I hardly know where to start in responding to Messrs. Richards’ and Witt’s “response” to my earlier article on “Distributism in the Shire”. More to the point, I hardly know where to end. There seems so much to discuss. There is the question of Tolkien’s agreement with Belloc on the practical aspects of distributism, specifically Belloc’s advocacy of economic “force.” There is the question of whether “the scouring of the Shire” should be seen simply as a Just War or whether it can also be viewed as a Bellocian “restoration of property.” There is the question of whether Belloc’s vision of distributism would lead to less or more government. There is the question of whether I was justified in accusing Messrs. Richards and Witt of conflating distributism with socialism. There is also the question of whether I am correct or justified in describing my honourable interlocutors as “free market libertines.” Finally, there is the more cheerful suggestion that I might find things to cheer about in their book, The Hobbit Party.
In spite of so many inviting avenues beckoning me to defend my own position, I am going to begin by thanking R & W for the restrained and civil, indeed civilized response to my earlier piece of provocation. It is the mark of a gentleman that he can remain fair and charitable even in the midst of the pugilistic fray. In this sense it can be said, quite truly, that R & W are true gentlemen. Inspired by their noble example and desiring to continue in the same commendable spirit, I will not be taking my proverbial gloves off, though perhaps R & W should be warned that the gloves I am wearing are nonetheless boxing gloves and not kid gloves!
The issue of whether Tolkien would “sign off” on Belloc’s practical ideas for “the restoration of property”, as discussed by the latter in his Essay on that topic, is a moot point until we can agree on what Belloc meant by the “force” necessary to restore property. We should note, therefore, that Belloc’s position is inspired by, and aligned with, the Catholic Church’s teaching on subsidiarity. Thus, in the preface to his essay, he writes about the dangers to the freedom of the family that is posed by the excessive power of big business and big government:
If the State can cut off livelihood from the family it is their master, and freedom has disappeared. Therefore there is a test of the limit after which such restriction of freedom is hostile to our aims and that test lies in the power of the family to react against that which limits its freedom. There must be a human relation between the family and those forces which, whether through the division of labour or the action of the State, restrict the family’s liberty of choice in action. The family must have not only power to complain against arbitrary control external to it, but power to make its complaint effective.
In other words, any “force” employed to restore productive property to the family must never negate the family’s power to remain politically and economically free from the encroachments upon its liberty by either the State or Big Business. As an aside, is it not refreshing that Belloc makes the family and not the individual the basic unit of a healthy society?
In essence, Belloc’s vision, like that of the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church, is centred on the necessary tension between subsidiarity and solidarity, or, to employ the language of Actonian and Burkean political philosophy, it is the tension between Acton’s maxim that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely” and Burke’s maxim that “liberty itself must be limited in order to be possessed”. In terms of Belloc’s approach in his Essay, the “force” which R & W seem to find so objectionable is nothing more or less than the enactment of just laws designed to re-empower the economic freedom of the family against the power of the state and big business. R & W have a problem with this because their free market libertinism sees all political intervention in the economy as bad. There is, however, no evidence that Tolkien held their laissez faire views and it’s mischievous to suggest otherwise.
Moving on to the question of whether “the scouring of the Shire” was simply a Just War against alien invaders, with nothing whatever to do with distributism, it is noteworthy that R & W fail to respond to Tolkien’s graphic depiction of the ravages inflicted by the laissez faire economics of the industrial revolution:
It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. The great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the Water, through rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a streaming and stinking outflow. All along the Bywater Road every tree had been felled.
As they crossed the bridge and looked up the Hill they gasped…. The Old Grange on the west side had been knocked down, and its place taken by rows of tarred sheds. All the chestnuts were gone. The banks and hedgerows were broken. Great wagons were standing in disorder in a field beaten bare of grass. Bagshot Row was a yawning sand and gravel quarry. Bag End up beyond could not be seen for a clutter of large huts.
After the Just War had been won, what happened to the “dark satanic mills”? Did the hobbits embrace the “progress” of industrialism, building more great chimneys and more rows of new mean houses? Did they build more new mills to pollute the rivers of the Shire with “a streaming and stinking outflow”? Did they emulate the example of Saruman, shriveled in his evil to Sharkey, by felling all the trees and digging quarries? Did they leave their primitive and mediaeval hobbit holes to live in skyscrapers or sanitized neighbourhoods? Of course not. After the war, the hobbits pulled down the monstrous temples to Mammon and all other manifestations of the “dragon sickness” of commercial “progress.” In short, the hobbits employed justifiable “force” after the war had ended to restore widely distributed property to the Shire folk, reversing the damage done by the imposition of the industrial revolution. Does this prove that Tolkien “signed off” on Belloc’s distributism? I would call it pretty compelling evidence that he did. In any event, and whether or not it proves Tolkien’s approval of Belloc, it would certainly win Belloc’s approval of Tolkien!
In an effort to end on the cheerful note of finding something to cheer about in R & W’s book, I can indeed find much that is good and insightful. The overarching problem, however, is that the authors’ ideological agenda reduces the whole book to a woeful and unconvincing effort to squeeze the square peg of Tolkien’s traditionalist genius into the round hole of the authors’ modernist ideology. It’s akin to trying to squeeze the majesty of the Church into the travesty of the factory chimney. It doesn’t work.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.