December 2004

An Essay on the Restoration of Property.  By Hilaire Belloc. IHS Press (757-423-0324 or ihspress. com). 102 pages. $8.95.

We are again in debt to IHS Press for its splendid work in reprinting modern classics of Catholic social thought. Among the thinkers who gave us this legacy, Hilaire Belloc stands in the first rank.

Yet well before Belloc, there was another thinker, Thomas Jefferson, who stands in the first rank of our democratic legacy. In his Autobiography he wrote: “It is not by consolidation, or concentration of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected….” What? Was Jefferson a “distributist”? Precisely. He explains: “It is by…descending gradation from general to particular that the mass of human affairs may be best managed, for the good and prosperity of all.”

Jefferson is articulating one of common sense’s most important lessons. (No matter that bureaucrats resist it.) The lesson is that, insofar as possible, the best way for us to tackle our social problems is from “the grass roots up.” Catholics call this insight the principle of subsidiarity. For more than a century, popes from Pius XI (in Quadragesimo Anno) to John Paul II (in Centesimus Annus) have defended and developed it.

The principle of subsidiarity also finds a home in the metaphysical center of Thomistic philosophy. The principle is, indeed, a corollary of St. Thomas Aquinas’s dictum that “everything is perfected in act.” Admittedly, this dictum and its link to the principle of subsidiarity might seem a bit mysterious. Here’s how the connection works: St. Thomas recognizes the whole of God’s creation, in its every member, as good and as having a potential for further realizing its goodness. But that potential isn’t realized randomly or arbitrarily. Rather, it is actualized in accord with the dynamism and nature of its specific bearer.

Now let’s move from metaphysics to anthropology — and economics. Our way of acting is distinctively free and deliberate. Yet, in so many ways, it is at risk. Hilaire Belloc and his distributist allies, then and now, see economic hyper-centralization as a violation of the principle of subsidiarity. If left unchallenged, it becomes an “economism” that strangles our freedom and creativity.

In his An Essay on the Restoration of Property, Belloc focuses on the hyper-centralization of property. To overcome it, he argues, first requires the redistribution of land. “Wage-slaves…think in terms of income,” but free men, he says, understand income in terms of “property in land.” Today, of course, fewer and fewer people own a greater and greater percentage of the land. The family farm — or ranch — is at the top of the endangered species list.

Yet the noose tightens still, doesn’t it? Fewer and fewer of us, proportionally, are lucky enough to “own” a home. As the IHS Directors remind us in their Introduction, most homeowners are “on a rent-to-own program which normally lasts 30 years and sees a ‘modest’ compound interest rate translate into a payment in real terms several times the value of the home.”

Shall we be candid? On being reminded of our status as landless wage-slaves, many (most?) of us are inclined to throw up our hands and mutter, “That’s the way it works, pal.” Were Belloc still with us, he’d reply, “Not unless we’re chumps.” (Woe to those who are no longer indignant!) Then he’d sit us down to read the last chapter of his Essay. Therein he offers a barrage of ideas on how we can make the future different. His suggestions, he admits, are “obviously imperfect.” No matter, though. “Others will add to and perfect them.”

Read the book; get started.

- James G. Hanink





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