Possibly "the" catch phrase of the Just Third Way (unless you've got a better one to suggest), "own or be owned" pretty much sums up the basic situation. Of course, it seems inevitable that some people, perhaps more hard of hearing than most or with low grades in reading or listening comprehension, will hear the socialist demand, "Owner, be owned." Disregard this at your peril, for it demonstrates just how widespread misunderstanding of private property has become. This is odd, especially considering the importance of private property as the basis of the civil order. A number of people dispute this claim, but the argument is fairly straightforward.
First, we have to understand that "property" is not the thing owned, but, one, the right each and every person has by nature to be an owner. Because this is a right "by nature," that is, part of what it means to be a human being and thus one of the rights that define each and every human being as automatically a "natural person," the right to be an owner is inherent, inalienable, and absolute.
Two, in everyday life, property consists of the bundle of socially determined rights that define how an owner may use what he or she possesses and even, given sufficient and just cause, what may be owned. By nature, every human being has the inalienable right to own directly, individually or in free association with others, anything that can be owned that does not already have an owner. If we left our understanding of "property" at that, any one of us could own and use atomic weapons, poison gas, bottle rockets, and red dye number 2.
Man being political by nature, however, and finding his full development as a person within a justly structured social order, it's common sense to say that, one, no one should be able to use what he or she possesses to harm him- or herself, other individuals, groups, or the common good as a whole.
Two, there are some things that, for the sake of expedience, the general consensus considers too dangerous or harmful to be under the control of a single individual or group. Therefore (without prejudice to the natural right to be an owner), there are certain things that society restricts to State regulation, control, or outright ownership.
It is in defining the exercise of property where most people seem to come to grief. There are many reasons for this, a few of which we comment on here:
Not understanding that private property is the natural right every person has to be an owner, as well as the bundle of socially determined rights that define how an owner may use what he or she possesses, some people conclude that "absolute" refers not to the fact that each person has by nature the right to be an owner, but to the exercise of property. Some people therefore claim that once they own something, they can do anything they like with what they own, as long as other individuals are not directly harmed. Harm inflicted on individuals indirectly, or harm inflicted on groups or the common good as a whole is not an issue, for other individuals are not directly harmed, and the individual is all that matters.
In reaction against this distorted understanding of human nature, others advance an unequal and opposite distortion. They conclude that, since a justly ordered society clearly requires some limitation on the exercise of property, property may be a right, but it is not an absolute right. This, too, confuses the absolute right to be an owner, with the socially determined exercise of the rights of ownership. It also changes what it means for something to be a "right," and makes something other than nature — usually "society" or something we believe to be God's command — the basis for rights. Since the State in the person of the government stands in for the collective or the community ("society"), the State, not nature, becomes the source of all rights, even in those cases in which the claim is made that the role of the State will be reduced . . . and its place taken by "social groups," which are simply the State under another name.
For theists, the shift from nature to the State as the source of rights has a profound effect. God, as Hugo Grotius reluctantly admitted, becomes a nullity, unless His followers impose what they believe to be His Will by force, and (literally) to Hell with anyone who disagrees. The dictates of church, mosque, temple, or synagogue must be enforced with the coercive power of the State, or God's Will is not being done. The "double whammy" of the totalitarian religious State becomes established as the norm in any society that dismisses private property as a natural right, or where people misunderstand what it means for something to be a natural right.
This is true even if the State is officially atheist, for — as the source of all rights — the State, in effect (and in a gross misreading of Hegel) becomes God. Worship of the State becomes the officially sanctioned religion. Nor are theists free of this danger, for the demand for an established church or official State religion inevitably makes religious teachings a political football, and turns religious authorities into enforcers of political correctness, or of politically inspired or influenced interpretation of religious doctrine.
How does this relate to private property being the basis of a just social order? Isn't, rather, the recognition and protection of human dignity the basis of a just society?
Well . . . yes, of course it is. But what is "human dignity" other than the recognition of protection of each person's natural rights, among which are life, liberty (freedom of association/contract), property, and the pursuit of happiness (the acquisition and development of virtue)? Here another danger surfaces.
If we leave the general "human dignity" as the basis of a just social order, and misunderstand or redefine various natural rights, substituting what we think they should be, rather than what thousands of years of human history have told us they are, we slide very quickly into a totalitarian political order. It is far too easy to admit the truth of the statement that it is an offense against human dignity that people live in poverty, are pushed around, and so on, and then make the leap that, because these things are clearly an offense against human dignity, respecting human dignity necessarily means that the State must ensure that everyone has an income sufficient to meet common domestic needs adequately, is accorded fair treatment, and so on.
That is, if people have a right to something, the State not only makes certain that others do not infringe on that right, it guarantees the results. The right to the means to make a living becomes the right to a living, the right to be free from unjust coercion becomes State enforcement of all demands as long as victim status is established, the "right to choice" becomes taxpayer funded abortions, and so on. In this view, the State in a justly structured social order guarantees not equality of opportunity, but equality of results. If a right can be asserted, then the entire force of the State must be marshaled to ensure that not only is there a reasonable opportunity to exercise that right, but all other rights must be swept away in order to guarantee absolutely that the desired outcome is achieved. Which rights are "enforced" in this way depends on who can best establish victim status.
Once we get specific about our primary natural rights and the secondary, derived rights, however, the orientation shifts back to equality of opportunity — and that means true equality of rights . . . and true equality of rights rests firmly on a foundation of private property:
Life: As Aristotle pointed out and Aquinas reiterated, neither the good life, nor life itself is possible without ownership of the means of production.
Liberty: Within a justly structured social order, liberty — freedom of association — is most commonly understood as freedom to enter into contracts.
All contracts, however, because they are "money," necessarily involve private property — there must be "consideration" or "inducement to enter into a contract," or there is no contract. You cannot promise to perform an act or deliver something of value if you do not have a right to the performance of the act or delivery of the thing of value, i.e., you "own" it; you own the labor by means of which the act is performed, or you own the good that is delivered, otherwise you cannot satisfy the debt created by the offer and acceptance.
Property: As Daniel Webster observed, "Power naturally and necessarily follows property." Property being not the thing owned, but the natural right to own the thing and the socially determined bundle of rights that define what you can do with the thing you own, without property you have no effective right to life or liberty. If you do not own the means of production, whether capital or labor, then you do not have the right to receive what that capital or labor produces. Your only alternatives to ownership are, one, to receive what you need as charity, two, redefine private property individually by stealing what you want or need, or, three, redefine property throughout the society, and base distribution on need rather than equality of exchange, enforcing it with the club of the State.
Of the three alternatives to private property as the basis of a justly structured social order, only charity respects human dignity — with a catch. That is, someone in need has a moral right to receive what he or she needs as charity. He or she does not have a legal right . . . and justice, not charity, is the basis of the law and legal rights in civil society. As Pope Leo XIII pointed out in § 22 of Rerum Novarum, "It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity — a duty not enforced by human law." (See above about the urge to enforce religious teachings with the coercive power of the State and the dangers thereof. We won't get into the the dark hint as to what might happen to people who take God's law into their own hands and decide to enforce it; "Vengeance is Mine" or something.)
Pursuit of happiness: That is, the acquisition and development of virtue. As Heinrich Rommen, the student of the great Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J., in agreement with Aristotle and Aquinas, pointed out, "It is morally impossible to exist as a free person without property" — and he did not mean "private property" as redefined by the legal and moral positivists, the religious modernists, or by John Maynard Keynes.
Thus, if you have the right to take what you want from what others produce, either by means of their labor or their capital, regardless who holds legal title, you own those others. If others have the right to take what you produce by means of your labor or capital, whether or not you hold legal title, then those others own you. As William Cobbett explained, "Freedom is not an empty sound; it is not an abstract idea; it is not a thing that nobody can feel. It means, — and it means nothing else, — the full and quiet enjoyment of your own property. If you have not this, if this be not well secured to you, you may call yourself what you will, but you are a slave." (A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, 1827, §456.)
Own or be owned.