Vox Nova at the Library: The Servile State

Vox Nova at the Library: The Servile State May 25, 2009

The thesis of Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State is summed up by a prediction offered by Mr. Belloc in the first paragraph of the book’s introduction (emphasis in original):

This book is written to maintain and prove the following truth: That our free modern society in which the means of production are owned by a few being necessarily in unstable equilibrium, it is tending to reach a condition of stable equilibrium by the establishment o compulsory labor legally enforceable upon those who do not own the means of production for the advantage of those who do.

Most everything appearing in the book is dedicated, directly or indirectly, to supporting this prediction.

Mr. Belloc’s argument for his prediction, in brief, is as follows. English society (and by inference other industrialized Protestant countries) at the time of the books writing are defined by Mr. Belloc as being capitalist. That is to say, it is a society where nearly everyone is politically and economically free as regards the law, but where the means of production (defined as ownership in land, capital goods, and savings) is concentrated in the hands of a few. This, Mr. Belloc argues, is necessarily unstable, as it tends towards the monopolization of the capitalists (i.e. those who own the means of production) and the emiseration of the proletariat (i.e. those who don’t). This emiseration gives rise to reform movements who seek to lessen the plight of the proletariat. While these movements will tend to be socialist in ideology, both the power of entrenched capitalist interests and the popular moral sentiment against outright confiscation of people’s property by the State will make actually implementing a socialist program infeasible. As a second-best alternative, therefore, reformers will end up regulating the employer/employee relationship, placing restrictions on the ability of employers and employees to freely contract for labor, establishing duties of the employer to the employee and visa versa. According to Mr. Belloc’s view, the ultimate effect of these regulations will be the reestablishment of legal slavery, and those who lack property will be compelled to work for those who do. In such things as worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, and the minimum wage, Mr. Belloc sees the beginnings of this system already developing.

Mr. Belloc is quite explicit that it is the reemergence of actual, literal slavery, and not slavery in some figurative or metaphorical sense, that he is predicting. He refers dozens of times to the fact that work will be compelled by the positive law according to one’s status as a nonowner, and explicitly disclaims the label servile or slave for work undertaken for any other purpose:

That society is not servile in which men are intelligently constrained to labor . . . indirectly from fear of destitution, or directly from love of gain, or from the common sense which teaches them that by their labor they may increase their well-being.

The Servile State, then, is centered around a prediction, the reemergence of legal slavery in the form of legally compelled labor on the part of the majority of the population based on their status as nonowners of property. Nearly one hundred years after the publication of Mr. Belloc’s book, such a reemergence has failed to materialize. Nor, frankly, does the emergence of a servile state in Mr. Belloc’s sense appear to be on the horizon. If anything, the amount of legally compelled labor today is less than at the time he was writing (in the United States, for example, even the Armed Forces is made up of volunteers).

In the mid-nineteenth century, followers of the charismatic preacher William Miller believed that the second coming of Christ was due to occur on October 22, 1844. When this prediction failed to pan out, many were disillusioned. Some however, preferred to reinterpret the prophecy in a way that made it comport with subsequent events. Similarly, when various predictions made by Karl Marx didn’t pan out, a whole cottage industry grew up attempting to show that Marx hadn’t actually been wrong, but only that he had been misunderstood. No doubt there is a temptation among Mr. Belloc’s fans today to do something similar, and to allegorize his claims about the reemergence of slavery in order to keep them from being falsified. This, however, would not be in keeping with the spirit of The Servile State. Mr. Belloc takes great pains in the book to stress that he is to be taken literally, and if he were alive today, one hopes that he would be candid enough to admit that the central thesis of the book has been proved wrong.

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  • Joe Hargrave

    BA,

    I would argue that Marx and Belloc have been confirmed in many ways, and that it is most unfair to lump them in with someone who predicted the coming of Christ.

    In fact, and I don’t know how to say this without causing some degree of offense, but I will try – such a comparison, such an attempt to place the three men in the same category, is intellectually dishonest.

    The primary reason for this is that Marx was approaching society and historical development as a scientist. Yes, you and many others may scoff at the Marxian claim to science – but he was certainly not making prophecies, or engaging in theology. On the basis of empirical observation within a theoretical framework, Marx attempted to chart the origins and trajectory of modern capitalism.

    Marx actually predicted many things correctly – globalization, the boom-bust cycle, the expansion of credit, the rise and growth of the commercial sector at the expense of the industrial, the ramifications of the class struggle. Revolutions did occur, they just weren’t successful in the countries he had hoped they would be and were successful in countries he never imagined they could be.

    His biggest mistake was underestimating the willingness of capitalists and governments to make concessions on the scale that they did to avoid revolution. But there should be no mistake that everything from Social Democracy in Europe and Keyensianism in the Anglo world were a) necessary to prevent the revolution predicted by Marx and b) implemented by the powers that be with full knowledge of that fact.

    He also left out the role of modern imperialism and the exploitation of the third world, which did not exist in the same way in his day as it does in ours. Western ‘immiseration’ has been put off by its transfer to other countries where the people are used to being oppressed. We’ve been down this road, of course, before. But what do you think would happen if there were no China? No Brazil? It would mean American workers would be faced with the prospect of regimented, policed labor, the threat of violence if they tried to organize unions or other associations, no benefits, no safety standards, nothing but what the largess of the employer would see fit to provide.

    If anything the whole history of 20th century capitalism has been one large reaction to Marxism. Even Catholic social teaching might not exist if not for Marxism. That so much policy has been directed at preventing the very situation he predicted, is that not a confirmation of the accuracy of the prediction?

  • Joe Hargrave

    BA,

    I would argue that Marx and Belloc have been confirmed in many ways, and that it is most unfair to lump them in with someone who predicted the coming of Christ.

    In fact, and I don’t know how to say this without causing some degree of offense, but I will try – such a comparison, such an attempt to place the three men in the same category, is intellectually dishonest.

    The primary reason for this is that Marx was approaching society and historical development as a scientist. Yes, you and many others may scoff at the Marxian claim to science – but he was certainly not making prophecies, or engaging in theology. On the basis of empirical observation within a theoretical framework, Marx attempted to chart the origins and trajectory of modern capitalism.

    Marx actually predicted many things correctly – globalization, the boom-bust cycle, the expansion of credit, the rise and growth of the commercial sector at the expense of the industrial, the ramifications of the class struggle. Revolutions did occur, they just weren’t successful in the countries he had hoped they would be and were successful in countries he never imagined they could be.

    His biggest mistake was underestimating the willingness of capitalists and governments to make concessions on the scale that they did to avoid revolution. But there should be no mistake that everything from Social Democracy in Europe and Keyensianism in the Anglo world were a) necessary to prevent the revolution predicted by Marx and b) implemented by the powers that be with full knowledge of that fact.

    He also left out the role of modern imperialism and the exploitation of the third world, which did not exist in the same way in his day as it does in ours. Western ‘immiseration’ has been put off by its transfer to other countries where the people are used to being oppressed. We’ve been down this road, of course, before. But what do you think would happen if there were no China? No Brazil? It would mean American workers would be faced with the prospect of regimented, policed labor, the threat of violence if they tried to organize unions or other associations, no benefits, no safety standards, nothing but what the largess of the employer would see fit to provide.

    If anything the whole history of 20th century capitalism has been one large reaction to Marxism. Even Catholic social teaching might not exist if not for Marxism. That so much policy has been directed at preventing the very situation he predicted, is that not a confirmation of the accuracy of the prediction?

  • David Raber

    BA,

    It seems the only part of Belloc’s analysis that is incorrect is the legal slavery part. The capitalist system, left to its own devices, does tend to “emiserate” workers–simply because everyone is out for himself, and the already powerful tend to do better at that game. Reform movements do rise–the union movement in the U.S., for example. These movements, which go up and down in terms of favor and disfavor, failure and success, do not appear to be giving rise to legal slavery.

    The problem with Belloc in this case is that he is thinking either/or, as perhaps you are doing as well to a certain degree.

  • David Raber

    BA,

    It seems the only part of Belloc’s analysis that is incorrect is the legal slavery part. The capitalist system, left to its own devices, does tend to “emiserate” workers–simply because everyone is out for himself, and the already powerful tend to do better at that game. Reform movements do rise–the union movement in the U.S., for example. These movements, which go up and down in terms of favor and disfavor, failure and success, do not appear to be giving rise to legal slavery.

    The problem with Belloc in this case is that he is thinking either/or, as perhaps you are doing as well to a certain degree.

  • blackadderiv

    Joe,

    If you’ll notice, this post wasn’t about Marx. It was about Belloc’s The Servile State. And it’s not that I’m comparing Belloc to Marx or Miller; I’m comparing the followers of Marx and Miller, and saying that the followers (fans?) of Belloc shouldn’t act likewise (if the comparison is at all unfair, it is unfair to the followers of Miller, since so far as I know Seventh Day Adventists have never been involved in mass murder).

    I do want to comment, however, on this statement:

    Western ‘immiseration’ has been put off by its transfer to other countries where the people are used to being oppressed. We’ve been down this road, of course, before. But what do you think would happen if there were no China? No Brazil? It would mean American workers would be faced with the prospect of regimented, policed labor, the threat of violence if they tried to organize unions or other associations, no benefits, no safety standards, nothing but what the largess of the employer would see fit to provide.

    This makes no sense. For one thing, trade with the West hasn’t led to the immiseration of people in the developing world. Just the opposite. Living standards in China have improved markedly over the past thirty years, and increased trade with the West is one factor in that. Further, nearly all international trade occurs between developed nations, not between developed and developing countries. Trade with China, for example, amounts to only a small fraction of the total U.S. economy, and it is only in the last decade or two that it has amounted to more than a statistical error. The idea that without trade with China the U.S. would revert to a state with no employer benefits, safety standards, etc., is just ill informed.

  • blackadderiv

    Joe,

    If you’ll notice, this post wasn’t about Marx. It was about Belloc’s The Servile State. And it’s not that I’m comparing Belloc to Marx or Miller; I’m comparing the followers of Marx and Miller, and saying that the followers (fans?) of Belloc shouldn’t act likewise (if the comparison is at all unfair, it is unfair to the followers of Miller, since so far as I know Seventh Day Adventists have never been involved in mass murder).

    I do want to comment, however, on this statement:

    Western ‘immiseration’ has been put off by its transfer to other countries where the people are used to being oppressed. We’ve been down this road, of course, before. But what do you think would happen if there were no China? No Brazil? It would mean American workers would be faced with the prospect of regimented, policed labor, the threat of violence if they tried to organize unions or other associations, no benefits, no safety standards, nothing but what the largess of the employer would see fit to provide.

    This makes no sense. For one thing, trade with the West hasn’t led to the immiseration of people in the developing world. Just the opposite. Living standards in China have improved markedly over the past thirty years, and increased trade with the West is one factor in that. Further, nearly all international trade occurs between developed nations, not between developed and developing countries. Trade with China, for example, amounts to only a small fraction of the total U.S. economy, and it is only in the last decade or two that it has amounted to more than a statistical error. The idea that without trade with China the U.S. would revert to a state with no employer benefits, safety standards, etc., is just ill informed.

  • blackadderiv

    It seems the only part of Belloc’s analysis that is incorrect is the legal slavery part.

    Given that this is the central thesis of the book, that would seem to be a pretty big ‘only.’

    The capitalist system, left to its own devices, does tend to “emiserate” workers–simply because everyone is out for himself, and the already powerful tend to do better at that game.

    I think, actually, that the immiseration thesis, which is a key premise in Belloc’s argument, is where his logic goes wrong. But that’s really a separate argument.

  • blackadderiv

    It seems the only part of Belloc’s analysis that is incorrect is the legal slavery part.

    Given that this is the central thesis of the book, that would seem to be a pretty big ‘only.’

    The capitalist system, left to its own devices, does tend to “emiserate” workers–simply because everyone is out for himself, and the already powerful tend to do better at that game.

    I think, actually, that the immiseration thesis, which is a key premise in Belloc’s argument, is where his logic goes wrong. But that’s really a separate argument.

  • M.Z.

    Given our current crop of economists can’t make decent 5-year predictions – excume me, can be spectacularly wrong on 5-year predictions – I’m not inclined to give him grief over a 30-year prediction. I think it was Krugman who said it about some phonomenon, “It works in practice, but does it work in theory?”

  • M.Z.

    Given our current crop of economists can’t make decent 5-year predictions – excume me, can be spectacularly wrong on 5-year predictions – I’m not inclined to give him grief over a 30-year prediction. I think it was Krugman who said it about some phonomenon, “It works in practice, but does it work in theory?”

  • blackadderiv

    M.Z.,

    As Yogi Berra said, “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” I don’t really blame Belloc for guessing wrong. Legal slavery has been the condition of man in most societies, and at the time he was writing there were people advocating the sorts of things he warns against. Belloc’s thesis was perfectly reasonable (if idiosyncratic) in 1912. It’s maintaining the thesis in 2009 that appears unreasonable.

  • blackadderiv

    M.Z.,

    As Yogi Berra said, “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” I don’t really blame Belloc for guessing wrong. Legal slavery has been the condition of man in most societies, and at the time he was writing there were people advocating the sorts of things he warns against. Belloc’s thesis was perfectly reasonable (if idiosyncratic) in 1912. It’s maintaining the thesis in 2009 that appears unreasonable.

  • I think it was Krugman who said..

    Heh. That quote is usually attributed to Ronald Reagan (the definition of an economist is someone who sees something happen in practice and wonders if it would work in theory), although he probably picked it up from somewhere else.

  • I think it was Krugman who said..

    Heh. That quote is usually attributed to Ronald Reagan (the definition of an economist is someone who sees something happen in practice and wonders if it would work in theory), although he probably picked it up from somewhere else.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Might you not be too quick to dismis Belloc’s description of what we have now come to call “the service economy”?
    How many in this country are economically independent? How many “mom & pop” stores continue to exist? How many independent farms are there? How many doctors continue to have their own practice, independent of regulation by insurance companies? How many politicians are independent of the political parties?

    And so on and on.

    Can you name one profession or calling which has escaped conglomeration?

  • Gabriel Austin

    Might you not be too quick to dismis Belloc’s description of what we have now come to call “the service economy”?
    How many in this country are economically independent? How many “mom & pop” stores continue to exist? How many independent farms are there? How many doctors continue to have their own practice, independent of regulation by insurance companies? How many politicians are independent of the political parties?

    And so on and on.

    Can you name one profession or calling which has escaped conglomeration?

  • Joe Hargrave

    BA,

    When you make a point, even a tangential one in a post, it has to be open for criticism.

    Furthermore, Belloc may not have shared the same approach as Marx but I think it was closer to Marx than it was to someone attempt to predict the date of Christ’s return.

    As for my final point, I’m sorry, when did China become a democracy with workers rights? As soon as workers in the coastal regions become more prosperous and in a position to make higher demands, the companies shift their work to the interior where the people are even more ignorant and oppressed.

    But even those more prosperous workers – relatively speaking, of course – still lack political freedoms and rights that Western workers take for granted and would not willingly sign away. Even conservative voters in America will overwhelmingly support minimum wage increases, regardless of the propaganda that tells them it will wreck the economy.

    What is ‘ill informed’ is a failure to recognize the never-ending quest for the cheapest labor, and the fact that oppressed labor is cheaper than non-oppressed labor.

    Your problem, like that of many economists, is a failure to understand the political aspects of economics.

  • Joe Hargrave

    BA,

    When you make a point, even a tangential one in a post, it has to be open for criticism.

    Furthermore, Belloc may not have shared the same approach as Marx but I think it was closer to Marx than it was to someone attempt to predict the date of Christ’s return.

    As for my final point, I’m sorry, when did China become a democracy with workers rights? As soon as workers in the coastal regions become more prosperous and in a position to make higher demands, the companies shift their work to the interior where the people are even more ignorant and oppressed.

    But even those more prosperous workers – relatively speaking, of course – still lack political freedoms and rights that Western workers take for granted and would not willingly sign away. Even conservative voters in America will overwhelmingly support minimum wage increases, regardless of the propaganda that tells them it will wreck the economy.

    What is ‘ill informed’ is a failure to recognize the never-ending quest for the cheapest labor, and the fact that oppressed labor is cheaper than non-oppressed labor.

    Your problem, like that of many economists, is a failure to understand the political aspects of economics.

  • blackadderiv

    Might you not be too quick to dismis Belloc’s description of what we have now come to call “the service economy”?

    I don’t think so, no. Belloc’s claim wasn’t that we were tending towards a society where there weren’t that many mom and pop shops, or whatever. He predicted the reemergence of legal slavery.

  • blackadderiv

    Might you not be too quick to dismis Belloc’s description of what we have now come to call “the service economy”?

    I don’t think so, no. Belloc’s claim wasn’t that we were tending towards a society where there weren’t that many mom and pop shops, or whatever. He predicted the reemergence of legal slavery.

  • blackadderiv

    As for my final point, I’m sorry, when did China become a democracy with workers rights?

    This would seem to be a non sequitur. The Marxist claim is that capitalism tends towards the immiseration of workers, but that this process had been temporarily halted in the West by the immiseration of workers in the developing world. You appear to endorse this reasoning in your claims about what would happen if China and Brazil weren’t around. The problem with the Marxist argument here is twofold. First, the amount of trade and commerce between the West and the developing world represents only a tiny fraction of the increases in wealth that Western workers have experienced over the last hundred years. Second, workers in the developing world have tended to see their conditions improve via trade with the West, rather than being further immiserated. To respond by saying ‘yeah, well they lack political freedom in China’ is to change the subject.

  • blackadderiv

    As for my final point, I’m sorry, when did China become a democracy with workers rights?

    This would seem to be a non sequitur. The Marxist claim is that capitalism tends towards the immiseration of workers, but that this process had been temporarily halted in the West by the immiseration of workers in the developing world. You appear to endorse this reasoning in your claims about what would happen if China and Brazil weren’t around. The problem with the Marxist argument here is twofold. First, the amount of trade and commerce between the West and the developing world represents only a tiny fraction of the increases in wealth that Western workers have experienced over the last hundred years. Second, workers in the developing world have tended to see their conditions improve via trade with the West, rather than being further immiserated. To respond by saying ‘yeah, well they lack political freedom in China’ is to change the subject.

  • Joe Hargrave

    It isn’t to change the subject at all. In saying so you simply confirm what I said before – you make the error of the economists in separating the economic and political dimension.

    Do you honestly see no link at all between political freedom and economic security? As if the right to form unions and other associations, as if safety and health regulations, were not connected with the economic well-being of workers?

    Secondly, who said anything about trade? The name of the game is exploitation – taking advantage of cheap, oppressed labor, making profits off of it that would be impossible with workers who have basic human rights, selling dirt cheap commodities to satisfy every unhealthy impulse and addiction, and using a portion of those profits (an ever shrinking portion since the early 80s)to fund a welfare state to prevent immiseration in the imperial countries.

    Have you kept up with the news on Chinese politics, by the way? One of the top concerns among Western analysts is social unrest in China, especially among the striking workers. Workers in China strike, riot, and protest on a regular basis and are violently suppressed for their trouble. And, as I said, even as one layer is elevated, there are hundreds of millions more Chinese living in the other parts of the country that can be squeezed, forcing the ones who have become prosperous to do as Americans have done and accept lower wages to remain competitive.

  • Joe Hargrave

    It isn’t to change the subject at all. In saying so you simply confirm what I said before – you make the error of the economists in separating the economic and political dimension.

    Do you honestly see no link at all between political freedom and economic security? As if the right to form unions and other associations, as if safety and health regulations, were not connected with the economic well-being of workers?

    Secondly, who said anything about trade? The name of the game is exploitation – taking advantage of cheap, oppressed labor, making profits off of it that would be impossible with workers who have basic human rights, selling dirt cheap commodities to satisfy every unhealthy impulse and addiction, and using a portion of those profits (an ever shrinking portion since the early 80s)to fund a welfare state to prevent immiseration in the imperial countries.

    Have you kept up with the news on Chinese politics, by the way? One of the top concerns among Western analysts is social unrest in China, especially among the striking workers. Workers in China strike, riot, and protest on a regular basis and are violently suppressed for their trouble. And, as I said, even as one layer is elevated, there are hundreds of millions more Chinese living in the other parts of the country that can be squeezed, forcing the ones who have become prosperous to do as Americans have done and accept lower wages to remain competitive.

  • blackadderiv

    Do you honestly see no link at all between political freedom and economic security?

    Sure, I see a link between the two. The question, however, isn’t whether there is a connection between political freedom and economic security. The question is whether one can salvage the immiseration thesis by claiming that the West is immsierating the developing world in order to temporarily prevent the immiseration of Western workers. The claim that this is so just isn’t consistent with the evidence, both because workers in the developing world aren’t in fact being immiserated through contact with the West, and because the total value the West has got via contact with the developing world is nowhere near large enough to explain the improvements in the material well being of Western workers. Until you can grapple with these two facts, and grasp the implication they have for the immiseration thesis, it will be impossible to move forward.

    Secondly, who said anything about trade?

    You did. All the talk about “taking advantage of cheap, oppressed labor, making profits off of it that would be impossible with workers who have basic human rights, selling dirt cheap commodities” etc. is just a highly rhetorical description of trade. If you want to explain how any of the above is supposed to occur without trade between the West and the developing world, I’d love to hear it.

  • Joe Hargrave

    First of all, I question your conception of what the ‘total value’ of the West’s exploitation of the third world is. How exactly do you know what the total value is? When was the last time you bought something that wasn’t made in a third world country? I would wager good money that the 10 items nearest to you right now were made somewhere in Asia.

    This is the most relevant point – ‘immiseration’ is not just put off by the availability of cheap goods, but by the rights of workers.

    If American companies could do to American workers what American companies and the Chinese state does to Chinese workers, how long do you think it would be before there was a revolt in the works?

    Workers have rights in America, but for capitalist production (at least in the traditional sense) to remain profitable, workers somewhere have to be deprived of rights. That is connected to ‘immiseration’. With all of the political unrest in China, it is evident that either a) rising living standards are less important to Chinese workers than human rights, political rights, (meaning their absence counts as part of ‘immiseration’) or b) living standards aren’t really rising that much and no one is willing to be sacrificed today for the economic utopia promised tomorrow.

  • How exactly do you know what the total value is?

    Here is a list of the top ten trading countries with the United States. As of September of 2008, the total value of imports and exports between the U.S. and China was around $300 billion. This represents around 2% of total U.S. GDP. Note also that the total value of U.S. trade with China is more than $150 billion less than the total value of trade with Canada.

    When was the last time you bought something that wasn’t made in a third world country?

    About an hour ago. It was called dinner.

    I would wager good money that the 10 items nearest to you right now were made somewhere in Asia.

    You would lose that wager. Badly. Among the ten items closest to me right now are several books (printed in the U.S.), some plastic cups (made in Illinois), and a blanket (that was made by my Mom). There’s also my iPod, laptop, and cell phone, which may or may not have been assembled in Asia, but were certainly not made there.

    Workers have rights in America, but for capitalist production (at least in the traditional sense) to remain profitable, workers somewhere have to be deprived of rights.

    Whether this is true depends on the content of the rights in question. I suspect that some of the things you think of as worker’s rights are actually harmful to workers. However, the fact that such rights are harmful does not mean that they are fatal, and I presume that your views on what constitute workers’ rights are not such as to prevent businesses from being profitable (if they were, then you might want to reconsider).

  • Joe Hargrave

    Yes, of course, I forgot – workers routinely demand things that hurt them. If only they had the wisdom of those Atlases at the top of the economic pyramid, they would cheerfully accept the demands of their betters.

    The rights of workers are listed in the Compendium, paragraph 301 (or 30something anyway). Practically none of them exist in China or many other third world countries, sometimes in practice, sometimes in both theory and practice – which is exactly why first world companies go there.

    You’re damned right I want to prevent businesses from being profitable, if those profits are the direct and demonstrable result of denying workers their rights. I don’t care if the profits are being spent on yachts and mansions, or if they are being invested in factories and plants, blood money is blood money. If the economy cannot prosper through the bare minimum of workers rights it does not deserve to exist.

    Fortunately I think the whole mess of problems can be solved if society finds ways to encourage more people to participate in collective ownership of businesses, to elevate them from wage-workers to partners, to take the two antagonistic aspects of production and unite them in one person. Cooperatives cannot have labor disputes and they don’t even necessarily require that a whole country change its labor laws. No one is going to oppress and exploit themselves, the same incentive to produce, meet consumer needs, and reinvest exists, class conflict is virtually done away with, and everyone except a handful of people who believe it is their divine right to live a million times better than everyone else does is happy.

  • blackadderiv

    Yes, of course, I forgot – workers routinely demand things that hurt them.

    Workers rarely demand things that would hurt them personally (at least in the short run). On the other hand, they do often demand things that benefit them personally but which harm other workers.

    If the economy cannot prosper through the bare minimum of workers rights it does not deserve to exist.

    Really? So if it were the case that having a minimum wage or whatever would lead to economic ruin and mass starvation, you’d say that everyone should starve to death? That’s an odd view, and not at all in keeping with the Catholic view of the matter (which recognizes that workers’ rights may be limited for the sake of the common good, and do not apply where they would render businesses unprofitable).

    Fortunately I think the whole mess of problems can be solved if society finds ways to encourage more people to participate in collective ownership of businesses

    If it weren’t possible for a business to remain profitable while respecting workers’ rights, then it really wouldn’t matter whether the business was organized as a sole proprietorship or as a worker owned co-operative. How a company is organized matters when it comes to how profits are distributed, but if there aren’t any profits, the question doesn’t really arise.

    All of this, though, is really far afield from anything in my post. Perhaps worker owned co-operatives are the bees knees; what does that have to do with the immiseration thesis?

  • Pingback: Where Did Belloc Go Wrong? « Vox Nova()

  • Joe Hargrave

    An odd view?

    It is only odd if profits are only possible through unjust exploitation. No one claims this is the case. But greater profits are possible. The choice here isn’t between profits and rights, but super-profits and obscene personal fortunes, and workers rights. The latter wins by any understanding of Catholic teaching, no ifs, ands or buts.

    As for the choice you offer, how far are you willing to go? What if instead of minimum wages causing society to fall apart, the only way to keep it together was slavery, or cannibalism? At what point would we try something else for the sake of our souls?

    As for the discussion being ‘far afield’, how long can we go in circles? Discussions have a way of moving beyond the original topic. If it doesn’t interest you, why reply?

  • Gabriel Austin

    It would certainly be useful if one were to read the whole of Belloc’s book. And to note the care with which he develops his vocabulary.
    It would have been useful to have a report from, say, Detroit, before the CEOs managed to collapse the auto industry, in sheer blindness. [Said the president of GM in the 1950s “Americans will never buy small cars”]. Detroit was a prime example of the company town. Such a town is described by Shaw in MAJOR BARBARA.
    Obviously there will be exceptions to the general economy. But Belloc’s main point was that the economy of the future will be determined by the large [and international] corporations, themselves subservient to the banks.

    blackadderiv writes:
    May 27, 2009 at 3:30 pm
    “Fortunately I think the whole mess of problems can be solved if society finds ways to encourage more people to participate in collective ownership of businesses”.

    How would this differ from nationalization? Is it not individual ownership which creates responsibility?

  • Joe Hargrave

    Gabriel,

    Nationalization means state ownership. I don’t support that, unless it is absolutely necessary.

  • It is only odd if profits are only possible through unjust exploitation. No one claims this is the case.

    Well, first off, you did say that “for capitalist production (at least in the traditional sense) to remain profitable, workers somewhere have to be deprived of rights.” In any event, your claim was about what should happen if the antecedent here were true; whether the antecedent is in fact true is irrelevant to that inquiry.

    What if instead of minimum wages causing society to fall apart, the only way to keep it together was slavery, or cannibalism?

    No doubt there are some things which it would be better not to do “though the heavens fall.” I just don’t think it’s reasonable to classify not having a minimum wage as being among them. Italy, for example, doesn’t have a minimum wage. Neither, I believe, does Germany. Would an utter economic collapse in these countries really be preferable to the current state of affairs (note: I’m not saying that these countries *would* collapse if they had minimum wages, just that if that’s the choice, then one ought to prefer the current situation. The minimum wage is made for man, not man for the minimum wage).

  • It would certainly be useful if one were to read the whole of Belloc’s book.

    I did read the whole book. Have you read it?

  • Joe Hargrave

    What do Italy and Germany have that the US doesn’t have, though? That’s the question, and the answer is, a lot. They have stronger trade unions, for one. They have a much larger cooperative sector, for another. The same can be said of Japan and all of the other East Asian countries you fondly point to as economic examples, though there the state takes more responsibility than local organizations. America has few if any of these features.

    Believe me, I would prefer to see more unions and cooperatives before I would prefer to see a higher minimum wage. What we have in America is individualism, and that usually translates into, ‘you’re on your own’. Without social networks like unions and cooperatives that lessen the impact of economic downturns by spreading the damage, individuals are often left to their own devices. We can only think of our well being in terms of what wages we are able to earn as individual workers, not in terms of what our neighbors or co-owners or partners or employers will be able to do for us as a group.

    In any case, I note now that whereas I said workers rights, you jumped to minimum wage as the implication of that. I never even said minimum wage. The Church does call for a just wage as part of workers rights, however.

    So let me just put the question to you – is it moral to pay workers a wage that they cannot sustain their families on? If it isn’t, why shouldn’t there be a minimum wage?

  • blackadderiv

    What do Italy and Germany have that the US doesn’t have, though? That’s the question, and the answer is, a lot.

    I deal with this more in my latest post, so it would be probably better to continue this aspect of the discussion there.

    I note now that whereas I said workers rights, you jumped to minimum wage as the implication of that. I never even said minimum wage.

    Not true. In this comment, you say: “Even conservative voters in America will overwhelmingly support minimum wage increases, regardless of the propaganda that tells them it will wreck the economy.” Aside from my mentioning that Belloc thought the minimum wage led to slavery in my post, this comment was the first time the subject came up.

    So let me just put the question to you – is it moral to pay workers a wage that they cannot sustain their families on? If it isn’t, why shouldn’t there be a minimum wage?

    It would be immoral in some circumstances, but not others. Even where paying less would be immoral, however, I wouldn’t favor a legal minimum wage. The minimum wage is always zero. If you tell an employer that he must pay a man $7 an hour or nothing when he is only worth $5 an hour to the employer, the result will be not that the man gets $7 an hour but that he gets nothing.