') is a positive number, you have a profit."
This bit of cynical nonsense serves, without ever having intended to do so, to help illustrate Hilaire Belloc's philosophy as expanded upon in his recently re-issued work, An Essay on the Restoration of Property. It, like a brace of other Belloc works, deals with the subject of economics from a distinctly traditional Catholic perspective, but without rubbing the reader's nose in it.
In this essay, Belloc presents an alternative to the dehumanising obsession with money, and the monopolistic capitalist power that so often flows from it. That alternative is, as the title suggests, the restoration of property; in a word, "distributism."
"The evil [industrial capitalism] has gone so far," Belloc tells us, "that the creation of new and effective immediate machinery [to counteract it] is impossible." Therefore, the restoration of property - whether it be in the shape of families farming small parcels of land, self-reliant businesses, independent craftsmen, and so on - must be the result of a new mood. "It must grow from seed planted in the breast," he says. And to have a chance at success, the distributist vision "must everywhere be particular, local, and in its origins at least, small."
Restoration of Property is, perhaps, Belloc's most famous distributist tract. It is his roadmap, guiding us through the distributist vision of things, what a distributist society looks like, and how it might be achieved and preserved.
And what benefit does Belloc see at the core of that vision? In his words: "The object of those who think as I do in this matter is not to restore purchasing power [for the average working man] but to restore economic freedom."
Of course to be set free of something, one must first be bound by something. That "something" in this case is what, in Belloc's early 20th century world, he refers to as the "servile state," i.e., that capitalist society where all men (except for the few powerful controllers of wealth) are securely nourished "on a wage, or, lacking this, a subsidy in idleness."
That description, though obviously unknown to Belloc at the time, describes a society remarkably like most of the industrialised Western world of the 21st century.
Moreover, there are indications that Belloc's notions about economic freedom for the common man, and the evils associated with the acquisition of unlimited wealth and power, were not merely reflective of the times in which he wrote.
Consider this comment from Samuel Francis in a recent issue of a popular journal of American culture: "The economic trend in the United States today, aided by the political trend of the federal government, is toward the concentration of economic and political power in fewer and fewer hands".
Finally, lest the reader get the idea that Belloc clung to a pie-in-the-sky dream of some easy "return to the land" movement, be assured that nothing is further from the reality of this work.
He points out that "[W]ell divided property, having disappeared and Capitalism having taken its place, you cannot reverse the process without acting against natural economic tendencies." Even then it is bound to fail unless "accompanied by regulations making for the preservation of private property," to the extent that it has been restored.
He likens these enormous tasks to reclaiming a swamp. "You must drain, cut channels, embank; and having done so, you must see that the banks, drains and channels shall be maintained against the constant efforts of nature to drag the land back to swamp again."
Space doesn't permit a more detailed review of Belloc's expose of other vital factors that he sees as affecting the economics of distributism such as taxes, state debt and unlimited competition. These are all topics that are more critical today than they were even in Belloc's time.
However, a comment from his section on the impact of corporate shareholding could well have been pulled from the current business press: "Lastly, we must provide against that worst of modern evils in matters of shareholding - irresponsible control."
For a tract first published in 1936, An Essay on the Restoration of Property contains some remarkably modern insights.