Thursday, November 13, 2008

What is "Property"?

We've been having an interesting discussion over a number of years with a traditional academic (an economist), who has had difficulties understanding some of the principles underlying Louis Kelso's binary economics. After some back and forth, we discovered that this economist — in common with many other economists, and even lawyers — wasn't clear on the meaning of "private property," a cornerstone not only of binary economics, but the entire social order. This economist has the fixed belief that private property does not come under the virtue of justice, but of prudence, that is, whether people are allowed to own is up to society to determine, usually in the person of the State.

Since we're discussing binary economics, let's begin with Kelso's definition of property.
Property is an aggregate of the rights, powers and privileges, recognized by the laws of the nation, which an individual may possess with respect to various objects. Property is not the object owned, but the sum total of the "rights" which an individual may "own" in such an object. These in general include the rights of (1) possessing, (2) excluding others, (3) disposing or transferring, (4) using, (5) enjoying the fruits, profits, product or increase, and (6) destroying or injuring, if the owner so desires. In a civilized society, these rights are only as effective as the laws which provide for their enforcement. English common law, adopted into the fabric of American law, recognizes that the rights of property are subject to the limitations that (1) things owned may not be so used as to injure others or the property of others, and (2) they may not be used in ways contrary to the general welfare of the people as a whole. From this definition of private property, a purely functional and practical understanding of the nature of property becomes clear. Property in everyday life is the right of control.
From this understanding of private property within the structure of human law, we go to the institution as part of the natural law. As the universal prohibition against theft of the "fruits, profits, product or increase" from what one owns (i.e., both one's body and one's non-human assets) demonstrates (and the popes have taught), the right to be an owner is part of the natural law. As Dr. Heinrich Rommen, one of Germany's premier jurists before escaping from the Nazis, a student of Father Heinrich Pesch, and a member of the Königswinterkreis (which also included Father Oswald von Nel Breuning, Gustav Gundlach, Franz Müller, and Goetz Briefs), noted,
"Thou shalt not steal" presupposes the institution of private property as pertaining to the natural law; but not, for example, the feudal property arrangements of the Middle Ages or the modern capitalist system. Since the natural law lays down general norms only, it is the function of the positive law to undertake the concrete, detailed regulation of real and personal property and to prescribe the formalities for conveyance of ownership. (The Natural Law, 1947.)
Here we have the basis for understanding why, if private property is "prudential matter," property becomes merely a grant to be given or revoked by society in the person of the State. This necessarily grants overwhelming power to the State, and concentrates that power in the hands of the few rather than the many. Property becomes not private, but a public good subject to centralized administration by the State, granted to individuals or groups, and revoked at will, employed by an elite to gain and maintain control over others, thereby offending against others' human dignity.

Property is important because, except for human labor itself, nothing connects a person to the common good in a more intimate or secure fashion. By denying (abolishing) private property, the human person is cut off from the "ability for doing" that property confers, that is, "power." Without property, the human person is dependent on whoever possesses property, and is subject to control, more or less complete, depending on the will of whoever owns. Worse, without power, the human person is unable to exercise his or her capacity to acquire and develop virtue ("pursue happiness"), and thereby develop more fully as a human being. When power is centralized in the State, as happens when private property is abolished, persons become "mere creatures of the State," to be controlled, used, or disposed of as the State sees fit.

This is because property is not the thing owned, but the set of social relationships that define how an "owner" relates to the thing owned, and to other people with respect to the thing owned. Property confers power because in all codes of law property is the right of control. When control or the right to the enjoyment of the fruits of ownership (income) are taken away, property is abolished.

Being based securely on widespread private property in the means of production — and thus on the natural law — CESJ's Just Third Way provides a blueprint for restructuring the social order in conformity with humanity's true nature, consistent with the natural law, and thus God's divine Nature, on which (in Thomist philosophy) the natural law is based. That being the case, the Just Third Way and Kelso's binary theory of economics are not only consistent with the natural law that provides the basis for every justly-structured society and economy, they offer the most effective means to empower people economically to both just wages and just profits.

Donations to CESJ support our Capital Homesteading projects and Just Third Way initiatives, and are tax deductible in the United States under IRC § 501(c)(3).





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