No matter how unfashionable – even politically incorrect – it may be to say so, it is certain that our whole society and culture stands at a critical crossroads; though it may rightly be described as standing on the edge of a precipice. But crossroads or precipice apart, it remains that the coming few years will be decisive. They will determine whether our civilization lives or dies, and the outcome will be determined by our ability to reconnect with reality, and to translate that renewed grasp of fundamental truths into wide-ranging and salutory action. The fate of man, then, is not in the hands of the gods, but in his willingness to work with God.
It is because the situation is so grave that it is imperative for Catholics, Christians, and all men of goodwill and sound instinct to take counsel from those literary masters who foresaw what we now suffer, and who labored to show how we could gradually, but determinedly, return to the real and to the normal.
G.K. Chesterton was one of those masters who charted a course for us back to the real and the normal, and whose counsel is available to us through a thorough reading of The Outline of Sanity. This is not another book about the dissolution of the West. It is rather a book that pulls the plug on the lies; it indicates clearly what does and does not constitute a worthwhile society; it draws lines and makes distinctions. It does so in order to highlight feasible and wholly attainable remedies for our very precarious situation. Yet most of all, it inspires, it galvanizes, it exudes Hope. It is as persuasive for Calvinists as it is for Catholics – because it is based on truths so self-evident that only the consciously dishonest would deny them...
The Outline of Sanity, therefore, might be called, in memory of St. Thomas More, A Book for All Seasons, for it talks of England, but applies everywhere; it propounds limited objectives, but its applications are unlimited; it was written in another time and another age, but it is still as fresh as home-baked bread. It can be read time and again to great profit, for in so many ways G.K. Chesterton was a great prophet...
Now, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, the economic order should be organized in a diametrically different fashion: the needs of man must determine economic priorities. What man needs is neither an ever-increasing cash flow nor a continually expanding investment portfolio, but rather a society that gives him a chance to procure what he needs for himself and his family, and to use what he procures virtuously. He needs a society that looks after the Common Good, which, by definition, will be a society that places his fundamental needs and those of his fellow-citizens – and not those of merchants, bankers, and bureaucrats – at the center of economic organization. From the spiritual point of view, those economic needs must be satisfied in such a way as to secure that most important of all retirement plans: Eternity. As Chesterton himself remarks, For those holding certain beliefs, the happiness which society offers to its citizens is conditioned by the hope of a larger happiness, which it must not imperil. Fr. Denis Fahey, in The Mystical Body of Christ and the Reorganization of Society, following St. Thomas, makes the point perfectly clear: God desires that the Common Good of the State, political and economic, should be sought by those in authority in such a manner as to favor the development of the Supernatural Life of the citizens.
With Globalization, we are a world away from the Common Good taught by Holy Church and defended by Chesterton. Sound bites emphasizing interdependence, the global village, consumer choice, debt relief for the poor, and keeping the international economy competitive for the benefit of all, ring hollow when the military, legal, and economic effects of the global rush toward centralization are examined in light of a sane social philosophy…in the light of Chesterton’s Catholic and Distributist philosophy...
This, then, is the world that Chesterton foresaw in his own time and which has since taken on corporeal form. But if his warnings apply even more today than they did in his own time, so does his remedy. His contention that Distributism was one of the means by which the nightmare society that he saw developing could be thwarted, destroyed and ultimately replaced with one based on the sanity of Catholic Social Teaching is more timely than ever. The symptoms and underlying diseases which he hoped to remedy are still with us - yet all the more acute, and therefore all the more in need of the same cure.
The Outline of Sanity provides the Distributist vision, and might rightly be called a Manual of Distributism, for it outlines the essential philosophical principles of Distributism as well as the broad strokes necessary to bring society back to its senses. Since Capitalism and Socialism are both in error on the subject of private property, it naturally follows that Distributism corrects these deformed perspectives by insisting on the personal and social nature of property.
If Capitalism has exalted the economic freedom of the individual to such an extent that even his freedom to own everything must be admitted; and if Socialism has exalted the State’s right to prevent that eventuality such that its freedom to own everything itself must be admitted; it will be Distributism which restores the balance. It is the combination of these two ‘isms’ – what Chesterton called Consolidarity, blending the Consolidation of Capitalism with the Solidarity of Socialism - that has now, under the heading of Globalization, largely conquered the world; it will be Distributism, God willing, which will re-conquer it. There is now virtually no communist market not open to capitalist adventurers; there is now virtually no capitalist economy that is not as regulated and bureaucratic as any ex-Soviet paradise. Distributism alone holds out the prospect of every land once again flourishing with peasants, craftsmen and shopkeepers.
The world to which Chesterton introduces us in the Outline is one in which the sanity of the Distributist balance, inherited from the teachings of the Church on society, once again harmonizes and reconnects rights and duties, freedom and responsibility, nature and supernature. It is a world not of isolation but of context. The right to acquire and dispose of private property is seen in the context of an obligation to the Common Good. The right of the government to intervene in the name of the Common Good is seen in the context of the God-given rights of Persons which may not be infringed.
The enemies of the Church are fond of saying that this balance is really a destruction of freedom, of which the Church has ever been the greatest enemy. On the contrary. By preserving the balance between rights and duties, She is the only true guarantor of legitimate freedom. It is rather in the rejection of the Catholic ethic five centuries ago that the erosion of freedom began, and so it continues down to our day. Thus, the Church can no longer proclaim Herself the One True Church; citizens can no longer express their thoughts honestly because of the straitjacket of Political Correctness; individuals can no longer decide where and what to build, what to grow, what to buy, what to pay; fathers and mothers can no longer discipline and educate their children as they see fit.
The remedy in the economic and social sphere is a reversal of that centralization which eliminates private property in any meaningful sense, and thus eliminates real freedom. The Church – and so too, Chesterton, as Her loyal son – has always maintained that political and social freedom without economic freedom is a cruel illusion. Human freedoms granted in man-made Constitutions by the stroke of a pen can be revoked by a similar stroke of the pen. Political freedoms can be extinguished by political repression, albeit justified; more commonly they are extinguished by ensuring that universal suffrage is about as useful as Confederate bank notes. Economic freedom in the modern world is simply the right to compete with others for a job which provides wages; it is an illusion which can be quickly shattered by the shedding of jobs, corporate restructuring, or budget cuts.
In contrast, the man who owns not merely his mortgage paperwork, but his own house and land, who grows his own food, who draws water from his own well, is not so easily treated in such a cavalier fashion. He is always the free man, the man who chooses what, where, when and how – choices that are frequently less open, if at all, to his wage-earning counterpart who is a slave in all but name. Living among other free men with the same freedom, independence and self-sufficiency, he is confronted with a social fabric that by its very nature demands that he use his freedom with a clear understanding of the needs and rights of his neighbor. Inspire this social fabric with the religious vision of Man and Society, which inspired Chesterton and made Europe, and you have a recipe for the reconstruction of the West.
Having said that, Chesterton is at pains to make clear that Distributism does not claim to give rise to a perfect society: We have the idea that the man may need a doctor when he is poisoned, but no longer needs him when he is unpoisoned. We do not say, as they possibly do say, that he will always be perfectly happy or perfectly good; because there are other elements in life besides the economic; and even the economic is affected by original sin. We do not say that because he does not need a doctor he does not need a priest or a wife or a friend or a God; or that his relations to these things can be ensured by any social scheme. But we do say that there is something which is much more real and much more reliable than any social scheme; and that is society. There is such a thing as people finding a social life that suits them and enables them to get on reasonably well with each other.
To help us find that life, Chesterton reminds us that there is a choice before all men – a choice between a return to the Social Teaching or a return to Slavery. There is no Third Way in this case, for only the Social Teaching provides the balance between the Common Good and Social Justice. The world is going to return to a simpler form of life and society. It will come either through calamity and collapse, or it will come through conversion and conviction. The choice truly is ours: do we want a Servile State or do we want a Distributist State?
...The force of events makes itself felt regardless of any willingness on man’s part. The incredible psychological and spiritual impact of the devastating attacks which on September 11, 2001, befell the World Trade Center and the Pentagon cannot be denied. If they were, in fact, what the mass media and the political élite termed them, attacks on our way of life and attacks on our civilization, there is perhaps no better time than the present to examine just what our way of life and our civilization supposedly is. There has not been in recent memory a more appropriate time for illustrating the abyss between Capitalism and Socialism on the one hand, and Distributism on the other, and for promoting Distributism and Catholic Social Teaching generally, with the hope that there might arise a new awareness, a new reflectiveness, and a new commitment to finding out where we are going and why.
Meanwhile there remain those who wish to flee the city; those who want to return to the land as farmers and as craftsmen; those who passionately promote the merits of organic farming; those who merely want to lead simpler lives. There are the sincere ecologists who demand that man become a steward of his environment rather than its exploiter; those who are seeking spiritual truth and finding only New Age lies. There is a youth seeking an enduring ideal, and older generations seeking a return to normality. In a thousand different ways, there is a mass of men and women out there seeking an Outline of Sanity.
Chesterton presented us with that Outline. Now we present you with the book after an absence of three generations. It is a text for clear thought and a manual for intelligent action, a manual which might be used for what Richard Weaver called acts of thought and volition, in preparation for a turning of the tide by some passionate reaction, like that which flowered in the chivalry and spirituality of the Middle Ages. If that reaction doesn’t come, it will only be because of the great truth spoken by Pope St. Pius X on December 13th, 1908, on the occasion of the Beatification of St. Joan of Arc: "In our time more than ever, the greatest asset of the evil-disposed is the cowardice and weakness of good men, and all the vigor of Satan’s reign is due to the easy-going weakness of Catholics. Oh! if I might ask the Divine Redeemer, as the Prophet Zachary did in spirit: ‘What are those wounds in the midst of Thy hands?’ the answer would not be doubtful. With these I was wounded in the house of them that loved me. I was wounded by my friends, who did nothing to defend me, and who, on every occasion, made themselves the accomplices of my adversaries. And this reproach can be leveled at the weak and timid Catholics of all countries." God grant us the courage to do our duty, such that the same reproach may never be flung at us.