Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Is Freedom Necessary?


Any lawyer knows (or should know), that when we in CESJ say that private property and the other natural rights are absolute, we do not mean absolute in their exercise. We have always tried to make certain that we clearly distinguished between the natural right to be an owner (the right to property), from the necessarily limited and socially determined exercise of property (the rights of property). The right to be an owner is inherent or absolute in every human being. Were that not so, then he or she, lacking the capacity to acquire and develop virtue through the exercise of humanity’s natural rights, could not be defined as “human.”
The absolute character of the right to be an owner does not and cannot, however, alter the owner’s duty of stewardship. Stewardship does not invalidate private property, but guides an owner in what he or she may do with what he or she owns, even (in some circumstances) whether something can be owned privately at all, e.g., a nuclear weapon. The “rule of thumb” is that, while it is absolutely part of human nature to be an owner, an owner may not materially harm him- or herself, other individuals or groups, or the common good as a whole through the exercise of what is owned, or even (as Saint Thomas pointed out) in extraordinary circumstances, retain it for his or her own use.
Keeping in mind the essential link between property (ownership and control), and power (the “ability for doing”), we realize that acquiring and developing virtue is almost impossible without an adequate ownership stake of capital. In other words, if you have no power to do, then how do you “do” in any meaningful sense?
The answer is, you “do” not. As Aristotle explained, “Property is part of a household, and the acquisition of property part of household management; for neither life itself nor the good life is possible without a certain minimum supply of the necessities.”[1] A nominally free man without capital is, as far as Aristotle was concerned, a masterless slave, a pathetic creature, subjugated to those who do own, or to the State, depending on who controls the means of production.[2]
As Rommen explained in his book, The State in Catholic Thought, “It is morally impossible to exist as a free person without property.”[3] As Rommen expanded on that thought,
"The sphere of freedom increases directly with the sphere of property, or contrariwise, as Linsenmann so ably put it, the man who has no property easily becomes himself the property of another man. It is, therefore, a conclusion from the principle of natural law that the institution of property ought to exist. The positive legal order guarantees the pre-existent right to property; it may regulate the use of property; it may constitute certain things to be public property, and so on. The capitalist and the feudalist property orders are but transitory; the institution of property is perennial. We may thus see that there exists a perennial kernel in the concept of suum which precedes its concrete determination to positive law".[4]
Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in “The Basic Defects of Communism,”[5] detailed his opinion as to the importance of “diffused ownership of property.”[6] He went on to explain why the communist abolition of private property did not change anything for the propertyless poor, except, possibly, to make matters worse:
It shifts booty and loot from one man’s pocket to another’s and thinks that because one transfers property, one destroys the desire for personal property. There is no magic in the dissolution of private property, for pride, miserliness and acquisitiveness still exist. All that communism does in its superficial revolution is to substitute the capitalism of power for the capitalism of money. The new capitalists no longer dispense the profits, but they do distribute the right to control the profits.[7]
How, then, did we ever develop the idea that it is possible to have a just arrangement of society without widespread direct ownership of the means of production? It is quite simple. Most people accept as a virtual religious dogma that it is impossible to finance new capital formation without first cutting consumption and accumulating money savings.
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[1] Aristotle, The Politics, I.iv (1253b23).
[2] Ibid., I.xiii (1260b 1-2).
[3] Heinrich Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought. St. Louis, Missouri: B. Herder Book Company, 1947, 189.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Fulton J. Sheen, Communism and the Conscience of the West. New York: Garden City Books, 1951, 78-108.
[6] Ibid., 79-80.
[7] Ibid., 91-92.

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