Friday, February 20, 2009

The True Sources of Wealth

This post was cross-posted to Donald Goodman III's personal blog.

In light of the timely Call to Action posted at The Distributist Review yesterday, I'd like to suggest another practical means of helping establish distributism in the present time: creating wealth.

It's nearly universal for our politicians to tell us that we need to get back to creating wealth. This much is true; sadly, however, our politicians want to get back to creating wealth by getting people to borrow more money to buy more stuff, most of which was made in foreign countries by foreign workers, and most of which they couldn't afford even if they weren't going into still more debt in order to buy it.

Why does our age, alone among all, consider increased consumer debt and the increase in consumption that goes along with it to be "creating wealth"? Isn't this truly merely consuming wealth? And given that the vast majority of these consumer goods that we're purchasing with our borrowed stimulus funds are made in foreign factories by foreign workers, while our own citizens are occupied predominantly with serving each other (increasingly foreign-produced) food and selling each other incomprehensible financial documents (not to mention helping to import the foreign products that we're doing all this in order to buy), isn't this consumption of wealth without ever replacing it with anything?

Certainly, these foreigners (who are mostly perfectly decent people in their own right) are creating wealth, and we're paying them to do so. But what happens when they decide to start selling their new wealth to their own people? And even besides this, is it right for us to rely on the Chinese keeping their workers in borderline slavery in order to provide us with cheap goods, while we fritter away our immense national resources, both human and natural, voraciously consuming the wealth produced on other shores than ours?

At this point distributist readers will doubtlessly expect me to begin railing against industrialization and capitalism. But truly, this financial system isn't even really industrial capitalism (which can certainly be rightly railed against); it's something called finance capitalism, which in some ways is even worse. Industrial capitalism does, in fact, isolate all the means of production into the hands of the wealthy few, leaving the rest in near-slavery; however, at least the non-owning many can easily ascertain that they're being exploited by the owning few. Finance capitalism, on the other hand, ostensibly raises the wealth of the non-owners, and they acquire more and more material goods. This lulls the non-owners into total complacency, unaware that they and their nation are being stripped to the bone by the financiers, who are funding the shipment of the national wealth to foreign countries to be worked by foreign slaves.

Still, our benevolent leaders insist that this sort of activity is really creating wealth for our nation. But what is wealth, really? Surely it's not simply money, green paper or binary signatures on banks' hard drives? No; money is simply an agreed-upon standard for exchanging wealth, not wealth itself. Hillaire Belloc, in his seminal distributist work The Servile State, defined wealth as "matter which has been consciously and intelligently transformed from a condition in which it is less to a condition in which it is more serviceable to a human need." In other words, wealth is anything that's been worked on to make it more useful; so, for example, lumber, which are trees made into a more useful form for building, is wealth. Wealth is created by production, which is the "special, conscious, and intelligent transformation of his environment which is peculiar to the peculiar intelligence and creative faculty of man." The means of production, then, are simply the tools, such as saws and hammers, and resources, such as land and timber, necessary to produce wealth.

Certainly, the non-owning worker has more stuff than ever before; he has more things which have been made more useful for human needs, and consequently he is in possession of more wealth. However, he still does not own the means of production, the way in which wealth is produced. Under industrial capitalism, for a very long time, the non-owning worker was confined in poverty and squalor, and distributists have always identified this as truly evil. Many capitalists have hailed the arrival of finance capitalism as the end of that era, in which even the lowly non-owning workers are awash in unprecedented amounts of wealth. Doesn't this, truly, eliminate the objections of distributists to the capitalist economy? The workers, after all, are well cared for.

However, while distributism has always decried the physical exploitation of the worker, it has first and foremost decried his economic exploitation. Distributists object strongly to a characteristic common to both industrial and finance capitalism, one which remains no matter how stuffed with Chinese-made garbage the non-owning worker's heavily-mortgaged house might become: the fact that the vast majority of society are non-owning workers, with only a very few owners of productive property. In other words, while workers in the capitalist world often now have wealth, they still have no means of producing wealth, and that makes all the difference.

As Belloc observed, "[w]ithout wealth man cannot exist." Without the constant transformation of natural resources to a form more useful for man's needs, man will die. And so it follows that "to control the production of wealth is to control human life itself." But in our society, the means of producing wealth are owned by only a very few, and even those few have moved most of those means into the custody and control of foreign producers. Which means, of course, that the vast majority of our society, who are non-owning workers, are really and truly controlled by those few owners and their foreign counterparts. Thus, the state is, in a very real sense, servile, as Belloc warned. (As an aside, it is also servile in a way that Belloc never predicted: not only are the citizens of the state servile to the owning few, but the state as a whole is servile to the other nations which produce the wealth which it consumes.) As Leo XIII observed, two decades before The Servile State flowed from Belloc's pen, ownership by only a few in this way has "laid a yoke almost of slavery on the unnumbered masses of non-owning workers." (Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum.)

That is what distributists despise most about our current system: that it makes the vast majority of us near-slaves of the owning few. Furthermore, it makes the state as a whole incapable of producing what it needs itself; it must instead rely on other states to produce it, which is what has led to many of our economic problems today. Distributism, on the other hand, seeks to establish the distributist state, in which, as Belloc said, so great a number of the citizens are owners that the society as a whole takes on the character of owners, rather than of non-owning workers. Distributism seeks the greater distribution of productive property, the means of producing wealth. That is the first and primary economic goal of the system.

What property is productive? There are almost limitless correct answers to that question, but fundamentally wealth is produced from four forms of such property: the fields, the forests, the factories, and the mines. By fields we mean those pieces of land that are used for the all-important necessity of raising food, both farmland and pasture. By forests we mean those pieces of land that are covered with trees and wild growth, from which can be harvested timber, furs, and innumerable other natural resources. By factories we mean those pieces of land, including the improvements thereon, that take the products from the other three types of productive property and transform them into more useful forms, including the tools necessary to do so; it covers everything from a corner shoemaker's shop to an automaking factory. Finally, by mines we mean those parts of the land that are dedicated to the extraction of mineral resources to be used as such, such as gold, silver, iron, and copper mines.

Notice what is not included in this list. Restaurants; real estate brokers; attorneys (my own profession); stock traders; merchants; shopping malls; supermarkets. All of these professions are necessary (even if some ought to be made much smaller) and good within their proper spheres; but none of them are productive of wealth, and thus all of them are secondary to those which are. Even in a distributist society there will be non-owners who perform certain necessary tasks; however, the vast majority of citizens will be owners of wealth-producing property.

In those four places are the creation of wealth, not Wall Street, and certainly not the Washington mall. None of the proposed government projects to help expand our imploding economy involve creating wealth; they just involve the non-productive consumption of it, which we've been doing for far too long already. So we'll just keep consuming the wealth created by others until either they realize that they don't need us anymore (since they're already producing all the wealth themselves), or we realize that we're almost slaves and rise up to fix the problem ourselves.

But to return to the stated purpose of this article, how can the distributist help establish the distributive state right now, even within the bowels of finance capitalism? It's really quite simple: begin producing wealth. Even if one is in a non-productive profession within our currently terminal economy (as I am), and even if one has no financially feasible means of escaping that situation, one can produce wealth, even if in only a modest way.

If the distributist has a productive hobby, let him practice it until it becomes a second profession. I know a gentleman (not a distributist, sadly) who's an engineer by trade, but who has a great love of woodworking, and produces many things of great beauty while practicing that hobby. In so doing, he's established a small factory, one of the four great means of production; he is really producing wealth, a distributist thing for him to do, though his economic principles vary.

Personally, I am an attorney, one of those that Dmitry Orlov called "mere embroidery on the fabric of an affluent society" (Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century (Part Two of Three)). While this overstates the point, it does identify the truth that this profession is not productive of wealth in any direct way. However, that fact does not mean that I, as a distributist, cannot do my part in creating a distributist state. While I'm quite halting with my woodwork, I deeply enjoy gardening, though I'm very inexperienced. So I'm reading up on natural and sustainable gardening, and I'm practicing as best as I can. While I don't have much land, I'm using what little I have to produce some wealth; that is what God made it for, after all. It is hard to imagine someone with no interest in any productive craft; let the distributist select one and practice it, and get to work on the all-important economic task of producing things of value. It may be countercultural, but it's also the only way our society can ever recover.

Wealth is wonderful; but he who produces the wealth controls the world. Let us begin to more widely distribute productive property according to our principles, and let us do so by beginning with ourselves.

Praise be to Christ the King!

Note: This is published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

1 comment:

Dave said...

I found this argument very sane and moving until an ambiguity in the last para: "Let us begin to more widely distribute productive property according to our principles, and let us do so by beginning with ourselves".

The argument had been about ourselves producing; we cannot ourselves distribute property we haven't personally got. If you were intending "ourselves" to refer to our nations, the question remains, "How?"

On reflection, there may also be a less obvious ambiguity. If production of wealth is about making things more useful, getting goods to where they are needed is indeed making them more useful, and even if distributing them is not producing any wealth, producing the means of distribution is!

"Production" of wealth in any case a misleading concept here, since strictly speaking we are transforming wealth we already have, using the latter up in the process. Real wealth is either used or deteriorates, so in my view we should always be talking about transformation, RE-production or maintenance of wealth (including infrastructure), so that the sustainability issue becomes much more obvious.

Again, your view of wealth here looks materialistic, which I am sure is not really intended. What about "wealth of ideas", and "a nation's greatest wealth being the talents of its people"?

All this really isn't as negative as it may seem. Your saying so well what you HAVE seen (for which, thanks) is the condition of others being able to become aware of what you haven't said.