Every so often the combatants in the War on Property have another battle. For example, since republishing Fulton Sheen’s Freedom Under God in a Just Third Way edition with a new foreword, we’ve been seeing the idea resurfacing that the “universal destination of goods” (a.k.a., “the generic right of dominion”) means that individual human beings do not have the natural right to own capital, only the collective does, which doles out that right as it sees fit.
A few problems with that understanding of “the generic right of dominion.” First, of course, it changes the whole meaning of “generic” from “inhering in each member of a genus” (i.e., something that defines a thing as that thing), to “inhering in the genus as a whole, but in none of the parts.”
That, of course, begs the question. If the collective, the genus, has rights that its constituent members do not have . . . just where did the collective get those rights? Are the rights granted by the creator(s) of the collective? Impossible. The constituent members of the collective are the creators of the collective. If the constituent members of the collective don’t have a right, there’s no way they can delegate that right. This is basic political and legal theory.
Okay, well what about the collective self-generating its own rights? Same problem. Rights can’t be self-generated. They are either granted (delegated) from, or built in by a creator.
Does the collective get rights from God? Sorry, no. God didn’t create the collective. People did. The collective can only get rights through the mediation from its constituent members, in whom God built the rights as part of nature; He did not grant them as a gift subsequent to creation.
And so on. The bottom line here is that, as far as civil society as relations between human beings as human beings are concerned, rights come from the people, not the State. If the people do not grant rights to the State, the State does not have those rights.
That is why CESJ advocates restoration of the rights of private property, which includes the right to be secure in your ownership, absent any proof of wrongdoing. Punishing someone on suspicion is clearly unconstitutional; the presumption of the law is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. If the State has a proven need for something you own, it must offer just compensation under the Fifth Amendment. It can't simply seize it — at least, not legitimately.
A number of our recent blog postings have addressed some people acting as judge, jury, and executioner on mere suspicion, usually condemning “the rich,” although we have directed it to those whom Msgr. Ronald Knox labeled “enthusiasts,” who tend to assume as a given that the ungodly (i.e., anyone with whom they disagree) have no rights, and therefore what they have can be seized and put to better use.
In substance, the idea that someone has to prove his or her innocence until he or she can be left in possession of what he or she owns is similar to the Nazi law on landed property: if the State determined that you were not using it properly, or the State had a presumably better use for it, the State could simply confiscate your land without compensation. The State didn’t have to prove its case, but you had to prove that you were using the land properly to benefit the Reich.
Perhaps William Cobbett, the “Apostle of Distributism,” said it best in § 456 of his History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland (1827):
“You may twist the word freedom as long as you please, but at last it comes to quiet enjoyment of your own property, or it comes to nothing. Why do men want any of those things that are called political rights and privileges? Why do they, for instance, want to vote at elections for members of parliament? Oh! because they shall then have an influence over the conduct of those members. And of what use is that? Oh! then they will prevent the members from doing wrong. What wrong? Why, imposing taxes that ought not to be paid. That is all; that is the use, and the only use, of any right or privilege that men in general can have.”