Lecture 47: The Outline of Sanity

America leads the world in many things, including mental illness. Our mixed up society helps produce mixed up people. We are mixed up about religion, education, sex, and two other very basic things: politics and economics. We are basically insane when it comes to the role of money and laws and our daily bread. We want as much money as possible, we also want the government to supply everything we want, and we don’t expect to have to pay for it.

An ongoing theme in all of Chesterton’s writings is sanity. The basic argument of Orthodoxy is that the Apostle’s Creed would be the best basis for a sane society, that modern philosophies not only do not lead to truth, they lead to madness. We see the theme in Chesterton’s fiction as well, such as in the series of mystery stories called The Poet and the Lunatics.

Sanity is about wholeness, completeness. Insanity is about narrowness and brokenness. We live in broken society and it is ruled by two very broken, narrow social philosophies that seem to be at war with one another when they are in fact co-conspirators against the common man: socialism and capitalism, or Hudge and Gudge, to whom we were introduced in What’s Wrong with the World.

The practical solution to “what’s wrong with the world” is explained in The Outline of Sanity. It is Distributism. It is a difficult idea to explain, but this book is where to begin. Belloc’s The Servile State is an essential work but is as dry as dust. If you recommend that one as a starting point, you are sure to chase people away from Distributism.

Of course, you’ll probably chase them away anyway. We have been pretty much brainwashed into the “security” of socialism and the “freedom” of capitalism, both of which are lies, but the insanity is only exacerbated when we try to have both things at once – not when we try to have both freedom and security at once, but when we try to have both capitalism and socialism at once – which is what we presently have in the Servile State. (I just got done telling you that Belloc’s book is essential reading, now don’t bring it up again.)

Distributism offers freedom (which is responsibility) and security (which is protection of the individual and the community). It is based on the widespread ownership of private property. It presumes that small business is better than big business, that craftsmanship is superior to mass production, and that local government is better than big government.

It was Pope Leo XIII who first articulated the connection between property and justice for the modern world in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. This idea is carried forward a few decades later by G. K. Chesterton in The Outline of Sanity (which is a collection of essays that originally appeared in his newspaper, G.K.’s Weekly in 1925). He shows how neither socialism nor capitalism promote justice because neither promote small property.

A pickpocket is obviously a champion of private enterprise. But he is not a champion of private property. The point about capitalism is that it preaches the extension of business, but not the preservation of belongings; it also tries to disguise the pickpocket with some of the virtues of the pirate. The point about communism is that it tries to reform the pickpocket by forbidding pockets.

While Chesterton demonstrates how Socialism utterly fails to fulfill any of its promises because it does not trust the common man to make his own decisions, he also points out that capitalism’s primary failure is that it has accomplished everything that socialism threatened to do. Under capitalism, a clerk lives in a house that he does not own, that he did not make, and that he does not want. He thinks in terms of wages, of putting in time. It would make no difference to a clerk of a huge corporation if his job were instead in a government department. It makes no difference if he’s a faceless servant of the State or of the Rich.

The present system, especially as it exists in industrial countries, has already become a danger, and is rapidly becoming a death trap. This system rests on two ideas: that the rich will always be rich enough to hire the poor; and the poor will always be poor enough to want to be hired by the rich.

Paralysis in this system is inevitable. Capitalism is a contradiction. When most men are wage-earners it is hard for them to be customers. For the capitalist is always trying to cut down what his servant demands. And in doing so he is cutting down what his customer can spend. He is wanting the same man to be rich and poor at the same time.

Chesterton prophetically describes “The Bluff of the Big Shops.” He saw clearly that today’s “Superstores” would snuff out small local shops, and in almost every way it would be the customer who would suffer. With the elimination of the small shops, there is no more shopping around. At the big shop we really can’t get what we want.

I think the big shop is a bad shop. Shopping there is not only a bad action, but a bad bargain. The monster emporium is not only vulgar and insolent, but incompetent and uncomfortable. And I deny that its large organization is efficient. In truth, large organization is always disorganization.

It is said that it is convenient to get everything in the same shop. But in truth the monopolists’ shops are only convenient to the monopolist. They concentrate business as they concentrate wealth–in the hands of fewer and fewer citizens.

Now this surrender to modern monopoly does not have to take place. All we have to do to support small shops is to support them. Everybody could do it, but nobody can imagine it being done. In one sense nothing is so simple, and in another nothing is so hard. Whether or not we surrender [to the big shops] is a matter of moral will and not economic law.

Chesterton’s preferred solution is that most every business be a small business. Where larger businesses may be necessary, they should be owned by the employees; they should be run by a guild, combining their contributions and dividing their results. He believes that small shops can be governed – even if they are self-governed. He believes small shops can be supported—if we support them.

Distributism is Democracy. Distributism is based on property. Democracy can work only if property is widespread. Democracy means self-government. Property means self-support. In a Distributist society, people produce and use their own goods, make their own laws, and are not dependent outsiders.

Chesterton does not say there is no place for exchange, nor does he say that man needs nothing from the State. He says these things must exist, but in proper proportion. Neither the Trader nor the Government Official should play a dominant role in society.

Can it be done? Chesterton says Distributism is a thing done by people; it is not a thing that can be done to people. It can be done, if we decide to do it. It means that we take greater control over our lives. It means that we cease to be wage slaves and consumer slaves. It means being fair and free and faithful. “The aim of human polity,” says Chesterton, “is human happiness. But this does not mean that we are obligated to be richer, or busier, or more efficient, or more productive, or progressive. We are not obligated to be any of these things if they do not make us happier.”

If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

Also available in Vol.5 of The Collected Works.

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