Acton Institute Powerblog

How property rights originated from Christian theology

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Property rights originated from Christian theology, and have proven themselves empirically over the past couple hundred years, says economist Eric Falkenstein. “The liberal ideas that gave rise to the Enlightenment are generally thought (eg, Steven Pinker) to be a break from a religious thinking,” adds Falkenstein. “Yet the key liberal idea, individual rights, especially property rights, are an axiom with little justification outside Christian theology.”

As [Richard] Feynman noted with regards to scientific laws, the process of finding new ones is not deriving them via logic, but rather, guessing, and then looking at the consequences. History has shown that individual property rights are good. Friedrich Hayek noted that a universal morality is beyond human knowledge, in that prior to markets actually existing–say, while we were hunter-gatherers–one would never have predicted free markets are better than socialism. Individual property rights are one of those moral principles that were discovered outside of pure reason.

Historically the King supposedly represented the people, and what he wants necessarily is what his people need. It’s the original conflation of the state and society. The idea that a regular individual can seek his own self-interest and simultaneously be optimally working for society seems absurd, in that clearly there are many evil people who have no interest in bettering society. The idea that the state should ultimately own everything is an ancient idea, and private property highly non-intuitive idea, why it took so long to develop.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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