Every major question in history is a religious question. It has more effect in molding life than nationalism or a common language.
– Hilaire Belloc
Continuing our article series on Benjamin Wiker’s “10 Books every Conservative Must Read,” we come to Part III: The Place of Economics for Conservatives and Chapter 9, “The Servile State” by the Anglo-French writer and historian, Hilaire Belloc, who countered the homo economicus of Karl Marx’s view that every aspect of human nature, from morality to art, philosophy, religion, law and all parts of our political life was reducible to economic modes of production for each society.
By contrast, Belloc is out of the intellectual lineage of Aristotle who viewed man as a political animal, but also as a rational, moral and religious animal whose rich complexity animates his own trenchant conservatism. Belloc also echoes Tocqueville, who warned America about falling into a soft despotism where citizens become willing slaves of a centralized power in exchange for comfort and security.
Intellectually precocious, young Belloc would memorize extended passages of poetry and even composed his own verse before age 10. Later he would excel in literature, oratory, mathematics, debate and the classics, Greek and Latin. In 1893 he was rejected as a fellow at Oxford due to his Catholic religion and outspoken conservative political views, and in 1900 he met a fellow writer, intellectual and co-conspirator, G.K. Chesterton, with whom he would share a life-long friendship.
From 1906 to 1910, Belloc was a member of the House of Commons as part of the Liberal Party, but he spent most of his rather short political career railing against the socialism of his own party. In 1911 when the Liberal Party’s David Lloyd George, serving as chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced a national insurance bill (equal to universal socialized health care) and was widely supported by liberals and Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the Socialist Labour Party, Belloc decided to put his ideas to paper and wrote the pro-conservative pamphlet, “Socialism and the Servile State,” which he recast in a book, “The Servile State” (1912).
Following Aristotle’s treatise “Oikonomikos” (“Economics” or “On Home Management”), Belloc began from first principles of etymology and broke down the word economics to its Greek roots: oikos (home) and nomos (custom or law) and deduced that the study of economics deals more with the management of a household as opposed to the GDP of Athens, England or any place else.
Belloc warns that the fundamental Oikonomia is “to control the production of wealth is to control human life itself. To refuse man the opportunity for the production of wealth is to refuse him the opportunity for life.”
Wiker wrote of Belloc:
The great danger, or course, is whenever larger political and economic entities take over local responsibilities … That is totalitarianism, because it wipes out all the intermediate institutions and directs everything from the top-down. How may we protect ourselves against such economic totalitarianism? Belloc’s fundamental conservative economic principle goes by the name of “Distributism,” a term to which he and Chesterton are inextricable linked. It is really another name for the principle of subsidiarity, or for Anti-Federalist republicanism, or the Aristotelian understanding of our lives as political animals.
Using a movie metaphor to explain Belloc’s prescient views on economics and history, Wiker later compares and contrasts two movies, one classic: “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), the second a fictional horror movie every American is presently living in: “It’s a Miserable Life” (2008). The classic 1946 movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” starred Jimmy Stewart playing the American hero, and George Bailey, the president of the local bank in Bedford Falls. When the economy took a downturn and an anxious crowd gathered outside the bank, Bailey explained to them the basic principles of banking economics and how the bank doesn’t have their money because it is being loaned to others to buy houses, to start and expand businesses and thousands of other economic uses. This common-wealth is distributed throughout the community to build up the community. To make a run on the banks because of an economic recession or depression would destroy the commonwealth.
“It’s a Miserable Life” is a 2008 Bizzaro-world remake of the original classic where certain corrupt congressmen in Washington, D.C., tell everyone in Bedford Falls they should have a big house and, in the name of “equality,” demand that Bailey give out a certain quota of loans regardless of qualifications. Bailey wisely rejects this advice, but evil financier Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) leaps at the chance to turn a quick dollar by bundling loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or some dishonest foreign investor. This causes Bailey’s bank to go into bankruptcy. When the bottom falls out of the market, the government bails out Potter and prints money to forestall the effects of further economic collapse.
Like the biblical prophets of old, 100 years ago Belloc accurately prophesized against an activist socialist leader like President Barack Obama who “regards the public ownership of the means of production (and the consequent compulsion of all citizens to work under the direction of the state) as the only feasible solution of our modern social ills,” so that he will “begin by demanding the confiscation of the means of production from the hands of their present owners, and the vesting of them in the state.” General Motors now becomes Government Motors; Fannie Mae replaces your local bank for home loans.
According to Wiker, “Belloc thought that, ultimately, the only real defense against socialism and the servile state was the Christian faith. … Only Christianity can fight secular materialism that convinces people to surrender their moral liberty and seek their worldly material welfare from a centralized power.” Indeed Belloc’s 1912 work predated the utopian socialism of Woodrow Wilson, FDR, LBJ, Obama and the genocidal evil of tyrants like: Lenin, Stalin, FDR, Hitler, Hirohito, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, Saddam Hussein – men who would usurp God, natural law and natural rights and replace them with the iron fist of the secular state.