Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State:

A Centenary Reflection

This year marks the centennial of Hilaire Belloc’s curious book The Servile State. Recent commentators have been unsure where to place this volume on the ideological spectrum. In the Liberty Fund edition, Robert Nisbet labels Belloc a “libertarian Catholic,” a writer taking his inspiration from the nineteenth century’s Cardinal Newman and Lord Acton.[1] In his biography of Belloc, Joseph Pearce also terms his subject’s creed “essentially libertarian.”[2] Such labels, though, imply a respect for free-market capitalism that simply cannot be found in The Servile State. Rather, Belloc deemed “the capitalist state” both “unstable” and deadly: “If you left men completely free under a capitalist system, there would be so heavy a mortality from starvation as would dry up the sources of labor in a very short time.”[3] And he went on to advocate the use of state power, particularly the power of differential taxation, to dismantle big corporations, to thoroughly soak the rich, and to massively redistribute their property to those without any.[4]

Considering that agenda, other biographers have labeled Belloc a kind of socialist.[5] They cast his political-economic agenda as “childishly simple” and attractive primarily to “shaggy William-Morrisy idealists,” precursors to the Hippies of the 1960s.[6] In reality, though, Belloc condemned public ownership of property and indicted the political order of early twentieth-century Britain for introducing a new kind of slavery into the world.

Such confusion, especially among conservative readers, also attends Richard Weaver’s small book Ideas Have Consequences[7] and for the same reason. The titles of these volumes are wonderfully adaptable to the vacuous form of discourse common to early twenty-first-century American conservatism. It seems clear that few contemporary conservative pundits who cite these titles have actually read them; fewer still have understood them. For the key to the two books is a common reading of history and an implicit common agenda. Simply put, both Belloc and Weaver saw Europe’s High Middle Ages (circa A.D. 1250) as an era when human society embodied inspiring ideals; and they saw philosophical nominalism, scientific logic, and capitalism (properly defined) as the modern enemies of those social ideals.

Belloc insisted that the critical parts, or cells, of this good society were productive families, secure in their property. The whole objective of his political economy was to break down the corruptions of modern capitalism and socialism, and re-establish families in working homes set on land in freehold tenure. His models were the artisans and the free peasants of the High Middle Ages, a community held together by the Christian church and a religiously infused aristocracy attentive to its duties. To be understood, The Servile State must be read through this lens, one rarely used by Tea Party enthusiasts or talk-show pundits. 

Building on the Insights of Pope Leo XIII

Hilaire Belloc was clear that the inspiration for his analysis in The Servile State was Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. On the one hand, this document was “modern,” representing the Roman Catholic Church’s readiness to engage—rather than simply denounce—the new urban-industrial age and the place of wage laborers within it. On the other hand, Rerum Novarum was “reactionary,” for its program aimed at restoring a social-economic order that resembled—in its most important components—that of the High Middle Ages.

For example, the encyclical was agrarian in its insistence that all wealth derived from the land: “the earth, even though apportioned among private owners, ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all, in as much as there is not one who does not sustain life from what the land produces.” Even those who possessed no soil contributed their labor. In consequence, “it may truly be said that all human subsistence is derived either from labor on one’s own land, or from some toil, some calling, which is paid for either in the produce of the land itself, or on that which is exchanged for what the land brings forth.”[8]

Leo also affirmed the theory of “labor property,” rooted in the “law of nature.” He wrote:

Now, when man thus turns that activity of his mind and the strength of his body toward procuring the fruits of nature, by such act he makes his own that portion of nature’s field which he cultivates—that portion on which he leaves, as it were, the impress of his personality.

It was “just” that the laborer possess what he had made, and no one had standing to violate that right.[9]

The “natural and original right of marriage” and “the principle purpose of marriage ordained by God’s authority from the beginning”—namely, to “increase and multiply”—were also linked to the physicality of home, tools, and land: “The right of property . . . must in likewise belong to a man in his capacity of head of a family.” Indeed, this right was “all the stronger” as it found “a wider expression in the family group.” The ability to pass on resources for survival to children through inheritance was also important: “in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property.”[10]

It was in this context that Leo rejected “the main tenet of socialism, [the] community of goods,” because it “would violate a natural right and introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal.” Indeed, private ownership should “be held sacred and inviolable.” However, this meant something other than merely protecting the assets of the relatively few who—circa 1912—actually owned productive property. Rather, as Leo explained, “the law . . . should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.” This would also be the solution to “the social question” of the age: “If working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land,” then “the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will be bridged over.”[11] 

The Development of the Capitalist State

Belloc’s project in The Servile State was to analyze how that “gulf” had emerged, what had been the consequences, and how the elements of a good society might be put back together again. An important component of this task was to reframe history, in order to understand how a system of ordered liberty and widely dispersed property had come to an end. Belloc began the story shortly after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Between A.D. 500 and 1000, he said, the Christianized Europeans—just like the pagan Romans before them—took slavery for granted. However, slaves were no longer “made” by conquest. Rather, “it was poverty that made the slave,” as individuals or families accepted slavery as an alternative to indigence. There was no organized protest against the system based on conscience. Rather, owners and slaves alike accepted slavery as an inevitable aspect of the human condition.

The end of European slavery, according to Belloc, came through “the experiment called the Christian church.” While no church dogma explicitly condemned slavery, the Christian emphasis on spiritual equality undermined its premises. At a physical level, the emergence of the autonomous villa, or estate, eventually rooted the slave. Over time, an implicit bargain emerged between lord and slave family: the latter would be attached to a particular section of land, would pay the lord a fixed amount of crop (or, later, a customary fee), and would retain the balance for consumption or private sale. By A.D. 900, the market in men had come to an end. About the same time, cities began to re-emerge as trading centers. Craft guilds developed as self-governing enterprises to control competition among artisans, assuring good quality, “fair” prices, and secure incomes. Under these circumstances, there could be neither capitalist nor proletarian. Indeed, by A.D. 1250, a well-developed “distributive system” existed in Central and Western Europe (including Britain), with three forms of labor: the serf, secure in his position, who paid regular but limited dues and services fixed by long custom; the freeholder peasant, who supported rulers through taxes; and the guildsman.

All three types of labor also shared in the common property of villages, where rights to graze a cow or gather acorns and firewood were well defined and zealously protected. This was essentially an agrarian system: “Then, as now, the soil and its fixtures were the basis of all wealth.” As Belloc summarized: “all three between them were making for a society which should be based upon the principle of property. All, or most—the normal family—should own. And on ownership the freedom of the state should repose.” It was true that co-operative bodies, such as guilds and religious fraternities, placed certain restraints on personal economic liberty. However, this was for the preservation of a greater liberty resting on real economic democracy.[12]

The end of the medieval-distributist order came in the sixteenth century, when there arose, according to Belloc, “the dreadful moral anarchy which goes by the name of capitalism.” While most economic historians trace the origin of this economic ideology in Britain to the eighteenth century, Belloc insisted that the change was much older. And in the course of three centuries, it transformed Britain from a land of owners into (by 1912) a place where a third of the people were indigent and 95 percent were dispossessed of all capital and land.[13]

Capitalism emerged through “the deliberate action of men, evil will in a few, and apathy of will among the many.” The first stage came in the 1530s, an “artificial revolution of the most violent kind,” involving the seizure of monastic lands by King Henry VIII. Prior to this revolution, about a third of England’s land belonged to the squires or county lords; a third belonged to free peasants; and a third to church entities. Most of the land that Henry confiscated, as part of his “Reformation,” eventually wound up in the hands of the squires, who now emerged as a powerful, effectively uncontrolled economic oligarchy. In the 1640s, this group eliminated the monarchy as a threat to its power. The same small oligarchy controlled Parliament and used Enclosure Acts and a Statute of Frauds to chase free peasants off their customary lands and to seize the village commons for consolidation into corporate-style farms.[14]

Few Property Owners, Many Dispossessed Workers

Reflecting on this startling departure from orthodox history, Belloc concluded that by 1700, “England had already become capitalist,” with “a vast section of her population” proletarianized. It was this change, he insisted, and not the later Industrial Revolution, “which accounts for the terrible social condition in which we find ourselves today.” The introduction of industrial processes—Watt’s condensor, Hargrave’s spinning jenny, and King’s flying shuttle—were not the causes of monopoly. By the time they appeared, England had already been captured by an oligarchy. If these inventions had arrived in the thirteenth century, Belloc insisted, they “would have blest and enriched mankind” and would have been organized on a cooperative basis. Instead, they fostered still further consolidation through the trusts; such economic combinations brought “the ruin of the smaller competition through secret conspiracies entered into by the larger men, and supported by the secret force of the state.”[15]

Socialism emerged in the nineteenth century as a movement to counter the oligarchy. However, “the effect of socialist doctrine upon capitalist society is [actually] to produce a third thing different from either of its two begetters—to wit, the servile state.”

This was not meant just as a criticism of the modern welfare state, as many conservatives now suppose. Rather, The Servile State marked “the re-establishment of slavery as a necessary component of capitalism.” More specifically, the Servile State existed when ownership of the means of production “by a few” came into “stable equilibrium by the establishment of compulsory labor legally enforceable upon those who do not own the means of production for the advantage of those who do.”[16] What did Belloc specifically mean by these claims?

He saw capitalist society dividing into two classes: a small number of free citizens who owned productive property and a dispossessed majority who were masters only of their labor and who had no control over capital or land. The Servile State develops as the ownership class and the government converge around the goal of security. In this form of state capitalism, government provides to the free “security” in their property and profits, rent and interest. For the property-less unfree, the government guarantees security in subsistence. In exchange for a surrender of economic autonomy and for acceptance of permanent status as wage-laborers, the unfree gain a minimum wage which provides “sufficiency and security,” workmen’s compensation insurance which cements a new form of inferior status, and means-tested unemployment and sickness insurance which reinforces their status as proletarians. The inevitable consequence of these measures, Belloc argued, was compulsory labor: the expectation that all unfree adults would be in the wage-labor market. State schooling reinforces the process: “Roughly speaking, it is the generation brought up under the Education Acts of the last forty years which has grown up definitely and hopelessly proletarian.”[17] Notably, the children of the unfree learned that property ownership was beyond them, that they must think of themselves as wage earners alone.

Belloc neatly summarized the new servile order: “Subject the proletarian, as a proletarian, and because he is a proletarian, to special laws. Clothe me, the capitalist, as a capitalist, and because I am a capitalist, with special converse duties under those laws.” Laborers accept this surrender “of a mere legal freedom” because the Servile State provides “the very real prospect of having enough and not losing it.” Indeed, Belloc acknowledges that in strict terms of material welfare, the newly enslaved may be better off than if they owned property and were responsible for their own support. Partly for this reason, Belloc concluded that the strains of capitalism would relax “and the community will settle down upon the servile basis which was its foundation before the advent of the Christian faith, from what that faith slowly weaned it, and to which in the decay of the faith it naturally returns.”[18] 

The Distributist Alternative

How might a community escape this end? In The Servile State, Belloc offered little practical guidance. The clear alternative was rebuilding a social-economic order featuring widely distributed property. However, “Will man want to own? . . . Can I discover any relics of the cooperative instinct . . . ?” Most of the unfree, Belloc mused, seemed content in their servility. Owning property meant bearing responsibility for its protection and maintenance and facing many risks, without guarantee of reward. In comparison, the Servile State offered a meager but secure level of subsistence: a genial form of slavery.[19] Most modern men wanted income, the consumption of cheap, industrial goods, and the security of state welfare, not the challenges of property.

It would be in his subsequent The Restoration of Property that Belloc laid out a fairly complete distributist program of reform. Family freedom, he said, required “a jealous watch against, and destruction of, monopoly” and “the safeguarding of inheritance, especially the inheritance of small patrimonies.” The goal was “a society in which property is well distributed and so large a proportion of the families in the state severally own and therefore control the means of production as to determine the general tone of society.” Controversially, Belloc reasoned that since the architects of the Servile State had used law and police powers to build their regime, from Enclosure Acts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the welfare measures of the early twentieth, “in this attempt to restore Economic Freedom, the powers of the State must be invoked.” This would include protection against “direct rapine” and from “the exaggeration of competition.” Guild-like structures should be empowered and official machinery created to foster the propagation of small property.[20]

Regarding specifics, Belloc favored the use of differential taxes to redistribute property. For example, he would tax “chain” retailers so that one company could run no more than a dozen stores. He would handicap department stores, like Harrod’s, in a similar way. A “turnover tax” would be imposed on large wholesalers; small, family-held firms would be tax-free. Large industrial plants would face a tax on power used; artisans would enjoy protection and subsidized credit. Electricity and the internal combustion engine—both favorable to family-scale production—would be encouraged; steam and water power would be taxed. Agricultural land would be restored to families: “there must be a radical difference in the burdens imposed upon the land occupied, as land (according to our view) should be occupied, by a human family living thereon, and land occupied by others from whom the owners draw tribute.” State policy should support subsistence farming and “privilege” this peasantry “as against the diseased society around it.” Taxes on real estate transactions should “make it easy for the smaller man to buy land from the richer man and difficult for the larger man to buy from the smaller man.” Belloc noted that medieval guilds had not entirely disappeared; doctors and lawyers, for example, still maintained guild-like structures that controlled entry into the professions, mandated certain forms of training, and the like. The trade unions, which bore a “proletarian spirit,” should be replaced by similar guild structures that again controlled quality, regulated training, and set just prices.”[21]

While the sweep of Belloc’s public-policy agenda would cause mass heart failure at a modern Tea Party rally, he insisted that his project was properly labeled reactionary. He sought the method:

by which a reaction against Capitalism and its product, Communism, may be begun . . . . The main task remains not that of elaborating machinery for the reaction toward right living, but of forwarding the spirit of that reaction in a society which has almost forgotten what property and its concomitant freedom means.[22] 

Policy Insights for Today

Is The Servile State, with its strong whiffs of medievalism, actually relevant to America, circa 2012? The answer is yes. Certainly, the financial crisis of 2008 and its consequences underscored the reality and perils of a servile economy. The vast majority of Americans put their faith in wages, retirement accounts resting on stocks and bonds, and the government safety net. Faith in all three has been shaken by subsequent events, just as Belloc would have predicted. Jobs were lost; the decline in real wages—evident since the 1970s—accelerated. Individual Retirement Accounts proved to be fragile, ephemeral forms of private property; as the old saying went, you can’t eat a stock certificate.  And the government safety net revealed many holes, sure to become wider and more numerous as lawmakers deal with yawning federal and state budget deficits.

All the same, was not the “housing bubble” the cause of the Panic of 2008? And was it not a consequence, in turn, of the distributist goal of delivering widespread home ownership? Could not Belloc’s very scheme be indicted as the cause of current economic woes?

If still alive, Belloc would probably give three answers. First, he never claimed that everyone should own property. Even under the best of cultural circumstances, many were unfit to bear the responsibilities involved. He certainly would not have approved of issuing mortgages to persons without the means to pay for them. Second, Belloc would have objected to the very nature of the modern American housing market. Laws favoring home ownership should have the purpose of settling families in proper structures and building stable communities. In America, however, home ownership has become in large measure a method of speculative investment. This is the very antithesis of distributist principles. And third, Belloc would have stressed that distributists never sought just home ownership. The goal was to place families in productive homes, with small workshops, loom rooms, food-preservation facilities, chicken coops, and gardens as the norm. Today, he would have added home offices, computer rooms, home-schooling rooms, and so on. The typical American suburban home—commonly prohibited by zoning laws and restrictive covenants from housing any kind of productive work—is simply not part of the distributist vision.

Today, a chastened American population is rediscovering the merits of property ownership, home production, and true liberty. The home-schooling revolution led the way, showing how families could reclaim a vital endeavor from the industrialized maws of public education. Family gardens have returned; so have chicken coops: for proof, examine Backyard Poultry magazine. The home computer and the Internet have opened remarkable opportunities for small home businesses; and the number of such enterprises has climbed sharply during the last twenty years.

From Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson to contemporary writers such as Wendell Berry, the linkage of property ownership and a vital home economy to true liberty and security has endured in the political vision of those who cherish liberty and the family. Whereas raw capitalism ends up in an unholy alliance with collectivism known as the Servile State, the distributism of Hilaire Belloc delivers an economy fit for families. Far from being just a reactionary medievalist, Belloc actually represents the most prescient of analysts and guides to a sustainable and child-rich future. 

Dr. Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, is professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

  1. Robert Nisbet, “Introduction,” in Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1977 [1912]), p. 18.
  2. Joseph Pearce, Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), p. 195.
  3. Belloc, The Servile State, p. 114.
  4. The full policy implications of The Servile State are drawn out in: Hilaire Belloc, The Restoration of Property (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1936).
  5. Robert Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc (London: Hollis & Canter, 1957), p. 317.
  6. A. N. Wilson, Hilaire Belloc (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), pp. 292–94.
  7. Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).
  8. Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum [May 1891], http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_1-xiii_enc_1505189, p. 3.
  9. Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, p. 4. Emphasis added.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid, pp. 5, 12, 14.
  12. Belloc, The Servile State, pp. 64–81, 87. Emphasis added.
  13. Ibid, p. 82. 
  14. Ibid, pp. 82–94. Emphasis added. 
  15. Ibid, pp. 96–102, 117.
  16. Ibid, pp. 32, 35, 39. Emphasis added.
  17. Ibid, pp. 48–61, 155, 174–184.
  18. Ibid, pp. 143, 161, 198.
  19. Ibid, pp. 131–33.
  20. Belloc, The Restoration of Property, pp. 17, 28, 35.
  21. Ibid, pp. 67–73, 90, 107, 113, 116, 137. Emphasis added. 
  22. Ibid, p. 144.