Monday, June 1, 2015

Is Private Property a Natural Right?


A short time ago we posted a short piece explaining why, because private property is a natural right, socialism has the wrong bull by the horns, or sow by the ear, or however you want to put it.  Naturally, the socialists didn’t take this lying down.  Almost immediately we received a rather sanctimonious comment to the effect that the idea that private property being a natural right was an invention of Thomas Aquinas during the Middle Ages.

Private property in early societies.
Our Critic was able to cite a modern source for this interpretation.  Unfortunately, had Our Critic done his or her homework, he and/or she would have realized that the idea of private property as a natural right predates the Middle Ages by a few thousand years, dating from the dawn of society itself.

How do we know this?  First, common sense.  The natural law is defined as “A body of principles that are considered to be inherent in nature and have universal application in determining whether human conduct is right or wrong, often contrasted with positive law.”  Put more simply, the natural law is the general code of human behavior that people have accepted in all times and places.  Even tribal societies had strict laws regarding theft, as can be seen in Llewellyn and Hoebel, The Cheyenne Way: Conflict and Case Law in Primitive Jurisprudence (1941), e.g., Chapter 8 on "Property and Inheritance."

So, how do we know that private property is part of the natural law?  Because from time immemorial theft has been considered wrong.  Even those who would abolish private property admit that theft is wrong.  Karl Marx built his entire economic theory on the legitimacy of private property . . . and then contradicted himself — as did Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who declared that "Property is theft," i.e., "Property is a violation of property." (!?!?!?!?!?)

Marx: Capitalists steal what doesn't belong to workers.
And how did Marx contradict himself?  By declaring that capitalists only get rich by committing theft, that is, by stealing surplus value from workers and consumers.

Marx never responded to the question that if workers and consumers don’t own that surplus value as private property, how is it possible that stealing it could be wrong — or even considered stealing?  Taking something from someone to whom it doesn’t belong in the first place isn’t wrong.  Only taking something from someone who owns it is wrong.

Thus, the universal prohibition against theft disproves the belief that the concept of private property belonging to the natural law is a recent invention.  People may dispute what constitutes theft, but no one disagrees that theft is wrong.  As the solidarist political scientist Heinrich Rommen explained,

Law Code of Hammurabi: "Theft is Bad."
[I]t follows from the fact of natura vulnerata [‘wounded nature,” i.e., human nature darkened by the hereditary stain of Original Sin] as well as from the ethical character and goal of community life, and of the State in particular, that positive human laws are absolutely necessary for determining the further inferences from the first principles in the interest of a more exact and readily discernible establishment of order and for the setting up of institutions needed for community life.  The natural law prohibition of adultery implies at the same time an affirmation of marriage and of the general norms that are most needed for its functioning as an institution.  “Thou shalt not steal” presupposes the institution of private property as pertaining to the natural law; but not, for example, the feudal property arrangements of the Middle Ages or the modern capitalist system.  Since the natural law lays down general norms only, it is the function of the positive law to undertake the concrete, detailed regulation of real and personal property and to prescribe the formalities for conveyance of ownership. (Heinrich Rommen, The Natural Law.  Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1998, 59.)

Unless, then, Our Critic maintains that, e.g., the Ten Commandments or the Law Code of Hammurabi are somehow inventions of the Middle Ages, private property is, was, and always will be part of the natural law.

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