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April 27, 2010


Within the few decades following the publication of Rerum Novarum, the dominance of capitalism and the threat of militant socialism remain, but the alternatives become somewhat clearer.  By the time Hilaire Belloc is writing The Servile State in 1913, and certainly by his Essay on the Restoration of Property in 1936, it has become clear that socialism does not mean, as Leo perhaps still imagined, the abolition of property ownership, but rather, the concentration of property ownership in the hands of the state.  Belloc is thus able to recognize socialism not as the opposite of capitalism, but simply as an essentially pragmatic development of the same impulse, underlying industrial capitalism, of centralizing control of the means of production.  Hence, in contrast to Leo, Belloc believes the situation calls a defense, not of private ownership in the abstract against common ownership, but of well-distributed private ownership against concentrated ownership--it is empty, in his mind, to defend the right of private property if only a small sliver of the population are to enjoy that right.  It is worth noting also that, perhaps due to his English setting, he does not want to explicitly situate himself in the Catholic tradition, though we can surmise that it lies in the background of his thought.

Like both Aquinas and Leo, Belloc’s endorsement of private property combines aspects of an appeal to nature and to practical considerations, but the form of his argument has more in common with Aquinas than Leo: private property does not derive directly from nature, but the structure of nature is such that private property proves most beneficial to man.  The content of Belloc’s argument, however, has more in common with Leo, focusing more on the good of the individual possessor, rather than the benefits accruing to society as a whole, and bears the stamp of modernity in its consideration of “freedom” as a preeminent value.  Assuming, with Leo, the priority of the family as the basic economic unit, he focuses and provides a clear basis for Leo’s concern that each family be able to provide for itself.  “It is obvious that whoever controls the means of production controls the supply of wealth.  If, therefore, the means for the production of that wealth which a family needs are in the control of others than the family, the family will be dependent upon those others; it will not be economically free.”  He of course acknowledges that such pure freedom and independence is neither possible nor desirable, since man is a social animal, but he nevertheless thinks it importance that the family retain as much freedom as possible.  

But why?  Why is economic freedom important?  Because, it is needed to properly realize social and individual needs residing in man’s nature.  First, the social needs: “In its absence general culture ultimately fails and so certainly does citizenship.  The cells of the body politic are atrophied and the mass of men have not even, at last, an opinion of their own, but are moulded by the few who retain ownership of land and endowments and reserves.  So essential is property to full life.”  Second, the individual needs: 
"Now, there is discoverable in man, Freewill.  His actions are of moral value to him if they are undertaken upon his own initiative; not if they are undertaken upon compulsion.  Therefore the use of choice is necessary to human dignity....Next, economic freedom is a good because man’s actions are multiple, both his desires and his creative faculties; but it is only in the possession of economic freedom that this multiplicity can be effective."

This appeal has the basic structure of Aquinas’s justification of private property, resting not, as it were, on the esse of mankind, but on the bene esse of man’s life in the world.  It has not, then, as for Leo, the character of an a priori appeal to the nature of things, but a deductive application of the natural law to the current state of mankind.  

But the differences from Aquinas far eclipse the similarities.  The principle of common use, for Aquinas the foundation of all discussion of property, and for Leo still present as a restraint on private property, seems to have vanished entirely.  Belloc has lost faith in Thomas’s crucial distinction between administration and use--whereas Aquinas could be read as saying that some individuals or groups could justly administer the world’s goods for the benefit of all, Belloc argues forcefully that each family must have not just the use of that portion of the world’s goods that they need, but the power of administration to produce all that they need.  The basic problem then is not that industrial capitalism had failed to genuinely use private possessions for common use, though Belloc certainly thought it had; rather, for Belloc, common use is not enough, because man must have the power not merely to live, but to administer his life according to his own desires and with regard to his own interests.  This becomes clear in a crucial passage from The Servile State: “What distinguishes private property is not that the possessor thereof is less than the state, or is only a part of the state...but rather that the owner may exercise his control over it to his own advantage, and not as a trustee for society, nor in the hierarchy of political institutions.” Thus far has the fundamental value of capitalism triumphed over Belloc’s mind--that everyone ought to be able to use his own goods for his own advantage, not for others.  

Aquinas’s hierarchy of values has been inverted--potestas dispensandi, has, as it were, taken priority over usum--for Belloc, the fruits of the world do not exist primarily to enable man to provide for his material needs, but to enable him to realize his human dignity by giving him the power of disposing of them as he sees fit.  Of course, this may well provide a useful augmentation of the Thomist justification for private property: by highlighting its value not merely for society as a whole but also for developing the full moral character and dignity of the proprietor (which thus further benefits society), Belloc’s argument suggests that Aquinas should have attended not merely to the importance of the existence of private property, but also of its wide distribution.  However, Belloc shifts the emphasis so far that the value of freedom is at risk of trumping those of justice and charity, leaving distributism, unlike Thomism, able to say very little when it comes to questions of just use of property.

In conclusion, then, we have seen that both Leo and Belloc, responding to the threats of socialism and (particularly for Belloc) capitalism, alter the tenor of Catholic thinking on property by shifting the emphasis from the priority of common use to the priority of private proprietorship.  Leo does this by making private property a principle of the natural law, and thus justified a priori, rather than by virtue of its benefit to the rest of society, while Belloc does it by rooting the good of private property in its contribution to individual self-realization through freedom.  In both cases, the result is a gravely weakened and theologically impoverished account of the social function of property, and the obligations of justice that govern its use.  While Aquinas, though taking note of Aristotle, sought to subordinate him to the Christian moral tradition, Leo and Belloc both end up marginalizing any theological and Christian account of property in favor of values and premises drawn from philosophies outside the Christian tradition.  

Finally, these changes seem, in the end, basically unnecessary.  Could not Leo have adequately addressed the threat of socialism by reiterating the ways in which neither society as a whole nor the individual worker is well-served by destroying the right of private property?  Could not Belloc have augmented, without disregarding, Thomas’s statement of the social good of property by drawing attention to the benefits accruing to society when it is characterized by free proprietors rather than wage laborers?  In light of these considerations, an essentially Thomist stance regarding the ethics of property appears to remain the best alternative for a society attempting to cope with the fallout of industrial capitalism while avoiding the threats of socialism.  

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