A Boy Can Dream: Chesterton’s Distributist Economics & Wendell Berry’s Agrarian Ideal

By Fiona Hubbard

It is a fascinating thing to witness the myriad of ways that a biblical worldview can be enacted in society. The fleshing out of seemingly simple principles is notably more difficult than most would think; one the most questionable areas of application is that of economics. Economics has been explored more and more in recent history as specialization has become extremely popular and the topic has become a more explicit field of study. Out of economics stems a never-ending conversation of how Christians ought to enter into that realm. G. K. Chesterton and Wendell Berry are two influential individuals who shed some unique light on the subject, specifically because both claim to speak in light of Christianity. This noteworthy journalist (Chesterton) and noteworthy Christian author and agrarian (Berry) have contributed greatly to a school of economic thought known as ‘distributism.’ Chesterton was, admittedly, the spearhead of distributist thought (along with colleague Hilaire Belloc), but Berry provides a unique twist on the alternative philosophy of economics, specifically in emphasizing an agrarian aspect.

Distributism can be sometimes regarded as just a bit too fantastical for practicality. But before dismissing it as an option, it first needs to be clearly defined. Nathanael Strickland says that “at the heart of distributism is private property.” He continues to elaborate on the etymology: “the word distributism comes from the idea that a just social order can be achieved through a much more widespread distribution of property. Distributism means a society of owners. It means that property belongs to the many rather than the few.”[1] Dale Ahlquist, in referencing Chestertonian thought, describes distributism: “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.”[2] Distributism in practice may possess a slight air of socialism, but as it is hugely theoretical and, likely, idealized, it holds its own unique platforms, all stemming from the idea of distributing property. Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton were the primary developers of distributism, and Wendell Berry offers another offshoot of his own.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) is renowned for all number of literary achievements. He authored both fiction and nonfiction pieces and enlightened the likes of C. S. Lewis with works like The Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy. Concerning distributist thought, however, Chesterton’s arguably most essential work is The Outline of Sanity. Written in 1926, the work outlines the basics of distributism and how it might be enacted within society. Chesterton stresses the dangers of specialization and excessive trade and exchange; he instead suggests that an idyllic circumstance is one in which there exists “the peasant who consumes what he produces,” which is notably “much more practicable than the method by which he only sells what he produces.”[3] This presents the idea that perhaps the solution is multiple, relatively closed societies, isolated communities living in harmony among themselves. Even beyond a solution, this seems to best illustrate what would be the archetypical Christian lifestyle, as it is in this circumstance that believers may best live in harmony with one another, sharing in each other’s joys and sorrows. While perhaps not entirely archetypical, as there is no sense of catholicity, the faith does seem to be most explicitly fleshed out in examples of agrarian lifestyles and the community that provides.

And, interestingly enough, Chesterton leans toward an agrarian society. Chesterton quoted an unnamed fellow distributist when he wrote that “living on the land was quite a different thing from living by carting things off it.”[4] Chesterton points to the value of providing for oneself as opposed to the reality of massive industries in which mankind fails to recognize the origin of much that it demands and intakes. Chesterton challenges reality, arguing “We need a social circle in which things constantly return to those that threw them; and men who know the end and the beginning and the rounding of our little life.”[5] Chesterton advocates against excessive trade and the chores of economics; “He saw the home and the family as the centerpiece of society because they are the centerpiece of living. Home and family are the normal things. Trade and politics are necessary but minor things that have been emphasized out of all proportion.”[6] It is with this thought that Chesterton may as well have quoted what Wendell Berry would go on to write after Chesterton’s own death.

Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is best known for promoting agrarian society and community both through his essays and through his fiction works. Berry has written extensively on the concept of the local farm, so it comes as no surprise to any familiar with Berry’s writings that he declares a “little economy” to be the “standard of goodness.”[7] Berry argues that modern economics have strayed into theory, inching ever further away from real economics, or what Berry terms “The Great Economy.”[8] Berry writes to preserve the thought of Adam Smith who asserted that the primary wealth and value of a nation lay within its agricultural system.[9] “As for Smith, this real economy begins in the natural order, which means that it begins on the farms, along with the forests, fisheries, fields, and mines. These are the gifts of nature upon which our livelihoods depend. This natural order must be used according to its own nature.”[10] Berry takes it upon himself to deem the current economic system detrimental and unhelpful, looking to Smith for validation. The shortcoming is found in the blatant lack of awareness and concern for the logistics of the economic system by the majority of citizens. Just as Chesterton suggests a well-rounded knowledge of one’s circle of life, within the Kingdom of God, the Great Economy, humanity must build “little economies” by which “we can carve out a narrow circle within which things are manageable by the use of our wits.”[11]

Despite their vast wisdom, the words of Chesterton and Berry must not simply be taken as canon. The orthodoxy of the idea of distributism ought to be thoughtfully considered. How Christian is distributism, in actuality? Distributism does well among the Catholics; the relationship between mankind and the rest of creation is stressed much more in Catholicism than in most Protestant traditions.[12] Berry’s Great Economy is synonymous with his understanding of the Kingdom of God; he writes, “To say that we live in the Kingdom of God is both to suggest the difficulty of our condition and to imply a fairly complete set of culture-borne instructions for living in it. These instructions are not always explicitly ecological, but it can be argued that they are always implicitly so, for all of them rest ultimately on the assumptions that […] we lie within order and that this order is both greater and more intricate than we know.”[13] Thus, if Berry’s ideal, enforced by Chesterton, appears to be reflective of, verily, God’s heavenly kingdom, distributism may well be most suitable. Or maybe it was. But one must not forget pressing issues such as world hunger and increasing technologies to diminish that suffering.

Perhaps it is a classic compromise, but I contend that Berry and Chesterton’s ideals might have been accurate, ideal, and the most holy option in their own time periods; but in today’s world of a growing population, minimal, closed agrarian societies cannot supply the world. Scripture instructs believers, “Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.”[14] World hunger is shattering today’s society. It is an issue that cannot go unmentioned by the political realm, let alone the Christian realm. The technology exists to lessen the sting of hunger, but not within a distributist mindset. Perhaps Chesterton and Berry do hold the key to Utopia, but Utopia will simply not exist while creation is fallen. So, believers must make a judgment. What is most economically efficient, both technically and communally, may not always be the penultimate point for which humanity ought to strive. Christianity is not rooted in principles of efficiency; it is rooted in principles of self-sacrifice for the good of others. So perhaps followers of Christ are called to add a curve of grace amidst supply and demand, as efficiency can tend to be brutally dehumanizing. Yes, indeed, we have been called to give ourselves up entirely, and that will play out in every realm, from biblical studies to biology to economics.

 

 

 

[1]Nathanael Strickland, “G.K. Chesterton on Economics,” Faith & Heritage, last modified December 22, 2011, http://faithandheritage.com/2011/12/g-k-chesterton-on-economics/.

[2]Dale Ahlquist, “Lecture 47: The Outline of Sanity,” The American Chesterton Society, accessed October 1, 2017, https://www.chesterton.org/lecture-47/.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity, (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1928), 136.

[4] G.K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity, (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1928), 129.

[5] Ibid., 137.

[6] Dale Ahlquist, “G.K. Chesterton’s Distributism,” The Distributist Review, last modified August 11, 2011, http://distributistreview.com/g-k-chestertons-distributism/.

[7] Wendell Berry, Home Economics, (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1987), 64.

[8] John Médaille, “Wendell Berry and the Great Economy,” The Distributist Review, last modified August 9, 2010, http://distributistreview.com/wendell-berry-and-the-great-economy/.

[9] John Médaille, “Wendell Berry and the Great Economy,” The Distributist Review, last modified August 9, 2010, http://distributistreview.com/wendell-berry-and-the-great-economy/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] William Edmund Fahey, “The Restoration of Propriety: Wendell Berry and the British Distributists,” in The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, ed. Mark T. Mitchell and Nathan Schlueter (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2011), 204.

[13] Wendell Berry, Home Economics, (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1987), 55.

[14] Isaiah 58:10 NLT

One thought on “A Boy Can Dream: Chesterton’s Distributist Economics & Wendell Berry’s Agrarian Ideal

  1. Chesterton & Berry provide a model wherein communities can feed, clothe, and shelter themselves. It’s our current profit-driven “free market” globalist economic policies that prevent food from getting to where it needs to be. Corn, rice, wheat all rotting in warehouses because the price isn’t right. Gene Logsdon, an Ohio writer, points out how much of the land in the U.S. is uncultivated: how much food could be grown in a freeway cloverleaf interchange; how much fruit in the freeway medians; how many millions of pounds of mutton on golf courses; how much meat could a family produce if we restored a grazing of the commons; I could go on. Chesterton’s vision was “3 acres and a mule.” Only Distributism and Berry’s “Great Economy” can feed the world. Capitalism could feed everyone but simply isn’t willing, and holds unemployment as its highest ideal. Berry and Chesterton aren’t idealistic in the least: they’re imminently practical, because they’re moral. That’s what morality is: long term practicality.

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