G.K. Chesterton’s ideas concerning government intervention in the economy have led some to believe that he may have been a socialist. They argue that the political creed of distributism, which Chesterton advocated, would involve the coercive redistribution of wealth. But are these critics right in their characterization of Chesterton’s ideas?
One of the weirdest and wackiest misconceptions being disseminated is the suggestion that G.K. Chesterton was a socialist. This suggestion, or accusation, would have bemused Chesterton himself, not least because he spent the whole of his life condemning socialism. Take, for instance, this condemnation of socialism from an article in the Illustrated London News on October 10, 1925: “What is worthwhile to point out, first and last, is that Socialism is a tyranny.… It is the pretense that government can prevent all injustice by being directly responsible for practically anything that happens.” And then there’s this witty theological quip: “Socialism is Manichean, and castrates men to keep them pure.” And this from the New Witness, published on July 6, 1916: “Socialism… is full of the idea that an ordinary person is incompetent and must be superseded by an official.”
In the light of Chesterton’s own words and his lifelong and documented opposition to socialism, how can anyone seriously accuse him of being the very thing that he so consistently and resolutely condemned?
The answer is to be found in several misconceptions of what socialism is and what it isn’t. Some people have redefined the word “socialism” to include anyone who believes that the government has a role to play in the economy. These people, who believe that the market should be free from all government regulation, are hypocrites. They do not seek to practice what they preach. They do not really want a complete absence of government regulation of the economy. For instance, they do not believe in unlimited free movement of labour because they believe that governments should be able to limit immigration. This is an interference in the freedom of the market. It coercively prevents labour from moving to wherever jobs are available. The free movement of labour and the free movement of capital require the removal of all governments from the face of the earth so that the global economy can operate on a level playing field without government interference. In practical terms, the free market, thus perceived, means the eradication of all nation states. In practical terms, therefore, the freedom of the market demands the enslavement of mankind to globalist internationalism.
One suspects that most people who believe in what is called the “free market” do not believe in the eradication of all nation states, nor the eradication of all forms of immigration control. They accept, therefore, that some form of government involvement or interference in the economy is necessary. Since this is so, the question becomes one of scale. How much government involvement should there be in the economy?
And this brings us to another reason why some people have accused Chesterton of socialism. They argue that the political creed of distributism, which Chesterton advocated, would involve the coercive redistribution of wealth, something which they rightly perceive to be socialist. The problem is that they do not understand distributism, either what it is or what it isn’t. Distributism, which Chesterton admitted was an ugly word, does not call for the redistribution of wealth but for the restoration of property. It is called distributism because it argues that widely distributed privately-owned property is a healthier basis for society and the economy than a society in which private property is in the hands of a small proportion of the population. It doesn’t call for the government to redistribute wealth but it does call for the government to find ways to encourage people to become property owners.
Let’s give some practical examples of distributist ideas being put into practice.
Back in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, who is not normally considered to be a socialist, pushed forward a law which enabled those in government-owned housing to buy their homes on advantageous terms, thereby enabling them to be able to afford to do so. This was an interference in the market, offering interest rates below the market rate to millions of people so that they could enjoy the freedom and responsibility of becoming property-owners, instead of being propertyless proletarians paying rent to the government. The paradox is that it took government interference to free people from government control. This is exactly what Chesterton and the distributists were advocating. Is this socialism? Only the most manically ideological of free market libertarians would say so.
Let’s look at another example of distributism in practice. Back in the 1970s, most of the pubs in England were owned by one or other of the handful of giant-sized brewing companies. These pubs were called “tied houses” because they were tied to the brewing companies and could only sell that particular brewer’s products. As the demand for craft ales grew, there was a corresponding growth in small brewers offering consumers what they wanted. The problem was that the market was closed to these small companies because they were being excluded from the market by the giant brewing companies. In response, the British government passed a law enabling “guest ales” to be sold in all pubs, thereby giving access to the market to the small companies and access to craft ales to the consumer. This law facilitated an explosion in the number of small breweries in the market which would not have been possible without government regulation and “interference.” This is exactly the sort of proactive government action that Chesterton was advocating. Does this make him a socialist?
One other reason for people calling Chesterton a socialist is that he often criticized “capitalism.” It is presumed that anyone who criticizes capitalism is ipso facto a socialist. And yet this depends on what we mean by capitalism. If capitalism means the employment of capital to make a profit, Chesterton would be happy to call himself a capitalist. If capitalism means an economic system characterized by privately-owned companies competing fairly, Chesterton would be a resolute champion of such capitalism. Chesterton wrote that the problem with modern capitalism is that there are too few capitalists, not too many. He argued that the present system concentrates property into the hands of fewer and fewer people so that the vast majority of people, bereft of such property, are forced to work for the few property-owners for a wage. In such a system, most people are stifled in their entrepreneurial desires by the fact that they have become proletarians. Powerless and propertyless, they are effectively excluded from participating freely in the market. It is for this reason that Chesterton highlighted an unhealthy similarity between capitalism and socialism: “There is less difference than many suppose between the ideal Socialist system, in which the big businesses are run by the State, and the present Capitalist system, in which the State is run by the big businesses. They are much nearer to each other than either is to my own ideal – of breaking up the big businesses into a multitude of small businesses.” (Illustrated London News, October 27, 1928.)
Putting the matter more succinctly, Chesterton stated that “property is really the positive form of Liberty.” The more that a society is characterized by property ownership the healthier it will be. Is this socialism? Doesn’t socialism, at least in its communist form, advocate the abolition of private property? Isn’t Chesterton’s position the very opposite, the very antithesis, of socialism?
Chesterton certainly criticized the selfishness, repackaged as “self-interest,” at the heart of a certain type of “capitalist” individualism: “The economic and ethical school which called itself individualist ended by threatening the world with the flattest and dullest spread of the commonplace. Men, instead of being themselves, set out to find a self to be: a sort of abstract economic self identified with self-interest…. So far from really remaining a separate self, the man became part of a communal mass of selfishness.” (Illustrated London News, February 25, 1928.) Does the condemnation of selfishness make Chesterton a socialist?
“It is my whole point,” Chesterton wrote, “that my solution is simply human, and it is the other solutions that are dehumanized. It is my whole point that to say we must have Socialism or Capitalism is like saying we must choose between all men going into monasteries and a few men having harems.” Forcing people into monasteries or communes against their will is truly monstrous but so is excluding people from the freedom to own productive property through a system which forces them to work for a wage instead of having the opportunity of working for themselves. Chesterton is not denying, of course, that many people will still work for a wage or will want to work for a wage, rather than embracing the responsibility that comes with entrepreneurial freedom, but he is saying that more people should have the opportunity to enjoy such freedom and embrace such responsibility. He is saying furthermore that a society based on many small businesses will be healthier than one in which the economy is controlled by relatively few global corporations and international financial institutions. This is not socialism but common sense.
At the heart of Chesterton’s vision for human society is the health and sanctity of the family. Distributism, Chesterton argued, was necessary for the survival of the family. And with this noble thought in mind, so far removed from anything that could possibly be called socialism, we’ll let Chesterton have the final word: “The recognition of the family as the unit of the State is the kernel of Distributism. The insistence on ownership to protect its liberty is the shell. We that are Christians believe that the family has a divine sanction. But any reasonable pagan, if he will work it out, will discover that the family existed before the State and has prior rights; that the State exists only as a collection of families, and that its sole function is to safeguard the rights of each and all of them.” (G.K.’s Weekly, Jan. 3, 1935.)
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image (detail) is a photo of G.K. Chesterton from around 1915, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.