Thursday, April 16, 2015

Pope Francis and Property, IV: The Social Aspect of Property


In view of the preceding postings in this series, how are we to understand the social aspect of property, and at the same time respect the individual, inalienable right to be an owner, especially when people are in want?  This is the question that Pope Francis, along with other world leaders, faces today with a global economy in shambles.  (That, and “Did I get my tax return in on time. . . ?”)

"You might want to listen to ME, not others 'interpreting' me."
As Leo XIII explained in § 22 of Rerum Novarum, and Paul VI repeated, when others are in want, those with a surplus are morally — most certainly not legally — obliged to distribute alms out of their surplus, “surplus” being understood as whatever is in excess of that which is required to maintain one’s self and one’s dependents in a manner befitting one’s station in life.

Charity, as Leo XIII reminded us, is a duty not enforced by human law, and no human being has the right to take God’s Law into his or her own hands: “Vengeance belongeth to me, and I will repay. And again: The Lord shall judge his people.” (Heb. 10:30.)

In “extreme cases,” the State is justified in levying additional taxes above what is needed for legitimate government purposes to relieve distress.  This, however, is to prevent that distress from harming the common good; individual good is not the direct responsibility of the State.  It is, in fact, a serious error to regard the State as responsible for universal wellbeing.

As Pius XI pointed out in § 78 of Quadragesimo Anno,

This is to the great harm of the State itself; for, with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.”

Totalitarian philosopher Thomas Hobbes: the State is a "Mortall God."
The proper role of the State is to maintain the environment (the common good) within which people are able to meet their own needs through their own efforts.  When the institutions (“social tools”) of the common good work to inhibit or prevent people from realizing their individual good, the proper response is to organize in free association (cf. “the wrecked associations,” supra) and carry out acts of social justice to reform or restructure the social order so that people can once again meet their own needs through their own efforts.

Thus, the “job” of social justice is not to make up for the failure of individual justice or charity, but to make it possible for individual justice and charity to function, as Pius XI put it as the theme of his pontificate, “to restore all things in Christ.”

Every single human being therefore has the natural, inalienable, inherent, you-can't-take-it-away-without-denying-God right to be an owner — that's why Hobbes found it necessary to put the "Mortall God" of the State in place of the Immortal God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when he abolished private property as a cornerstone of his totalitarian order.  That is the individual aspect of private property.

The social aspect of private property is, 1) ordinarily you may not use what you own to harm yourself or others, or the common good, 2) you are morally obligated to care for others in need out of your surplus, and 3) in extreme cases the State may redistribute some of your surplus to avoid harm to the common good.

The bottom line?  Don't confuse the individual and the social aspects of property, or you're asking for trouble.  Both the capitalists and the socialists make this same mistake, but apply that mistake in opposite ways.

With respect to need-based distribution of existing wealth, while it may be expedient (a weak word in view of the global crises facing humanity) to redistribute wealth to keep people going, that is not a solution.  It is, and could only be, a way to buy time on the way to a solution.

The real solution is to organize in free association and restructure our institutions, specifically our monetary and tax systems, “to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners,” as Leo XIII put it in § 46 of Rerum Novarum, so people can take care of their own needs through their own efforts.

One possible program is the “Capital Homesteading” proposal of the Center for Economic and Social Justice.  Keep in mind: "There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body."  (Rerum Novarum, § 7.)

#30#

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