THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Aquinas on Private Property

In the previous posting on this subject — private property in general, and under what circumstances (if any) private property ceases to exist — we examined the arguments Msgr. John A. Ryan of the Catholic University of America used to justify substituting the definitions of social justice and distributive justice used by the socialists and modernists of the 1830s and 1840s for those of the Catholic Church derived from Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy.

To explain, in classic Aristotelian philosophy, including that of Aquinas, distributive justice has only ever had one meaning: distribution according to a pro rata share of inputs.  In economic terms, distributive justice is “the most classical form”(Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, § 201) of the virtue, the out-take principle.  It is based on the market value of one’s economic contributions.  This is the principle that everyone has a right to receive a proportionate, market-determined share of the value of the marketable goods and services he produces with his labor, capital, or both.
In Catholic social thought prior to Pope Pius XI, “social justice” was not a virtue, but a principle.  As explained by Msgr. Aloysius Taparelli, S.J., social justice was the principle that should guide all social conduct and attempts to improve the social order, especially meeting the needs of the poor.
Msgr. Aloysius Taparelli, S.J.
Specifically, all acts, including charity, justice, or any other virtue, must conform to two requirements: 1) they must be virtuous or at least not intrinsically evil in and of themselves (i.e., must not violate the natural law), and 2) they must have a general intention to benefit or at least not harm other individuals, groups, or the common good as a whole.
In other words, Taparelli’s principle of social justice added a proviso to the classic “principle of double effect.”  That is, it is no longer merely enough not to intend evil, no individual act, even if virtuous in and of itself, is permitted if it harms the common good.  This was not original with Taparelli; it had always been present in Thomist philosophy.  What was new was the application of the term social justice to it and the emphasis of a good intention for the common good.
Msgr. John A. Ryan
For example, it is good to accumulate goods in order to take care of one’s dependents and maintain one’s state in life.  It becomes evil — although not objectively or intrinsically so — if someone accumulates a vast surplus of goods and by so doing prevents others from having a sufficiency.  If others have enough, how much someone has should be a matter of complete indifference to anyone else.  Accumulation is wrong — socially unjust — only if someone else or the common good is harmed.
To Ryan and the early nineteenth century socialists, however, “social justice” meant redistribution on the basis of need, of which there are two types, voluntary and involuntary.  The voluntary type of redistribution is philanthropy.
It comes almost as a shock to many people that the early socialists were not opposed to accumulated wealth per se.  They were opposed to accumulated wealth that they did not control or have access to.
Robert Owen
Saint-Simon, Fourier, even Marx all sought out rich people as patrons to finance their schemes through philanthropy.  Only Robert Owen, a rich industrialist considered by many to be England’s first modern socialist, financed his schemes out of his own pocket when he couldn’t get others to give him the money (and he almost bankrupted himself in the process).
It was only when the rich refused to finance the proposals of the socialists that the socialists turned to coercive redistribution.  Since this was “distribution,” they completely rejected the classical understanding of the term and labeled coercive redistribution “distributive justice.”
In contrast to Taparelli’s principle of social justice that subordinated everything to the natural law, the socialists’ principle of social justice subordinated everything including the natural law to the goal of social and material betterment, especially for the poor.  Where Taparelli’s assumption was that the end does not justify the means, the socialists’ assumption was that the end does in all cases justify the means.
Thus, if the natural right to private property seems to be what is holding back progress, then private property must be abolished, with life and liberty following in short order.  This is directly contrary to what Aquinas taught.
Thomas Aquinas
For Aquinas, the right to be an owner (the right to property) is absolute in every human being.  At the same time, what an owner may do with what is owned is necessarily limited (the rights of property).  As he explained in the Summa Theologica, IIa IIae q. 66, a. 2,
Man has a twofold competence in relation to material things. The first is the title to care for and distribute the earth’s resources. Understood in this way, it is not merely legitimate for a man to possess things as his own, it is even necessary for human life.  Man’s other competence is to use and manage the world’s resources. Now in regard to this, no man is entitled to manage things merely for himself, he must do so in the interests of all, so that he is ready to share them with others in case of necessity. This is why Paul writes to Timothy, As for the rich of this world, charge them to be liberal and generous. [Condensed]
Aquinas could hardly be any clearer.  To be an owner is part of human nature and is therefore absolute in every human being.  What an owner may do with what is owned and what and how much may be owned, however, is necessarily limited by the natural law, personal needs, and those of other individuals and the common good as a whole.
In general, an owner may not use what is owned to cause harm.  That, however, does not mean that someone else may take what the rich have.  The rich are told to share.  The poor are not told to steal.
But what about socialism?  Aren’t goods owned in common contrary to these principles?
Aquinas: ownership is a natural right.
Yes, common goods (not to be confused with the common good!) are inconsistent with these principles, but they can be permitted for the sake of expedience if (and only if) no one is harmed by making a good common.  This is why, for example, land or other privately owned things taken by duly constituted authority for a legitimate public purpose must be paid for at a fair price.  As Aquinas explained,
Community of goods is said to be part of the natural law not because it requires everything to be held in common and nothing to be appropriated to individual possession, but because the distribution of property is a matter not for natural law but, rather, human agreement, which is what positive law is about, as we saw above. The individual holding of possessions is not, therefore, contrary to the natural law; it is what rational beings conclude as an addition to the natural law.
In other words, the decision as to what specific goods to be owned privately and those to be held in common is a matter for rational discussion, and not one to which a blanket rule can be applied, e.g., everything must either be privately owned or held in common, regardless of the consequences.  Interestingly, it is easy to show how mandating that all goods be held in common inflicts great harm, but a society in which everything is privately owned is not only conceivable, it has been the case more than once in history.
For example, the feudal system allowed both privately owned land* and public land handed over to private ownership for administration.  The former was inalienable, the latter was alienable for just cause (or royal whim on occasion, if the king or liege lord didn’t mind risking a rebellion).  Medieval jurists took the principle of Roman law literally: everything to its proper owner.
*“The Commons” were not really common property, but specific land in which each member of a community had defined private property rights, e.g., the right to graze three cows.  The Commons despite the name were a form of corporate ownership, not common ownership.
We will look at how these principles are applied in the next posting on this subject.