Many people believe laws to protect ownership and private property primarily favor the wealthy. But as Prof. Dan Russell explains, lack of property protections can lead to abject poverty.
Étienne Cabet, a French philosopher and founder of a utopian socialist movement, once said: “Communism is Christianity.” The concept of property has existed longer than Western Civilization; trying to understand what property is and who can claim it has been an important issue for centuries. But, what is the Christian view of private property and ownership?
Cabet, and others who believe that Christianity supports the concept of communism or socialism, base their opinion on one particular passage of Scripture. In Acts: 32-37, Luke tells us that no believer:
Claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had…There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. NIV
One interpretation of this passage says that the Church does not support private property, but the Christian perspective on the institution of property is not so simple. Wolfgang Grassl, professor of business administration at St. Norbert College (De Pere, Wis.), addresses this complicated and controversial issue in Property, the latest in the Christian Social Thought series from the Acton Institute.
Grassl points out that the issue of property is absolutely central to Western civilization and Christian social thought. He goes as far to say that understanding property is essential in order to understand the human person. Grassl quotes Pope John Paul II, who addressed the complexity of this issue in Centesimus Annus. He said: (more…)
I can always find common ground with the Distributists I meet. We want to replace the government-corporate cronyism that characterizes so much of our current economic system. And we want our culture to raise up young people with the skills, virtues and freedom to accumulate productive capital and invest it in ways that promote human flourishing for themselves and others.
But then there’s the question of centralized political power in the economy. Sometimes when Distributism is described, you get the sense that Distributism and one of its leading early proponents, Hilaire Belloc, have always been committed to a largely grass roots, bottom-up strategy of change. But Belloc himself painted a different picture in An Essay on the Restoration of Property:
We must seek political and economic reforms which shall tend to distribute property more and more widely until the owners of sufficient Means of Production (land or capital or both) are numerous enough to determine the character of society…. The effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice. (P.29)
So when I have a conversation with Distributists, the first thing I like to clear up is what they mean by Distributism. Do they merely want people and companies to model best-Distributist practices voluntarily, so as to propagate Distributist ideas and behaviors in a free marketplace of ideas? Do they just want to get the federal government out of the job of picking winners and losers in the economy? Or do they also want to vote in politicians who will arrogate to the federal government expanded powers to seize and redistribute private property and keep it more evenly distributed?
Until those questions are cleared up, the opportunities for muddle and fog are just too great to bother wading in.
Hilaire Belloc, An Essay on the Restoration of Property, (Norfolk, Virginia: IHS Press, 2002).
Water is becoming scarcer and even more of a necessity than it was before. And while stories of water scarcity typically occur in underdeveloped, arid countries, the United States and other developed countries must realize they are no longer exceptions and must take into consideration the importance of water and the allocation of its use.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explores the severe lack of water in Palm Beach, Florida. Residents are restricted to once-a-week watering schedules for lawns and plants, however, not all residents are abiding by restrictions whereas many owners of large estates are continuing an excessive use of water. The disparity in water usage has created a disgruntled community in West Palm Beach.
While residents in the U.S. are disagreeing over water usage for landscape purposes, many throughout the world are dying of thirst, thus, putting forth the question, do communities need to reevaluate their water use? Grass, and green luscious landscapes that are found in more moderate climates are not natural to southern Florida, so is it moral for residents to obtain a landscape, requiring a large use of water, that isn’t even native to an area?
Water scarcity has become a cause for concern in the United Kingdom, and Egypt and Ethiopia have been battling over the share of the Nile’s water reserves. Many countries and local communities are now forced to take into consideration their long term use of water.
In past blog posts (here, here, and here) I’ve taken a look at the water crisis and with Italians recently deciding to repeal a law that required water to be treated as a commodity, an explanation of my previous argument in support for treating water as a commodity is needed. My last post was missing an important moral case for the privatization of water that needs to be addressed.
In his essay, “Thirst: A Short History of Drinking Water” James Salzman analyzes how different civilizations throughout history provided drinking water. Jewish law, according to Salzman, treated water as a common property resource, not an open access resource. Priority was given according to use, giving drinking water the highest priority. While water, which came from a well made possible by human labor, was for community use only, nobody was turned away who was in need of drinking water.
Rome is a great example of how water resources were allocated when a water supply and sanitation system existed. There was a public water source, known as the lacus, where Romans could collect water for free. When using the lacus, Romans had to use their own manual labor to transport the water from the lacus to their homes. However, there was also a private water supply where Romans could pay to have water brought into their homes through a pipe system.
The “right to thirst,” as explained by Salzman, is recognized by both the Romans and the Jewish law. Salzman explains every human has a right to water, and both civilizations understand that right by providing free drinking water to those in need. Such compassion shows one’s love for his or her neighbor.
However, as we see through the example of the Romans, the convenience of having a clean and sanitary water supply delivered into a home comes with a price. While we have a right to water we have to pay for the resources and the costs that come with such modern conveniences. Furthermore, as I’ve explained in my past blog post, “Water is not a human right” if we have free water for all, we will bear witness to tragedy of the commons with our water resources.
At a recent symposium on economics and finance, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of the State, explained the importance of the private sector in water supply. Cardinal Bertone underscores the contribution that the private sector can make to providing access to water. However, he also recognizes the importance that businesses that do provide water are being called to provide an important service to people and morals need to have a higher priority than profit:
The second challenge has to do with the administration of “common goods” such as water, energy sources, communities, the social and civic capital of peoples and cities. Business today has to become more and more involved with these common goods, since in a complex global economy it can no longer be left to the state or the public sector to administer them: the talent of the business sector is also needed if they are to be properly managed. Where common goods are concerned, we urgently need business leaders for whom profit is not the exclusive goal. More and more, we need business leaders with a social conscience, leaders whose innovation, creativity and efficiency are driven by more than profit, leaders who see their work as part of a new social contract with the public and with civil society.
There is opposition to how water should be supplied. The Catholic left has a different view, supporting government’s role in providing water instead of a private entity:
On June 9, a group of more than 100 missionary priests and nuns fasted and prayed in St. Peter’s Square to underline their support for the referendum and their opposition to the privatization of water. Beneath Pope Benedict XVI’s windows, they unfurled a giant banner reading: “Lord, help us save the water!”
Some 25 Italian dioceses signed an appeal asking for a “yes” vote to preserve water as a universally shared resource. Franciscans in Assisi asked prayers and action in defense of “sister water.”
Bishop Mariano Crociata, secretary-general of the Italian bishops’ conference, said recently that access to clean water supplies was a “fundamental human right, connected to the very right to life.” He warned that privatization efforts have seen multinational companies “turn water into business” to the detriment of the wider population.
And while the U.S. has been criticized for consuming 233 billion gallons of water, it must also be kept in context. The U.S. is still one of the largest and most productive economies, producing goods that are exported to countless countries. Such productivity requires a greater consumption of water than less productive countries, however, every country that does import U.S. goods benefits.
As water is becoming scarcer we will need to reevaluate how we use and treat this precious resource. Yes, we have a obligation to take care of those in need, we must recognize, however the difference between the “right to thirst,” to have water in order to sustain life, and the luxury of commoditized water provided through extensive resources to be delivered into homes for domestic use. The Catholic Church teaches that the universal destination of material goods (water is one such good) and the principle of common use of the earth’s resources (such as mater) is primarily (though not exclusively) realized the institution of private property—an institution that comes with rights and responsibilities. Applying this reasoning to the dilemmas facing us with regard to water would certainly lead to clearer thinking about this complex question.
Earlier this week on the Acton Institute Facebook page, Rev. Sirico’s archived article “What is Capitalism?” was posted and sparked a lively discussion between two people (click here to see our Facebook page and the discussion). This blog post is to serve as my response.
Your idea of communionism, at least from what I understand from your comments, bears some resemblances to communism which has the end goal of society or the community possessing property in common. This, however, doesn’t preserve human dignity properly; nor does not foster interdependence among people. Instead it creates a society dependent on a centralized government.
In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas explains some of the core the problems with common property. Like Aristotle, he notes, that individuals are better managers of property because it allows for a more orderly fashion of management, and as he states “human beings content with their own property live in a condition of peace. And so we observe that quarrels arise rather frequently among those who possess goods in common not individually.” The quarrels can arise because no individual is specifically responsible for the care of the common property. There is no person who feels like he or she has stake in the property. A direct result, and historical example, of common property is the tragedy of the commons.
In Capital Marx argues that there is no value in human labor per se. He states “human labour, creates value, but is not itself value. It becomes value only in its congealed state, when embodied in the form of some object.” This is contrary to Christian beliefs. There is intrinsic value in human labor itself. To work is a calling and a form of stewardship. In the encyclical Laborem Exercens, (“On Human Work”), Pope John Paul II explains how working is a direct expression of our human dignity. Such preservation of human dignity cannot be found in a system that devalues work.
The idea of property that you advocate is also found in Marx’s Capital and the Manifesto of the Communist Party. This idea is flawed on many levels. It doesn’t take into account that the entrepreneur purchases the raw goods that the workers use to make the end product. As a result, based on any definition of property, the entrepreneur is the sole owner of the raw goods and it is his or her private property, not the worker. The worker engages in a contract with the entrepreneur in an exchange of services. Just because the worker uses his or her services, which he or she is paid for by the entrepreneur, does not translate into the worker becoming the owner of the raw good which becomes the final product.
The idea of private property that you advocate, rescinding property rights for all corporations, is dangerous on many levels. It puts political rights, religious rights, and all private property rights in danger. Marx notes that the abolition of private property for the bourgeois leads to the abolition of family because, according to his argument, the family is rooted in property and private gain. Furthermore, Marx articulates that his beliefs, which bring forth a communist centralized system, also abolish religion.
In Federalist Paper No. 10 James Madison argues how the first object of any government is the protection of property. Furthermore, in Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville explains that what makes America successful is its protection of private property for all. No landed property class exists. He articulates how the protection of private property translates into the protection of political rights even to the least of all citizens. Furthermore the right to property fosters “…obedience to established law, of the influence of good mores in republics, and of the assistance that religious ideas lend to order and freedom…” What makes America special and successful, according to Tocqueville, is the protection of rights for all people. As Tocqueville demonstrates, the right of property needs to be protected because other rights stem from it. This right extends to even corporations. Rights should be guaranteed for all, not winners and losers picked by the government.
Again, private property should be protected at all levels, for both individuals and corporations. Hernando de Soto explains this in his book and in an essay both titled, The Mystery of Capital. Through examples found in his essay, book, and case studies (which can be found by clicking here), de Soto effectively argues using proven facts, statistics, and real world examples that the protection of capital and private property rights has led to economic prosperity in the west, whereas the lack of protection is a leading reason to the economic disparity in poor countries. If we fail to protect private property rights on all levels, then we begin down a path of economic decline. Without the protection of private property rights, and an effective legal structure to guarantee such protection, the wrong message is being sent to businesses. No business will want to invest in an economic climate that is hostile towards them.
A market system, which is what Rev. Sirico argues for in his article “What is Capitalism?” actually fosters virtues that all Christians value. This is articulated by Stephen Grabil in his essay “The Market, School of Virtue.” Here Grabil shows that greed is not what makes a free market churning, but instead it is virtue. Some of the virtues fostered in a free market are trustworthiness, self-control, sympathy, and fairness. Jay Richards, author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem, demonstrates that greed is a vice which even Adam Smith condemned. Richards also shows why greed does not lead to a successful market economy, but actually destroys it.
In regards to the referenced Fulton Sheen article titled “New Slavery” it is important to note that the article was written in 1943 when many monopolies were present in the market. Acton has never believed in or supported crony capitalism. Monopolies do not allow competition which is bad for the consumer and the worker. Also, Sheen does not advocate for the end of private property in his article. Instead he says we have a right to private property and our use of it should be righteous “Possession [of property] has two faces, two aspects: we all have a right to private property, but this is accompanied by our responsibility for its righteous use.” As Sirico articulates in the posted article, when the market is structured successfully it is the consumer who has primary control and then next is the worker. This is because of competition. Monopoly capitalism comes when the government gets into bed with businesses, and essentially block new entrepreneurs and potential new competitors from entering into the market.
Free markets are not just about an economic system. It is something greater than economics, it is about freedom. The freedom to choose what to purchase, the freedom for the worker to find an employer and not be forced into employment with the state or a monopoly, and the freedom to hold property and have it protected, this freedom is what capitalism is about. Tocqueville saw this in his visit to America and correctly articulated how the protection of private property, in all levels, has led to the great freedom Americans enjoy. However, Tocqueville also recognized the need for virtuous men and women because he knew America cannot succeed, nor its structure of government without them. As he states, “There are no great men without virtue; without respect for rights, there is no great people: one can almost say that there is no society; for what is a union of rational and intelligent being among whom force is the sole bond?”
A new column by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, was published today in the Detroit News. This column will also be linked in tomorrow’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly Acton newsletter here.
Faith and policy: Respect others’ rights, but also their values
FATHER ROBERT SIRICO
If such an award were to be given for the Most Contentious Religious Story of 2010, the two main contenders would undoubtedly be two Islam-related stories: the threatened burning of the Quran in Florida and the plan to build an Islamic cultural center near the site of ground zero in New York.
These stories remind us of a valuable lesson at the core of America’s founding. I am not speaking here of tolerance, but of what makes tolerance possible: the right to private property, and of something even deeper — the freedom such property allows.
The pastor in Florida is by all accounts a marginal figure whose fame has been aided by the media, fueled by the technologies that amplify any opinion or action. Soon, the pastor will recede from the spotlight.
The plan to construct the Islamic center is supported by numerous personalities, costs a great deal of money and will be a rather permanent fixture once erected.
At the legal and political heart of each of these occurrences is a bedrock principle: the right to private property, which is to say: the right of a pastor to destroy a book he owns and the right of a group of Muslims to build in lower Manhattan on property they own.
We do well to remember that the right to property is never merely the right to the possession of some material object in itself. Beyond possession, it involves its production, creation and disposition as well. And while the right to private property is not absolute, it is nonetheless sacred and to be respected both in culture and in law for reasons relating to the very nature of human beings. The right to property is just a smart idea because it ensures numerous other liberties that make for a free society.
I find the idea of burning a text considered sacred by others to be both stupid and odious. Other than offending people, I am not sure what the purpose would be.
I can better understand the purpose of building an Islamic center, though I think it is a very bad idea and one that is generating as much consternation in its own context as had even the threat of burning Qurans has in another.
Do these people have the right to do these things, all things being even?
Ought they to be doing this?
I’m afraid not.
And this brings us to the core of the issue: not one of right, but a matter of prudence and culture. Surely, the right to private property, eroded in so many ways by politics and legislation, is indispensable and necessary if we are to have a free society.
Yet, it is not sufficient if we are to achieve a good one. For that we require forbearance with one another, that is not mistaken for agreement. The greatest moments in our history have been when we have exceeded the requirements of the law to create a society that is more than “just” but is also good.
That sage commentator on religion in America, Alexis de Tocqueville put it about right when he asked how “society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?”
Mark Tooley pens another brilliant critique of the latest endeavors of the religious left in this piece titled “God’s Welfare State” in FrontPage Magazine. The commentary is a response marked with reason and clarity to left-leaning interfaith groups who are calling for more government programs and initiatives to tackle poverty. Tooley also notes in his piece that the signers of the letter calling for Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama to address their party conventions with a ten year plan to end poverty, are the usual suspects who equate “The federal welfare state with God’s Kingdom.” Tooley always seems to have a knack at getting to the heart of the issue, and he concludes by simply noting:
The left-leaning religious officials, guided by 100 years of statist Social Gospel, want to wage a government-led coercive struggle against “poverty” in the abstract. But most of their religious traditions express God’s love for specific poor people, while emphasizing voluntary and relational charity towards the needy. This historic stance of these religions towards the poor understandably has less appeal to the Religious Left, which often is more preoccupied with political power than with concrete compassion.
First Maxine Waters suggested that she might just want to nationalize the US oil industry; now Maurice Hinchey of New York is jumping on that bandwagon. And why wouldn’t they? It’s all the rage these days. Just look at Venezuela, which is rapidly emerging as a South American
hellhole paradise after Hugo Chavez started nationalizing everything. Why should we be left behind?
It turns out that there are a number of very good reasons to avoid that particular bandwagon. Dr. Jay Richards discussed them last night on KKLA in Los Angeles on the Frank Pastore Show. Listen in and decide for yourself whether the US should nationalize the oil industry.
Dana Joel Gattuso of the National Center for Public Policy Research warns that a provision in the pending farm bill will encourage increasing federal control of private lands (de facto federal ownership) via the mechanism of conservation easements.
That got me wondering just how much of the United States is owned by the federal government. Surprisingly, the information seems hard to come by. A study (pdf) conducted by congressional Republicans in 2005 and based on 2004 data found that the federal government owned more than 653 million acres, about 29 percent of the nation’s total land area. But when I went to the Web site of the agency to which that document directed me, the General Services Administration, I wasn’t able to locate the 2004 report, nor any more recent report that provides updated figures.
In this 2004 article, Robert Smith claimed that no one knows how much land the government owns because there is no bureau charged with keeping track.
Granted that the amount is constantly changing as the government acquires and divests (you can peruse available properties here), I’ll go along with Gattuso’s view that we want to avoid further expansion of government land ownership. Consider, too, that the figures cited above include only the national government’s holdings: state, county, and municipal governments no doubt own millions of additional acres.
Backed by studies showing that middle-class Seattle residents can no longer afford the city’s middle-class homes, consensus is growing that prices are too darned high. But why are they so high?
An intriguing new analysis by a University of Washington economics professor argues that home prices have, perhaps inadvertently, been driven up $200,000 by good intentions.
Just some food for thought on a Friday afternoon.