Thursday, June 4, 2015

Yet More on Property, I: Definitions


There’s an old joke that goes “A teacher was trying to impress on his students the idea that doing something right the first time pays off.  He declared, ‘A job well done need never be done again!’  A ‘small, tired voice from the back of the room’ responds, ‘What about mowing the lawn?’”

Small, tired voices.
Trying to convey the correct understanding of the institution of private property is a little like that.  No matter how many times or ways we state it, there is always someone who doesn’t really pay attention, and recites the same, tired arguments all over again without showing any understanding of the issue, or even what property is.

In response to our latest effort, someone sent us a link to a 2012 article in U.S. Catholic, “How Much Do You Really Own?” by Barry Hudock.  Assuming that we were sent the link in an effort to refute CESJ’s contention that the right to be an owner (the right to property) is a natural right, that it is the rights of property that are limited and socially determined, and that this understanding is reflected in Catholic social teaching, we have to point out that our correspondent made a fundamental mistake: he confused “access” (the right to property) and “use” (the rights of property), evidently misinterpreting Hudock's article.

Louis Kelso 'splaining stuff.
It is all a question of definition.  As we at CESJ understand papal teachings on private property, they are in full agreement with the legal, social, and cultural definitions in place for millennia, and on which Louis Kelso relied in formulating the principles of binary economics.  That is, as we have explained many times, “property” must be construed in two ways:

One, “access.”  Property is the natural right to be an owner inherent in every single human being.  This is part of human nature, and cannot be taken away without at the same time taking away someone’s humanity.  It is part of the definition of what it means to be a human being.  With life and liberty, the right to be an owner — the right to property — is at one and the same time the foundation on which human dignity is established, and the means by which it is maintained.  This is the generic right of dominion, i.e., “dominion,” the right to be an owner, is generic — present in every member of the genus — to the human condition.

Two, “use.”  Property is the bundle of socially determined and necessarily limited rights that define how, in a particular society or set of circumstances, an owner may use that which he or she owns.  In general, no one may use what is owned to harm him- or herself, other individuals, groups, or the common good as a whole.  Further, while custom, tradition, and human positive law must define how this bundle of rights is to be exercised, at no time may such definition nullify the underlying right to be an owner.  This is the universal destination of goods, i.e., the use of all goods must be done in a way that takes other people and the whole of the social order into account.

Access and use, the right to property and the rights of property, the generic right of dominion and the universal destination of goods — however you want to put it — are not mutually exclusive principles, but two halves of an integrated whole.  They necessarily go together, and one cannot contradict or nullify the other.  You would otherwise be claiming that the Catholic Church contradicts itself and teaches nonsense by violating the first principle of reason, the “law of (non) contradiction.”

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