Monday, February 13, 2017

Philosophies at War, III: The Principle of Private Property


Last week we decided that the so-called “Reign of Christ the King” could not be fully understood if limited to a strictly religious meaning or interpretation.  Frankly, the term is more than a little misleading once we realize that it refers not to some kind of theocracy or even personal faith in any religion, but to the process of conforming one’s life to the precepts of the natural law — which, after all, applies to everyone, regardless of faith, hope, or charity, or lack thereof.
This is because the natural law is the universal code of human behavior.  It is based on human nature and discerned by the force and light of human reason.  True, most people simply don’t have the time, talent, or inclination to go through the work of discerning the precepts of the natural law by reason, and accept them on faith in some religious authority — but that does not change the fact that, strictly speaking, knowledge of God’s existence and of the natural law written in the hearts of all human beings can be discerned by reason.  Law, therefore, consists of reason (lex ratio), not the will of the strongest (lex voluntas).
This is all very well.  As we concluded last Thursday’s posting, however, how are we supposed to establish and maintain this “Reign of Christ the King”?
Fortunately, Pius XI was not just mouthing vague platitudes.  The whole point of his pontificate was to counter the bad philosophies that had proliferated in the modern world, the worst of which (as far as he was concerned) was socialism — which, in common with Leo XIII and Karl Marx, he defined in terms of its chief tenet as the abolition of private property.
This, of course, causes the socialists to howl with rage, especially those who insist they are not socialists . . . except when they are.  Not understanding private property (or, frankly, property at all), and forcing a socialist interpretation on Catholic social teaching, they insist that socialism is not the abolition of private property, but something else entirely, the “something else” being whatever it is that they have decided to believe is socialism, for whatever reason . . . usually an attempt to abolish some form of private property that they seek to whitewash.
Rights necessarily imply justice.
The problem is that such people (in common with so many others these days) are incapable of distinguishing between the principle, and the application of the principle.  They therefore tend to mistake the application for the principle itself, and construe the principle as “prudential matter.”
As with so many things, this confusion is disastrous when it comes to property, especially when attempting to make sense of Catholic social teaching.  The natural law principle — which is unchanging and absolute, inherent by nature (obviously) in every human being who is, was, or ever will be — is that everyone has the inalienable right to be an owner.
Again, that is the principle, the “right to property,” the right to be an owner.  It is determined by human nature itself.  The right to be an owner is unchanging, absolute, and unlimited.
And the application?
That’s different.  The application of the principle that every human being has the natural right to be an owner (that is, every human being is a “natural person” with rights that cannot legitimately be taken away) consists of what anyone may own, and what the owner may do with what is owned.  These are the “rights of property,” the rights of ownership.  These are determined by the wants and needs of the owner, the rights of other individuals and groups, and the demands of the common good as a whole.  The rights of ownership are always in a state of change, socially defined, and necessarily limited.
Got that?  Read it again, just to be sure, for every single capitalist and socialist on earth makes exactly the same mistake: confusing the principle of property, with the application of the principle of property.  The capitalist insists that the rights of property are unlimited, but the right to be an owner is subject to some kind of limitation.  The socialist insists that the rights of property are strictly limited, and that no one has the natural right to be an owner.
Capitalism or socialism, some always end up more equal than others.
Yes, the capitalist will claim that everyone has the right to be an owner . . . but that non-owners must lack that special something that makes the owner fully human and renders them actually incapable of what theory posits.  The socialist will claim that no one has the right to be an owner, but that for the sake of expedience private property may be allowed on a limited basis.
Capitalists and socialists thereby say the same thing — express the same principle — in different words.  The only real difference is in the application of the principle on which both agree: whether private property will control the State (capitalism), or whether the State will control private property (socialism).
And what is the principle on which both capitalists and socialists agree?  That the right to be an owner is not absolute in every single human being.  The capitalist says this right is only in a private sector élite, while the socialists says it resides in the people as a whole, but for all intents and purposes and in practice both the capitalist and the socialist principles are the same.
. . . and there always seems to be some "re-editing" going on.
In philosophical terms, however (and this series is, after all, on “philosophies at war”), there is a difference, and it is a very big one.  Capitalism recognizes that some — not all — human beings have the right to be owners.  (Capitalists tend to confuse the right to be an owner with access to the means of acquiring and maintaining ownership, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
Capitalism therefore distorts the principle of private property almost beyond recognition, but it does not go the whole way and abolish private property.  What capitalism does is, in a sense, worse than socialism, for capitalism gives the illusion that the right to be an owner is universal, when it is painfully clear that the extremely limited access to the means of acquiring and possessing private property restricts ownership to a very few.
For its part, socialism simply abolishes the natural right to be an owner — and this is where it parts company with Catholic social teaching.  Various forms of socialism may permit private ownership, but it is not recognized as a natural right, only (at best) a right granted by the State, the People, the Community, whatever — something outside the human person.  It can therefore be taken away just as easily as it was granted . . . meaning that it is not, after all, a natural right.
And that is the problem. . . . and that is what we’ll look at tomorrow.
#30#

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