In his 1926 work, The Outline of Sanity, vaunted English journalist and author, G.K. Chesterton put forth his arguments against both Capitalism and Socialism. Chesterton essentially argues that the problem with Capitalism is that it leads to Socialism. Now there’s a thought. All too briefly put, the tendency of both Capitalism and Socialism is to centralize power. Capitalism places power in the hands of the few rich who actually own capital, while the vast majority work as (wage) slaves for the rich who own the factories and shops. The result is a de facto plutocracy. Socialism places complete power in the hands of the government, which leads to individual freedom being subordinated to the will of the State. The result is a de facto totalitarian state. Both the plutocracy of the Capitalist state and totalitarianism of the Socialist state are particular manifestations of an oligarchy. The rich are always the privileged few, just as it is the few who hold real power in a totalitarian state. The common man, which is the mass of men, lose in either case, even if Capitalism is to be preferred to Socialism.
Below is Chesterton’s brief critique of Socialism and why it leads to totalitarianism, although he does not use that word. As I noted earlier, his critique of Socialism is brief because on this score he was preaching to the choir. Nonetheless, his critique is worth noting, even if it is a familiar critique of the Socialist State. From The Outline of Sanity (IHS Press):
Socialism is a system which makes the corporate unity of society responsible for all its economic processes, or all those affecting life and essential living. If anything important is sold, the Government has sold it; if anything important is given, the Government has given it; if anything important is even tolerated, the Government is responsible for tolerating it. This is the very reverse of anarchy; it is an extreme enthusiasm for authority. It is in many ways worthy of the moral dignity of the mind; it is a collective acceptance of very complete responsibility… A Socialist Government is one which in its nature does not tolerate any true and real opposition. For there the Government provides everything; and it is absurd to ask a Government to provide an opposition.
You cannot go to the Sultan and say reproachfully, “You have made no arrangements for your brother dethroning you and seizing the Caliphate.” You cannot go to a medieval king and say, “Kindly lend me two thousand spears and one thousand bowmen, as I wish to raise a rebellion against you.” Still less can you reproach a Government which professes to set up everything, because it has not set up anything to pull down all it has set up. Opposition and rebellion depend on property and liberty… The critic of the State can only exist where a religious sense of right protects his claims to his own bow and spear; or at least, to his own pen or his own printing press. It is absurd to suppose that he could borrow the royal pen to advocate regicide or use the Government printing presses to expose the corruption of the Government. Yet it is the whole point of Socialism, the whole case for Socialism, that unless all printing presses are Government printing presses, printers may be oppressed. Everything is staked on the State’s justice; it is putting all the eggs in one basket. Many of them will be rotten eggs; but even then you will not be allowed to use them at political elections.
As the old saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is certainly true of political power, as we have seen time and time again throughout history. The philosophy of Socialism is flawed in its very nature, but Chesterton thinks Capitalism is too. As was noted in my last post on this topic, and to once again quote Chesterton, “Capitalism is contradictory as soon as it is complete; because it is dealing with the mass of men in opposite ways at once… [the capitalist] is wanting the same man to be rich and poor at the same time.”
So what is the answer? Chesterton, among others, believed the answer is to distribute property to individuals, so they can be self sufficient and once again know the joy of true ownership and individual responsibility. Chesterton believed small business is better than big business. Chesterton believed being a free man working your own land is to be preferred to being a wage slave. But Chesterton also recognized that this is not the ideal of all. He suggests that while not all will immediately hold to this ideal, many will once they seriously consider their present state of affairs. Of course, a modern society cannot consist of only small farm owners; there must be a balance. However, Chesterton maintains that the common man in a Capitalist society is really worse off than he realizes; once this is recognized, the idea of Distributism will take hold. More on this and what Distributism is in a later post.