As we saw in yesterday’s posting, “Nature” must have given to humanity something other than the State by means of which human life was to be maintained in a manner that respects the demands of human dignity. That means is the natural right to be an owner, vested in every human being by nature itself: private property.
Despite numerous claims to the contrary, more than one pope has strongly emphasized the importance of widespread ownership of capital, “whether the property consist of land or chattels.” (Rerum Novarum, § 5.) (N.B.: owned things, “property,” are divided into “land” and “non-land.” A “non-land” thing that is owned is called a “chattel.”) Consequently, as Leo XIII concluded when commenting on the problems associated with the growing number of people who do not own capital and advancing technology is displacing human labor in the production process,
“We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.” (Ibid., § 46.)
Commentators caught up in the slavery of past savings (which is irrevocably linked to the labor theory of value — a discussion we will not get into here) often interpret “people” in this passage to mean only workers. They assume that only labor gives title to capital. Extreme adherents of this position echo the Nazi law on landed property and assert that not only does labor alone give title, title is only effective so long as the labor is useful, i.e., serves the needs of the community or State.
In this view, ultimate title is vested in the community, i.e., the State. Confusingly, while there is no substantial difference in their respective positions, and both claim that the State will eventually “wither away,” Fabian socialists usually use the word “community” that they insist is not “the State,” while Fascist socialists use “the State.”
In this extreme position, people who can no longer work or whose work is considered “non-economic” are to be supported by others on the basis of “gift” rather than “exchange.” As Karl Marx summarized this position in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
This effectively abolishes private property as anything meaningful, directly contradicting explicit papal teachings, e.g., “[E]very man has by nature the right to possess property as his own. This is one of the chief points of distinction between man and the animal creation.” (Rerum Novarum, § 6.)
Ironically, a number of people who believe they are absolutely faithful to papal teachings take for granted an understanding of property that the popes were desperately working to counter. This is the false belief that all rights, but especially life, liberty, and property, are not inherent in (natural to) humanity, that is, possessed absolutely by every single human being who lives, has lived, or ever will live. In this theory, rights are allegedly vested in the State, to be permitted only insofar as the State sees fit.
Of course, even if we accept the traditional understanding of natural rights as being held absolutely by every human being, we have to realize at the same time that all rights, by their very nature, are limited in their exercise. As a general rule, no one may licitly exercise his or her rights, even the most absolutely held, in a way that deliberately harms others or the common good.
The belief that rights are not inherent in each human being but are vested in the State is, in the words of Pius XI, “a theory of human society peculiar to itself.” (Quadragesimo Anno, § 120) It is “irreconcilable with true Christianity” (ibid.) — or anything else based on a sound understanding of the natural law. There is some evidence suggesting that Leo XIII was responding to this new understanding of the natural law in a number of his encyclicals, especially Rerum Novarum.