Does Hilaire Belloc’s proposed transition to a proprietary economy leave us with only an evil means to otherwise good end?
I ended my last reflection on Hilaire Belloc’s An Essay on the Restoration of Property by asking whether the government redistribution of property is the only way to make the transition from a non-proprietary state to a proprietary one, and if so, whether this would be a permissible means to achieve the good end of economic freedom that a more wide-spread control of the means of production by families would, according to Belloc, produce. John Médaille’s five part series on distributism, as well as his comments to my last essay, give plenty of reasons to believe that such extreme measures are not necessary. Nevertheless, given comments expressing concern that government redistribution of property would be necessary to achieve the goals of distributism, I want to consider, if for nothing else but the sake of argument, whether, according to Belloc, the good of economic freedom justifies government intervention and whether their should be limits to the type and extent of government intervention necessary to make this good a reality. In other words, does Belloc’s proposed transition to a proprietary economy leave us with only an evil means to otherwise good end?
In answering this question, it is important to remember that to whatever extent government is necessary to achieve the principle good of a proprietary economy, the intended result is, according to Belloc, more widespread private ownership of property and, consequently, greater economic freedom. Before addressing how a society implements a proprietary economy, Belloc first considers what kind of economy is best suited to the nature of man. Belloc argues that the nature of man requires economic freedom and that such freedom requires that the family unit control the means of production, which he equates with property. Capitalism and socialism deprive too many families of economic freedom, the former because property is concentrated into the hands of only a few private owners, the latter because property is owned by the state. A proprietary state maximizes the economic freedom required by human nature because it is one in which such a sufficient number of families own private property “as to give color to the whole.” The principle good of a proprietary economy is that it ensures economic freedom for a greater number of citizens. The use of government intervention to transition to a proprietary economy would therefore aim at an increase of freedom and private property, two goods that a free market depends on and preserves. Thus, if Belloc is right about the relationship between private property and economic freedom, government involvement in transitioning to a proprietary state would not reduce freedom and private ownership of property on the whole, but would allow a greater number of families to possess these goods.
While Belloc does not think that the “enormous structure of…capitalism…can be quickly overset by the propagation of ideas” or that it is possible “to change a false philosophy in time to save the situation,” he does hope that “there may be enough normal love of freedom remaining, however feeble, to be used as a starting point.” Nevertheless, he does say that we cannot proceed far in our search for economic freedom “without calling in the powers of the State, to contrast with, and as far as possible to destroy the usurping powers of Big Business.” Despite the fact Belloc believes it necessary to rely to some extent on the powers of government, he sets forth fairly modest practical suggestions for remedying the loss of economic freedom. Thus, while Belloc believes that some measure of government involvement would be necessary to achieve this goal, he does not appear to think it necessary or justifiable for a government to create a proprietary economy by actively breaking up concentrations of property by taking property from those who have more and giving it to those who have less.
Belloc’s views on this issue notwithstanding, the goals of distributism are not in themselves at odds with government redistribution of property as a possible method–albeit an extreme one–of achieving the goals of a proprietary economy, giving credence to the comments on this blog that suggest distributism is at heart “redistributism.” If, as I pointed out in my previous reflection, such an extreme measure might be necessary to establish a proprietary economy, Belloc’s use of “proprietary economy,” even if more palatable than “distributism,” would appear to be a mere euphemism, disguising a means too repugnant to justify its purportedly good end. As one might reasonably argue, the means of achieving a proprietary economy would constitute an unjust government handout to beneficiaries who would not have earned the property they receive and may very well squander their new found freedom to make good use of it. It would also allow the government essentially to steal from many who worked hard and, even honestly, for their property. Such an injustice is likely to dampen entrepreneurial incentive and motivation. Besides, the increase in economic freedom for those benefiting from the redistribution limits the economic freedom of those whose control of the means of production the government would reduce. Further, granting such power to the government opens the door to abuses that could jeopardize our freedom.
While disclaiming that Belloc or any other proponent of a proprietary economy actually proposes that government redistribution must and should the means of implementing a proprietary economy, it is at least logically possible and consistent with Belloc’s argument for one to do so. One might argue, for instance that it is the role of government to promote and preserve justice and that this includes protecting freedoms to which we are entitled according to the dictates of our human nature. If Belloc is right that one such freedom is economic freedom, then to the extent that such freedom is unavailable to the vast majority of families, it is the role of the government to intervene in order to correct this injustice. Of course, the success of this argument depends on the question as to whether economic freedom in a predominately capitalistic society, as defined by Belloc, truly prevents families from exercising such freedom. In other words, that capitalism as a system is fundamentally flawed due to its inherent injustice and not that individuals and families, through mere lack of motivation, are not taking advantage of the economic freedom they could possess if they were just willing to work hard enough to obtain it.
Additionally, if the argument above is correct, then one might also contend that in redistributing property the government is not unjustly stealing from the capitalists (i.e. in Belloc’s descriptive, non-pejorative sense, as one of the few who owns property in a capitalistic society) because it is property they obtained at the expense of another’s freedom, property that would not have been available to them had the government done its job initially of protecting families from encroachments upon their economic freedom. Thus, by redistributing property, the government would be performing its legitimate function of correcting an injustice and restoring a fundamental freedom.
With respect to the common objection to state involvement in the market that it undermines entrepreneurial incentive, it might be good to consider whether when we talk of incentive, we perhaps are not making an excuse for what is or becomes, at least at a certain point, essentially avarice, artfully defined by Kirk as “desiring more wealth than one’s soul can support properly.” Even if we think government should not or cannot effectively legislate morality or make people virtuous, we certainly do not have a problem with the state preventing others from acting viciously when it would deprive another person of their freedom. We have no problem, for instance, with the state protecting citizen’s freedom to own property by preventing burglary and shoplifting. Yes, the capitalist has the sanction of the law, but insofar as the laws permit (or their absence fails to prevent) his avarice from depriving others of their economic freedom, the laws are arguably unjust and the state therefore has as much a right and obligation to prevent such injustice as it does to prevent shoplifting and burglary.
To the objection that such redistribution of property would limit the freedom of the capitalist, the obvious response is “of course, that is the point.” The capitalist’s freedom is only curtailed, not eliminated, and in doing so, those who have been deprived from freedom through the capitalist’s actions gain a little freedom of their own. While freedom of the few is restrained, freedom for society as a whole is increased. Furthermore, we limit our freedom through government all the time. For instance, my freedom to drive as fast as I want or to run through intersections without stopping, etc. ensures the freedom of others to share the road with me safely. We do the same with respect to monopolies. Due to the inherent tendency of an unrestrained free market to destroy its own freedom through the rise of monopolies and the consequent stifling of competition, we very early on realized the need for anti-trust laws to curtail the freedom of some to allow others to freely compete in the market. Redistributing property to achieve a proprietary economy would have this in common with anti-trust laws: to correct the tendency of the market left entirely to its own devices to destroy the very freedom that initially defines it. The decentralization of property would enable those deprived of economic freedom through an unbridled market that allows property to concentrate in the hands of the few to regain their freedom.
Of course, the capitalists would argue (perhaps in good faith even) that the wholesale redistribution of property by the government is unfair to them because they could not have known and did not intend to trample on the economic freedom of others in their effort to obtain their disproportionate share of wealth and property, and that they were just playing according to the rules of the game, staying within the limits of the laws of the state in existence at the time. Given this and the possible social unrest that would result from a government redistribution of property, it would likely be best, as a practical matter, that such redistribution be done only by providing adequate compensation to those from whom the government takes property, much as it does in its use of eminent domain where, for the sake of a greater social good (presumably), the government seizes property, but compensates the individual for the property it seizes. Even then, as Mr. Masty pointed out in a comment related to my last reflection on Belloc, government would “almost inevitably” redistribute property “to elites, political cronies and the officially-approved (and politically driven wish to court) minorities du jour.” While, this I believe, is one of the most persuasive reasons for why government redistribution of property should be avoided as a way to implement a proprietary economy, it is a problem that exists even in our current system (a quick perusal of the tax code evinces the many exemptions awarded to those with the power and money to win government support for their special interest) and that we would have to strive to avoid no matter what means one would recommend for implementing a proprietary economy. Assuming a healthy distrust of government’s ability to justly achieve the aims of a proprietary economy through redistributing property is the best reason we have not to allow it to do so, as I am inclined to think, this is only a practical reason against it and, as such does not impugn the argument that the government may legitimately, at least in theory, use such measures to implement a propriety economy.
I offer these possible responses to some of the objections that could be raised to a distributism that would argue that a proprietary economy requires government redistribution for the purpose of teasing out the issues involved if such extreme measures were necessary in order to achieve the goal of widespread distribution of property and the resulting economic freedom that are the goods at which distributism aims. The principal issue I believe emerges is whether and to what extent government should be used to secure basic human goods. Despite what the arguments above might suggest, I am one who is inclined to prefer as little government involvement as possible, at least at the federal level. The question of implementing a proprietary economy through government redistribution of property is a unique one, however, even with government involvement the aim would be greater freedom–to obtain more wide-spread ownership of private property in order that more families will have the economic freedom to provide for themselves by participating more freely in the market. Government intervention that achieves this goal is significantly different than its provision of healthcare or sustenance through welfare that we may think are beyond the scope of government. By implementing a proprietary economy, the government would not be providing mere sustenance and health, consumable items that gov
ernment would likely have to continue to provide, but enabling families the freedom to provide for themselves.
Once, again, Belloc does not appear to believe that such drastic government involvement, as the wholesale redistribution of property is the only way, or even the recommended way of implementing a proprietary economy; nor do I for that matter. But considering the arguments for doing so are illustrative of important questions about the legitimate use of state authority in the context of preserving a free market. My next reflection will zero in on some of Belloc’s practical solutions for what he he believes should be a slow and gradual effort, with the assistance of the state, of moving toward a proprietary economy.
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The featured image is a vintage bromide print (1915) of Hilaire Belloc by Emil Otto Hoppé, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.