Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Solidarism and Private Property, Part II: It's a Nice Idea, But . . .

In yesterday's posting we noted that students of Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J., seem in one accord on the importance of widespread, direct ownership of the means of production and a limited role for the State, that is, private property. The first question to pop into the intelligent reader's mind, however (at least those intelligent readers who have not been reading this blog), is, "It's all very well to say that as many people as possible should directly own the means of production, but how are you going to finance that acquisition without undermining the stability of the currency, giving too much power to the State, or redefining private property to the point at which it ceases to be a natural right?"

These are critical issues, and the question is an important one. Unfortunately, some people who raise them figure they already have the answer, and don't pay too much attention to the legal and financial principles governing the Just Third Way. Under the past savings assumption that underpins all three of the mainstream schools of economics today and virtually all of the minor ones, maintaining universal access to the means of acquiring and possessing capital while, at the same time, preserving private property as a sacred and inviolable natural right, is impossible.

Why? Because if "money" is limited to a general claim on the total wealth of the economy, as some maintain, then the only source of "money" is what already physically exists. Thus, the only way to obtain financing for anything, whether consumption or new capital investment, is either for you to reduce consumption and accumulate claims on the unconsumed wealth in the economy, i.e., "money," or to borrow the "money" accumulated by someone else who cut consumption and "saved."

If we assume as a given that "money" is limited to a general claim on the total existing wealth of the economy, the only ways for people without capital to get capital are 1) exercise heroic "economic virtue" and starve yourself and your dependents until you have accumulated sufficient money savings to purchase capital, 2) persuade someone with savings to lend or give them to you (we include inheritance and gambling gains here, as neither requires the heir or winner to cut consumption), or 3) steal it.

Number 1 is unlikely for anyone with a modicum of common sense. Most people have an innate understanding of Adam Smith's proposition that the purpose of production is not saving, but consumption. Number 2 is unlikely because it's against nature for someone to deprive himself and risk his hard-earned savings for your advantage. Number 3 is unacceptable.

Nevertheless, we see that there are people who have accumulated incredible amounts of money, yet they clearly did not either cut consumption or borrow from others. Within the past savings paradigm, that leaves only one possibility: they stole it.

The solution, then, to the problem of concentrated ownership from a past savings perspective, is either prosecute the criminals and force them to disgorge their obviously ill-gotten gains for distribution back to those from whom they stole the money, or abolish private property altogether by redefining it . . . and prosecute the criminals for the crime of being rich.

There are so many problems with this approach, all dictated by the past savings dogma, that it's hard to know where to start. Let's just take the two major problems, then.

One, rich people must, by definition, be criminals by virtue of the gigantic thefts they carried out.

Sorry. A fundamental principle of law — and thus of society itself — is that you can't find someone guilty of a crime until and unless you have actual evidence 1) that a crime has been committed, and 2) that the individual under suspicion committed the crime. The fact that someone is rich proves only that he or she is rich. It does not prove that he or she is a criminal. The criminality of an individual's accumulation of wealth is a presupposition on your part.  The argument usually going along these lines: "No honest person could possibly have accumulated that much money, therefore, anyone with that much money must be a criminal." In other words, rich people are criminals because they are rich, and they are rich because they are criminals.

Two, despite the universal prohibition against theft, private property isn't really a natural right, or the natural law doesn't really mean what it has traditionally been understood to mean. Private property isn't really sacred and inviolable, and can be redefined to obtain a desired end, given that the end is sufficiently important.

Again, sorry. Remember that we're discussing the solidarism of Father Pesch here, a school of thought within the Catholic Church, not moral relativism. Even so, the argument is almost exactly the same in other systems, whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic, or pagan. As such, no interpretation of private property, regardless what we might call it or how we might argue, can change the characterization of private property as pertaining to the natural law.

Neither can we change the basis of the natural law from God's Essence, which is self-realized in His Intellect, to our private interpretation of something that we believe, however fervently, to be God's Will. "The law is found in reason alone," as Aquinas reminded us. Like life and liberty (freedom of association/contract), private property is a "natural right," and that means that every person — and every human being is a "natural person" — has the inalienable right to be an owner. How that right is to be exercised is a matter for prudence and expedience, but no definition of the exercise of property can negate the underlying right to be an owner, or a grave injustice against nature itself has been committed.

That certainly seems to put us in a box, doesn't it? We can't punish the rich for being rich and confiscate their wealth as punishment for their criminal acts. Neither can we redefine private property so that we can simply take what belongs to the wealthy without having to prove their criminality.

There is, however, a way out, one that we will start to look at tomorrow.