by Dale Ahlquist
I remember a certain kind of television commercial that I vaguely saw about a million times when I was growing up. It was for some breakfast cereal. It would always end with a quick parting shot of the bowl of cereal surrounded by a lot of other food with the announcer’s voiceover urgently telling us, “Part of this complete breakfast!” The unconscious message was that the cereal alone was the complete breakfast. The “part of” was the part we missed. In order to achieve that elusive standard of completeness, we really had to have all that other stuff too. I can’t remember what it all was. It went by too fast. I know there was a glass of orange juice. There might have been a side of baked beans for all I know. And maybe some liver steaks. It is quite possible, in fact, that the breakfast shown would have been just as complete without the cereal. At any rate, the cereal alone was not enough, even though most people bought it thinking it was.
Most of our modern ideas suffer from being no more than breakfast cereal. Most of the energy and attraction in them is in the packaging. Inside there is very little substance. A lot of it is fried air with sugar coating. There may be a few grains of truth, but not enough, not the whole truth. Yet the world feeds on these light and snappy ideas and on nothing else. The rest of the complete breakfast is completely missing. Even those ideas which are profound and practical for our world still suffer from incompleteness. We can have the right ideas about politics and economics, but life is more than politics and economics. The affliction of specialization is myopia. As specialists we are under the delusion that our small area of expertise informs us about everything else. We know more and more about less and less. Truth has been carefully compartmentalized. Colleges and universities have been carefully departmentalized. We are all specialists, and none of us are generalists, and there is no glue to hold all our fragmented truths together. There is thinking, but no thought, as in a complete understanding that is comprehensive and coherent.
G.K. Chesterton had a word for all the specialists of the modern world. It is a surprising word. A jarring word. The word is “heretics.” The problem is not that the specialist–or heretic–is wrong, but rather narrow and incomplete. The heretic is someone who has broken himself off from a wider view of the world. The heretic, says Chesterton, has locked himself in “the clean, well-lit prison of one idea.” Another way Chesterton puts it is that the heretic has one idea and has let it go to his head. It is a case where myopia leads to madness.
Chesterton was one of the last of the great generalists. He wrote about everything. Everything: history, current events, art, literature, politics, economics, social theory, science, philosophy, and religion. But his dozens and dozens of books and his thousands of essays were not simply random observations and disconnected thinking. His writing was all part of one very consistent and coherent and complete system of thought. We could argue that Chesterton really wrote only one book, but it was in many chapters, many volumes. In one of those essays, he says, “There is only one subject.”3 Elsewhere, he writes,
Men have always one of two things: either a complete and conscious philosophy or the unconscious acceptance of the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy.4
To try to sum up Chesterton’s “complete and conscious philosophy” is a good exercise. Like any good exercise, however, it is not easy. Chesterton saw the world as a wonder, a miracle that does not explain itself. He saw life as a gift, the best kind of gift—a surprise, and something undeserved. Thus, gratitude and joy informed his perspective of everything. He believed in the dignity and liberty of the human person, made in God’s image, but sullied by sin. He believed that we generally want happiness but often pursue pleasure in the mistaken sense that it is the same thing as happiness. He saw morality and civil order as safeguards against sin and utter selfishness. He saw the home and the family as the centerpiece of society because they are the centerpiece of living. Home and family are the normal things. Trade and politics are necessary but minor things that have been emphasized out of all proportion. He saw that proper proportion was the key to art as well as the key to justice. And sanity.
As a young man, Chesterton flirted with socialism, but he soon realized that it was mostly a reactionary idea. The rise of socialism and its attendant evils was a reaction against industrial capitalism and its attendant evils. The danger of fighting injustice is that if the battle is misguided, even a victory is a defeat. Good motives can have bad results. This is the point Chesterton makes when he talks about how the “virtues wander wildly”5 when they are isolated from each other and wandering alone. In a broken society where we have this seemingly endless battle between the left and right, the virtues on either side are doing war with each other: truth that is pitiless and pity that is untruthful.
The conservatives and the liberals have successfully reduced meaningful debate to name-calling. We use catchwords as a substitute for thinking. We know things only by their labels, and we have “not only no comprehension but no curiosity touching their substance or what they are made of.”6
It is interesting, it is fitting, that the philosophy which Chesterton embraced as the only real alternative to socialism and capitalism (as well as to liberalism and conservatism) goes by a name that is utterly awkward and misunderstood. As a label it is so useless it cannot even be used as a form of abuse. Its uselessness as a label demands that it be discussed. To say the name immediately requires explanation, and the explanation immediately provokes debate. The troublesome title is “Distributism.” It has to do with property. It has to do with justice. And it has to do with everything else.
The word “property” has to do with what is proper. It also has to do with what is proportional. Balance has to do with harmony. Harmony has to do with beauty. The modern world is out of balance. And it is ugly. We have only glimpses of beauty, glimpses of things as they should be. These glimpses are our inspiration.
The word “economy” and the word “economics” are based on the Greek word for house, which isoikos. The word “economy” as we know it, however, has drifted completely away from that meaning. Instead of house, it has come to mean everything outside of the house. The home is the place where the important things happen. The economy is the place where the most unimportant things happen. The backwardness of the situation is something constantly pointed out by Chesterton: “There is nothing queerer today than the importance of unimportant things. Except, of course, the unimportance of important things.”7
There is another rather neglected meaning to the word “economy”: the idea of thriftiness.
The best and last word of mysticism is an almost agonising sense of the preciousness of everything, the preciousness of the whole universe, which is like an exquisite and fragile vase, and among other things the preciousness of other people’s tea-cups. The last and best word of mysticism is not lavishness, but rather a sublime and sacred economy.8
Chesterton points out that inside the word thrift is the word thrive.9 We can only thrive within our means, just as we can only be free within the rules. The modern understanding of the word economy is, once again, just the opposite. It is about accumulation instead of thrift. Even worse, it is about mere exchange. It is about trade, and not even about the things that are traded. It is about figures in a ledger. It is about noughts. It is about the accumulation of zeros. It is more about nothing than it is about something.
Our separation of economy from the home is part of a long fragmentation process. Each of the modern ideas that might have once been part of this complete breakfast have come to claim that they are complete all by themselves. We have separated everything from everything else. We have accomplished this by separating everything from the home. Feminism has separated women from the home. Capitalism has separated men from the home. Socialism has separated education from the home. Manufacturing has separated craftsmanship from the home. The news and entertainment industry has separated originality and creativity from the home, rendering us into passive and malleable consumers rather than active citizens.
There is more to Distributism than economics. That is because there is more to economics than economics. Distributism is not just an economic idea. It is an integral part of a complete way of thinking. But in a fragmented world we not only resist a complete way of thinking, we do not even recognize it. It is too big to be seen. In the age of specialization we tend to grasp only small and narrow ideas. We don’t even want to discuss a true Theory of Everything, unless it is invented by a specialist and addresses only that specialist’s “everything.” In reality, everything is too complicated a category because it contains, well, everything. But the glory of a great philosophy or a great religion is not that it is simple but that it is complicated. It should be complicated because the world is complicated. Its problems are complicated.
The solution to those problems must also be complicated. It takes a complicated key to fit a complicated lock. But we want simple solutions. We don’t want to work hard. We don’t want to think hard. We want other people to do both our work and our thinking for us. We call in the specialists. And we call this state of utter dependency “freedom.” We think we are free simply because we seem free to move about.
Chesterton’s opening line in his book about his visit to America was this: “I have never managed to lose my conviction that travel narrows the mind.”10 As with all his paradoxes he points to a truth that is the opposite of what we expect. The man in his field, the man in his garden, thinks about everything. The man who is traveling thinks about only a few things. He is distracted not just with details but with destinations. He thinks the thing he has come to see is the only important thing and this makes him narrow. The real purpose of traveling is to return. The true destination of every journey is home. That is the main idea behind Distributism.
The Distributist ideal is that the home is the most important place in the world. Every man should have his own piece of property, a place to build his own home, to raise his family, to do all the important things from birth to death: eating, singing, celebrating, reading, writing, arguing, story-telling, laughing, crying, praying. The home is above all a sanctuary of creativity. Creativity is our most Godlike quality. We not only make things, we make things in our own image. The family is one of those things. But so is the picture on the wall and the rug on the floor. The home is the place of complete freedom, where we may have a picnic on the roof and even drink directly from the milk carton.
We will stop here a moment and address the feminists who recoil in horror as they read this use of the male pronoun and the warlike word, “man.” Chesterton’s view of women is not that they are chattel but that they are queens of their own realm. Women were not kept at home in order to keep them narrow; on the contrary, they were kept at home in order to keep them broad. The world outside the home was one mass of narrowness, a maze of cramped paths, a madhouse of monomaniacs.
It is not difficult to see why . . . the female became the emblem of the universal… Nature… surrounded her with very young children, who require to be taught not so much anything as everything. Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist.
Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment… is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worthwhile to cast this burden on women in order to keep commonsense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless, and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.11
Chesterton could be very specific at times, but in general, he was a generalist. His critics always rush in with objections to his generalizations forgetting that they are generalizations, and generalizations by their nature allow for exceptions. The problem in the modern world is that the exceptions get all the attention. The generalizations get none. The exceptions have become the rule. It is now an exception for a woman to raise her own children. But Chesterton’s Distributist ideal not only called for mothers to stay at home, it called for fathers to stay at home as well. The home-based business, the idea of self-sufficiency would not only make for stronger, healthier families, but a stronger, healthier society. If everything in a society is based on nurturing and strengthening and protecting the family, that society will survive centuries of storms. A home-based society is naturally and necessarily a local and de-centralized society. If the government is local, if the economy is local, then the culture is also local. What we call culture right now is neither local nor is it culture. It is an amorphous society based on the freeway off-ramp and tall glowing signs that all say the same thing. Convenience is our culture. We all convene at the convenience store, where we get our gas and our munchies and our magazine and we are careful not to look anyone in the eye, not even the Pakistani clerk who waves our credit card across the laser beam. This is a revealing snapshot of our fragmented society: passive, restless, shutter-eyed, lonely, not at home.
It would take “a clear and conscious philosophy” to build a Distributist society, not a philosophy of broken and leftover ideas. The first clear and conscious idea would be to recognize that money is not the most important thing. It is the means and not the end. The end is a quiet, happy home. It is many small places with many local heroes.
So. How does this all happen? That is the grand question when it comes to Distributism. Chesterton argues that the main thing about Distributism is that it is voluntary. If we are not creatures of free will, if everything is predetermined by God or by Fate or by Biology or by Birth Order or by the Big Bang, well, then I suppose it is not worth wasting energy talking about how we can bring about a Distributist society. Let’s just kick back and pop open a beer.
Though Chesterton would argue that a Distributist society would be most fully realized if it were based on a Catholic worldview, he would not insist upon that basis as essential for achieving such a society. In fact, he would argue that such a society is more congenial to the different religions than any other societal plan. Freedom of religion, as it now supposedly exists under a huge centralized government, actually needs to be “enforced” by that government. The result, as we have seen, is that religion has actually been stifled where the government watchdog is there to “guarantee” the freedom. But local-based governments (supported by local-based economies) are more conducive to religious freedom because people of the same religion would naturally gravitate together. The main reason that people of the same religion tend to scatter in our society and that people of different religions tend to mix uncomfortably is that our society is not based on the home. It is based on the opportunities outside the home. The better jobs are always elsewhere. It is not their religion that makes people chose a place to live; it is their job. It is convenience. It is not philosophy.
The dilemma of Distributism is the dilemma of freedom itself. Distributism cannot be done to people, but only by people. It is not a system that can be imposed from above; it can only spring up from below. It can only come from what Chesterton calls “the non-mechanical part of man, the sacred quality in creation and choice.”12 If it happens, it seems most likely that it would be ushered in by a popular revolution. In any case, it must be popular. It would at some point require those with massive and inordinate wealth to give it up. In most popular revolutions, this has been achieved by means that are not always soft and cushy. In order to avoid a lot of blood and broken glass, religion can provide a very practical solution. It usually does. The Christian argument, if taken seriously, should be more terrifying to a rich man than a mob with axes and torches. The Christian argument has to do with eternity and not just immediate creature comforts. The central figure of the Christian religion said quite unambiguously that it is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. No matter how the rich man may try to breed smaller camels and manufacture larger needles, no matter how hard he snorts and stomps, he cannot get around the reality that to cling to his riches is to put his soul in peril. Although there are commentators who rush to soften the interpretation of this passage, the message is unfortunately backed up by the rest of the New Testament, most notably in St. Matt. xix:16–22, where a very good man is told to sell all he has and give to the poor, and in St. James v:1–6, where the description of the eternal scenario for the rich is not very soft at all. The implication is clear. As Chesterton says, “The obligation of wealth is to chuck it.”13
But the rich are a small part of the problem–only because there are so few of them. The larger part of the problem is the mentality that drives so many people to chase after money. Again, religion provides a practical solution. There is a commandment that states, “Thou shall not covet.” This little known commandment would have to be rediscovered and re-emphasized in order to build a Distributist society.
Most people have never heard of Distributism. They know only about socialism and capitalism and favor one or the other while they suffer under a combination of both. Our schools have ill-served us, for the idea has never been taught. If more people were exposed to the idea they would realize that it makes sense. They would at least realize that there is an alternative to the two ideas that they claim polarize them but which in fact unite them in despair. The big schools right now tend to teach the smallest ideas. But Distributism is, like any secret, something that cannot be kept secret forever, in spite of institutionalized censorship. It will be taken seriously in spite of those who sneer at it. It will be stumbled on by those who try to avoid it. To quote Chesterton in reference to something else, Distributism “has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”14
It is quite possible to defend Distributism as the best system with which to build a fair society and a solid economy. We can have the discussion, if we must, by confining ourselves to the subjects of law and labor practice and ownership policy and taxation and the rest of the textbook and newspaper stuff. We can provide answers for all the arguments and objections that come from either the socialists and the capitalists. It would be a fertile and provocative discussion to be sure. But it would always be incomplete. Distributism is only part of this complete breakfast. There is more to it than commercial breakfast cereal to be sure. There is more to it than state-issued gruel. We can make the argument that it is daily bread. But it needs the other staples of human life to supplement it. It needs the milk of morality, the meat of meaning, the juice of joy. We must have a code to guide us, a purpose to push us, a philosophy to fill us. Man cannot live by bread alone.
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1. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, from The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987–2005), Vol. 1, p. 225. All further citations are from G.K. Chesterton; volume and page numbers are from the Collected Works unless otherwise indicated.
2. The Catholic Church and Conversion, Vol. 3, p. 104.
3. Illustrated London News, February 17, 1906, Vol. 27, p. 126.
4. The Common Man (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1950), p. 173.
5. Orthodoxy, Vol. 1, p. 233.
6. William Cobbett (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925), p. 125.
7. Illustrated London News, January 3, 1914, Vol. 30, p. 17.
8. Daily News, March 23, 1907, from microfilm.
9. William Cobbett, op. cit., p. 212.
10. What I Saw in America, Vol. 21, p. 37.
11. What’s Wrong with the World, Vol. 4, pp. 117–19.
12. George Bernard Shaw, Vol. 11, p. 441.
13. New Witness, Oct. 14, 1915, from microfilm.
14. What’s Wrong with the World, p. 61.