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The Property Paradox

It has become fashionable recently in Christian capitalist circles to define capitalism along the lines of “an economic system based on respect for private property.” If this is what capitalism is, then of course we should defend it, right?

The chief objection to this is that it’s completely arbitrary and unhistorical. To define capitalism this way is to define it strictly in opposition to socialism and communism. But the problem is that socialism and communism arose as reactions to capitalism, not vice versa. Capitalism pre-dated the major challenges to the notion of private property, so how could capitalism’s essence be “a respect for private property” given that it arose in a setting where private property was taken for granted? Obviously the essence of capitalism is not a respect for private property, even if that may be a part of it.

But it turns out, that’s not even a part of it. Capitalism is the rejection, the destruction, of private property, at least for most of the population. So Hannah Arendt fascinatingly points out in The Human Condition. See, Arendt points out that property and wealth are simply not the same thing, as we tend to take for granted that we are. We’re obsessed with private wealth in the modern world, but private property is increasingly non-existent. “It is easy to forget,” she says, “that wealth and property, far from being the same, are of an entirely different nature. The present emergence everywhere of actually or potentially very wealthy societies which at the same time are essentially propertyless, because the wealth of any signle individual consists of his share in the annual income of society as a whole, clearly shows how little these two thigns are connected.”

Property, you see, is not simply any worldly good of value, but is one’s personal share of the productive capacity of the world, it is, in its most basic for, land, and historically speaking, was fairly fixed and inalienable. One was born into and died on one’s property; one did not constantly exchange it for other pieces of property. Wealth is something quite different; wealth is transient, consumable, and in itself unproductive. To have property was the basis for freedom, to lack it was to be a slave, even if one had a fair bit of wealth, as many slaves did.

Capitalism, as a simple historical fact, Arendt observes, has never been particularly interested in the value of private property, but in fact originated in the widespread expropriation of it, and is much more interested in the amassing of private wealth: “The enormous and still proceeding accumulation of wealth in modern society, which was started by expropriation--the expropriation of the peasant classes which in turn was the almost accidental consequence of the expropriation of Church and monastic property after the Reformation--has never shown much consideration for private property but has sacrificed it whenever it came into conflict with the accumulation of wealth.” Moreover, the central value of private property--its permanence--which made it the basis of freedom and security, is undermined within modern capitalism, which has seen “the progressing transformation of immobile into mobile property until eventually the distinction between property and wealth, between the fungibiles and the consumptibiles of Roman law, loses all significance because every tangible, “fungible” thing has become an object of “consumption”; it lost its private use value which was determined by its location and acquired an exclusively social value determined through its ever-changing exchangeability whose fluctuation could itself be fixed only temporarily by relating it to the common denominator of money.”

This account resonates with Hilaire Belloc’s thesis in The Servile State, which is that capitalism arose via the expropriation of the widely-distributed private property from small landholders into the hands of large landowners. By the beginning of the industrial revolution, there was already a small minority property-owning class and a large majority property-less class. Naturally, then, the course that industrial capitalism took was one in which industry was not cooperative, but was owned by a small capitalist class, which oversaw and increasingly exploited a large working class. (Arendt points out that the whole existence of the “working class” is a modern invention, and was unknown in antiquity and the Middle Ages, where the free man was not a mere laborer, but a property-owner who lived off the produce of his own capital.)

All this of course sheds tremendous light on the meaning of the Old Testament economic laws, which are usually thoroughly misunderstood when we try to read into them modern capitalist/socialist dichotomies of property ownership. On the one hand, capitalist Christians, convinced that what capitalism stands for is “private property,” look at the Torah and assume that the whole point of the laws is to insist upon private ownership of property, but then they don’t know what to do with all the redistribution, which seems kinda socialist. Liberals see all the redistribution, and assume that there’s a more communal understanding of property, but then they don’t know what to do with the emphasis that each family receives and holds his patrimony.

In light of Arendt and Belloc’s analysis, though, it becomes crystal clear. The Torah t is deeply concerned with protecting private property, but not private wealth per se. It understands that private property is necessary for freedom, but precisely for that reason, it resists the private right to the continual acquisition of property (which is what capitalism means by private property rights). Private property is so important that it must be safeguarded by redistribution; if a family is deprived of their property, their fixed piece of land, given by God for them to use for their own and the community’s benefit, then that property must be restored to them via the regular resetting processes of the sabbath year and Jubilee. This puts a tight lid on the process of wealth accumulation that tends to devour the stability of property, and the process of expropriation of property by the strong from the weak. In other words, private property is a necessary, but not a sufficient, cause of economic freedom and justice; careful regulation of the use and acquisition of that property is also necessary, lest one person’s property become a means of destroying another’s.


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