G.K. Chesterton and the meaning of Capitalism

by Christian Ohnimus                                                                                                           Wednesday, August 21

The great British Journalist G.K. Chesterton had something to say on just about everything, including Capitalism. However, the meaning of exactly what he said regarding Capitalism has met with some confusion. Some have read Chesterton and left feeling assured in his support for private property and liberty. Others have applauded his criticism of a system where most capital is concentrated among a few men, leaving everyone else proletariat. As a result, it is somewhat controversial whether Chesterton was for Capitalism or against it. Such misunderstanding seems the fate of a man who defies contemporary thought. “There are two sides to every story,” the old maxim goes. Perhaps Chesterton would have argued that there were one hundred. To understand Chesterton’s views on Capitalism we first must understand what he means by the term “Capitalism.” Thankfully, Chesterton does explain his unconventional use of the word “Capitalism” in The Outline of Sanity:

“When I say “Capitalism,” I commonly mean something that may be stated thus: “That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.” This particular state of things can and does exist, and we must have some word for it, and some way of discussing it. But this is undoubtedly a very bad word, because it is used by other people to mean quite other things. Some people seem to mean merely private property. Others suppose that capitalism must mean anything involving the use of capital.”

Chesterton, then, in denouncing “Capitalism” in no way means to marginalize economic liberty or private property. In fact, he means quite the opposite. The sort of Capitalism that Chesterton opposes represents in many ways the same evils possessed by other social arrangements, like Socialism: concentration of wealth and power, the abolition of private property and the destruction of any semblance of economic self-sustainability. Chesterton continues:

“If capitalism means private property, I am capitalist. If capitalism means capital, everybody is capitalist. But if capitalism means this particular condition of capital, only paid out to the mass in the form of wages, then it does mean something, even if it ought to mean something else.

The truth is that what we call Capitalism ought to be called Proletarianism. The point of it is not that some people have capital, but that most people only have wages because they do not have capital.”

Chesterton strongly opposed this Proletarianism present in Capitalist society in which so much capital would be concentrated among so few so that the masses, lacking any productive property of their own, would be forced to work for mere wages. Yet, as Chesterton points out, he is a Capitalist in that he wishes to make everyone capitalists (that is, owners of productive property).

So, what can we learn from Chesterton’s view of Capitalism? First, that any concentration of wealth and power that results in wage-dependence for the majority of people as a direct result of their lack of capital is unjust and,  second, that this recognition does not equate to a denunciation of all things “Capitalistic”. Instead, to be a capitalist, that is, to be an owner and employer of productive property, is good and natural and therefore the economic ideal is that all men become capitalists. Thus, if we find ourselves denouncing “Capitalism” as Chesterton meant it we must also stand for strong private property rights and economic liberty as issues not set apart from Catholic social justice. We cannot encourage all men to become owners and not defend their rights of ownership and autonomy; likewise, we cannot boast of defending private property or economic freedom if most men don’t even own any property to use or defend in the first place. Otherwise, such rights universal and natural to man become “rights” of the privileged.

Ultimately, the problem that Chesterton points out to us is not that private enterprise is wrong, but that owning one’s work is the ideal and that most people should own their own means of production most of the time – and the reality is that most people do not own any means of production at all. Indeed, in The Superstition of Divorce Chesterton famously states, “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” Contrary to opposing an economic system based in strong individual property rights (the most common definition of Capitalism) Chesterton expressly takes the opposite stance: as many people should be property owners as possible. This is and has always been the stance of the Church.  As Pope Leo states in his papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, “Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary. “

Pope Leo continues:

“The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.”

This does not mean that running a large business or paying someone a wage for their work is wrong. What it does mean is that a society in which there are but a few capitalists and a vast majority of wage-laborers is disordered. Thus, to reorient society to the good of all means making as many people capitalists as possible in accordance with their natural rights to the ownership of their own means towards productive lives.

Christian Ohnimus is a registered nurse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Nursing from Franciscan University. He is a contributor to The Porch and The Catholic Renaissance.


3 thoughts on “G.K. Chesterton and the meaning of Capitalism

  1. Pingback: G.K. Chesterton and the meaning of Capitalism | The Ladder to the Paradise of God
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  3. Thank you for writing this. I was struggling a bit with the confusion between Chesterton’s use of the word Capitalism and one of the pope’s use of it (Pius XII?). The discussion can be confusing when each party uses the same word to mean different things.

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