Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Solidarism and the Just Third Way, III: Restoration of Private Property

Yesterday we looked at the role of free and open markets in solidarism and the Just Third Way.  We found that Father Pesch and CESJ are in substantial agreement that the free market and fair competition are fully compatible with the demand for justice and morality in daily life.
The question, of course, is how to ensure that everyone has the essential equality of status that makes the free market and fair competition possible?  We find the answer in a pillar common to both solidarism and the Just Third Way: private property in both labor and all forms of capital.
Private property is the right to exclude others from use within limits.
By “private property,” of course, we mean the rights of private property, that is, the bundle of socially determined rights that define how an owner may use what is owned.  This comes under a somewhat misleadingly named concept, “the universal destination of all goods.”
That’s not socialism, i.e., the State or the collective is the ultimate owner.  No, it means that property must never be used to harm other individuals, groups, institutions, or the common good as a whole.  This is probably better stated as the concept of stewardship, but nobody asked for our input when coming up with these things.
Thus (for example), someone is starving to death and all other recourse has been exhausted (and we do mean all, including groveling), the starving person is morally (but not legally) justified in stealing what he or she needs to survive.  The necessary food becomes in a sense “common property,” and the thief incurs no moral guilt, although still guilty under human law.  (For Herman Melville fans, moral v. legal guilt is the subject of his novella, Billy Budd, Foretopman.  It’s way too involved to get into here.)
Obviously, that’s an “extra extreme” case.  Ordinarily, even in extreme cases, duly constituted authority will levy an additional tax of some kind to redistribute what is necessary to keep people alive until the emergency passes.
Thus we can say that the third pillar of the Just Third Way, restoration of the rights of private property, particularly in corporate equity, also has a counterpart in Father Pesch’s economic theories.  There is, of course, the idea that private property is essential to the maintenance of “marriage and family” found in Father Pesch’s own “three pillars.”
Only natural persons (human beings), not things, have inherent rights.
When we realize that “property” is not the thing, but the rights to and over the thing, Father Pesch could not have been talking about anything other than the restoration of the rights of property — property consists of rights.  Further, property rights are human rights.  A “thing” cannot have rights.  Only persons can have rights.
Father Pesch is, however a little unclear when it comes to distinguishing the right to property from the rights of property.  Property, again, is not the thing itself, but the rights an owner or potential owner has to own something, and what he may do with the thing once he owns it, including the right of control and the disposal of the income, the “fruits of ownership.”  Property is important in sum because, as Daniel Webster observed, “power naturally and necessarily follows property.” (Daniel Webster, “Speech Before the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1820.”)
Daniel Webster: "Power follows property."
The exercise of property, however, especially as it occurs within a social context, and including the amount of material possessions a man may legitimately accumulate, is limited; it is not absolute.  Exercise of property is governed by a person’s own needs and the demands of the common good.
Private property was instituted that the goods of this earth may attain the purpose for which they were created, i.e., of serving the needs of man, of all men, and giving them the opportunity to live as free and self-dependent persons.  Accordingly all men have the strict right by natural law to as much of these goods as they need for attaining the purpose of their creation by God.  And this in turn means a strict right to some degree of private ownership, which right no one can lawfully take away from any man against his will.
No one may exercise property in such a way as to harm others or the common good, nor may anyone accumulate so much that it prevents others from exercising their rights to acquire, possess, or exercise property.  We find these ideas in Father Pesch’s thought as well, but it takes a little digging — and his lack of clarity leaves room for interpretations by others at variance with natural law, despite Father Pesch’s firm adherence:
An example of the application of these general principles of social organization may be seen in the question of private property.  Like individualism, solidarism recognizes the right of private ownership of property.  But it is opposed to an absolute, irresponsible concept of private ownership, just as it rejects the socialistic concept of the state ownership of all the means of production or the communistic state ownership of all property.  Solidarism clarifies the limits of private ownership by introducing the requirements of social duty.  The central notion of property is that “the goods of the earth should serve all mankind.”  (2, 243)  And it is recognized that this goal is best attained through private ownership, subordinate to higher rights.
Thus solidarism holds: 1. Property signifies power, but limited power, subordinate to the moral and legal order.  2. Property is a right, but not the highest right that would place the material world above the world of men.  3.  Property is not an end in itself, but a means to an end — namely, the ordered providing for the needs of all men living in society.  (2, 242 – 43)  The social duty referred to embraces more than charity, which provides for the individual needs of the poor, or the obligation to pay taxes.  It also implies the duty to use one’s property for the furthering of the common welfare. (Mulcahy, op. cit., 166.)
There are just (barely) enough technical inaccuracies and sufficient vagueness in Father Pesch’s concept of private property and the role it plays to make it relatively easy for someone to put some wonderfully heterodox interpretations on his ideas.  It is, of course, also possible to interpret his words in perfectly orthodox fashion.  The vagueness, however, makes it easier for a less than orthodox commentator to read socialism or capitalism into them, and insert an unwarranted collectivism or individualism, depending on the commentator’s orientation.

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