Yesterday we looked at a correct understanding of private property: it is both a natural right that is absolute in the sense that every human being has the right to be an owner, and a set of manmade and socially determined rights and duties that define how an owner may use what he or she owns. Today we look at why socialism, defined as the abolition of private property in capital, is wrong, that is, contrary to nature.
|"Marxism is the purest socialism. According to me."|
First, however, we need to deal with the increasingly widespread belief that socialism is not the abolition of private property, or at least is not correctly defined as such. Many people believe or claim to believe Marxist socialism or communism (i.e., scientific socialism) abolishes private property, but that other forms of socialism do not. Thus, e.g., according to them the Catholic Church’s condemnation of socialism is either wrong, or has been misunderstood, because when the popes condemn “socialism” what they’re really condemning is Marxism.
This is the sort of argument you get from people who don’t understand property, private or otherwise, and who want an excuse to have their cake and eat it, too. That is why they take refuge in such sophistries.
The principal doctrine of socialism is that all things, including the natural law and rights of life, liberty, and private property, are subordinate to the demands of the common good and, frequently, the individual good of the most powerful. Some forms of socialism exempt life and liberty, but always insist that private property — the means of sustaining life and liberty — must be subordinate in all cases. No one may own or enjoy the fruits of ownership if such ownership or use is not expedient or comes into conflict with the will of the majority or the most powerful.
|Do you really want this because your dog dirtied somebody's lawn?|
Thus, socialism twists the requirement under natural law that no one may legitimately use his or her property to harm him- or herself or others, into the belief that no one may own or use something if, in the opinion of those in control, a greater good will result from non-ownership or use, or harm might result if people are permitted to own such things; private individuals are to be presumed guilty until proven innocent . . . and not be given the opportunity to prove themselves innocent.
Obviously, this does not apply to weapons of mass destruction. These are designed and intended to harm others. It is perfectly proper for duly constituted authority to regulate ownership of such things, and even forbid them to private citizens or organizations as a matter of course. The burden of proof thereby shifts to the private citizen who wants to own or use such things. He or she must demonstrate that he or she intends to use what is ordinarily a weapon of mass destruction in ways not harmful to others, e.g., explosives used in construction.
Capital is quite another issue. To forbid private ownership of the means of production is to prohibit the means of supporting life. Outlawing private ownership of capital — imposing wage or welfare slavery — is the same as outlawing private ownership of labor: imposing chattel slavery. As William Cobbett, “the Apostle of Distributism,” pointed out, and as we’ve quoted a number of times on this blog,
|William Cobbett, "Apostle of Distributism"|
FREEDOM is not an empty sound; it is not an abstract idea; it is not a thing that nobody can feel. It means, and it means nothing else, the full and quiet enjoyment of your own property. If you have not this; if this be not well secured to you, you may call yourself what you will, but you are a slave. (William Cobbett, A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, 1827, § 456.)
What of the forms of socialism that permit private ownership?
Once we understand the essence of the Aristotelian-Thomist concept of natural law, that question answers itself. Is “private ownership” really ownership if, at best, it is a grant from the community or State? In that case, the community or State can take ownership away as easily as it was granted, if those in power decide the greater good demands it. This is on the totalitarian grounds that the community or State has a “higher” property right that really means the private individual has no real ownership. As Thomas Hobbes asserted in in Chapter 29 of his manual for absolutist State power, Leviathan,
|Hobbes: The State is a "Mortall God."|
A Fifth doctrine, that tendeth to the Dissolution of a Common-wealth, is, “That every private man has an absolute Propriety in his Goods; such, as excludeth the Right of the Soveraign.” Every man has indeed a Propriety that excludes the Right of every other Subject: And he has it onely from the Soveraign Power; without the protection whereof, every other man should have equall Right to the same. But if the Right of the Soveraign also be excluded, he cannot performe the office they have put him into; which is, to defend them both from forraign enemies, and from the injuries of one another; and consequently there is no longer a Common-wealth.
That is, private property (according to Hobbes) is prudential matter. Citizens are only permitted to own so long as the State permits it or finds it useful, e.g., the Nazi law on landed property, which permitted “private ownership” of land only so long as the “owner” could prove he or she was using the land in ways the State deemed expedient or useful. To Hobbes and other totalitarians, the State is the real, ultimate owner of everything in the country and can, if it so wills, levy a 100% tax on anything or everything, e.g., the “single tax” of the agrarian socialist Henry George that would consist of a 100% tax on all rentals or profits from “owning” land. In socialism, therefore, ordinary people only enjoy “ownership” so long as the State permits it.
|Locke: Do you own what others can just take from you?|
In other words, no matter what the form of socialism, even if it permits “private property,” only the State or community really owns. Private property has been abolished. As John Locke pointed out,
It is true, governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit every one who enjoys his share of the protection, should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own consent, i.e. the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves, or their representatives chosen by them: for if any one shall claim a power to lay and levy taxes on the people, by his own authority, and without such consent of the people, he thereby invades the fundamental law of property, and subverts the end of government: for what property have I in that, which another may by right take, when he pleases, to himself? (John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, 1690, § 140.)
And that is why socialism is wrong — always wrong, even (or especially) when it seems most beneficent, precisely as Orestes A. Brownson pointed out:
|Brownson: Socialism is Satan's most deceptive lie.|
[Socialism] is as artful as it is bold. It wears a pious aspect, it has divine words on its lips, and almost unction in its speech. It is not easy for the unlearned to detect its fallacy, and the great body of the people are prepared to receive it as Christian truth. We cannot deny it without seeming to them to be warring against the true interests of society, and also against the Gospel of our Lord. Never was heresy more subtle, more adroit, better fitted for success. How skillfully it flatters the people! It is said, the saints shall judge the world. By the change of a word, the people are transformed into saints, and invested with the saintly character and office. How adroitly, too, it appeals to the people’s envy and hatred of their superiors, and to their love of the world, without shocking their orthodoxy or wounding their piety! Surely Satan has here, in Socialism, done his best, almost outdone himself, and would, if it were possible, deceive the very elect, so that no flesh should be saved. (Orestes A. Brownson, “Socialism and the Church,” Essays and Reviews, Chiefly on Theology, Politics, and Socialism. New York: D. & J. Sadlier & Co., 1852, 502.)
Socialism puts the State as the stand-in for “the People” (the abstraction of the collective) in the place of God as the source of rights, a “Mortall God,” as Hobbes put it, which must be obeyed on Earth as the Immortal God is obeyed in Heaven. Socialism asserts as a matter of course that an idea, an abstraction made by human beings, has rights that human beings created by God do not. Collective Man, or humanity, or humankind, or the State, or the community, or however you want to say it, thereby becomes greater than God.
|Pius XI: Socialism is utterly foreign to Christian truth.|
That is why to try and claim that Marxism (or communism) and socialism are different on the grounds that the former abolishes private property and the latter does not, or that only Marxism or communism are condemned and socialism is not, or any other similar claim or equivocation, is simply playing games with the truth. That is the sense — and the only possible sense — of the Catholic Church’s condemnation of any and all forms of socialism, regardless what you may choose to call it. As Pope Pius XI clearly explained,
But what if Socialism has really been so tempered and modified as to the class struggle and private ownership that there is in it no longer anything to be censured on these points? Has it thereby renounced its contradictory nature to the Christian religion? This is the question that holds many minds in suspense. And numerous are the Catholics who, although they clearly understand that Christian principles can never be abandoned or diminished seem to turn their eyes to the Holy See and earnestly beseech Us to decide whether this form of Socialism has so far recovered from false doctrines that it can be accepted without the sacrifice of any Christian principle and in a certain sense be baptized. That We, in keeping with Our fatherly solicitude, may answer their petitions, We make this pronouncement: Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth. (Quadragesimo Anno, § 117.)