Mises Wire

In Defense of GK Chesterton’s Manalive

G.K. Chesterton is a somewhat controversial author in most libertarian circles. As an intelligent man who wisely predicted a century out so many of the problems we face today, he has garnered great respect among many who have read him. However, as a proponent of distributism, advocating ideas such as “the taxation of contracts so as to discourage the sale of small property to big proprietors and encourage the break-up of big property among small proprietors,” he has turned away many libertarians who would otherwise appreciate his writing.

My argument here is not to say Chesterton was right about everything but rather to say that no matter how much one feels certain his proposals are incorrect, do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I seek to defend one particular piece of his writings, not just as something with gems of valuable insights dispersed throughout it but rather something every libertarian and every Austrian economist should read and should recommend to others. This is his fiction book Manalive.

Chesterton was no one-trick pony; as such, his book is about a great many important lessons: the nature of innocence, the nature of happiness, but of most interest to libertarians and Austrian economists, a private court. The very plot of the book revolves around an enigmatic and energetic character by the name of Innocent Smith. Smith blows in, as if out of nowhere, stirs up just about everyone he touches, and leaves in his wake a whole series of allegations against him ranging from murder and burglary to desertion and polygamy. However, unlike the majority of books dealing with such questions, Chesterton’s characters do not turn to a government court. Rather, Chesterton’s Michael Moon states,

Often and often the thing a whole nation can’t settle is just the thing a family could settle. Scores of young criminals have been fined and sent to jail when they ought to have been thrashed and sent to bed. Scores of men, I am sure, have had a lifetime at Hanwell when they only wanted a week at Brighton. There IS something in Smith’s notion of domestic self-government; and I propose that we put it into practice.

Every word of this could just as well have been an argument one would find right here on mises.org. Not only does he criticize the flawed government criminal justice system, he outright addresses the “notion of domestic self-government.” After this he proceeds to explain that there are incentives that show that handling this court case at home will make everyone involved better off than they would have been in a government court.

The entire remainder of the book from this moment is the private court in action. Each chapter breaks down a different allegation against Smith, in which a private accuser lays out the case against him, a private defender picks apart that case, and a conclusion is reached. But this still leaves one asking, with works like Bob Murphy’s book Chaos Theory, why do we need to bother with a fiction account of private works? Chesterton himself has answered this: “People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are.”

Fiction accounts simply have a way of speaking to people and expressing deep truths that are cumbersome to read in the form of nonfiction. The average person is unlikely to pick up an essay on private law; however, an exciting story about Innocent Smith could comfortably draw in such a person. Even a well-read mises.org reader could still take a breath from the nonfiction essays and read fiction stories and obtain many wonderful insights.

Henry Hazlitt understood this, and it shows in the publication of his great fiction work, Time Will Run Back, which distilled his economic lessons into fiction form. But in addition to Hazlitt’s understanding this, the enemies of good ideas also understand this. Ludwig von Mises explained this in his book The Anti-capitalistic Mentality: “The book market is flooded by a downpour of trivial fiction for the semi barbarians.” However, he also leaves us with hope when he states, “But this does not prevent great authors from creating imperishable works.”

Great authors can create imperishable works like Manalive. It is on us to take advantage of these great authors in order to fight for good ideas and push them forward.

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Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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