03 November, 2017

Is Private Property an Evil?


Roque Dalton, the Salvadoran Marxist poet and journalist (died 1975), wrote a poem, called in Spanish "Acta," rendered in English as "Act," which is a powerful indictment of economic injustice. The poem runs in part (as translated by Jack Hirschman):

In the name of those washing others' clothes
(and cleansing others' filth from the whiteness)
...
In the name of those living on others' land
(the houses and factories and shops
streets, cities and towns
rivers lakes volcanoes and mountains
always belong to others
and that's why the cops and the guards are there
guarding them against us)
In the name of those who have nothing but
hunger exploitation disease
a thirst for justice and water
persecutions and condemnations
loneliness abandonment oppression and death

I accuse private property
of depriving us of everything.

It is easy to understand why someone contemplating the immense discrepancy between the mansions of the rich and the hovels of the poor would consider private property itself as at the root of these injustices. "Capital," as Pope Pius XI wrote, "was long able to appropriate to itself excessive advantages. It claimed all the products and profits and left to the laborer the barest minimum necessary to repair his strength and to ensure the continuation of his class" (Quadragesimo Anno, no. 54). And such an unjust distribution of wealth persists in many places in the world - or even grows worse. In the United States, where a relatively more fair distribution of wealth and income was achieved in the 1950s and 60s, since the late 70s the percentage of income obtained by the richest 10% or even 1% has increased dramatically. As the same pontiff wrote, "not every kind of distribution of wealth and property among men is such that it can satisfactorily, still less adequately, attain the end intended by God..." (ibid., no. 57).

If the institution of private property exists for a purpose, "the end intended by God," then unjust concentrations of property on the part of the rich violate justice, harm the common good, distort the political process, and, in truth, are a powerful near occasion of sin to the wealthy themselves. But what remedy should we seek for this situation? To abolish private property? To "accuse private property of depriving us of everything"? That would be a bit like arguing that since some people have too many clothes and others not enough, we should abolish the private possession of clothing. No, there is a better way.

Distributists seek a more equitable distribution of property, not, as some of our critics appear to think, an absolutely equal distribution, which is neither desirable nor attainable. But a relatively more equal distribution, one that helps rather than hinders the purposes of property. For surely the purpose of private property is to facilitate the orderly fulfillment of the economic needs of the human race, not the amassing of wealth beyond anyone's reasonable needs. Private property must be subordinate to the common good of society, and our laws ought to favor the division of property and its acquisition by the poor.

Some of the ways that a more fair distribution of property could be achieved were sketched by Hilaire Belloc in his 1936 book, The Restoration of Property, and depending on circumstances, these methods are still valid. Another method important today is to equalize the economic power between those who wash others' clothes and cook others' meals and collect others' garbage, on the one hand, and on the other, those who control or hire them, those Pope Leo XIII characterized as "the party which holds the power because it holds the wealth; which has in its grasp all labor and all trade; which manipulates for its own benefit and its own purposes all the sources of supply, and which is powerfully represented in the councils of the State itself" (Rerum Novarum, no. 47).

Defenders of the economic status quo like to imagine that economic outcomes, such as vastly unequal distributions of wealth and income, are simply dictates of the so-called laws of economics. But this is not the case. It is not primarily such economic laws that have given some people control of wealth and labor and trade. Economic laws, which are reflections of certain more or less constant tendencies or proclivities of human beings, are real, certainly, but they always operate within a legal and a cultural framework, they are subject to manipulation by those who hold power, and rarely are they the most important factor at play in any given economic result. Those who wash clothes and clean hotel rooms generally work hard, but their hard work does not bring them riches, even after a lifetime of working. Why? Because they hold no economic power. Those who have economic power, their employers, essentially hold all the cards in determining wages. They are "the party which holds the power because it holds the wealth [and]...which manipulates for its own benefit and its own purposes all the sources of supply...." Pope Leo was well aware that power was one of the chief determinants of economic outcomes. That is why labor organization is such an important means for achieving something like equity in economic bargaining power as a means toward achieving a more just distribution of property, and why Leo lamented, at the beginning of Rerum Novarum, the destruction of the "ancient workmen's Guilds" (no. 3). The claim that labor distorts market processes misses the point, because any market always operates under some rules. Rules against force and fraud, for example, are no more natural or less arbitrary than are rules giving a voice to organized labor. The economy is not a self-existent entity that serves its own ends in isolation. It is part of the social order and must be subjected to the common good of the social order.

While the injustices that all too often are associated with private property are real and are to be deplored and eliminated, the remedy is not to abolish private ownership. If private property were abolished "the working man himself would be among the first to suffer" wrote Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (no. 4). It is not private property that is the enemy of justice or of the common good. It is the inequitable distribution of that property. Against such a distribution Catholic social doctrine proposes remedies, and distributists seek means to make these remedies more specific and to apply them to current conditions.

Of course, this is not to say that absolutely everything must be privately owned. Pope Pius XI justified state ownership in the following words. "For it is rightly contended that certain forms of property must be reserved to the State, since they carry with them an opportunity of domination too great to be left to private individuals without injury to the community at large" (Quadragesimo Anno, no. 114). Even more to the point is ownership by cooperative groups, such as worker-owned companies. In the Middle Ages most manorial farmland was cooperatively worked and was not the individual property of its cultivator. In fact, there have been many different systems of private property. To quote Pius XI once more:

History proves that the right of ownership, like other elements of social life, is not absolutely rigid, and this doctrine We Ourselves have given utterance to on a previous occasion in the following terms: "How varied are the forms which the right of property has assumed! First, a primitive form in use among untutored and backward peoples, which still exists in certain localities even in our own day; then, that of the patriarchal age; later came various tyrannical types (We use the word in its classical meaning); finally the feudal and monarchic systems down to the varieties of more recent times." (ibid., no. 49)

Let us not confuse Enlightenment notions of absolute ownership, such as can be found in John Locke, with Catholic teaching on private property. The seventh commandment is not a bulwark for the Lockean social order.

No one, no Catholic especially, should be unmoved by the cry against injustice that Roque Dalton makes. But let us not jettison what is good in order to guard against the abuse of that good. Private ownership, yes; injustice, no. Let that be our motto and cry against oppression.

Original image used for title by Mari Buckley licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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