I recently made an ebook version of this book available. It's a work of highly affected rhetoric, but it makes some good points. I'm reading it through again and unpacking it as I go.
Contrast between emphases on Private Property vs. Private Enterprise. Property is a more noble value than Enterprise; and a society which lionizes property will have better social outcomes than one which lionizes enterprise.
“A pickpocket is obviously a champion of private enterprise. But it would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that a pickpocket is a champion of private property. The point about Capitalism and Commercialism, as conducted of late, is that they have really preached the extension of business rather than the preservation of belongings; and have at best tried to disguise the pickpocket with some of the virtues of the pirate…Pockets and possessions generally seem to me to have not only a more normal but a more dignified defence than the rather dirty individualism that talks about private enterprise.”
One thing which always bugs me about Chesterton, he always talks in sweeping generalizations and never bothers to cite specific examples. This first paragraph is a classic example: he complains that the institution of property has been “now so completely forgotten amid the journalistic jubilations over Private Enterprise”, and later adds “The newspapers now praising private enterprise are preaching the very opposite of anything that anybody dreams of practising.”
I know I don’t actually have to take his word for it that all the newspapers were talking like this or that nobody in the whole world would dream of actually practising what the papers were advocating. But this kind of style always felt sloppy to me, and it detracts from his credibility a lot.
He gets in his digs at Communism (“The point about Communism is that it only reforms the pickpocket by forbidding pockets.”) but he knows his audience is already worried about Communism, and his goal is to get them equally worried about Capitalism.
It is all very well to repeat distractedly, “What are we coming to, with all this Bolshevism?” It is equally relevant to add, “What are we coming to, even without Bolshevism?”
He knows he’d better define Capitalism because it’s a word that means too many things by default. He means specifically:
That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the wealth is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.
Crucially, Chesterton gets it right out of the way that Capitalism isn’t simply equivalent to “private property.” It drives me nuts when people use it that way because it’s not a useful or accurate definition; and as Chesterton is taking pains to argue, a simple "boolean allowance" of the existence of private property isn't enough to avoid very bad social outcomes.
Regarding Socialism, Chesterton allows that it is “in many ways worthy if the moral dignity of the mind”, but says we have a right to complain that it must also be a destruction of liberty.
“A Socialist Government is one which in its nature does not tolerate any true and real opposition. For there the Government provides everything; and it is absurd to ask a Government to provide an opposition.”
He proceeds to spin out repetitious variations on this theme for awhile.
This is gold, though, about how Socialism touches freedom of the press:
“It is absurd to suppose that [the critic of the State] could…use the Government printing-presses to expose the corruption of the Government. Yet it is the whole point of Socialism, the whole case for Socialism, that unless all printing-presses are Government printing-presses, printers may be oppressed. Everything is staked on the State's justice; it is putting all the eggs in one basket.”
Just now, he mentions the whole point of his book so quickly and with so little fanfare, that you'd miss it if you blinked.
"A few of us began to preach…a policy of small distributed property (which has since assumed the awkward but accurate name of Distributism)…against the two extremes of Capitalism and Communism."
—and, without even bothering to flesh it out, starts right in defending it against his critics.
The first big criticism: If property were equally divided, it would still inevitably be aggregated out of the hands of the many and into the hands of the enterprising few. You’d end up right back where you started.
In other words, Shaw and the other critics are saying that small, distributed properties are fairy tales; that it’s useless to try and keep them small and distributed by any policy.
Chesterton responds first with his favourite kind of response, a poetic analogy in high style, with arms and legs coming out of it everywhere.
Suppose Mr. Bernard Shaw…were to blame me for believing (on the word of some lying priest) that stones could be thrown up into the air and hang there suspended like a rainbow.
Suppose he told me tenderly that I should not believe this Popish fable of the magic stones, if I had ever had the Law of Gravity scientifically explained to me.
And suppose, after all this, I found he was only talking about the impossibility of building an arch.
Summing up his analogy (and exposition of it) in as few words as possible:
Point 2 is the more promising of the three, and he shores it up before the others.
Where the independence of small properties exists, people are unwilling to give it up: “it is valued exactly as any other dignity is when it is regarded as normal…just as no man goes naked or is beaten with a stick for hire.”
The theory that those who start reasonably equal cannot remain reasonably equal is a fallacy founded entirely on a society in which they start extremely unequal. … It is quite true that when capitalism has passed a certain point, the broken fragments of property are very easily devoured.
Some more breezy citations — welcome for their hinting at concrete examples, but frustrating for not having been given more substantial treatment:
More about property as a social value which is self-enforcing where it has not been eradicated.
When it really is thought hateful to take Naboth's vineyard as it is to take Uriah's wife, there is little difficulty in finding a local prophet to pronounce the judgment of the Lord. In an atmosphere of capitalism the man who lays field to field is flattered; but in an atmosphere of property he is promptly jeered at…
Property is a point of honour. The true contrary of the word “property” is “prostitution”. And it is not true that a human being will always sell what is sacred to that sense of self-ownership, whether it be the body or the boundary.