A foundation for private property

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (CSD) provides no genuine solace for either of the two economic poles we are offered as alternatives today: socialism and capitalism. It is easy — for a conservative — to find and give a great Huzzah to what the CSD has to say in condemnation of socialism, but it is surprisingly easy for these same folks to ignore, overlook, or explain away its criticisms of capitalism. In at least one sense this is somewhat understandable and even forgivable, given that the CSD affirms the Seventh Commandment and its implicit defense of the legitimacy of private property. Unfortunately, these same folks often ignore what the Compendium has to say about the necessary limits and regulation of capitalism, and even sometimes appeal to the “laws” of economics in defense of their rejection of the CSD’s critique of an unfettered capitalism. Still others will deny that today’s free market is free at all, and assert that a genuinely free market would not suffer from the moral defects present in our markets. But the Compendium really gives no solace nor refuge to these defenses, because it presents an alternative foundation for economic life. That rule is repeated over and over throughout the book.

the universal destination of goods: ‘God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity’ (CSD §171, italics in original; boldface added).

The point to understand here is the definition of what the universal destination of goods actually is.

This principle is not opposed to the right to private property but indicates the need to regulate it. Private property, in fact, regardless of the concrete forms of the regulations and juridical norms relative to it, is in its essence only an instrument for respecting the principle of the universal destination of goods; in the final analysis, therefore, it is not an end but a means (CSD §177; emphasis added).

Private property, says the Compendium, is a means for achieving the end of the universal destination of goods. It must never be reckoned an end in itself. Part of what this means is implied in our first quotation above, from §171: the rights of private property must be tempered by charity. I do not have the right given to me by the Creator to accumulate as much of this world’s goods as I possibly can. I have the right to sufficient property to provide a decent living for myself. Beyond that, as the CSD quotes Pope St. Gregory the Great:

When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice. (CSD §184)

In short, the right to private property does not give me the right to more than my family and I need for a decent living. The rest belongs by right to the poor. Now of course one may fairly ask: what is a “decent living”? But on the flip side one may also ask: does a decent living consist in living in mean huts, eating dirt (as they do in Haiti), and being subject to exposure, starvation, and pestilence?

The right to private property is subordinated to the principle of the universal destination of goods and must not constitute a reason for impeding the work or development of others (CSD §282).

I suppose it is worth observing the obvious fact that the criticisms here apply to me no less than to most folks in the fabulously wealthy West. The question is not whether they apply to me or not; the question is: how do I respond to these criticisms? If I have more than I need for a decent living (and I daresay that I do), what am I going to do about it? The CSD provides a foundation (and even somewhat of a framework, really; but we have not looked at that) for answering the question. My surplus belongs by right to the poor.

The question I still have, and for which I remember no answer in the CSD is: what exactly constitutes a decent living? I am perfectly willing to live within such parameters, but what are they? I am sure that in a certain sense the question answers itself, at least in part. Whatever a decent living is, it is undeniable that a simply huge number of people in the world do not have it. So perhaps at least a part of the answer to the question is a follow-up question: why on earth am I worrying about that when there are people EATING DIRT in order to survive? Am I a dirt eater? If not, then maybe I need to think about just exactly how my resources are allocated.

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Posted in Rerum Novarum

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