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Chuck Chalberg’s Partisan Distributism

July 15, 2012

Not long ago, a review I wrote of Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion prompted a debate over Dale Ahlquist and the legacy of GK Chesterton. Kevin O’Brien, a close friend of Ahlquist, argued that Ahlquist’s books and TV series provide a well rounded portrait of Chesterton (so to speak), including aspects of Chesterton’s thought irksome to conservatives and liberals alike. I agreed but nevertheless insisted that Ahlquist’s depiction of Chesterton–which tends to feature of a lot of rhetoric about attacks on The Family– nevertheless lends itself to coopting by the political right.

To follow up on that debate, I was reminded of the way in which objectivity and partisanship can coexist by this recent Star Tribune column on the relevance of distributism to the November election. The column was written by Chuck Chalberg, a professor at Normandale Community College who has performed as GK Chesterton in “The Apostle of Common Sense” and at various American Chesterton Society conferences. Chalberg’s depiction of distributism is by no means biased. Here, for example, is his perfectly fair and adequate summary of The Servile State:

The central argument of “The Servile State” was that big business and big government together threatened to reduce the common man to a condition of servility — whether at the hands of actual corporate behemoths or in the hands of an allegedly benevolent state. To Belloc, once-vibrant citizens were on their way to becoming mere clients, whether they be “wage slaves” or entitlement beneficiaries — or both.

If Chalberg gives us an objective summary of Belloc’s great distributist treatise, it is nevertheless within the context of a partisan critique of progressive politics in the United States. This is not a column about the potential hazards that the election of a former Bain Capital CEO might pose to the widespread distribution of property. It is a column about the hazards of the Servile State, which Chalberg conflates with an Obama victory:

As distributists, both Belloc and Chesterton also defined the good society as a family-centered society. More than that, they understood that, as Chesterton put it, “without the family we are helpless before the state.” Much of the history of western Europe since the days of Belloc and Chesterton has been a commentary on that very line. The rise of the state and the decline of the family have gone hand in hand in England and on the continent. And the United States? We are on a similar path.

Can all this be reversed? Should it be reversed? This year’s election will help answer these questions — and more.

Is President Obama right? Are we simply about the business of continuing (if never actually completing) what Roosevelt and Wilson began? Or are we heading straight toward the final (suffocating?) embrace of Belloc’s “servile state?”

Does liberty mean a society of free citizens essentially running their own lives? Or does it mean “following our bliss,” as Nancy Pelosi put it in defending the benefits of Obamacare?

The choice we face is momentous. And pondering a book written a century ago might well help us make it.

Although he does not explictly say so, Chalberg strongly insinuates that a vote for Romney is a vote in favor of distributism. Given that Belloc and Chesterton were fierce critics of capitalism, this seems on the face of it absurd. And yet texts, which are the only means by which we have access to the views of either Chesterton or Belloc, do not interpret themselves. For this reason, I do not argue that Chalberg has hijacked distributism, any more than I would argue that the Supreme Court jurors who voted in favor of Citizen’s United hijacked the U.S. Constitution or that fundamentalist Christians are hijacking the Bible.

The argument I do think worth making is that a Romney presidency would be disastrous for the country. But I’ll save that for another post.

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