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Six hundred years later, the growth of capitalism has called forth a militant socialism in reaction.  Its call for the abolition of all private property by the state incites Leo XIII to respond with the encyclical Rerum Novarum, inaugurating the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching.  At the center of this document is a full-blown attack on socialism, based on a sturdy defense of the right of private property, a right that Leo feels the need to affirm more strongly than Aquinas did.  While seeking (and no doubt perceiving himself) to be in line with Thomist teaching, Leo comes close to simply rooting the right of property in nature, in a way that Thomas never does.  He does this by importing a Lockean metaphysical account of property, suggesting that a right to private property simply arises out of one’s labor upon that property.  It is worth attending carefully to how he constructs his justification and how it differs from Aquinas’s.


According to Matthew Habiger, Leo’s case for private property is based on four main arguments.  First, “property is man’s wages in another form,” an argument that Leo develops in paragraph 5 of the encyclical, saying, “It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own.”  The worker ought to be free to dispose of his wages as he sees fit, and this means he should be free to buy property as he desires.  This argument seems to be a bit of a petitio principii, since, if private property is illegitimate, the mere fact that a worker wants to use his wages to acquire it can scarcely make it legitimate; Leo’s main point in this argument seems to be to convince the socialists that, on a pragmatic level, their proposals to help workers will actually make life worse for workers.  It is worth remembering this appeal to the importance of the worker’s freedom, because it will resurface in Belloc in a much stronger form.

In paragraph 6, Leo moves on to what he sees as the crux of the issue: “What is of far greater moment, however, is the fact that the remedy they propose is manifestly against justice. For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own.”  His second and third arguments are elaborations of this appeal to nature.  Habiger summarizes the second, “Of all animals, only man can plan for future needs.  He therefore has a right to permanent possession” (developed in RN 6-7), and the third, “Man’s cultivation of nature entitles him to possess that which he cultivates” (developed in RN 9-10).  I will return to these in a moment, as they deserve to be considered in careful detail. 

Leo considers these arguments of justice to be conclusive, saying (perhaps a bit pompously) “So strong and convincing are these arguments that it seems amazing that some should now be setting up anew certain obsolete opinions in opposition to what is here laid down” (10).  Nevertheless, he adds one more pragmatic argument, which Habiger summarizes, “Man, as a father, must provide for those he has begotten.  Property enables him to do so with security” (developed in RN 12-13).  This argument does not seem to hold much water on its own, since the socialists might well reply that under their system, each family would be provided for with much more security and reliability than private property would allow, and each father could rest assured that his offspring were taken care of.  Although Leo seems to state very strongly that each father has the obligation to himself provide, out of his own resources, for the needs of his family (“It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten” [13]), it is unclear why this must necessarily be the case.  The main burden of Leo’s defense of private property, then, falls on his second and third arguments, from nature and justice. 

The first of these is recognizably Thomistic, though it has changed significantly from its original use.  Leo appeals to the rational nature of man, unique among animals in his ability to plan for the future, and to administer this world’s goods, by his reason and will, for his present and future needs.  “And on this very account--that man alone among the animal creation is endowed with reason--it must be within his right to possess things not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living things do, but to have and to hold them in stable and permanent possession” (6).  Jose María Díez-Alegría points out that, in arguing from man’s reason to his right of possession, Leo seems here to be following Aquinas’s argument from articulus 1: “Whether it is lawful for man to possess external things.”  However, whereas for Aquinas this argument established the right of mankind in general to possess external things (prior to consideration of the issue of private property), for Leo, this shows that “every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own” (6, emphasis mine).  This marks a “seriously erroneous interpretation” of Aquinas’s argument, and loses much of the logical coherence of the original. 

The next argument has nothing in common with Aquinas, as it seeks to justify private property on metaphysical, rather than social, grounds, following closely in the footsteps of Locke.  Indeed, the echoes of Locke are hardly subtle: 
Now, when man thus turns the activity of his mind and the strength of his body toward procuring the fruits of nature, by such act he makes his own that portion of nature's field which he cultivates - that portion on which he leaves, as it were, the impress of his personality; and it cannot but be just that he should possess that portion as his very own, and have a right to hold it without any one being justified in violating that right. (9)
One wonders whether this argument actually proves rather more than Leo would wish to, for by saying that ownership of a thing arises directly and automatically from the application of one’s labor to it (“As effects follow their cause, so is it just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor” [10]), he would seem to undermine the whole capitalist arrangement, in which the laborer is always bestowing his labor on things that remain the property of the capital owner.  He does not seem aware, however, of the tensions that arise from his application of a metaphysically-determined property right to a system governed by socially-determined property rights.  Distributism, indeed, might fit more comfortably with Leo’s arguments than the capitalist arrangement he basically accepts.

Although Leo appeals to the Thomistic distinction between common use and private ownership, quoting Thomas directly in paragraph 22 regarding the duty that every man has to use his possessions for the common good of all, he significantly alters the relationship between the two.  We can see this clearly in paragraph 8: 
The fact that God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race can in no way be a bar to the owning of private property. For God has granted the earth to mankind in general, not in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they like, but rather that no part of it was assigned to any one in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man's own industry, and by the laws of individual races.  
This seems intended as something of a restatement of Aquinas’s argument in a. 2 ad 1, regarding the senses in which the natural law does and does not prescribe common ownership, but, as already discussed above, it basically removes the caesura that Aquinas has carefully placed between the natural law and the institution of private property.  

Aquinas resolutely affirms (whatever his remaining ambiguities) that the right of private property does not arise directly from nature, but is the product of a natural state of common ownership that has been subsequently modifed by social arrangements resulting from prudent deliberation, and can be justified only on the basis of its social value.  Leo, on the contrary, has made himself quite clear in stating that the right of private property is given directly by nature, and holds irrespective of its social value (though Leo does seek to  bolster his case with arguments from social value).  Habiger affirms that this is Leo’s intent, and demonstrates moreover that it was the intent of the two main drafters of the document: “It is clear from the final redaction of Rerum Novarum, approved by Pope Leo XIII, and from the thought of the two theologians who composed the earlier drafts of the document, that the right (or principle) of private property is established by a direct appeal to the natural law....The foundation of the right is located ultimately in the natural law.”  Habiger indeed tries repeatedly to show, contra Leo’s critics, that this is no departure from Thomas’s teaching, but is simply a different emphasis.  He reads Aquinas as rooting private property in the natural law: “Already we see that St. Thomas would hold that private property is an enhancement of the natural law principle of common property, made necessary by man’s Fall, and is a permanent, although derived secondary principle in man’s post-lapsarian condition.” 

Even if Habiger’s reading of Thomas is correct, however, and Aquinas does make private property a “derived principle,” the derivation is quite different from Leo’s, since Aquinas derives it from man’s obligations to other men, to effectively facilitate the common use of property, while Leo roots it in man himself, and his relationship to the world.  Common use is thus severely marginalized in Leo’s account, and there is no hint of Aquinas’s suggestion that private property ceases to be justified if it ceases to serve common use. 

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