Every once in a while we review a few things from the past that we think people might want to take another look at. One of these is our rediscovery a few years back of a “long lost classic” by none other than Fulton J. Sheen . . . you know, “Uncle Fulty” who was in a (friendly) competition with “Uncle Milty”?
|"Stop stealing my gags, Sheen!"|
The book was Freedom Under God, and it’s a little more serious than that lead in might suggest. Why, however, did the world need the republication of a “long lost” book on the subject of “capitalism versus communism,” even by the renowned Catholic “televangelist,” Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen? Hasn’t communism been defeated with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and with China becoming more capitalist as its economy expands? Isn’t the world becoming more free and democratic with every passing day?
Why? Because at no time in living memory has there been less true human freedom. Even the idea of freedom has decayed to the point where it is effectively meaningless for most people.
In former ages individuals and groups were enslaved. There was, however, generally a clear legal distinction between those who were free, and those who were unfree. This distinction has been lost. Today the proletarian (propertyless) condition is the norm for most people — and lack of capital ownership is tantamount to slavery.
As Sheen noted in the book in support of his thesis on the necessity of true freedom, “Power follows property, and they who own things to a great extent own persons.” If you own capital, you are free. If you do not own capital, even if you are legally free, you are to all intents and purposes a slave. As Sheen explained,
Once you concentrate property in the hands of the few, you create slaves; when you decentralize it, you restore liberty. The objection of the Church to slavery is not that the slaves are poor. Slaves need not all be poor. . . . The Catholic approach is quite different. It starts with the fact that no material thing, not even the whole world, shall be allowed to interfere with the right of a person to attain his ultimate end by the exercise of his free will.
|"Thanks, Berle, I'll use that one, too!"|
Different religions and philosophies may disagree on why people should be free. They often differ on the means by which this can be accomplished. They even argue about what “freedom” means, as Sheen makes clear in this book. The goal itself, however, is unquestioned.
To understand why private property is essential to freedom, we need to know what “property” is. “Property” is not the thing owned. Property is, rather, the natural right to be an owner, and the socially determined bundle of rights that limit and define how an owner may exercise what is owned within a social context. Property means the right to control what is owned, and enjoyment of the fruits of ownership.
The universal prohibition against theft (e.g., “Thou shalt not steal”) implies that private property is a fundamental human right, however much understanding of it may be distorted. Even Marxist communism unconsciously acknowledges the validity of private property by asserting that “surplus value” is stolen from workers and consumers. If the workers and consumers did not have private property in “surplus value,” how could it be wrong for the capitalists to take it?
|"Only if I don't use it first . . . you Hope. . ."|
That is why we can say no one should be denied the right to own, and what is owned is, in human terms, owned individually or jointly “against” everyone else. What someone owns ordinarily cannot be taken without the free consent of the owner(s). As John Locke commented, “what property have I in that, which another may by right take, when he pleases, to himself?”
No one, however, may have absolute or unlimited use (exercise) of what is owned. Nor is it expedient that everything be privately owned. For example, while in theory there is nothing that cannot be privately owned, in practice most people would agree that atomic weapons (if they should even exist at all) are not appropriate for private ownership.
Thus, in any discussion of private property, it is critical to realize that while the right to own is inalienable and inherent in each human person, no one can use what is owned to harm others or society (the common good) as a whole. Neither can anyone’s right to be an owner, or what is owned, be used in any way that inhibits or prevents others from becoming owners or using what they own. This is a matter of prudence, social necessity, and plain common sense.