Distributionism vs Plutoyperetonism
A reader asked me my opinion of Distributionism, which is GK Chesterton’s tentative venture into economic philosophy.
For better or worse, my take on Distributism is uniformly and unabashedly negative. You see, I had studied economics for many a year before I stumbled across the writings of Mr Chesterton, and I found him wise and witty and much to be admired in all other areas but this one. Once he starts writing about rich folk, he speaks frothing nonsense, and there is a touch of hatred, of true malice, in his tone I do not detect anywhere else.
Chesterton holds that the concentration of wealth into a few hands was bad for all concerned, and looked favorably on the idea of each man owning his own means of production, and their incomes being more equal.
By what means this was to be accomplished is left vague in his writings. Whether this was to be by a medieval guild system, or some form of government-run syndicate, or an all-volunteer affair, is never mentioned one way or the other. He states clearly that he opposes the Enclosure Laws, by which common greens, formerly owned and used communally, were made private property; but he does not state clearly how, or even if, he would reverse this.
His position differs from Socialism mainly by being nondoctrinaire by being unclear.
He makes all the popular errors that Marx capitalized upon (no pun intended) including such absurdities as claiming rich people make poor people poorer on purpose in order to force them into factory work, and sell them shoddy goods.
This is the mere opposite of reality. Even during the most Dickensian days of the Industrial revolution, the farm workers flocked to the factories because the pay was better and starvation was ABOLISHED as a perennial national event. We see mass starvation now only in the Third World, that is, where there is no industrialization. The factory owners were, by and large, lower and upper middle class, who lived on the narrowest margin of profit, and who came from the same social strata as the workers, or near to it.
The rich have no ability to ‘make’ poor people poor. By what means is this feat of evil magic allegedly accomplished? Chesterton never even hints that there is a means; he merely assumes it is done.
In reality, the rich get richer by making the poor richer. The richest man in the ancient world has less than a beggar in America.
As best I can tell, in England during Chesterton’s boyhood and the period immediately before World War One, there was a cabal of wealthy landowners, who, in England, also formed the corrupt backbone of the parliamentary system, which was based on wealth, privilege, status, land.
It was self-defeating: The industrialization slowly was eroding this system, as the new rich, who had earned their money through the free market, were displacing the old rich, who manipulated the laws concerning class and land ownership to their advantage, and who inherited their money through ancestral conquests. However, while it lasted, it was reasonable to condemn ‘the rich’ as having a monopoly on political power and financial influence.
Chesterton’s solution for this was non-political, that is, he thought that by having all men try to own their own tools of trade, that is, be small farm owners or small shop owners or small tradesmen, the cabal of aristocrats manipulated parliament could be abolished.
In reality, only a very intrusive socialist or semisocialist state would be in a position even to attempt such a massive and massively evil redistribution of wealth, or, to call things by their right names, mass theft and plunder, and the maniacal Caesar who attempted such a thing would of course be required by the logic of the situation to act with an utterly arbitrary and utterly unrestricted hand: To be a dictator in the fashion of Mussolini or Stalin or Mao.
And of course the attempt could not possibly succeed, not in this or any other world, not even in Eden. The natural inequalities of the skills of men, and the natural desire of men not to waste their time and money would reward the more efficient shopowners and farmers and tradesmen and take business away from the inefficient, and in one generation or two, some would be markedly richer than others.
Distributionism is madness based on lunacy. It is the only area of his writing where I have no sympathy and no agreement with Mr Chesterton’s position. He was seeking a solution to a problem which, by the time his words saw print, had already been solved.
G.K. Chesterston when writing on Distributionism displays sparkling wit and trenchant insight into human nature in this as in his other writings: the man is charming.
He is also an ignoramus of staggering proportion when it comes to basic matters concerning political economy. For example, in Eugenics and Other Evils : An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State Chesterton‘s criticism of the free market consists of a belief that the poor are wretchedly poor because the rich derive wealth from the poverty of the poor. Poverty exists because the rich, merely by wishing the poverty into existence, create it. Once the poor are wretchedly poor, only then will they be cowed enough to work in factories.
Chesterton, with a straight face, announces that the poor who are moderately poor do not seek wages, and rich people do not seek to hire them.
He also thinks the rich could wish poverty out of being using the same magic power that they used to wish it into being, but that they selfishly refuse to use this power, because, if the poor were not wretched, the factories would find no employees, and the rich would be less rich.
I am frankly baffled, in this analysis, what Chesterton thinks the factory owners do with manufactured goods once they are produced: if the rich had the power to wish wealth into being, would they not wish for wealthy customers to buy their goods? If no one buys the goods, what good are they?
Chesterton concludes his (ahem) ‘analysis’ by saying that the rich have unwisely ‘allowed’ the poor to multiply in great numbers, so that the overpopulation would increase the labor supply and drive down the height of wages: but they miscalculated in their villainy, and now they fear the numbers of the poor they way the Pharaoh feared the swelling ranks of the Hebrews. The Eugenics movement of the 1910’s was a plot by the wealthy to control the numbers of the poor, who, apparently, can magically raise population rates when it suits them, but not lower them again.
He also pauses to call the rich all the usual nasty names that writers blissfully ignorant of economics call them: parasites, robbers, flint-hearted sinners, etc. Apparently wealth merely exists as a given, appearing naturally for no cause and at no cost, like manna from heaven, but the rich (somehow) with their hoodoo magic have usurped all the wealth, so the manna meant for us falls only on them. This is the economic theory of a cargo-cultist.
Chesterton’s economic theory does not realize that the consumers, not the whim of the factory owner, sets the price of goods and the price of every factor of production, including the wages of labor.
His theory does not notice that the poor factory worker was mass-producing cheap goods for the poor, at prices the poor could afford, leading to the general rise of wealth and luxury of the nation. It is the capitalist, who invest, builds the factory, and creates the jobs. It is the capitalist who allows the poor shoeless man and the poor shoe-factory worker to make a mutually advantageous exchange.
If the rich man who built the factory were a thief, and hanged as other thieves are hanged, the victims that he robs would be the richer when he leaves off robbing them.
In reality, if the rich man does not invest, the factory is not built, and the poor man who wanted to buy shoes will go unshod and the poor man working in a shoe factory will go begging.
Both in his UTOPIA OF USURERS and in his EUGENICS, Chesterton explicitly says that rich, acting as a group, control the height of wages, which they lower to starvation minimums for the express purpose of creating widespread poverty because only the impoverished will work in factories.
I happen to have the quote right at hand:
“To-day the rich man knows in his heart that he is a cancer and not an organ of the State. He differs from all other thieves or parasites for this reason: that the brigand who takes by force wishes his victims to be rich. But he who wins by a one-sided contract actually wishes them to be poor. Rob Roy in a cavern, hearing a company approaching, will hope (or if in a pious mood, pray) that they may come laden with gold or goods. But Mr. Rockefeller, in his factory, knows that if those who pass are laden with goods they will pass on. He will therefore (if in a pious mood) pray that they may be destitute, and so be forced to work his factory for him for a starvation wage.”
Mr. Chesterton here is being not just silly, but idiotic. Is Mr. Rockefeller praying that no customers have money to buy his goods, and no investors to supply him stock? To whom do we think the factory owner sells his cheap mass-manufactured goods? To his fellow Plutocrat, as he is called?
I would propose, rather than calling the men who create wealth by creating jobs cancers, thieves, parasites, brigands and suchlike who wish poverty on their victims and delight in their starvation Plutocrats — those who rule by wealth, we coin the term Plutoyperetoi — those who serve by wealth, and whose service is rewarded by wealth as abundantly as their acts make others enjoy abundance.
Instead of seeing them as organs of the state, which the vile paragraph quoted above evidently means as a compliment and not an insult, let us see them as free men, as God intended, who own no man and are owned by none, and better themselves only by bettering others, giving wages, not alms, bringing products to market when and where and as each grateful customer demands.
Instead of a fictitious system called Distributionism, which should rightly be called Plunder, which alleged to solve the fictional problem of inequality of wealth, let us embrace the system called Plutoyperetonism where free men freely reward each other by the labor of their hands when and if all parties mutually agree, without coercion.
Let us, above all, as Christian men, have a system that avoids and eschews and condemns the poisonous, European and malignant envy and class-hatred Chesterton guzzles like grog in such passages as I quote above. Let us condemn the barfing and roaring drunks and berserkers of envy, that bitterest of the deadly sins.
I am pleased the God in His wisdom planted this one obvious sin in Chesterton’s otherwise remarkable and generous character, for by it alone I am drawn away from my temptation to idolize the man. It is the great man’s only flaw known to me, but, by heaven, it is a putrid, stinking, vile flaw.
And we need coin no term for this system of free markets. It needs no name.
It is not ‘capitalism’ or ‘freedomism’ or any other ‘ism’. It is the natural condition of man once placed in a culture and civilization where private property is protected alike from government plunder or theft by brigands, where titles to goods and reality are clear and undisputed, and men have and exercise the right to alien themselves of their titles in exchange for others of like value as they shall mutually agree, without fear of fraud or deceit.
But if it must have a fancy and unpronounceable name, Plutoyperetonism the system that makes wealth serve us rather than rule us is as good a name as any.
Or Plutodulonism, if we want to make wealth our slave.