Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Dictatorship of Money, XI: The Theory of Capitalism: Use


In yesterday’s posting we learned that capitalist theory is correct in asserting the absolute character of the right to be an owner, i.e., “title.”  We also learned that being correct in such an important matter is not enough.  We must also be right for the right reason.

Unfortunately, while capitalist theory is right in this instance, it is for the wrong reason.  Capitalist theory, like socialist theory, is based not on reason, but on faith, that is, opinion.  Consequently, while it may be true, it is not necessarily true.

We must also, of course, keep in mind at all times, even when discussing such esoteric questions as the difference between title and use and whether or not something can be proved as true, that "ownership" includes the moral duty never to use what we own, however absolutely, to harm ourselves, others, or the common good.  That includes preventing others from exercising their rights by exercising our own; our exercise of a right must never preclude anyone else exercising his or hers.

That is a given — but can we prove that this overriding moral obligation, which many people presume is based solely on faith, is also a mandate based on reason?  That, while we clearly have a moral duty not to use our rights of life, liberty, and (obviously) property not to do harm, do we have a legal duty as well, or does the right exercise of property (or anything else) depend solely on our charitable feelings towards others?  Is an owner's exercise of what he or she owns absolute, restrained only by self-imposed regulations?

We think we can, but adding to the problem of distinguishing absolute title from limited use (with "limitation" understood as the duty, both legal and moral, not to do harm) is the construction of a false syllogism resulting from that same confusion between title and use.  A “syllogism” is an argument consisting of two premises, e.g., 1) All X is Z.  2) All Y is X.  That being the case, all Y is Z.

The capitalist syllogism defines title as absolute: “The right to property is an inalienable, natural right.”  This premise is correct.

(By the way, lest anyone be confused, the premises here are put in quotes to identify them as the premises.  We are not quoting anyone.)

The capitalist syllogism (as does that of socialism, as we will see) then defines title and use as the same thing by assuming that the right to be an owner is the same as what an owner may do with what is owned: “The right to property is the same as the rights of property.”  This is the confusion between title and use that we discussed before — and you can see the obvious danger in it.

If the rights of property are as absolute as the right to property, that is, you can do anything you like with what you own, constrained only by charity toward others instead of justice, then the first time it becomes expedient to do so, you can violate your own constraints with a clear conscience.  Charity is, after all, voluntary, or it isn't true charity.  You can only be forced to do or not do something if it falls under justice.

The premise that the rights of property are the same as the right to property is incorrect.  Aside from the fact that it is nonsensical to assume that you can have absolute exercise of a right, and harm others at will if you're out of charity with them or simply feel like it, it violates the principle of identity, the first principle of reason (also stated negatively as the principle of contradiction).  The exercise of a right is distinct from having a right.

Consequently, the right to property is not the same as the rights of property.  It pertains to human positive law, not natural law — with the proviso, of course, that the natural law not be violated in how the exercise of property is defined.  (“Isidore says (Etym. v, 4) that ‘right is either natural, or civil, or right of nations,’ and consequently the right of nations is distinct from natural right.” Summa, IIa IIae q. 57 a. 3.)

The conclusion of the capitalist syllogism is, the right to property being absolute (true), and the rights of property being the same as the right to property (false), the exercise of property (the rights of property) is as absolute as title (the right to property).  Because one of the premises is false, we conclude that the capitalist claim that the exercise of property is as absolute as title is not necessarily true; it is opinion.  (Again, this is the scientific proof.  We already know that, morally, no one could possibly have a right to do harm to others; the fundamental precept of the natural law is "good is to be done, evil avoided," and harming others is evil.)

Opinion, however, may be true.  Saying that something is “not necessarily true” is not the same as saying something is necessarily false.  We know that the right to property is distinct from the rights of property.  That does not, however, prove that the rights of property are not absolute.

There is another problem here.  It is logically impossible to prove a negative.  We cannot, therefore, base our position on proving that the exercise of property is not absolute.

We can, however, do something that is just as good.  We can attempt to prove that the exercise of property is absolute (i.e., we can go around harming others as we will) — and fail.  We can then corroborate our logical lack of proof with empirical evidence demonstrating that, in point of fact, experience shows that the exercise of property has never been absolute.

The only way that the exercise of property can be absolute is if it pertains to the natural law, that is, it is part of human nature, the essence or substance of what it means to be human; it is part of what defines us as human.  That being the case, anything that defines us as human necessarily applies to every single human being, or it cannot be said to be an aspect of human nature.  All human beings are substantially the same, that is, all have the same nature.

This is the “analogy of being.”  All human beings are “analogs” of each other.  We are, of course, not identical clones, but we all have whatever it is that defines us as human beings, at least potentially, and “potential being” and “actual being” are both stages of being.  All human beings are “analogously complete” with respect to one another.

That means each and every human being possesses whatever part of our substantial nature we are discussing in the same way as every other human being possesses it, and it means the same thing for each human being as it does for every other human being.  To put it another way, that which is true is as true, and is true in the same way, as everything else that is true.  Thus, if every human being has a natural right to be alive, that right means the same for you as it does for me.  This is as Aquinas explained in the Summa, Ia IIae, q. 94 on the natural law.

What is not the same, however, is how we live our lives, that is, how we exercise our right to life.  You may live your life in such a way that you become a saint or a great benefactor of humanity.  I may live my life never accomplishing anything, drinking beer (root, of course) and watching reality TV.  As long as neither of us does anything to forfeit our right to life, however, no one can take it away, at least, not morally or legally.

Obviously, then, the exercise of the rights of life does not pertain to the natural law, except insofar as how we live it does not in any way undermine the right to life possessed by ourselves or by others.

Similarly, the exercise of the rights of property does not pertain to the natural law, except that how we exercise our property can in no way undermine the right to be an owner, either of ourselves or of others, or be used to harm others.  As Aquinas explained, “Community of goods is ascribed to the natural law, not that the natural law dictates that all things should be possessed in common and that nothing should be possessed as one's own: but because the division of possessions is not according to the natural law, but rather arose from human agreement which belongs to positive law, as stated above (57, 2, 3). Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason.” (IIa IIae q. 66 a.2.)

(This, of course, does not affect the validity of voluntary poverty or renunciation of ownership.  You may be morally bound by an oath of voluntary poverty, but you cannot be legally bound.  Further, you cannot legitimately surrender your ownership in yourself by selling yourself into slavery, thereby violating both liberty and property, any more than you can violate your own or anyone else’s right to life.)

Thus, if the exercise of property (the rights of property) pertained to the natural law, that exercise would in every case be exactly the same for everyone, and everyone would own everything in common, but at the same time all would have equal rights, which is contradictory.  You cannot have the same right to eat a particular cake as I do; I cannot own a cake and you have the right to eat it.  One of us must have a right, or a greater right, to that cake; we cannot both have the same right in the same thing — nothing can both “be” and “not be” at the same time under the same conditions.

We therefore necessarily conclude that the exercise or use of property, unlike title or possession, is not, and cannot be absolute.  The absolute exercise of any right is a contradiction in terms.  The fact that codes of law exist necessarily implies that the exercise of any rights cannot be absolute.  This is because human positive law is based on properly defining the exercise of rights, and in preventing harm to other individuals, groups, or the common good as a whole by the wrongful exercise of rights.

The theory of capitalism is therefore correct when it asserts that the right to be an owner is absolute in every human being, albeit for the wrong reasons.  The theory of capitalism is incorrect when it asserts that the exercise of property is as absolute as the right to be an owner.

In the next posting in this series, we will look at our claim that both capitalism and socialism are based on faith.

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