Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Journalist as Economist

My recent post on Chesterton, "The Journalist as Theologian," was "topical," in the sense that there was a contemporary dust-up about a journalist writing about theology.  But the reason that Chesterton was on my mind was a recent perusal of a book almost entirely directed to economics, The Outline of Sanity.

The practical tendency of all trade and business to-day is towards big commercial combinations, often more imperial, more impersonal, more international than many a communist commonwealth--things that are at least collective if not collectivist. It is all very well to repeat distractedly, "What are we coming to, with all this Bolshevism?" It is equally relevant to add, "What are we coming to, even without Bolshevism?" The obvious answer is--Monopoly. It is certainly not private enterprise. The American Trust is not private enterprise. It would be truer to call the Spanish Inquisition private judgment. Monopoly is neither private nor enterprising. It exists to prevent private enterprise. And that system of trust or monopoly, that complete destruction of property, would still be the present goal of all our progress, if there were not a Bolshevist in the world.

Now I am one of those who believe that the cure for centralization is decentralization. It has been described as a paradox. There is apparently something elvish and fantastic about saying that when capital has come to be too much in the hands of the few, the right thing is to restore it into the hands of the many.

I'm not sure that "economist" is quite the right word.  What we call economics aspires to the status of a science.  We call it a "social science" in partial recognition of its failure to attain it.  I certainly hesitate to claim any detailed knowledge of it.  I took freshman economics some four decades ago and learned the basics, both classical and Keynesian, and have occasionally dipped into Marx and his successors (increasingly a subject for antiquaries).

But economics can also be understood as a branch of moral philosophy--not, "what must an individual or nation do to obtain wealth?", but "what should an individual or nation do to best meet the material needs of a good life?"

What Chesterton came to call "distributism" is typically characterized today as a romantic, reactionary and unrealistic call to return to medieval guilds. But I think that dismissiveness comes largely from an almost universal presupposition of economic determinism. Can the "clock be turned back?" The question itself has come to mean, "Can one do the impossible?" But Chesterton's advocacy of peasant proprietorship, small shops and limits on wealth differences was not so much advocacy of returning to some past golden age, but an assertion, very much in the face of the spirit of the age, that the monstrous collectivism of multinational corporations and of banks "too large to fail" resulted, not from any invisible hand, or necessary dialectic development of world history, but from human choices. And if an inhuman, soul-crushing system of production arose out of human choice, it can be reformed by human choice as well.

Many of Chesterton's most important social and economic works can be found in volumes four and five of the Ignatius Press edition of Chesterton's collected works, but I should say a word about some of the introductory material. This series was inaugurated in the late eighties, and was encouraged, and to some extent associated, with some who came to be known as the "theo-cons." The parallel, secular neoconservative movement of the eighties has lost a considerable amount of its credibility due to later association with some of the foreign policy excesses of the administrations of Bush fils

But I mention the Ignatius editions because, in volume five, there is considerable introductory and following material trying to assure the reader that what Chesterton calls "capitalism" is not what they promoted as "capitalism," and that Chesterton's vision of a distributist society was largely realized in contemporary America. This "framing" of Chesterton's work, which today looks embarrassingly clueless, helpfully suggests that Chesterton is rather more radical, and more critical of the status quo than his greatest promoters cared to admit. It's not that I say, "Avoid the Ignatius editions"--I think we owe Ignatius a considerable debt of gratitude for bringing back into circulation practically the only editions of many of these works still in print. But read the introductory material in the light of Chesterton, and not vice versa.

I conclude with Two French Postscripts:

(1)  A year or two there was an economics book that made quite a splash, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Its message was one of a stubborn and growing gap between the rich and the poor, and its universally-derided-as-unrealistic remedy was a wealth tax to start closing that gap. Somehow, much, much later, it occurred to me that that was not too distant from: "when capital has come to be too much in the hands of the few, the right thing is to restore it into the hand of the many."

(2) This last Christmas my wife gave me a copy of the recently-published English translation of Michel Houellebecq's Submission. I'm not quite sure what to make of it, a tale of the triumph of Islam in France in the near future. It's less, I think, about Islam than the collapsing convictions of the French intelligentsia, a phenomenon I'm not exactly up on. I only mention it because, toward the end, one character mentions that the new Muslim president, Ben Abbas, is promoting "distributism." Apparently it's not entirely unknown among the French, even if associated with the novelty (and fear) of a different civilization arguably having in common with traditional Christendom a distrust of an autonomous optimization of overall wealth without a concomitant interest in distribution and the largely ignored question of general human happiness.