A Blog of the Global Justice Movement

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Right TO v. the Rights OF Property

Yesterday's posting about the natural right of private property caused one of those minor tempests in a thimble with which we're constantly dealing. To be blunt, a lot of people read our stuff and miss some very important qualifiers . . . such as definitions of terms and concepts we've repeated endlessly over the years. Still, the kvetch springs eternal. Here's the question that was asked, evidently in an effort to trip us up:

"Did Adam have a right to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? I suspect not, in that doing so and going against his natural condition (cooperation with Creator) he became an unnatural entity — a fallen soul. How do you balance the seeming contradiction of inalienable rights according to nature, and how the exercise of that right caused the entire human race to enter into an unnatural state of death and sin?"

While the question is posed as a seemingly insoluble paradox, the response is something of a "no brainer," especially since the answer is given in the question itself.

First and foremost, it is absolutely critical to differentiate between the natural right to be an owner — the natural right to property — and the socially determined rights of property, that is, the exercise of the right. Having a right is not the same as exercising that same right.

Far too many people fail to make this distinction. God vested Adam and the whole human race with the natural right to be an owner, without qualification. He then gave Adam (and Eve) dominion over everything except the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

This in no way infringed upon Adam's right to be an owner. The right to be an owner, the "generic right of dominion," does not give you the right to use (enjoy the fruits of — literally in this case) what belongs to someone else. It gives you the right to claim, use, and be secure in the possession of what is unclaimed, or to work and own the fruits of your labor, or to receive, retain and use something as a gift, inheritance, or alms.

God reserved ownership of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to Himself. Adam had no right to exercise property in it without God's permission — which was explicitly denied.

There is no more contradiction between having a natural right to be an owner and not being able to use what belongs to someone else, than there is in having the natural right to liberty (freedom of association/contract) and not being allowed to exercise it in a way that harms others. I am not free to do anything I want; I am only free to do that which is lawful. A right does not confer the power to do wrong; all rights are exercised within limits or they cease to have meaning.

A limit on the exercise of a right, however, does not and cannot imply that the right itself can be taken away or alienated, only that it must be exercised in lawful ways, not abused. The sloppy and vague claim that some neo-distributists make, that "property is a right, but not an absolute right," if taken in the sense that the exercise of property cannot be absolute, is correct.

If, however, it is taken to mean that not every human being has by nature an inalienable right to be an owner, and to be secure in the reasonable use of whatever is owned, it effectively abolishes private property. This is what turns neo-distributism into one more version of socialism — a bit more hypocritical than other forms of socialism, but still socialism. As Karl Marx stated in The Communist Manifesto and Leo XIII reiterated in Rerum Novarum (§ 15), "The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property."

From a Just Third Way or classic distributist perspective, it is significant that Adam's "fall" is expressed in terms that clearly identify what he did as theft — a violation of private property. Yes, the sin was disobedience, but the specific disobedience was to steal what God had reserved to Himself as His private property and had explicitly exempted from the gift of everything else in Eden.

Interestingly, one of the most vicious attacks ever launched on the papacy was by Michael of Cesena and William of Occam, both renegade Franciscans, over this very issue. The two friars insisted that private property is prudential matter, only allowed as an expedient due to man's fallen condition, and that in Eden there was no such thing as private property; that it is not a natural right, inherent in humanity's very being.

After some less than diplomatic back-and-forth on this and some other matters and an excommunication or two, the pope, John XXII, issued a bull, Quia Vir Reprobus ("That Evil Man"), setting the record straight. Evangelical poverty is a counsel of perfection, not a mandate.

Ownership of temporal goods is not just something "allowed" due to man's fallen nature. Ownership is, instead, an integral part of what it means to be a human person. It is also the chief means by which we secure our other natural rights, such as life and liberty, the exercise of which makes us more fully human. This draws us closer to God, in Whose image we are created, and fits us to enter into heaven, our true home.

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