The Servile State

A century ago, Hilaire Belloc wrote in the The Servile State¹ that attempts to reform capitalism will lead to an economy in which the state dictates that certain people will work for others, who likewise must take care of them. Belloc called this the servile state. This is different from early arrangements in which slaves and serfs were the backbone of the economy. In those arrangements, the owner has a choice to not own slaves. It is also different from capitalism, in which everyone is politically free by law.

Belloc was a man of his age so he viewed economics through the goggles of socialism and the newly emergent industrial capitalism. In The Servile State, he was searching for an alternative to the destruction of liberty necessary with socialism and the instability inherent to capitalism. The former results in an inequality of political power, while the latter results in an inequality of material wealth. Eventually, a small number of people rule over the masses, who begin to resent their rulers, seeing them as tyrants.

What Belloc argued is that socialism is inevitably the state dictating to property holders how they can dispose of their property. The state does this either through direct ownership, or through legal requirements for the ownership and use of property. Political freedom is determined by the degree of freedom one has with regards his labor and the results of his labor.. Therefore, socialism must restrict the political liberty of citizens to the same degree that it controls property and labor of the citizens.

Capitalism puts ownership and control of property in the hands of the people. In pure capitalism or what we now call libertarianism, individuals not only control their labor and the results of their labor, they are politically free. In theory, men either labor for their own use or agree to labor for others. The state’s only purpose is to enforce contracts as all of the dealings between citizens is consensual and formalized in a contract. The appeal of capitalism, pure capitalism, is the allure of pure political freedom.

By the time Belloc was writing, it was clear that pure capitalism would inevitably result in the concentration of wealth. A small class of property owners would come to posses the bulk of the nation’s wealth. That means a class of people who were free and a class of people who were not free, because they could not own and control their own labor. This led to social instability and eventually violence. Belloc argued that attempts to reform capitalism through state action would result in something he called the Servile State.

Reforms to capitalism are always through the law. The state places limits on how the owners of property may use their property. This then leads to a negotiation between the state, which has the monopoly of force, and the property class, which has a monopoly of capital. The result is a system in which the state seeks to protect those without property by placing requirement in the capital owners. In return, the state require the masses to labor for the property class, under conditions set by the state.

The result is that the business is forced to hire people it may not wish to hire, but the state also dictates to labor how and when they can sell their labor. Put another way, the poor are forced to serve the rich, but the rich are forced to be generous to the poor, looking out for their welfare. It is a social contract enforced at the barrel of a gun. It has the inequality of capitalism and the lack of political liberty inherent in socialism. The Servile State is the worst elements of both economic systems.

Belloc could not see what was coming in the post-war era and he certainly had no idea what was coming with the technological revolution and the explosion of neo-liberal globalism. He was prescient, however, with regards to how English economic systems would evolve over time. Look around at the modern world and you see the world he described as the inevitable result of “reformed capitalism.” Today, employers hire whole teams of people who makes sure the rich and powerful follow the rules.

What’s been missing in the technological age is the other half of the equation. As the West de-industrialized, the enforcement of labor laws have fallen away. Masses of helot labor brought over from Asia into Silicon Valley, for example, worked under agreements they struck with the business owners. Tech companies love open borders as it gives them a loophole to avoid some of the constraints of the Servile State. The same is true at the unskilled end, where companies rely upon masses of labor from Latin America.

This is an untenable situation in its own right, but the coming automation of the American economy will result in an evolution of the Servile State. The Universal Basic Income is nothing more than a modern implementation of the sort of infringements on political liberty Belloc described a century ago. Property holders will be forced to care for the dispossessed and, inevitably, the state will put behavior rules on the dispossessed. The UBI will come with rules requiring the recipients to act a certain way.

You get a glimpse of this in the efforts to control political speech on-line. Social media companies get exceptions to anti-trust laws, permitting them to run monopolies. In exchange, they are tasked with policing dissent on behalf of the state. The users get “free access” to platforms like Faceberg and Twitter, just as long as they agree to the terms of service and accept discipline when they post subversive things. Imagine this system applied to the universal basic income or to access to your self-driving car.

Belloc’s alternative was something he and Chesterton called distributism. Some have argued that their economic ideas were proto-fascism, but that’s debatable. What Belloc argued for was the inverse of the Servile State. Instead of a strong central state, political authority would be distributed and diffused throughout society, while wealth concentration would be constrained locally though ad hoc arrangements and cultural institutions. The goal is to maximize liberty, while minimizing inequality.

Whether or not this is possible in the modern age is debatable. Belloc and Chesterton argued that this was the natural arrangement of Europe. They also argued that it required a strong and energetic Christian tradition. That ship has sailed in the West, but maybe it does not matter. There’s no getting around the fact that neo-liberalism may be economically stable, but it is wildly unstable culturally. The experience of Europe thus far suggests it is suicidal. How to address it may lie with globalism’s last critics.

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42 Comments on "The Servile State"

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Eclectic Esoteric
Guest

The dangerous liaison of human and artificial intelligence has produced robots that are replacing immigrant fruit and vegetable pickers and reducing the need for H-1 B visas. Bill Gates is already demanding we tax robots who take other people’s jobs, even though a robot would beat him if he ran for president against one.

james wilson
Guest

Well done. I better understand where we are any why that is so. Ultimately, we are as bad or as good as our ruling class, and that class has grown as wretched as it is embedded like the parasite it is.

BaruchK
Guest
>What Belloc argued is that socialism is inevitably the state dictating to property holders how they can dispose of their property. Best as I can figure out, in practice (not theory) socialism is a small elite of property holders using the state to destroy the majority of property holders, the middle class. This takes many forms: 1) regulations which the elite property holders write and retain legions of lawyers (some of them ex-regulators) to interpret, but which are impossible for normal property holders to comply with 2) mandatory public “education” for the middle class, which makes it impossible for most… Read more »
Joey Junger
Guest
This kind of “socialism” is what some have called “crony capitalism.” It’s just Tammany Hall style power consolidation on a global rather than city scale (Obama saw how it worked in Chicago and did his best to turn America into one giant Second City). Capital accrues heavily to those close to the (deep) state so that no bargain between state and capital is necessary as Belloc posited: state and capital are under the control of the same people (who have a literal power to print money). America isn’t Chile, so if you balk or cross these people, you don’t get… Read more »
Somone
Guest
The current situation has little to do with the concept of capitalism or libertarianism (I define this as extremely limited government as opposed to open borders and other such nonsense). We don’t really have capitalism but thousands of rent seeking corporations and private large businesses in bed with the federal and other government. Part of this rent seeking is limiting hours and low pay and little in the way of insurance or benefits. Even the public sector has gotten in on the BS ‘privatization’ scam. We have no free market in money. Thousands of regulations and laws that prevent you… Read more »
Member
I see Belloc’s servile state most strongly in medicine, where large hospital and university systems take over regional medical markets and physicians are faced with the choice of working within the system or having to move away. This is felt strongly by subspecialists who rely on referrals, but they have found ways to convince the primary care physician that he cannot make do without them, too. Like Wal-Mart, they can flood a local market with other competing physicians and pay them at a loss to lure patients away from their PCP and in the end take over his practice entirely… Read more »
james wilson
Guest

No, you are right, there is no better way. Credentialism is the lifeblood of bureaucratic rule. Eliminate it or wear it. It has never been so simple to check upon the quality of a product you are looking to use and to sort among the options.

Dorf
Guest

The inevitable result will of course be the collapse of these conglomerates. It is happening near here, (Louisville, KY) , with the old Jewish/Catholic merged system. What will fill the gap is anyone’s guess

Dutch
Guest

The people in charge of medicine don’t care about the long run because they are making millions a year in the short run, and will be long gone when the reckoning comes.

Karl Horst
Guest
@ teapartydoc – I would argue that I would not want an unlicensed physician practicing medicine any more than I would want an unlicensed civil engineer building bridges. Bureaucracy or not, there must be a governing body to control such things to ensure public safety. Do we really want to revert back to the days of barbers pulling teeth? I think not. It sounds like your profession is suffering from the same managerial shift we in industry have encountered. In Germany, it was at one time the Kraftfahrzeug-mechaniker-meister (the most highly skilled machinist) who decided who worked on the shop… Read more »
james wilson
Guest

It is a losing strategy to fight a bureaucratic state or system by joining it. It is the reformer who is changed if not consumed, not the bureaucracy. A medical system (or more exactly, systems) that rejects state credentialism is in greater need of credentials. Health professionals, hospitals, and consumers would choose between them. People are not as stupid as we think when they have to think, and they are stupider than we think when they don’t.

Member

You get a medical license by taking a test just like the ones you got in school. The test is determined by the profession. There are fewer than 1-2% of grads who don’t pass. It’s only purpose is to control the number of practitioners. To maintain the monopoly. I took mine so many years ago it has nothing to do with how I practice. I can’t think of anything more meaningless to competency.
Perhaps the resistance of some to understand this idea is because their paychecks depend on them demonstrating this resistance.

Rod Horner
Guest
What passed the notice of 20th century luminaries like Belloc, was the truism that all large scale social systems (like nation-state governments) ultimately rest upon oligarchies. This was understood at common knowledge from the time of the ancient Greeks up to the late medieval period, when such arrangements were perfectly obvious, but unfortunately fell by the historical wayside as more latter-day political thinkers let their minds drift into the platonic ether surrounding concepts like absolute monarchy, republicanism, etc. This observable law of nature seems to render both theories on socialism and capitalism as moot points. Distributism and other third-way concepts… Read more »
Anonymous White Male
Guest
“In The Servile State, he was searching for an alternative to the destruction of liberty necessary with socialism and the instability inherent to capitalism. The former results in an inequality of political power, while the latter results in an inequality of material wealth. Eventually, a small number of people rule over the masses, who begin to resent their rulers, seeing them as tyrants. By the time Belloc was writing, it was clear that pure capitalism would inevitably result in the concentration of wealth.” I know that this is just a matter of semantics, but power equals wealth. To say that… Read more »
Dutch
Guest

Warren Buffet has engineered control with ownership, but without the responsibilities and liabilities that ownership accrues to the owners. Berkshire Hathaway is the perfect vehicle for such a thing.

Ryan T
Guest

Ultimately it has to come back down to local scale entities solving local scale problems the best way for themselves.

Rod Horner
Guest
That has been the perennial prediction of the decentralists, but it only ever pans out by happenstance and for a short while before someone become regionally dominant. Technologically speaking, it might be possible at some point in the not-too-distant future to have small autarkic solutions to what were traditionally considered massive public works problems (eg. power generation, efficient transportation, etc.), but they would still have to compete on the meta-level with more expansive and bellicose neighbors. In my opinion, scaling down problems is not a solution per se (it can be in some cases). Having the power and will to… Read more »
Anonymous White Male
Guest
“That has been the perennial prediction of the decentralists, but it only ever pans out by happenstance and for a short while before someone become regionally dominant.” And maybe this is just because human nature will always assert itself and someone will become dominant, no matter what scale you talk about. I’m sure you’ve heard the cliche, “Big fish in a little pond”? I think most people on this site will understand that equality only really exists in a mathematical sense. We understand that equality between races and equality between cultures is a fiction. Maybe it is time we need… Read more »
TomA
Guest

You need to go one level deeper with this topic. Our species evolves at the individual level, not at the level of societies. If we eliminate competition at the individual level, we eliminate the driver for natural selection. And at that point, the entire species devolves and become less robust over time. UBI will accelerate this decline at hyperspeed. This will likely lead to a future of genetically engineered cloud people and an underclass of morlocks. It’s not science fiction any more.

Member

Or the Cloud People tire of the underclass morlocks and the problems they bring and sterilizes them and or euthanizes them.

Matt
Guest

Excellent piece! Great food for thought.

SWRichmond
Guest
You’re overthinking it. The problem is not capitalism but rent-seeking. Without government, of course, rent-seeking is not possible. Rent-seeking behaviour is as old as government itself. The ROI on lobbying is four or even five orders of magnitude higher than the ROI on capital investment / R&D. It has always been this way. Money seeks the monopoly on the use of force. Different types of government are always characterized by the same rent-seeking behaviour. Those who call for a new form of government only want a chance to rearrange the chairs and grab one for themselves. People who become very… Read more »
Dutch
Guest

Bottom-up rent seeking can be slapped down. Top-down rent seeking has no powerful antidote.

merrell denison
Guest

“Name one who hasn’t” Bill Gates avoided politics early on, until the anti-trust folks hung him up like “the worlds wealthiest piñata” and began beating money out of Microsoft until he capitulated and began crossing their outstretched palms.

Member

Agree

Member

What often goes unnoticed is the stunning degree of reverse leverage.
The political filth are happy to do billions of economic damage for twenty grands worth of bribes.

Member

Spider-Man: Homecoming was awesome. Yay Capitalism.

Whiskey
Guest
I would not be convinced our elites are mostly Jewish or that is the main issue with their rotten-ness. Jews are over-represented in the media, Hollywood, and the law; but are being purged certainly in Hollywood (BLM is essentially staging a slow-motion intafada against Jewish men in Hollywood). Also in Academia. Jews are nearly totally absent in the US Military, a serious power center. Also in science particularly R&D, physics, etc. where they used to dominate. Rather, they are as noted by others non-owners, but controllers, of assets. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Frick, Vanderbilt, all were enthusiastic importers of impoverished Eastern European… Read more »
Member

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Zeroh Tollrants
Guest

You may see that as ethnically nepotistic hiring practices, goyim, but you’re really just anti-Semitic for noticing.

Joey Junger
Guest
I take an even dimmer view than that posed in this post. I don’t think the people in charge are bracing for a negative income tax/subsistence bribe for those whose lives are destroyed by automation and immigration. I think the purpose of the flow of immigrants from Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East is designed to turn the USA (outside of some small enclaves) into a mixture of Calcutta slums and Sao Paulo favelas. As Jared Taylor put it, there will be a large teeming brown mass outside of the gates of some small communities in California, New… Read more »
Dutch
Guest

The elites in India and China are their model. They want to emulate the situations over there. India has no middle class, and the middle class in China is emasculated, existing solely at the whim of the elites. Tiananmen Square was the breaking point, and the elite prevailed.

slumlord
Guest

A better answer to Distributism is Ordoliberalism and the Social Market Economy.

Navarth
Guest

A good article. I read something similar by Hoppe years ago where he framed it as the public ownership of slaves as opposed to the private version I was taught extensively about when younger.

Karl Horst
Guest
Back in 2015, Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government funding. The question is, since Mr. Musk’s companies, shareholders and stock holders are going to realize profits based on this government investment, shouldn’t the tax payers who provided those $4.9 billion also receive dividends in the form of, say – basic income dividend returns? Consider that the US government has been doing the same thing with your tax dollars for decades – funding private companies in various sectors such as transportation, energy and even healthcare. Now imagine if all… Read more »
Dutch
Guest

You hit the heart of the matter there. A social compact of sorts in this country says that if you want to participate, buy shares in the companies. Now Congress knows ahead of time which company is going to get the next big check, and the Congressmen are allowed to front run (buy ahead of time) the shares. Legal for them, illegal for everyone else, if they know inside information about who the next big check is going to.

Karl Horst
Guest
@ Dutch – Consider that the parts of the smart phone that make it smart (e.g. GPS, touch screens, the Internet) were all advanced by the Defense Department. Tesla’s battery technologies and solar panels came out of a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Google’s search engine algorithm was boosted by a National Science Foundation innovation and many innovative new drugs have come out of NIH research. Now imagine those companies who benefitted from using these devices, had to pay a dividend back to the government from their future profits in the form of a basic income dividend. It… Read more »
Dutch
Guest
I see your point. The argument that is made is that we all benefit from the research and development, even if we must pay for our phones and Internet service. This is one of those tough questions that may not have a “good” answer. If the gov’t does not fund the R&D and the new developments don’t happen, are we better off? The basic problem with the dividend back to the government is that the people won’t see most of it. The government “skim” of the proceeds and the deep state bureaucracy that grows around that skim will take almost… Read more »
Member

The State is far better at funding politically connected losers than winners.

Sam J.
Guest

I would be happy if they just made all the companies that use these advances paid for by the taxpayer ONLY produce them in the US. They shouldn’t be allowed to produce them overseas.

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[…] goes back to the Servile State post. No one in this sordid relationship is free in any meaningful way. The big bad company is being […]

JoseM
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Thank you very much for taking the time to compile this information and write it up. I had been curious about this for a long time. Encore!

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