Posts tagged with: property rights

Things are looking grim for the rule of law in Bolivia. An article in today’s Washington Post outlines the growing conflict between the minority of Bolivians who own land and the landless majority. As Monte Reel writes in “Two Views of Justice Fuel Bolivian Land Battle,” this month the Bolivian government, under the direction of the “agrarian revolution” of president Evo Morales, “began a project to shuffle ownership rights affecting 20 percent of its land area, giving most of it to the poor. And tensions are starting to boil.”

Choei Yara, a Japanese immigrant to Bolivia whose family has lived there since the end of World War II, says, “No one respects private property anymore, not even the government.” Groups of landless Bolivians are constantly threatening to forcibly take posession of private lands, and Morales’ policies have only encouraged them.

“Emboldened by the recent government announcements,” the landless “are taking over more properties on their own, without government approval,” writes Reel. The rationale is simple for those who live in poverty:

“God created the resource of land,” said Luciano Winchaca, a local campesino advocate who has helped the Landless Movement with its quest for land. “It should be divided equally for everyone, not be given to somebody because they speak better Spanish or come from a certain family. We all have the same rights. These people don’t understand the will of God.”

But how about this for God’s will? “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15 NIV).

To be sure there are real and dire problems of poverty in Bolivia. But the class warfare and rhetoric of socialist revolution advocated by Morales and his ideological partner Hugo Chavez, in the name of God’s will, can only exacerbate the situation and undermine the legitimate functions of government: to justly administer the rule of law and to safeguard private property.

As we can see in the case of Bolivia, when these roles are ignored and subverted by the government, anarchy ensues. Yara knows this all too well, as “now about 50 members of the group, the Landless Movement, are occupying about one-fourth of his property. They keep telling him they’ll take more soon, he said, and they promise bodily harm if he doesn’t let them have it.”

While there is a general acceptance of the role of private property for social order and economic prosperity, the challenges to private property have not ended. The eminent domain issue is one threat; another comes from environmentalist groups such as the Foundation for Deep Ecology and others who see humans as a drain on the earth and nature. Some environmentalists advocate the consolidation of land to be put under federal control and promote stringent land usage restrictions that would prevent a landowner using his property fruitfully.

Their argument is nothing new: individuals left to themselves will not be as effective as central planners in decided the best way to allocate and protect resources, etc. etc—they are merely variants of the Marxian arguments used by economic central planners.

Despite the rhetoric, common ownership of land and resources has not been an effective means of addressing problems. It failed under applied socialism, and has not led to environmental protection and stewardship as environmentalists hope. Private property ownership creates incentives for people to use land wisely and in a sustainable manner. John Stossel gives an excellent illustrations of the importance of incentives and the private ownwership including privatizing elephant ownership in Africa.

St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the question of property and human incentives in the 13th century. He argued it is lawful to own property for three reasons:

First, because every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all: since each one would shirk the labor and leave to another that which concerns the community, as happens where there is a great number of servants.

Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone has to look after one thing indeterminately.

Thirdly, because a more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own. Hence it is to observed that quarrels arise more frequently where ther is no division of the things possessed.

Notice the humanist vision—the appreciation for the individual, an understanding of human nature, a respect for the capabilities of individuals to make decisions and control their own sphere. Also notice point number three. Compare this to the unspeakable violence perpetrated by socialist government leaders on their own citizens because they were not “content” with operating in their own sphere.

It is unfortunate Marx and the socialists were not steeped in the thought of St. Thomas early on. Who knows, it could have avoided some of the pain and suffering imposed by socialist governments on their own people. But the reality of Marxism has become clear. As Pope Benedict put it in his new encyclical Deus Caritas Est

Marxism had seen world revolution and its preliminaries as the panacea for the social problem: revolution and the subsequent collectivization of the means of production, so it was claimed, would immediately change things for the better. This illusion has vanished.

The leftwing environmentalists are part of a long line of central planners. They want to the control of property in the hand of government bureaucrats and planners, i.e., themselves. But planners are always less effective than those closer to the problem, because no matter how much they know, or think they know, they’ll never has as much knowledge as those individuals on the ground close to the situation. This is the principle of subsidiarity—rooted in Aquinas’ defense of private property. Wisdom of the past as applicable today as it was then.