top of page

Our Servile State, Part III

Don’t Reform the Reform, Reform the Reformation

A Concise Summary of Hilaire Belloc's The Servile State (see parts 1 & 2), by Charlie Deist

“. . . If we do not restore the Institution of Property we cannot escape restoring the Institution of Slavery; there is no third course.” — Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State

My friend David Clayton makes fun of me for wanting people to have chickens in their backyard. If that’s what distributism is all about, David wants no part of it.

I don’t blame him — my coop-building business is not exactly booming, and I haven’t yet made the case for small-scale farming as a profitable alternative to wage slavery in our modern servile state. In short, I am not the poster child for distributism.

If not a back-to-the-land movement, what is distributism in the 21st century all about? Read on to find out.


Part II described the sudden arrival of peak capitalism in England, and its equally sudden transition into the regulated cronyism that people are usually thinking of when they refer to the “evils of capitalism.”

David recently did a podcast on distributism with Fr. Brad Elliott — a Dominican priest who used to call himself a distributist, but no longer does. Both Fr. Brad and David favor markets and advocate what they simply call the free economy to avoid the confusion that the word capitalism generates.

Fr. Brad asks an important question: When popes like Leo XIII have condemned unrestrained capitalism in their various social encyclicals, what part of a competitive, market-based economic system are they arguing against?

It doesn’t seem to be the price system, which efficiently allocates scarce resources, or the voluntary nature of market exchanges, which makes both parties better off by definition. These are good things.

No — it’s the existence of an exploitative capitalist class that seems to bother them on a spiritual level. Belloc pegs this to the original distribution of the wealth during the time and place where capitalism originally reached its peak.

Unequal land ownership was a byproduct of the Reformation. The theft of monastic lands by a protestant king, Henry VIII, put even more wealth into the hands of already-wealthy owners, who were the most natural candidates to capitalize industrial ventures from the late 18th century, onward. But beyond this, what’s wrong with centralized ownership and mass production?

For one, Belloc thought it was inherently unstable, since competition between large-scale economic rivals results in a “race to the bottom.” Too much of certain goods are produced until the boom ends and masses of men are laid off.

At that point, social reformers come out of the woodwork to propose schemes that limit competition and keep capital in the hands of regulated monopoly industries, while granting concessions to workers to make their livelihoods more secure.

The modern “mixed economy” is not quite capitalism and not quite socialism, but servile.

The Two Kinds of Socialist Reformers

Most people who call themselves socialists tend to be driven by one of two motivations for collectivizing the means of production. In the closing section of The Servile State, Belloc describes these two prototypical socialist reformers.

The first kind thinks that the socialization of the means of production would solve the various social ills of the time:

“He is out to substitute for Capitalist society a society in which men shall all be fed, clothed, housed, and in which men shall not live in a perpetual jeopardy of their housing, clothing, and food.” (p. 124)

However, when faced with the bloody reality of seizing property from the capitalist by force, most reformers of this generous disposition gladly settle for compromises that define a new relationship between worker and capitalist. The capitalist undertakes certain duties to feed and clothe the workers.

The worker, although still dispossessed, now has his basic needs met in exchange for fulfilling his duties to the capitalist.

The second kind does not so much “burn at the sight of human wrongs,” but rather likes wielding coercive power and wants to impose his own will on other human beings. He, too, is happy to leave the privilege of the capitalist class intact if he can direct society according to a strict, orderly scheme:

“Let laws exist which make the proper housing, feeding, clothing, and recreation of the proletarian mass be incumbent upon the possessing class, and the observance of such rules be imposed, by inspection and punishment, upon those whom he pretends to benefit, and all that he really cares for will be achieved.” (p. 128)

A third kind of reformer is the “practical man,” whom Belloc describes as the most dangerous because he is satisfied to bring about partial reforms that alleviate some human misery without rocking the boat or changing the general stamp of society, which is servile. The practical man has no idea how much better off a society of owners could be, because he has forgotten that it used to exist.

At the time of Belloc’s writing, the mass of dispossessed workers in England had also lost the memory of the distributive state and given up the expectation of being owners themselves. Their acquiescence to the servile state was the final domino to fall in creating the new servile, stable equilibrium.

Once a man thinks of himself as a wage earner, he will continue to accept piecemeal reforms like shorter working hours, a slightly higher wage, marginally better working conditions, etc. — all backed by his overlords and the practical men who make their living as professional reformers.

All three kinds of reformers and the reformed themselves find themselves aligned within a servile state:

“All forces, then, are making for the Servile State in this the final phase of our evil Capitalist society in England. The generous reformer is canalized towards it; the ungenerous one finds it a very mirror of his ideal; the herd of “practical” men meet at every stage in its inception the “practical” steps which they expected and demanded; while that proletarian mass upon whom the experiment is being tried have lost the tradition of property and of freedom which might resist the change, and are most powerfully inclined to its acceptance by the positive benefits which it confers.” (p. 142)

It’s Not About Reform… But Something Needs to Change

G.K. Chesterton characterized Big Government and Big Business as “Hudge and Gudge” — natural friends who share the blame for the sins of the modern crony capitalism.

Fr. Brad, however, thinks it’s unfair to paint a symmetry between businesses like Wal-Mart on the one hand and government on the other. After all, government has force at its disposal, whereas Wal-Mart can only persuade consumers through lower prices to vote with their wallets.

Mass production and the greater affordability of goods don’t seem like evils in and of themselves, but there is something ugly about the consumer culture in which disposable products in plastic shrink wrap are used for a day before being thrown away.

Pope Francis has criticized the “throwaway” culture and found signs of it in areas from euthanasia and abortion, to overconsumption and pollution.

Most legislation addressing these problems is limited in what it can accomplish, but the above quote from Pope Francis suggests there is a more powerful solution in the individual who takes responsibility in his or her own life.

Chesterton was once asked by an aspiring young distributist what he should do, to which he responded that the young man should learn skills, look for property, find other nearby distributists, pool resources, and begin to operate a sort of small, modern-day guild.

The first step would be to make it profitable, meaning it would need to engage in mutually beneficial trade with the outside world.

The more profitable the business, the more room there is to break free of the standard practices and subsistence wages that characterize the realm of perfect competition.

From there, a business, guild or co-op could set values like permanence, durability, environmental regeneration, integration of family responsibilities, and so on.

Realizing the Distributive State

A common misconception about distributism is that requires government to regulate business back down to size, or enforce an equal distribution of property by force.

However, you don’t find that idea anywhere in The Servile State, and it sounds more like the reforms he spends a large section of the book criticizing.

In talking about the distributive state, we should be careful not to let modern government influence our thinking too much. Belloc describes the peak of the old distributive state as follows:

“The State, as the minds of men envisaged it at the close of this process, was an agglomeration of families of varying wealth, but by far the greater number owners of the means of production.” (p. 56)

Political freedom in the United States is backed by checks and balances on the different branches of government. Economic freedom under the distributive state was governed by similar restraints on certain kinds of transactions that would allow too much wealth to accrue in a small number of hands. Political freedom in a constitutional republic depends on a majority of citizens desiring to govern themselves. Economic freedom in a distributive state depends on the population having a desire to own property.

It’s not essential for everyone to want to be a land-owning farmer, but a majority of people in the state need to want to be owners.

In short, you don’t need to build a backyard chicken coop to help recover the distributive state (I’ll do that for you). Reviving it begins with a recognition that we have been set free, and a longing to realize that freedom in concrete ways in our respective situations.

Belloc’s counter-history of the reformation and industrial revolution revives the memory of a time when the ideals of the Church provided a spiritual foundation for a more just economic system. Debating the merits of Capitalism versus Socialism is passé. What’s old is new again. The possibilities for becoming a property owner are endless, and some of the most exciting business opportunities involve enabling others to become productive property owners.

“Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few.” — G.K. Chesterton


*Follow Charlie on Twitter:


bottom of page