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joseph pearce responseJoseph 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.

Hilaire Belloc

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

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22 replies to this post
  1. I have always been bothered by the idea of Distributism as being somehow “Catholic,” because it was advocated by some Catholic thinkers. It is not only not Catholic, it is nonsense.

    At bottom, Distributism is an idealized and sanitized version of the Medieval English village,where the carpenter owned his own saw and hammer, the smith owned his own forge, the tanner owned his own tanning pit, and the tinker his melting pot. But even in that village, the mill, the largest capital investment around, was owned by the local Lord and leased to the miller.

    At its best, a Distributist economy would be static. It focuses on individual workers and ignores entrepreneurs. It would have no room for a Henry Ford, a Thomas Edison, a George Westinghouse. In a Distributist economy, it wouldn’t be just that ONLY the rich could afford an automobile. In a Distributist economy, NOT EVEN the rich could afford an automobile. There would be no assembly lines (how can the worker own them?), no mass production, Every automobile (and everything else) would be hand-made on a one-off basis. Nor would it be possible to assemble raw materials from various sources half-way around the world (how would the sailors own the ships necessary to bring them?). In a Distributist economy, there be no way to mobilize capital to build anything resembling a modern factory. Indeed, Distributists would reject the very idea of mobilizing capital in that fashion.

    Distributism is not just a fantasy, it is an evil fantasy. It would take tyranny to implement it, and tyranny to keep some would-be Henry Ford from implementing something like Adam Smith’s famous pin factory, with mass production and division of labor,

    • You are wrong on several fronts. For a start, most distributists are not opposed to technology and capital accumulation. All distributism is, is traditional conservatism applied to economics. It is the view that the economy should serve society and not the other way around. Contemporary distributists have been influenced by E.F Schumacher and many others and tend to be very interested in technology; it is simply they are interested in human scale, decentralised technology that respects the permanent things.

      Also, you seem to imply that the contemporary economy, with its growth and accumulation of consumer goods, is somehow natural – the result of natural, free choices, whereas, in reality, capitalism has always been bound up with the state. If Kevin Carson is correct, almost all large businesses and many medium sized ones wouldn’t exist without massive and increasing state intervention.

      Lastly, and most importantly, I think your comments imply a worrying overprioritising of material prosperity and economic growth. Not only has our flirtation with these done huge damage to traditional society and culture, but no traditional conservative should think these especially important. As long as society is prosperous enough to provide itself with necessitates and the necessary luxuries and surpluses for civilised life, it should be indifferent to the traditional conservative what its growth or economic output is, and he certainly should prioritise this over the permanent things. Even many conservative and Christian critics of distributism seem to have bought into this growth fetishism.

    • Why would there be no room for Henry Ford in Distributism? There would be plenty of room for him – and for anyone else who wanted to manufacture cars. Why, though, under alleged capitalism, do we have a “Big Three” automakers and no domestic entrants to the market in many decades? Why did two of the three need a bail out just a few years ago? Why did they get a bail out?

      For me, the key to Distibutism is the diffusion of economic and political power down to the lowest level possible. I see nothing in it which would prohibit a small enterprise from growing large, but I do see the need to provide rigid – even harsh – measures to prevent the now-large enterprise from buying enough influence that they can transfer their private-sector losses onto the public Treasury. As it has worked out, Big Corporation and Big Government are two sides of the same coin – and if we don’t have measures to prevent Big Corporation from buying influence, then they will buy influence…and use it to prevent the creation of competition and to protect themselves, using public money, against their own folly.

      We can take issue with Belloc’s more zealous view of how Distributism should be created, but we can’t ignore the fact that people with buckets of money tend to muscle their way into control. If they are using muscle against us – to rob us – then how are we to respond?

  2. I think there are two central points.

    Firstly, whether a traditional conservative and Christian regime requires the state enforcing a strong, non-proviso Lockean idea of property rights and essentially doing nothing else.

    Secondly, whether a distributist polity can be achieved through relatively decentralist and non-statist means.

    On the first point, it is not apparent why we must stick to this free market, Lockean ideal. It reflects no economy that has ever existed, and certainly not historic and current capitalism, and does not reflect the views of traditional Christian thinkers, for the most part. So, why some action and restrictions cannot be used to further broadly distributist and traditional conservative economic and social goals, I’m unsure. The question must surely be whether any improved in this direction is achievable without compromising what traditional conservatives, distributists, and Christians hold dear.

    This leads to the second point. It is, again, not apparent why such relatively decentralised and anti-statist policies like rolling back corporate welfare and privileges, the land value, encouraging community and mutual banking, and various similar reforms must lead to a statist and centralised outcome. I’m not even sure whether certain more robust reforms, if necessary, like certain protectionist policies, encouragement to guilds and cooperatives, certain restrictions on property usage, and so forth, must necessarily make the whole government statist and centralist. That does seem to smack more of libertarian purism and alarmism than reality, though caution would have to be used, of course.

  3. ” have always been bothered by the idea of Distributism as being somehow “Catholic,” because it was advocated by some Catholic thinkers. It is not only not Catholic, it is nonsense.

    At bottom, Distributism is an idealized and sanitized version of the Medieval English village,where the carpenter owned his own saw and hammer, the smith owned his own forge, the tanner owned his own tanning pit, and the tinker his melting pot. But even in that village, the mill, the largest capital investment around, was owned by the local Lord and leased to the miller”

    Heart, hear! I’ve been making similar arguments here and elsewhere for some time. Just as communism was thought up by people who were not economists, so distributism was thought up by people who were not economists. Distributism imagines a snapshot in time and thinks, if that snapshot ever existed, that one can bring life back to that picture. It is folly to think you can bring it back (and my personal opinion is it never existed) and destructive to the economy if the means of trying to bring it back were ever implemented.

    • Actually many communists, including Marx, were economists.

      Anyway, we’ve had this discussion before, but I don’t think this slight about distributists not being economists works for several reasons:

      1. Many contemporary distributists do take an active interest in economy theory and thought, especially in specific, practical areas like technology or banking.

      2. Although there is no doubt real knowledge in contemporary mainstream economics, it is quite flawed (cf., for example, Steve Keen’s Debunking Economics or the Post-Autistic economics movement, or even the Austrians themselves). Economics is certainly not physics.

      3. Economists focus on trying to understand basic principles and properties of economic behaviour and institutions, microeconomic and macroeconomic. They also might explore certain rather specific policies, especially in connection to our current economic realities. They do not study larger questions of economic systems and, especially, they do not study whether distributism is possible. So, I don’t know what it means to say try to oppose distributism to mainstream economics. It certainly isn’t the case that the latter explicitly or implicitly condemns the former.

      4. Most economists aren’t in favour of the pure free market ideology pushed by most opponents of distributism either.

      • As far as I could find, Marx’s education was in law and philosophy. I see nothing in his educational background that would support a claim he was an economist. He may have written on economics, but that proves my point. Nonetheless, it’s quite obvious that his economiocs amount to historical prognostication. That and $2,50 gets you on the subway, as we say in New York.

        • I believe there were few qualifications for economics in Marx’s day. Smith and Ricardo would not have had official qualifications either. Certainly, Marx studied the classical economists in depth.

          Personally, I don’t much care for the idea that one must have an official qualification or be considered ignorant of a subject.

          • Next time you’re on an airplane, count your blessings it wasn’t designed and developed by people who majored in law and philosophy.

            I can’t speak for Ricardo, but yes there was no discipline of economics when Adam Smith wrote. But notice the difference. Smith’s treatise is based on observation and empirical analysis. Marx starts with preformed assumptions and tries to fit reality into his economic theories. Distributists did the same exact thing as Marx. Like i said, they took a snapshot of an ideal moment (if such a moment really existed) and tried to fit their economic theory to it, disregarding that the snapshot moment was static and only a subset of a greater economy at large.

            Forget whether it’s it leads to poverty or some virtuous prosperity, it’s all based on supposition and not observed reality. And like all fantasies, if implemented would surely not lead to the vision it intended.

          • @ Manny:

            “Next time you’re on an airplane, count your blessings it wasn’t designed and developed by people who majored in law and philosophy.”

            Which says absolutely nothing about anything actually being debated. The implication that someone not officially recognized in a particular field should not debate any issue related to that discipline, but of course this is really an elitist way of saying, “Shut up!” The fact that wessexman has admitted his own lack of expertise before only to be mocked by TGordon (in the debate resulting from Pearce’s article), and then by you says nothing about the validity of his position.

            “I can’t speak for Ricardo, but yes there was no discipline of economics when Adam Smith wrote.”

            Not only was there no official discipline of economics when Smith was writing, but the discipline of economics remains to this day a soft-science. You could call a Keynesian economist a bad economist, but to claim that they are not an economist at all is beyond the pale. It is yet another way of trying to shout down the opposition. Marx considered himself a student of economics, and your claim that he wasn’t because Adam Smith had superior methods is a non sequitur at best.

            “Forget whether it’s it leads to poverty or some virtuous prosperity, it’s all based on supposition and not observed reality.”

            Actually, the distributists often point to the Mondragon Corporation in Spain as an example of distributist principles applied effectively in a real world situation, and so to call distributism a pure fantasy is not really factual.

  4. I haven’t read the book, but I’read the interview to the authors and, as Joseph Pearce, I disagree. I must say that I’m not an expert in Belloc or Tolkien but, as a fan, there’s something that I know: Tolkien read Belloc books and, in fact he gave them as a present, at least, to his son Michael. I supose that Tolkien taught that what Belloc wrote was important or interesting, because he gave Belloc’s books to his son Michael.

  5. “Also, you seem to imply that the contemporary economy, with its growth and accumulation of consumer goods, is somehow natural”

    This sounds like the rantings of an economic snob, someone whose family has known nothing but comfort for generations. Economic growth and prosperity are not good things? Try telling that to someone from India whose family has lived in dirt for generations and who, thanks in large part to technology, industry, and globalization, for the first time has a shot at a comfortable life.

    • That is a fallacy. Either it is right to prioritise economic growth and the accumulation of consumer goods or it isn’t. My personal qualities have little to do with it. You say nothing about economic goods versus other goods, which was the point of comment. Indeed, you imply that those who don’t have the current Western economic prosperity are very backwards and lacking, that there is some ultimate and transcendent good and progress in this prosperity which is greater even than the permanent things – faith, family, community – of traditional societies. This is quite a strange and dubious position for a traditional conservative and Christian to take. It implies that we are wrong in our low priority for material prosperity combined with the permanent things. It also makes it strange that Christ never spoke of the internal combustion engine or modern actuarial practices, or that Church has always spent far, far more time talking about religion and society than technological development.

      But I, like most distributists, is not opposed to greater economic prosperity. We just think that economic growth and prosperity should serve the permanent things, that it should be decentralised and human scale. Many distributists take an active interest in appropriate technology and that kind of thing.

      • “That is a fallacy. Either it is right to prioritise economic growth and the accumulation of consumer goods or it isn’t. My personal qualities have little to do with it. ”

        Actually, they do. Most of the people who rail against “Materialism” and “Consumerism” are people who themselves enjoy lives of material comfort and who can relate to poverty only on a theoretical level. You talk about the “Permanent Things”, but those things don’t mean squat if you live in a hovel with bugs crawling all over the place and you and your family have to go to the bathroom in a bucket because there’s no such thing as running water let alone a functional sewer system. And if, thanks to the modern high tech economy, these people can go in a generation or two to a real middle class lifestyle complete with a proper home and maybe a brand new car, I’m hardly going to begrudge them their “Materialism”.

        As for Jesus, while I obviously can’t speak for Him directly, it seems that a large part of His mission was relieving human suffering. And a corollary to that is increasing people’s comfort, and lifting people out of poverty accomplishes both. Now, one can argue at what point comfort turns into luxury and at what point that luxury becomes excessive, but it seems that is a personal matter between such persons and God, and not the job of the State to decide.

        • I’m sorry, but doubly down on a fallacy doesn’t make it any less fallacious. You are committing a classic material fallacy of relevance. My argument is true or false no matter what my personal qualities are, and to focus on them is a fallacy plain and simple.

          You say the permanent things don’t mean squat if one lives in poverty (not that distributists believe that people must live in poverty), but this is precisely my point: you are giving a priority to economic growth, material prosperity, and the proliferation of consumer goods which is contrary to traditional conservatism and Christianity. Russell Kirk himself noted that poverty is not in itself an obstacle to spiritual development and pretty harshly attacked those who measured progress according to the material standard of living (indeed, he often implied this sort of attitude had a lot in common with Marxism). Your position impugns all traditional societies, is a standard of value traditional conservatives do not accept, and is contrary to the traditional Christian stress on the importance of the spiritual.

          Yes, Jesus wished to relieve suffering, but there is little in his message to suggest this meant through economic growth and development. If this is so, why did he not reveal technological secrets or principles of global finance? Why didn’t he at least encourage his followers to prioritise such developments. There is actually more in the Gospel that can be used to justify redistribution of wealth than growth fetishism (not that I believe in redistribution). In fact, Jesus’ included a significant stress on the priority for the spiritual. It was Jesus, after all, who said that man does not live by bread alone. One is reminded of Peter Simple’s character the Rev John Goodwheel, who rode around in a motorised Cathedral sharing the blessings of the internal combustion engine.

  6. “Distributism is not just a fantasy, it is an evil fantasy. It would take tyranny to implement it”

    Exactly. The more I hear of this, the more it just sounds like rancid old Marxism poured into a fresh, new bottle. The Marxists, too, presented all sorts of pretty sounding theories, but the real goal was always the same – POWER and CONTROL. What happens in a Distributist system to the person who refuses to knuckle under to the Distributists? I think we know the answer to that – Off to the Gulag!

  7. I agree with EJ above. I’m not sure you can really take what are basically fairy stories and attach to them any real political significance here in our own world. I personally am more partial to CS Lewis than Tolkien, and in his Narnia stories I see a message that has far more to do with personal character than anything having to do with politics (or economics) here in this world.

  8. In general I agree with JP, but in two aspects Tolkien and Belloc were very diferent:
    1- WAR: Just review their opinions about WW1.
    2- TECHNOLOGY: Tolkien hated machinery. Belloc thought they could be good with appropiate distribution of their property.
    So, just to guess, in “the Scouring of the Shire”, after liberation a “bellocian” administration could have keep the Mill producing iron for war purposes but owned by a cooperative of hobbit workers (sounds funny, I know).

  9. Editor’s Note: Please note that it is our judgment that the conversation here has run its course. Comments for this essay are now closed. Thank you for your contributions to this interesting debate.

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