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, January 10, 2024

The Framework of Economic Justice: Restoration of Private Property

Today’s blog posting is adapted from the book, Economic Personalism, which you can get free from the CESJ website, or from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

As we saw in the previous postings on this subject, widespread private property in capital is essential to a just society.  That of course raises the question as to what private property is.


Every person absolutely has the natural right to acquire and possess property. As a corollary, each person’s absolute right to be an owner necessarily implies that an individual owner’s exercise of the rights of ownership must be limited, as there would be chaos if every owner tried to exercise his rights without regard to the rights of others. In general, an owner must exercise his ownership in a manner befitting the demands of human dignity and the common good as a whole.

As ownership and control have been separated in many instances throughout the world today, restoration of the rights of private property, especially in corporate equity, is an essential pillar of an economically just society. Owners’ rights in private property are fundamental to any just economic order, as the popes have pointed out. Property secures personal choice, and, as John Locke observed, is the key safeguard of all other human rights.

Louis O. Kelso


Property is not the possession itself, but the natural right to be an owner, and the socially determined and limited bundle of rights and powers that owners have in their relationships to their possessions. Where society wants to de-monopolize access to ownership and profits in the nation’s productive enterprises, it must also restore the original personal rights of property in the means of production. As Louis O. Kelso put it, “Property in everyday life, is the right of control” as well as enjoyment of the income. (Louis O. Kelso, “Karl Marx: The Almost Capitalist,” American Bar Association Journal, March 1957; Belloc, Restoration of Property, op. cit., 16-17. Cf. Rev. Matthew Habiger, O.S.B., Ph.D., Papal Teachings on Private Property, 1891-1981. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1990.)

Under socialism, the goal is to abolish private property in capital. By destroying private property, however, justice is denied. Without private property there is no means to empower the individual economically. Private property is the individual’s link to the economic process in the same way that the secret ballot is his link to the political process. When either is absent, the individual is disconnected or alienated from the process — from his milieu, his natural environment.


Restoring the idea as well as the fact of private property involves the reform of laws that prohibit or inhibit acquisition and possession of private property. This would include ensuring that all owners, including shareholders, are vested with their full rights to participate in control of their productive property, to hold management accountable through shareholder representatives on the corporate board of directors, and to receive profits commensurate with their ownership stakes.

Owners’ rights of private property are the economic equivalent of the ballot for creating an effective economic democracy within a competitive free enterprise system. That is why ownership was included in Article 17 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  (“Article 17: (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.”)

Restoring owners’ full rights in private property results in securing personal choices and economic self-determination for every citizen. It links income distribution to economic participation, not only by present owners of existing assets, but also by new owners of future wealth.

Pope Leo XIII


As nearly all the popes from Leo XIII to Francis have asserted, people should control what is owned and enjoy the income it generates. We must own, not be owned. “A working man’s little estate . . . should be as completely at his full disposal as are the wages he receives for his labor. But it is precisely in such power of disposal that ownership obtains, whether the property consist of land or chattels.” (Rerum Novarum, § 5. A “chattel” is a non-landed piece of property or a fixture thereto.  In context, “disposal” refers to control and enjoyment of the income.)

This brings us back to the importance to social justice of the monetary and tax reforms for which Louis Kelso called as an integral part of his expanded capital ownership proposal. Without the financially feasible and morally just way of financing expanded capital ownership that Kelso contributed to the discussion, Catholic social teaching would always have remained just talk, and socialism would be the only recourse — and a rather hopeless one.

Louis O. Kelso


Once, however, we are freed from what Kelso called the “slavery of [past] savings” imposed by reliance on the flawed principles of mainstream economics, especially that of Keynes, new possibilities open up. It becomes possible to escape the trap in which the human race has ensnared itself, and work toward the establishment and maintenance of an economically (and thus politically) just society.

The process involves conforming ourselves as far as possible to the natural law based on God’s Nature self-realized in His Intellect and discernible by human reason. At the same time, we must apply the precepts of the law to our institutions to make the task of conforming ourselves to the law not so much easier, per se, as the most advantageous or optimal behavior of reasonable beings striving to become virtuous within a justly structured social order.

By applying the precepts of the natural law, especially in regard to private property in capital, we have both the necessary personal orientation and the social principles to develop a personalist economic program. This would empower people economically and foster respect for the dignity and sovereignty of the human person under God.

The question then becomes which specific institutions need to be targeted for immediate reform and as the objects of acts of social justice.