The Moral vs. the Practical

“Bite off a little piece.”

There’s a question in the background of modern policy disputes that was perhaps not present in Chesterton’s time, and the fact that what was, for the early Distributists, a fixed and even undisputed matter, is now a divisive doctrine (though not one people bring up) confuses our reading of the earlier works.

To put it shortly, Chesterton never expected that a morally evil act or a directly unjust policy would fail to harm. And, what is equally critical, he NEVER considered revising his tests of moral good and evil or his standards of justice and injustice because some confiscation or intrusion yielded (apparently) good practical results. This of course is directly contrary to the notion of “Social Justice,” which holds that the use of police power is justified by the importance of the social aims, not by some moral standard as such. The crusader for Social Justice does not seek out the evildoer who impoverished the poor man by his unjust actions, he simply identifies a class from whom he can confiscate funds for his noble purpose. The people at whom the law is aimed cannot defend themselves even by proving their own innocence; it is not a matter of restoring what has been stolen, or else there would be some sort of test of responsibility, an examination of actions. Instead, there is only an examination of finances; the man who actually robs the poor with imminent domain is in no way separated from the man who helps them with job offers. The man who is in poverty because he sold everything for drugs is to be treated no differently than the man who has been literally deprived of his livelihood by a licensing board, or thrown out of his home or shop by some agency. The first step toward “Social Justice” is the abandonment of Justice as a test of where police power may be used. And this very step is the one Chesterton never took.

Chesterton did indeed advocate land reform, a direct, legal confiscation of property from the rich and its distribution among the poor. “There, it’s settled. Welfare is consistent with Distributism.” Well, no, it isn’t. In the forgotten system where the weapons of Justice are just that, where the police and the courts, the machinery of confiscation, imprisonment, and coercion, are recognized as weighty and terrible powers, it is clear that to retask these weapons to some purpose other than Justice is a horrible abuse. The Law can only work two things: Justice, or Injustice. No matter how benign or even noble may be some aim, if it is not itself a matter of moral Justice, to use a tool like force to achieve it is a grave evil. To confiscate back what has been stolen may be just; to confiscate what was justly produced can only be to steal.

The reason Chesterton, who believed in Justice, sounds so similar on topics like land reform to modern reformers, who believe instead in “Social Justice” and thus dismiss the above paragraph out of hand, is simply that direct instances of theft of land and deliberate impoverishment of the public by policy were a blatantly visible reality in his time. The enormous travesties of the Enclosures were before his eyes in the way that TARP and Quantitative Easing are before ours (or should be). For the “good of the whole”, the legislatures and authorities of our countries have acted to grant truly shocking privileges of wealth to a select few at the expense of the many. Now, many historians would question the causal relationship between Manchester poverty and the Enclosures (and the Corn Laws, and the Bank of England, etc.) and put the cause down as some other demographic factor. Chesterton never did. In his mind, the Moral evil produced the public misfortune, but it was the Moral fault that gave license to use confiscation. If the same conditions had been produced by blight or earthquake, this would have produced no cause for Land Reform in the coercive sense. This of course is the opposite test applied by the modern reformer, who merely seizes at random, taking from one “class” to help another. Nevermind that the classes involved necessarily include many non-thieves and many non-victims. The goal is not to restore what has been wrongly done, but to build, from scratch and by force, an outcome that is preferable in the mind of the reformer. And so, the reformer says the exact same words that Chesterton said, about taking land from these people and giving it to those people. The reformer forms the same sounds, but he thinks opposite thoughts, for he says of all property what Chesterton said about stolen property. Chesterton said that the lands that the police had seized and handed over to the families then governing England, should be seized right back and given back to those from whose hands they were taken, or their heirs. Because property is so sacred and inviolable, it was a matter of Justice, of law, a matter well warranting swords and firearms to accomplish, to restore the stolen goods to the rightful owners. In contrast, the reformer thinks that property is so trivial, so artificial, such a petty little impediment to the perfection of the race (or whatever his goal is) that any resistance to his seizing and redistributing it any way he likes is a recalcitrant barbarism. And so these two men, who are enemies on the matter of property as Heaven is the enemy of Hell, end up, because of this modern confusion, saying together “We support land reform” when what they mean couldn’t be more different.


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