Learn Something From Douglas Jay
The Socialist Case. By Douglas Jay. (Faber and Faber, 12s. 6d.) Reviewed by J. L. BENVENISTI This book is far better than anything of its kind that has so far been done by the Left Book Club. " The Condition of Britain " belongs to a somewhat different category. It is true that the title is somewhat misleading for the author defines Socialism as the abolition of private unearned or inherited incomes rather than of the private ownership of the mean of production." This is rather a high-handed procedure, and one is reminded of the dear old lady who denounced as blasphemous the doctrine of Papal infallibility. When the real nature of the doctrine was explained to her she still objected that that was not her idea of Infallibility. We too may take this attitude and say with the rather better authority that this is not our idea of Socialism.
Having gone as far as this, however, we most of us will find ourselves in substantial though not in complete agreement with Mr. Jay. For Mr. Jay is out to abolish all pure rent incomes, all incomes, that is to say, which are not justified by some personal service or risk, because such incomes are for the most part morally absurd.
The Catholic is expressly forbidden to hold this opinion, or to maintain that pure rent income is in itself immoral. According to Catholic theory the ownership of an asset is sufficient to justify the receipt of income. The rendering of a service in return for income is a duty devolving on a recipient of income, but failure to render that service does not invalidate his title to receive the income.
* * * When all is said and done, however, Catholic Social principles and those of Mr. Jay will ultimately produce the same result. For though rent income may not in itself be immoral, yet the multiplication and inflation of such incomes, and in particular the swelling of the total amount or capital wealth which is charged with such incomes before it can be put to use, is an economic disaster and so militates against the common good. The Christian ruler therefore may well be called upon to inflict mayhem on unearned income to an extent which would more than satisfy Mr. Jay.
In the matter of inheritance Mr. Jay sails from the Catholic point of view, a little closer to the wind. There is a clear papal injunction against the exhaustion of estates by taxes, but here again there is nothing,pid that would protect them from a process of severe fiscal mauling if the public good requires it. Let us take the obvious case of a man collet:Ling a nest egg of gilt edged for his,,old age, Should such a man be permitted to transmit it to his descendants? In theory the Catholic woylsi say that .he should. In practice so long 'as 1114 estate is not exhausted, the Catholic cannot object to the Exchequer taking a substantial bite, if the exigencies of the public weal demand it. Mr. Jay would take the opposite view. In theory he would want the estate wiped out. In practice, being a very moderate and reasonable person and a palpable believer in the inevitability of gradualness, he would certainly present a substantial douceur to the distraught legatee.
This brings me to the whole question of confiscation, which, of course, enters both explicity and implicity into Mr. Jay's thesis. There is a belief current in Catholic circles that the Church has put an absolute veto on confiscation as such. There is no foundation for such a view. On the contrary it is pretty clear from Quadragesimo Anno that the suspension of juridical property rights by the civil ruler may often legitimately be undertaken as an actual means of safeguarding the principle of property, and it is worth noting that the great Jesuit commentator, Fr. Nell Bruening, writes as follows: '
"We can merely ask ourselves whether we can speak of ' efficacious measures at all,' if we renounce expropriation in principle even as• a last resort."
My own criticism of Mr. Jay's thesis is that he is not out to destroy rent income at its source by a better division of property, he merely wishes to tax it back. He tacitly acquiesces, nay he very obviously accepts as inevitable, the large industrial unit, the size of which prevents it being run with the money of those who actually work it. Thus the absentee capitalist whether a private individual or the state is for Mr. Jay more indispensable than he really need be; for the same reason Mr. Jay, like all Socialists, cannot think in terms other than those of a wage-earning society.
Much of what Mr. Jay propounds will nevertheless be acceptable to most of us, My next criticism is on the ground that Mr. Jay does not even touch the fundamental problem of Western civilisation, which is the balance between town and country. He gives no indication as to how the food is to be created that will sustain a top-heavy urban civilisation at optimum diet levels. At present the problem is solved very simply. The food is not grown and a section of the community is left to starve. Yet the growing of additional food would necessitate the bringing under cultivation of what we must still broadly describe as "marginal land." Could the community with its present habits and mode of living bear the cost of this without making enormous collective sacrifices? —and would it be willing to make them? I am very doubtful about the answer to that and in a survey as comprehensive as that of Mr. Jay the question should certainly have been touched on.
Apart from these faults the book is an (Continued at foot of preceding column.)