“Thou Shalt Not Steal” (The Problem of Private Property, Part Two)

In Christian circles, if ever any question is raised which seems to constitute an attack on private property (as almost any attempt to critically discuss the subject seems to PP’s jumpy defenders), the response is likely to go something like this: 

“Well, the Bible speaks very strongly and highly of the importance and legitimacy of private property.  (Often at this point, the very peculiar language of a “sacred right” or a “sacred institution” is used.)  A defense of private property is built right into the Ten Commandments, with “Thou shalt not steal,” and the rest of the laws show a great concern for the rights of property-holders.  God’s approval of private property is further demonstrated by the approbation given to so many wealthy men throughout the Scriptures–from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to Job and Solomon to Joseph of Arimathea, Barnabas, and Lydia.  In the New Testament, Jesus and the Apostles never call the institution into question, but on the contrary, they presuppose it and bolster it, whether through parables that feature wealthy landlords, or through the case of Ananias and Saphira, where Peter tells them that they were completely free to sell or keep their lands as they saw fit (Acts 4:4).”

Now, to those accustomed to take the institution of PP for granted (which is to say, almost every modern western Christian), this argument seems amply satisfactory.  But a closer look at the components of this case shows that they prove very little of what they are called upon to prove.  In this post, I’ll address the eighth commandment, and in a following post, the rest of this argument.

“Thou Shalt Not Steal”

It is first worth remarking in passing that this commandment does not come at the very beginning of our Bibles.  We have a fairly clear example of PP ownership as far back as Abraham, though no earlier, and this is the first normative reflection on the subject.  In the fourth installment of this series, I will return to look at how we might go about filling in this lacuna–that is to say, how PP fits into the very earliest bits of the narrative–Creation, Fall, and all that.  

But for now, what does the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” give us?  Does it provide an account of the origin of PP?  The basis for it?  The conditions of its legitimacy?  Does it tell us whether PP is the only appropriate system for property, whether it is a biblically mandated institution?  Does it tell us whether PP is an imprescriptible right, or merely one “right” among others, which under various circumstances should be constrained or even abolished in favor of other considerations?  Unfortunately, I don’t think we can resist the conclusion, once we turn to really consider it, that it does none of these things.  All that it tells us, in fact, is that in a society where there is a settled system of property rights (which, as Jeremy Waldron points out, does not necessarily mean a PP system–there are a number of different non-PP systems of property rights), it is wrong to take it upon oneself to violate such rights, unilaterally appropriating for oneself what is considered the property of another.  Put this way, it seems that theoretically, the eighth commandment might indeed offer no endorsement of PP, but merely to tell us how we ought to act if we find ourselves under such an arrangement–much like a command to pray for our enemies and persecutors.  

Of course, I think that such a reading would be much too weak, if we are to take the Decalogue seriously at all as a sort of compendium of natural law.  After all, we wouldn’t want to find ourselves arguing that “Thou shalt commit adultery” tells us no more than that, should we happen to live in a society that establishes and expects stable faithful marriage relationships, we ought to refrain from transgressing those bonds.  Just as we would like to take the seventh commandment as a statement of the intrinsic importance of fidelity to an intrinsically important bond, in which the distinction between my spouse and your spouse is not merely one of convention, but part of God’s intention for human life, so it seems we would want to take the eighth as establishing that God favors an ordered system of property rights in which it is wrong to unilaterally ignore the distinction between mine and thine.  

However, this comparison does not quite so easily solve our problems.  When we consider what the institution of marriage involved in ancient Israelite society, we will quickly see that it involved some rather dramatic differences from our conception of marriage.  Marriage did not need to be monogamous, did not depend on the consent of the two parties, did not involve equal legal standing for both parties, but was a very asymmetric relation in which the husband had many powers over his wife that we would consider tantamount to property rights, etc.  It will readily be seen that similar problems attend the concept of PP.  The seventh commandment establishes the existence of something called marriage that it is wrong to transgress, and the eighth establishes the existence of something called property that it is wrong to transgress, but in and of themselves, they don’t get us that much further than that.  

With marriage and adultery, indeed, we are able to say rather more than that, because Scripture as a whole has a great deal more to say, addressing almost all of the questions we put to the eighth commandment above–its origin, basis, conditions of legitimacy, normative status, circumstances when it can be dissolved, etc.  We are given to understand from very early on the rationale for marriage, and its place in the divine plan for the human race.  We could say something very similar, indeed, about the fifth and sixth commandments–they rest on a very deep and wide biblical foundation of teaching about why parents are important and why murder is wrong.  But to point this out is to highlight just how little is said on similar questions about private property.  Indeed, with the eighth commandment, we are perhaps on ground more similar to that of the ninth commandment–we are given to understand that lying is wrong, but the Bible gives us precious little guidance as to exactly how wrong, or when it might be legitimate, leaving us with an interminable maze of ethical dilemmas on the subject.  

Of course, someone might offer the rejoinder that the eighth commandment does not come to us in a vacuum at all, but in a context of quite extensive discussion of property rights and duties in Exodus through Deuteronomy.  But to point this out is simply to confirm my contention that an appeal to “Thou shalt not steal” helps very little in trying to vindicate private property rights in the modern, post-Enlightenment sense.  For the various laws surrounding property in the Pentateuch do not really enshrine a private property system, so much as one in which the various families of Israel each hold a plot of land from Yahweh as perpetual tenants.  As such, they have a great many constraints on their property “rights”; for instance, the right of alienability, absolutely fundamental to our conception of property rights, is very attenuated.  The system thus functions somewhat like a collective property system, and also has many elements of a common property system, such as of course gleaning laws, tithes, etc.  

(Note: this way of conceiving things offers a helpful and very elucidating corrective to the way I was trying to sort through Pentateuchal property law in my work at the beginning of this year.  Before, I was assuming all along that we were dealing with a private property system, and then trying to make sense of exactly how the various constraints might operate, and how they could in fact be legal constraints.  Jeremy Waldron’s book, however (plus a little help from The Hebrew Republic) has provided the necessary conceptual clarification–there is no pure unitary concept of private property to which all systems must conform, and so there is no need to try to conceive the Israelite system in those terms from the start.)

Moreover, it is worth remarking, as Patrick Miller is keen to point out in his article on the Ten Commandments in the book Having: An Account of Property and Possession in Religious and Social Life, that most of the specifications of the eighth commandment in the Torah, and hence it would seem the eighth commandment itself, are aimed more to protect the “have-nots” (that is to say, the relatively impoverished) against the “haves”, than to protect the haves against the have-nots.  Whatever our protestations to the contrary, modern defences of private property generally have the tenor of a protection of the haves against the have-nots.

On balance, then, the appeal to “Thou shalt not steal,” the cornerstone of the standard Christian response to challenges to PP, goes very little way toward answering the needs of a theory of private property.  It does not tell us why there should be private property, whence a private property system derives, how one justly becomes a private property owner and under what circumstances one’s ownership rights must be abridged, etc.  Indeed, it does not even establish a private property system per se, and in the context of the Torah, it seems intended to undergird a mixed system of property ownership that corresponds only partially to what we would intend by “private property.” 

3 thoughts on ““Thou Shalt Not Steal” (The Problem of Private Property, Part Two)

  1. The appeal to the Decalogue is particularly tenuous since what can be proved from the Decalogue is that there is a difference between my property and thine. But it is used to prove there is a difference between my property and ours. When we are seen as individuals, my bike is mine, and not yours. So much the Decalogue can establish. But it does not say anything about what sort of thing ownership is in the society. But PP is a claim about what sort of thing ownership is in the society. Even a flat out communist, who believes nothing belongs to the individual, can assert theft is wrong.


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Donny, you always want to grab onto things. You must be a capitalist–grabby grabby grabby. But I've learned that it's dangerous to make my posts too grabbable, so I go out of my way to make them slippery. Sorry. ;-)Matt,Thanks, good point. I was gesturing at this particular line of argument when I said, "All that it tells us, in fact, is that in a society where there is a settled system of property rights (which, as Jeremy Waldron points out, does not necessarily mean a PP system–there are a number of different non-PP systems of property rights), it is wrong to take it upon oneself to violate such rights, unilaterally appropriating for oneself what is considered the property of another." The quote from Waldron, which I was alluding to, was this: “Some jurists give the impression that by making out a case for the establishment of some system of settled rules about material objects, they have thereby refuted socialism. This is a mistake. A socialist system, as much as a system of private property, is a system of rules governing access to and control of material objects. A case for private property must relate to what is distinctive about this type of system, and not merely to the concept of property rules, something to which socialists and capitalists have a common commitment. Marx, for example, regarded it as obvious that all forms of society require some system of property: ‘That there can be no such thing as production, nor, consequently, society, where property does not exist in any form, is a tautology. . . . But it becomes ridiculous when from that one jumps at once to a definite form, e.g. private property.’”To appeal to the eighth commandment in isolation is to do no more than to make out a clear case "for the establishment of some system of settled rules about material objects"–which simply doesn't logically entail PP.


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