Still traveling, so I haven't had the opportunity to write up anything new, but I thought that, since I've been saying for so long in comments, "Oh, I discuss this at more length in the papers I'm writing" I should post those papers, now that they're done. I must confess that they don't include much of what I claimed they would, because there's this abominable 5,000-word limit at University of Edinburgh that O'Donovan thinks is complete rubbish. But, all that can be saved for another day. So, first, the paper on Catholic Theories of Property--this post will include the introduction and section on Aquinas.
For western Christians living after Fukuyama’s fabled “end of history”--the demise of communism and triumph of capitalism--it is easy to feel as if the problem of private property is not a problem at all. All sides of the political spectrum, whatever their differences, would agree that private property is good and necessary, and that, on the whole, we have succeeded in assuring adequate access to it in our societies (though conservatives would gripe that it is not sufficiently free from government predation, and liberals would implore us to make it more a reality for the lower strata of society). But in Christian history, it started as quite a serious problem, with many Church Fathers denying the legitimacy of private property altogether. In the Middle Ages, theologians developed a more nuanced view, influentially crystallized by Thomas Aquinas, who affirmed the good of private property, but made it subordinate to the right of common use.
The gradual growth of capitalism over the ensuing centuries, favoring increasingly unrestricted private property rights, finally incited a radical reaction back towards the abolition of private property, in the form of socialism and communism, in the 19th-century. Within the Catholic tradition, this evoked fresh reflection on the question of private property, and a particular urgency to unequivocally justify it against these new threats, as we see in Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Leo, however, achieved this unequivocal justification at the cost of theological coherence and of loyalty to the tradition, particularly on the priority of common use and the relationship of private property to the natural law. In the early 20th-century, an intriguing new current of Catholic social thought emerged in the form of Distributism, propounded by the English writers G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. They radicalized Rerum Novarum’s somewhat superficial critique of capitalism and socialism and articulated more clearly the importance of private property, but in the process lost sight of theological criteria and the principle of common use altogether.
In this essay, I propose to compare these two modern forms of Catholic reflection on property rights to Thomas Aquinas’s account of private property in the Summa Theologiae. I will argue that, although Distributism in particular highlights some key issues that are insufficiently present in Aquinas, both Leo and Belloc’s arguments manifest troubling capitulations to modern, non-theological paradigms, undermining their ability to critically engage the dangers of modern economic rationality. Moreover, I will suggest that their departures from the Thomist tradition are ultimately unnecessary to meet the threats they perceive, as this tradition possesses adequate resources for a response to the social problems of both capitalism and socialism. Although a full account of property ethics would involve a number of other issues, in this brief essay, I will limit myself to the questions “Is private property legitimate and desirable? If so, on what basis and for what ends?”
To understand Aquinas’s answer, we should first understand the two traditions to which he seeks to do justice. The early Church Fathers are full of statements which seem deeply hostile to the institution of private property, and, although we may make allowances for rhetorical exaggeration, there is little doubt that the Patristic era essentially viewed private property as, at best, a deeply ambiguous imposition upon the natural state of common ownership (a teaching derived from the ancient Stoics). Aristotle, on the other hand, had offered a much stronger endorsement of private property, and by the thirteenth-century, his thought was gaining a great deal of authority in Western Christendom. Aquinas thus faced the dilemma of reconciling, on the one hand, a long Christian teaching on the unnaturalness of private possession, and, on the other hand, an Aristotelian insistence on its naturalness, together with the testimony of practical experience that showed the prudence of such an institution.
His solution was to affirm, with the Christian tradition, that the natural law prescribed common ownership, while arguing that it did not thereby proscribe private ownership. Private ownership, then, although not natural, was not thereby unnatural; rather, it was a legitimate and (perhaps) necessary development and augmentation of the natural law. He arrives at this solution by means of a number of subtle distinctions, which I will seek to carefully spell out.
First, in article 1 of the question on property, Aquinas establishes that it is lawful “for man [speaking of mankind in general] to possess external things” (art.). Although only God can have dominion over the world and its fruits in terms of their nature, yet he has given to mankind the right to exercise dominion over them “with regard to the use of them” (resp.). This natural right exists in virtue of man’s reason, the divine image in him, by which “he is able to make use of external things to his own advantage” (resp.).
This, however, is an entirely distinct question from “Whether it is lawful for anyone to possess something as his own,” (art. 2) that is, the question of private property. Here, he invokes a further distinction to resolve the problem--between “use” and “the power to procure and dispose” (potestas procurandi et dispensandi), which we could call “administration” for short. The use of external things is given to all men in common, and yet, in order that the goal of common use may be best achieved, it is generally more effective that individuals be given the right, or perhaps better, the responsibility, to administer a certain portion of the world’s goods for their own use and that of others. Aquinas gives three reasons for this: 1) the tendency towards laziness and abdication when working on something commonly possessed, 2) the confusion that results from the attempt at common administration, and 3) the quarrels that result when each tries to claim his just share of the common property. In view of these practical concerns, he argues that “it is necessary to human life” to allow a private right of disposition, while keeping the use of external things common, “that is, in such a way that he [the owner] is ready to share them with others in the event of need” (resp.).
In this account, since the common use of the earth’s goods is according to natural law, common use has priority over private disposition, and the latter exists to serve the former. For this reason, private property cannot be justified in itself, but only insofar as it serves as a means to facilitate common use. According to John Finnis, the justications for particular property rights are based on “general justice”--the advantages they will bring to the whole community. Private property is “derivatory and secondary” right, with “the obligation to realize the primary purpose of property, namely, use,” (96) according to Parel, who even says, “if there is conflict between use and ownership, there was no doubt in Aquinas’ mind which should prevail.”
But how exactly does this “derivatory” right of private possession relate to the common possession given in natural law? Aquinas carefully states that common possession is natural not in the sense that the natural law
dictates that all things should be possessed in common and that nothing should be possessed as one’s own, but because the division of possessions is not according to natural right, but, rather, according to human agreement, which belongs to positive right, as stated above. Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to natural right; rather, it is an addition to natural right derived by human reason (a. 2 ad 1).
It is possible to read this in at least two crucially differing senses. On the one hand, one can read “the division of possessions” as meaning “any division of possessions, as opposed to the initial common ownership.” On this reading, Aquinas is saying that the fact of private property does not arise from nature, but from contingent, pragmatic arrangements that human societies may make, which are nevertheless, insofar as they serve common use, legitimate augmentations of natural right. Parel, taking this reading, goes so far as to say that property right “is to be sought rather in historical conditions which vary from time and place and culture....But this is something for the times, for the cultures, and the good legislators to determine.” If we take this reading, then private property rights are derived from the natural law only in the same sense that, say, legal penalties for adultery are; they can be prescribed based on rational application of the natural law to particular circumstances, but they are not part of it. In other words, private property is permitted (and in practice, generally very desirable), but not mandated.
On the other hand, one can read “the division of possessions” as meaning “any particular schema for dividing up possessions at a particular time and place,” such that it is only such particular arrangements that are not “according to natural right, but, rather, according to human agreement.” Presumably, then, on this interpretation, the general fact of divided possessions is not merely a matter of human agreement, but is, in some sense, according to natural right. On this reading (taken by Leo in Rerum Novarum, as we shall see shortly), private property is still not a primary postulate of the natural law (it is clear that, for Aquinas, it is not), but is still, as it were, part of the natural law as a “derived principle.” An example of such a derived principle might be “Whosoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed.” For Aquinas, such a principle, although not straightforwardly given in the natural law, can be deduced from it as a necessary consequence, not a historically contingent application, and this is how Leo and his followers want to read Aquinas on property. In other words, private property is mandated by the natural law.
It is not easy to adjudicate between these two interpretations. The former, while it seems to square with Aquinas’ emphasis on the priority of common ownership (which is reduced to little more than a cipher in the latter reading), runs into the problem that Aquinas speaks of division into private property as “necessary to human life,” not, as Parel does, as “something for the times, for the cultures, and the good legislators to determine.” The latter, while it does justice to the idea of private property as a necessary augmentation of the natural law, makes Aquinas’s statement in ad 1 terribly banal--did Aquinas really mean to state the obvious fact that “natural right does not itself determine the specific property arrangements for any given time and place”? The ambiguity here, it should be pointed out, is not unique to this issue, but resides in the ambiguous role that the ius gentium (in which private property seems clearly to belong for Aquinas) plays in Aquinas’s thought, as a sort of middle axiom linking natural law and positive law. In any case, we can probably safely say that Parel’s interpretation is rather too weak, and Leo’s certainly too strong.
Moreover, we can say this much with certainty about Aquinas’s view of the right of private possession, distinguishing it in crucial ways from some later theories: unlike the general right of man’s possession of the earth, the right of private possession does not derive from anything inherent in the nature of the world, or man’s relationship with it, but from the requirements of the common good arising from man’s relationship with other men. As John Finnis puts it,
The moral or juridical relationships to such an entity that we call property rights are relationships to other people. They are matters of interpersonal justice. Arguments for founding property rights on alleged ‘metaphysical’ relationships between persons and the things with which they have ‘mixed their labour’, or to which craftsmen have ‘extended their personality’, are foreign to Aquinas.