In one sense, the 2012 election is a referendum on the presidency of Barack Obama. But in a larger sense, it is a referendum on a century of Progressivism. Are we in the process of putting the finishing touches on the progressive state, assuming that progressivism can ever be finished? Or are we about to begin the long process of finding our way back to America's limited-government roots? Will an Obama victory be the capstone to a process already a century old? Or will his defeat signal a return to something older still? Questions of this magnitude might best be answered by looking back precisely 100 years, to another presidential election of more than ordinary importance. That same year, 1912, also saw the publication of a little book about the great economic debate that made quite a splash in its time and deserves to be read today.

In 1912, Progressivism was ascendant in both major American parties. It was, basically, the conviction that stronger, more assertive government would improve economic and social conditions. The incumbent president, William Howard Taft, himself a progressive of sorts, faced challenges from two unabashed progressives -- Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson -- and from a socialist (Eugene Debs). To reverse Bill Clinton's famous pronouncement, the era of big government was at hand.

Well, here we are, a century later. This time, the incumbent is the unabashed progressive, having wrapped himself in the mantle of TR while adding new layers to the "administrative state" that Wilson championed. His opponent, Mitt Romney, calls for smaller government and champions free-market capitalism, citing his private business experience as a prime qualification.

The apparent conflict of visions brings us to the aforementioned book: "The Servile State." Its author, an Englishman by the name of Hilaire Belloc, has long been forgotten. A one-time member of Parliament and a prolific writer, Belloc was half of the duo dubbed the "Chesterbelloc" by George Bernard Shaw. The other half was fellow Englishman, fellow pub mate and fellow "distributist" G.K. Chesterton.

Neither Belloc nor Chesterton could be accused of being capitalist stooges. Both were harsh critics of monopolies, trusts and other excesses of industrial capitalism. They were defenders of private property, but not of all that passed for private enterprise. Both favored, above all, a wide distribution of property. Hence the largely forgotten term for their philosophy -- "distributism" (as opposed to capitalism or socialism).

Belloc was a classical liberal, a Little Englander, a staunch Catholic, a foe of Puritanism in all its forms, and a fierce debater. He was a historian and a poet, a theologian (of sorts) and a lyricist (of sorts), as well as a biographer and a lecturer. He relished taking on his opponents and, if necessary, making enemies in the process. His favorite Christmastime refrain, which he repeated endlessly and loudly, was, "Noel, Noel, Noel, may all my enemies go to hell."

As a Catholic, Belloc stood by the principle of subsidiarity, which held that everything that could be done at the local level should be done at the local level. As an anti-Puritan, he stood for beer and bacon, wine and wasted time, especially over cigars and in local pubs.

The central argument of "The Servile State" was that big business and big government together threatened to reduce the common man to a condition of servility -- whether at the hands of actual corporate behemoths or in the hands of an allegedly benevolent state. To Belloc, once-vibrant citizens were on their way to becoming mere clients, whether they be "wage slaves" or entitlement beneficiaries -- or both.

Interestingly, Belloc's decision to write this book was triggered by an act of Parliament of more than minor relevance today. In 1911, Parliament passed something called, innocuously enough, the Insurance Act. Funded by a tax rather than driven by a mandate, the measure's idea was to provide sickness and disability compensation to English workers.

To Belloc, this legislation was the entering wedge of the servile state. To Chesterton, it was an ominous step toward a version of socialism that he feared would wind up looking "devilishly like capitalism."

Both Belloc and Chesterton saw big government and big capitalism as coconspirators bent on keeping the common man in his ever more powerless place. In fact, both Englishmen argued that modern capitalism compelled the creation of what we have come to call the welfare state -- or the very state that Belloc more accurately labeled the "servile state."

According to Belloc, there was a certain troubling logic to the entire process. People thirst for security, and yet "capitalism destroys security," given that it tends to concentrate property in fewer and fewer hands. What Belloc called the "moral strains" of capitalism virtually compelled a statist response. In fact, these strains were so severe that capitalism, in its classical sense, was "doomed."

In Belloc's view, there were only three "social arrangements" that could possibly replace capitalism: "Slavery, Socialism, and Property." If a society "suffered" because property was increasingly "restricted to a few," Belloc contended, such suffering could be alleviated only by "putting property into the hands of many" or by placing it in the "hands of none."

By "none," Belloc meant that property would wind up being controlled by those he termed "political officers." Whether those officers were in turn "controlled by the community" was almost beside the point. As far as Belloc was concerned, the "essential point" was that the "only alternative to private property [was] public property."

In sum, capitalism inevitably bred collectivism.

Belloc repeatedly referred to the "evil" of capitalism. But that evil was not property itself; rather, it was the "dispossession of the many by the few." The remedy, therefore, should not be the evil of the servile state. Instead, it should be to "increase the number of property owners." Hence the term and the solution that he called Distributism.

As distributists, both Belloc and Chesterton also defined the good society as a family-centered society. More than that, they understood that, as Chesterton put it, "without the family we are helpless before the state." Much of the history of western Europe since the days of Belloc and Chesterton has been a commentary on that very line. The rise of the state and the decline of the family have gone hand in hand in England and on the continent. And the United States? We are on a similar path.

Can all this be reversed? Should it be reversed? This year's election will help answer these questions -- and more.

Is President Obama right? Are we simply about the business of continuing (if never actually completing) what Roosevelt and Wilson began? Or are we heading straight toward the final (suffocating?) embrace of Belloc's "servile state?"

Does liberty mean a society of free citizens essentially running their own lives? Or does it mean "following our bliss," as Nancy Pelosi put it in defending the benefits of Obamacare?

The choice we face is momentous. And pondering a book written a century ago might well help us make it.

Chuck Chalberg teaches at Normandale Community College, reads Belloc, and performs as Theodore Roosevelt and G.K. Chesterton.