In his 1940 classic, Freedom Under God, Fulton J. Sheen had a few pithy things to say about private property. Almost nothing in economics, finance, and political economy is more misunderstood than private property. The sole exception is money and credit, which are simply two different forms of the same thing: promises and the keeping of promises. (“Money and Credit are essentially of the same nature; Money being only the highest and most general form of Credit.” Henry Dunning Macleod, The Theory of Credit. Longmans, Green and Co., 1894, 82.) Furthermore, private property and money are inextricably linked. (Irving Fisher, The Purchasing Power of Money. New York: Macmillan, 1931, 4-6.)
|Fulton Sheen, Freedom Under God|
Much of the misunderstanding regarding private property comes from the fact that many people have no real idea of what property consists, nor even what is (or is not) private property. They tend to think of property as that which is owned, such as land or a tractor. As a result, they confuse each person’s natural right to be an owner (which is inclusive) with the rights that an owner has in the thing owned and how what is owned can be used (which is exclusive).
This distinction seems trivial and even meaningless to people who confuse the right to property and the rights of property. This leads to misunderstanding the natural rights that define each human being as a natural person, and it undermines the foundation of Catholic social teaching.
To clarify, property is not the thing that is owned. Rather, property is both the right to be an owner (to have access, i.e., “dominion”), as well as the bundle of rights of control and the fruits or profits that define what an owner may do with the things that he owns; what legitimate and non-harmful ends their uses may be directed, i.e., “destination”) and what natural resources, wealth-producing technologies, patents, and other non-human inputs to the productive process a person can own.
Under the name “generic right of dominion” the Catholic Church recognizes that the right to be an owner is inherent and absolute, that is, without restriction, exception, or qualification, in every child, woman, and man. The right to property is part of human nature itself, an integral aspect of that capacity to become virtuous that defines us as human beings.
This is because taking away the right to be an owner redefines a being as no longer human, or as human in a way different from other humans. Asserting that some humans are not human, or that they are human in a different way than other humans, violates the first principle of reason and offends against human dignity and the common good at the deepest level.
Complementing the absolute right to be an owner is what the Catholic Church calls “the universal destination of all goods.” In contrast to the natural right to be an owner, the socially determined bundle of rights that define how an owner may use what is owned is necessarily limited, or society would dissolve in chaos.
|Fulton J. Sheen, Freedom Under God|
As with the exercise of political power in a democracy, with the exercise of private property there is a fundamental tension — balancing private, individual rights with the needs of other individuals and groups, and the demands of the common good. That is why Bellarmine in his political philosophy rejected the belief of the Fraticelli and others that man before the Fall and living in full conformity with God’s Will would have no need of government or of private property.
Thus, the universal destination of all goods means that no one may exercise property in any way that harms one’s self, other individuals or groups, or the common good as a whole. This last, a demand of social justice, does not mean that private property is abolished. Nor does it mean that private property is allowed only as an expedient or out of necessity.
It means, rather, that at the very least an owner should not harm the legitimate interests and rights of others. In pursuing his own interests, each person should exercise his private property rights in ways that indirectly benefit (or at least cause no harm to) the whole of society. Stewardship, a one-word term for the universal destination of all goods, is a principle guiding use, not a transfer of ownership to the community.
A proper understanding of the relationship between the generic right of dominion and the universal destination of all goods nullifies the arguments of both capitalists and socialists. Socialists cannot claim that the meaning of the universal destination of all goods vests ultimate ownership in the community or humanity, for that contradicts the generic right of dominion. Capitalists cannot claim that the absolute right to be an owner (the generic right of dominion) gives them the unlimited or monopolistic right to accumulate wealth or the right to act without restraint when using their goods, for that contradicts the universal destination of all goods.
Thus, “property” includes both an absolute, inclusive aspect, and a limited, exclusive aspect. Politics consists of properly structuring institutions to provide equality of opportunity and means to exercise the rights of life, liberty, and private property, and providing for exceptions when warranted for the common good and (in extreme cases) individual good. (Rerum Novarum, § 22.) Social justice consists of maintaining and reforming institutions to design and provide the proper social environment within which all people can exercise their rights and thereby become virtuous.
In theory, everything can be privately owned. It may, however, be expedient at times to limit what as well as how much can be owned. Most people would agree, for instance, that (aside from the issue of their moral legitimacy) weapons of mass destruction should not be owned privately.
|Fulton J. Sheen, Freedom Under God|
Furthermore, as articulated by Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler in their principle of limitation, no one should be able to use his property in ways that prevent other people from acquiring productive capital or exercising property rights. (Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler, The Capitalist Manifesto. New York: Random House, 1958, 68.)
Today we are beginning to see the economic and political consequences of a system that enables a small class of owners or the State to gain a virtual monopoly of ownership and control over ever-advancing technologies that are producing a greater and greater proportion of goods and services, while eliminating the need for human labor, the only way most people earn a living.
It may also be appropriate at times to limit the ways in which something may be privately owned. Such possessions as land and natural resources, for example, being finite and created without human input, may call for different forms of private ownership than man-made capital.
Technology and other man-made forms of productive capital are constantly being created.
It becomes possible for every person to
own a share of newly created capital, individually or jointly in free
association with others. There is,
however, not enough land and natural resources for everyone to have an
exclusive ownership stake as a sole proprietor.
In that case, instead of mandating public ownership — which abolishes
private property — it would be more consistent with a personalist orientation
to make land and natural resources jointly owned by everyone in the community.
In the case of “joint ownership,” every person could have a defined private property stake by owning a share of the whole, without necessarily identifying which part of the whole belongs to each person. Corporations and cooperatives are owned in this manner, as were the so-called Commons, with each resident having the defined right to, e.g., graze a certain number of animals or gather a certain amount of fuel.