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. Fo
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