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THE Global Justice Movement Website
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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

What is Socialism?, II: Private Property

Yesterday we looked at the question of whether private property is a natural right, and what it means for something to be a natural right.  After looking into the matter we discovered (okay, we knew all along, but we always learn a few new things each time we look at something from a different perspective) that 1) private property is a natural right, and 2) a natural right is something inherent in human nature and cannot be taken away.
He may be better or worse than human, but he's not human.
We also implied what we did not state specifically: that the natural law is not something that can be changed.  The exercise of natural rights can be changed, certainly, but not the general norms of the natural law.  This is because the natural law is based on what reason discerns about human nature, and — obviously — if you change human nature what you have is not human.  It may be better than human, or it may be worse, but it is not human.
For Christians, Jews, and Muslims, there is another reason.  Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God.  God is a perfect Being and therefore unchanging — change necessarily implies movement toward or away from perfection.  Since God is the natural law, the natural law cannot change.
That is not to say the exercise of a natural right is equally absolute and unlimited.  That would be foolish.  No one who understands the basics of natural law theory from an Aristotelian-Thomist orientation would ever say that the exercise of any right, natural or otherwise, can ever be unlimited or absolute.
A distinction between right and exercise.
No, the exercise of a natural right (or any other right, for that matter) is “socially determined.”  That means that the owner’s wants and needs, the needs of other individuals and groups, and the demands of the common good itself define how an owner may use what is owned.  In general, no one may exercise private property or any other right in any way that harms the right holder, other individuals and groups, or the common good.
For just cause and through due process, sometimes the exercise of a right can be taken completely away.  Ordinarily, however, the exercise of a right must never be defined in any way that nullifies the underlying right or any other right for anyone.  Thus, a right to choose (which comes under liberty or freedom of association) is a natural right, but it should never be defined in any way that it infringes on or violates anyone else’s freedom of choice or any other right.
For example, you cannot legitimately choose to pick my pocket because you want money, any more than you can legitimately choose to abort your child for any reason.  In the former case you violate my right of private property and of choice if I choose not to let you have my money, while in the latter case you violate your child’s right to life.  The fact that you might get laws passed permitting or even mandating redistribution or abortion does not change the objective evil of theft or murder.
And why is that?
Mason: Life, Liberty, and Private Property.
Because a right is not the thing, what lawyers call the res — Latin for “thing.”  No, a right is control and enjoyment of the thing — the power to do or not do some act or acts in relation to others.  Thus, the right of life is not itself life, but 1) the absolute right to be alive, and 2) the socially defined rights of access to the means of sustaining life.  The right of liberty or freedom of association/contract is 1) the absolute right to choose, associate, or enter into contracts, and 2) the socially determined bundle of rights that define how and with whom you choose, associate, or contract.
Thus, we do not want to confuse the right, with the thing to which the right applies, any more than we want to confuse the right to a thing, with the rights of a thing.  As the solidarist jurist and political scientist Dr. Heinrich Rommen said (him being a student of Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J., and co-organizer of the Königswinterkreis discussion group that sent Father Gustav Gundlach, S.J., and Father Oswald von Nell-Breuning, S.J., to the Vatican to consult on the writing of Quadragesimo Anno in 1931),
[P]ositive human laws are absolutely necessary for determining the further inferences from the first principles in the interest of a more exact and readily discernible establishment of order and for the setting up of institutions needed for community life.  The natural-law prohibition of adultery implies at the same time an affirmation of marriage and of the general norms that are most needed for its functioning as an institution.  “Thou shalt not steal” presupposes the institution of private property as pertaining to the natural law; but not, for example, the feudal property arrangements of the Middle Ages or the modern capitalist system.  Since the natural law lays down general norms only, it is the function of the positive law to undertake the concrete, detailed regulation of real and personal property and to prescribe the formalities for conveyance of ownership.  (Heinrich A. Rommen, The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy.  Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1998, 59.)
And private property?
"Property in everyday life, is the right of control."
It is almost axiomatic when talking about property, private or otherwise, that most people confuse the thing, the res, with control and enjoyment of the thing.  In every day speech, and often in legal settings as well, “property” is construed as the thing owned, rather than the right to be an owner, or the bundle of rights that define the exercise of ownership.
Not surprisingly this causes massive confusion — and why in Just Third Way writings we have made every effort to ensure that we use the word “property” properly, and even then we may sometimes slip up inadvertently, especially in off-the-cuff comments.  So what is private property in natural law, and thus the Just Third Way and Catholic social teaching?
If you grasped the rights to life and liberty, you have probably already guessed the true understanding of private property — and guessed correctly.  The right of private property is 1) the absolute right every human being has to be an owner, and 2) the socially determined and necessarily limited bundle of rights that define how an owner may use what is owned.
To go into the matter more deeply, here is what Louis Kelso had to say about it:
Before examining Marx’s second critical error, it may be helpful to take note of what the concept “property” means in law and economics. It is an aggregate of the rights, powers and privileges, recognized by the laws of the nation, which an individual may possess with respect to various objects. Property is not the object owned, but the sum total of the “rights” which an individual may “own” in such an object. These in general include the rights of (1) possessing, (2) excluding others, (3) disposing or transferring, (4) using, (5) enjoying the fruits, profits, product or increase, and (6) of destroying or injuring, if the owner so desires. In a civilized society, these rights are only as effective as the laws which provide for their enforcement. The English common law, adopted into the fabric of American law, recognizes that the rights of property are subject to the limitations that
 (1) things owned may not be so used as to injure others or the property of others, and
 (2) that they may not be used in ways contrary to the general welfare of the people as a whole. From this definition of private property, a purely functional and practical understanding of the nature of property becomes clear.
 Property in everyday life, is the right of control.  (Louis O. Kelso, “Karl Marx, the Almost Capitalist,” American Bar Association Journal, March 1957.)
With the Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of natural law we looked at yesterday, and the similarly Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of private property we looked at today, we are ready to understand the nature and meaning of socialism, and why it embodies a theory completely alien to the Aristotelian-Thomist framework and understanding of what it means for something to be true — which we will look at tomorrow.