In recent years conservative thinkers and politicians in Britain and America have mounted a powerful critique of welfare statism and of the “dependency culture” that it creates. A similar though more radical critique of the nascent social state was made by a group of British dissident intellectuals before and after the First World War. It is true that, by and large, the Conservative Party during this period was also opposed to interventionist legislation as a means of improving society. But their opposition was tactical and spontaneous in character, and it is difficult to derive from it any systematically worked-out alternative to collectivism, unless it be the unreformed capitalism of 19th-century England. Much more interesting, and more relevant today, than the campaign waged by Tories against the “New Liberalism” inside Parliament was the campaign waged outside it by a group that eventually came to be known as the Distributists. The sociopolitical philosophy that gave this movement its name and inspiration was first formulated by Hilaire Belloc in his book The Servile State, published in 1912. Belloc advocated the “distributive state” in which a determining number” of citizens “should severally own the means of production.” However, it wasn’t until 1926 that Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and a number of others founded The Distributionist League in an attempt to put the ideas they had previously expressed into practice as well as print.

Distributist no less than collectivist ideas had their genesis in the “social question,” which first gained prominence in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. The investigations of Charles Booth into conditions in London and of Seerbohm Rowntree into conditions in York revealed that as much as a third of the population of these cities were living in destitution. These studies, thick with grim statistics of ill health and stunted growth among urban working-class families, correlated with army recruitment figures showing that some 40 percent of Boer War military recruits had been rejected as unfit. At a time when Germany was seen as the main threat to Britain’s imperial and industrial supremacy, these revelations excited not just compassion but the fear that the Island Empire was imperiled by the physical deterioration of its people. Germany was a model as well as a threat. It was Bismarck’s Prussia, after all, which had pioneered social reforms in the shape of national insurance and mass education.

Fueled by a mixture of motives, from the purely compassionate to the impurely politic, England’s social reform movement in the early years of this century had a powerful head of steam behind it. First came old-age pensions and the establishment of labor exchanges. Then in 1911 there was the National Insurance Act, which effectively laid the foundations of Britain’s welfare state. It was while David Lloyd George’s insurance bill was still being debated in the House of Commons that Hilaire Belloc put the finishing touches to his prophetic work, The Servile State; prophetic, because it correctly foresaw that reformist legislation would have as its result a state in which the masses would be “permanently dispossessed of the means of production.”

Belloc viewed the nascent collectivist state of his time as engaged in a process of institutionalizing, by making tolerable, the proletarian condition to which so many had been reduced since the Industrial Revolution by-large-scale capitalism.- So apparently inured were social reformers at the beginning of this century to the circumstances of dependence in which masses of people found themselves, it never occurred to them that the circumstances themselves might be altered, instead of only some of the worst consequences arising out of them. It was considered impractical by the great and the good, when the matter was considered at all, to return to the sort of society in which men are either independent producers or at least exercise some control over their productive lives. The scale of modern production and organization, it was automatically assumed, rendered any such thoughts Utopian, not to say reactionary. Henceforward, the dispossessed could look to the state for relief from poverty and insecurity, but not for the restoration of those liberties and responsibilities that are proper to free men. Regimentation was to replace exploitation. The working class were to be better fed, clothed, educated, and housed—but all after a pattern dictated by their “betters,” namely the political mandarins recruited to run the new social state that. Leviathan-like, was to spread its tentacles into every corner of 20th-century life.

The mounting variety and complexity of welfare legislation bred a new class of administrative experts, whose Olympian pretensions were encapsulated in Karl Mannheim’s 1929 definition of them as a “disinterested elite.” From the start these experts were “end of ideology” types inspired less by visions of equality than of efficiency. Their ideal of the bureaucratic state as the agent of human progress and enlightenment received its rationale in the writings of the Webbs, Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells, all of whom preached varieties of that secular religion known as scientism, which amounts to the naive belief that man’s behavior can be modified and improved by scientific design, just as nature has been similarly modified and made answerable to our needs. Once the belief in scientific reason is accepted and absorbed by a ruling class, the possibilities for manipulating man—in the interests of some presumed good, be it health, prosperity, efficiency, or social adjustment—become limitless. Under “the new sort of Business Government,” predicted Chesterton, “there will be no eccentricity; no humour; no noble disdain of the world. There will be nothing but a loathsome thing called Social Service.” The trouble with behavior manipulators is that they are Manichees; they do not love humanity as it is: Chesterton’s “old beer-drinking, creed-making, fighting, failing, sensual, respectable man.” Indeed, they are drawn to social reform precisely by the opportunities it affords to alter man for the better. So the one test they do not apply to any of their blueprints for social betterment is the f simple test of human happiness, for they do not know what it is.

If misanthropy rather than philanthropy was the motive force behind much social reform, nowhere has this been more evident than in the eugenics movement, with its obvious distaste for man as he is as opposed to man as he should be. The tyranny of highminded bureaucrats, Chesterton and Belloc believed, was bound to grow as the frontiers of organized welfare were pushed ever forward to accommodate, not only humdrum matters of pensions and pay, but also the whole question of a healthy nation. The progressive establishment increasingly came to think of itself as empowered, by its superior knowledge and insights, to interfere in other people’s domestic lives and arrangements. There thus developed the ruling ideology of what Wells admiringly termed “The Great State” in which social evils would not merely be eradicated but would be prevented from occurring in the first place. This would necessitate the doctor, in Wells’s words, becoming “the health adviser of the community.” Out of this ideology came the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, authorizing the incarceration for life of any person deemed mad by two doctors. A government that was at the disposal of such enlightened experts as eugenicists and health faddists, was itself ungovernable. To Chesterton it was plain that it had lost all sense of proportion. It had lost all sight of that ancient principle of “subsidiarity,” by which power is delegated downwards not arrogated upwards. Instead, “The Great State” was claiming the right to take full responsibility for society, and this on the basis that human beings cannot take such responsibility themselves, since, poor things, they are the helpless victims of heredity or environment. Science, not content with the laboratory as a field for its experiments, was now taking the whole of society for its domain.

Implicit in all manner of social reforms, of which eugenics was only the most extreme as well as the most evil, was the assumption that ordinary, individual human beings could not safely be left to run their own lives; they needed constant supervision. The new social state increasingly came to usurp the functions of the family—in health, housing, education, and numberless other matters. But it was not only by policies of collective regimentation that people were made less and less conscious of their responsibilities to families and neighborhoods; it was also by policies of individual liberation. Moreover, the personal license “permitted” and propagated by the new clerisy, since it had the effect of atomizing families and communities, made people easier, not harder, to control. Which is why the one form of freedom tolerated by enlightened despots is sexual freedom. As Chesterton explained:

They are trying to break the vow of the knight as they broke the vow of the monk. They recognise the vow as the vital antithesis to servile status; the alternative and therefore the antagonist. Marriage makes a small state within the state, which resists all such regimentation. That bond breaks all other bonds; that law is found stronger than all later and lesser laws. They desire the democracy to be sexually fluid, because the making of small nuclei is like the making of small nations. Like small nations, they are a nuisance to the mind of imperial scope. In short, what they fear, in the most literal sense, is home rule.

Testimony to this diagnosis is the fact that a permissive moral climate serves the cause of collectivism by swelling the ranks of those in need through the addition of categories previously underrepresented, notably single mothers, abandoned wives, and abused children. Collectivism and moral individualism have between them spawned an underclass characterized by what Chesterton called a combination of “passive functions and permissive pleasures.”

Of course, the distributist critique of welfare by Chesterton, Belloc, and others went deeper than any one of these objections to its exercise in practice. It rested, finally, on their belief in private property as a principle essential to the good life and the good society. Socialists have never pretended to this principle, but capitalists have never ceased to invoke it as the very basis of a freemarket economy. So in what sense was distributism really distinguishable from capitalism? Part of the answer is to be found by examining how far the rhetoric of capitalism has matched the reality. The 19th century saw a great shift taking place in the capitalist concept of property, from the personal and responsible ownership of tangible things—land, shops, factories, machinery—to the impersonal and irresponsible ownership of stocks and shares. This shift was bound to accelerate the decline of the small business and the small family firm. With the advent of the limited liability company, great corporations could be created, and great fortunes amassed, by speculation. By the beginning of this century, the company promoter had become the cynosure of society, and property his plaything.

Yet even if one grants all this—grants, in other words, that great agglomerations of capital have been allowed to grow, to the detriment of small property—it still remains true that many small enterprises have managed to survive in the Darwinian marketplace. Why, then, could distributists, even while deploring large-scale capitalism, not admire small-scale capitalism and call it such? Because to call the small businessmen, craftsmen, and farmers of their day capitalist would, in the distributist’s view, be very misleading. It would be to tar such people with the predatory attributes that both modern economic developments and modern economic theories have made the defining features of capitalism. Distributists wished to dissociate themselves not simply from the capitalism of monopolies and trusts but also from the capitalism that would impute to every small businessman the unconquerable urge to become a big businessman. Chesterton would evidently have balked at labeling his father’s modest ambitions capitalist:

My people belonged to that rather old-fashioned English middle-class; in which a business man was still permitted to mind his own business. They had been granted no glimpse of our later and loftier vision, of that more advanced and adventurous conception of commerce, in which a business man is supposed to rival, ruin, destroy, absorb and swallow up everybody else’s business.

Notwithstanding the negative associations that capitalism possessed for the distributist movement, some have since wished to rechristen the movement “popular capitalism”; and this may be a shrewd, even a legitimate, move. Both Belloc and Chesterton did at times wonder whether a better name for “existing capitalism,” since it had deprived most men of capital, would be proletarianism. “Popular capitalism,” in so far as it suggests that most men should own capital, is clearly not proletarianism and does therefore have much in common with distributism. A Conservative member of Parliament of my acquaintance (now, alas, dead), whose conservatism was much influenced by Catholic social doctrine and by the writings of Chesterton and Belloc, used to say that a principal aim of capitalism proper should be “the liquidation of the proletariat” through the wider distribution of property rather than state benefits.

However, distributism has an ethical as well as an economic side. The dispersion of property or ownership, as Chesterton saw it, is but “a minor application of a much more vital principle; that what should be distributed is not merely the legal power of a man over money, but the divine or mystical power of a man over matter. Man is made man, after the fact that he prays, by the fact that he ploughs, that he builds, that he cuts wood for transport or carves it for ornament; in short, by the fact that he has this mystical privilege of mastery over the material universe.” All enterprises of whatever size necessarily obey an imperative to make money or a profit. But in the large enterprise this imperative will likely eclipse all others, since it is the one imperative that matters to the absentee capitalist who has only the most tangential relationship to the thing or things he owns. By contrast, in the personal ownership of productive property—whether by one individual or several—there exists an organic relation between an owner-proprietor and the object of his work: the one, so to speak, is incarnated in the other. Everyone connected with a small enterprise—even the person without any stake in it—tends to take a pride and interest in its product.

Distributism, then, though often interpreted (as much by its supporters as its opponents) as proposing solely a society of small peasant proprietors, in fact commits one to no more than the belief that small enterprises, be they industrial or agricultural, should predominate over large ones. And this prejudice in favor of concrete, personalized property over abstract, depersonalized accumulations of capital is really a very human prejudice; it arises from the same human need which is satisfied by the ownership of even the humblest house or home: the need to ensure that what John Paul II, in Laborem Exercens, called “the subjective dimension of the person” finds an outlet in creative fulfillment and embodiment.

Conservatives both in Britain and America are perhaps more aware today than they have been for a long time that statist attempts to promote welfare invariably end in exacerbating the very problems they set out to cure. That said, there remains an unresolved tension in conservativism as indeed there does in capitalism: between an ostensible commitment to private property and the private acquisition of wealth; a license to enjoy the one should not imply a license to enjoy the other. On the contrary, a state that truly sought to preserve and extend property would also resist and restrict vast concentrations of wealth. Few conservatives see • as clearly as did Belloc the causal link between unrestrained capitalism and the welfare state. So long as masses of people are prevented by the former from possessing even a modicum of economic independence, so long will they look to the latter for the ultimate source of their well-being. Unless there exists in a democratic society sufficient numbers of people with the dignity and independence that property rights confer on them, the pressure on the provider state will grow ever more irresistible.

It is not necessary in order to ease this pressure that all those currently living on welfare handouts should be transformed overnight into small capitalists. After all, most of us—whether dependent on some form of welfare or not—are wage earners, not capitalists. But what is important is that our Western societies move towards a condition where, to use Belloc’s phrase, a “determining number” of people at least own their own homes and at best have some say in their own enterprises. There is already evidence from Britain (and I believe America too) to suggest that where such a “determining number” sets the tone of a community, that community is transformed by their presence and example: by what Britain’s foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, has termed “active citizenship.” Passive citizenship is the product of the servile state, active of the proprietary state. Belloc did not underestimate the difficulties of moving from the one to the other: “We are attempting a radical change. We are attempting a reactionary revolution.”