When everything is up for grabs, and there is no concept of anything resembling an absolute, then society will dissolve in chaos. This can be gradual, as we have seen in the United States, or almost in the blink of an eye, as we saw in post-World War I Germany and Austria-Hungary. Once the solid anchor of private property is gone from a society, pure moral relativism always takes over, especially if order is restored by someone or a group that forces its personal vision on the rest of society, as Hitler and the Nazis did in the 1930s.
That is why the only truly viable option for restructuring the social order “according to the principles of sound philosophy and to its perfection according to the sublime precepts of the law of the Gospel” (Quadragesimo Anno, § 76) in light of such massive confusion is, first, to clarify the three principles of economic justice:
• Participation or “Participative Justice.” “Participation” is the input principle that all people have a right to live in a culture that offers them equality of dignity and opportunity to contribute their labor as well as their capital, to the production of marketable goods and services by removing barriers that inhibit or prevent equal opportunity for all. This requires equal access to the means of acquiring property in income-producing capital. As technology displaces or replaces labor, the ownership of capital becomes essential for a person in the modern world to earn a living. Such social means are necessary for all members of a society or wealth-producing institution to exercise their fundamental rights to become empowered to contribute to the success of the whole and to their personal success.
• Distribution or “Distributive Justice.” “Distribution” is the out-take principle — based on the exchange value of one’s economic contributions — that all people have a right to receive a proportionate, market-determined share of the value of the marketable goods and services they produce with their labor, their capital, or both. Under Kelso’s binary theory of economics, every person is entitled to earn both from their human or “labor” contributions and from their capital contributions (non-human things in the form of productive land and humanly-created capital assets) that combine to produce all goods and services sold in the market. Kelso rejected the “Labor Theory of Value,” which ignores the reality of ever-advancing technologies that continue to eliminate many jobs throughout the world. Further, distribution based on need, rather than on contribution, is valid for charity. Charity, however, should never be a substitute for justice that could reduce the need for charity.
• Feedback or “Social Justice” (formerly “Limitation”). “Social justice” is the feedback principle that balances “participation” and “distribution” when either essential principle is violated by the system. Social justice includes a concept of limitation that discourages personal greed and prevents social monopolies. It holds that every person has a personal responsibility to organize with others to correct their organizations, institutions, laws and the social order itself at every level whenever the principles of “participation” or “distribution” are violated or not operating properly.
Only when the three principles of economic justice are clearly understood will it be possible to organize to carry out acts of social justice directed toward removing barriers that inhibit or prevent full and equal opportunity to participate in the institutions of the common good — particularly access to the means of acquiring and possessing private property in capital.
Can widespread capital ownership truly be that important? Yes. “Power,” as Daniel Webster observed during the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1820, “naturally and necessarily follows property.”
If society is to be restructured to conform to the precepts of the natural law and guided by the precepts of the supernatural law, then ordinary people must have the power to act in conformity with their own nature — which is rational, that is, reasonable. This power may sometimes be gained by pure “people power,” as it was in the civil rights movement, but it cannot be sustained or maintained without “ownership power.”
Thus, as Leo XIII declared, “We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.” (Rerum Novarum, § 46.) Yes, Leo XIII specified “labor question,” but it is clear from the context that he was addressing the whole of the “social question”: how to restore a just social order, and thus respect for the dignity of the human person under God.