Any regular reader of Doug Wilson’s Blog and Mablog may have been surprised, yea, dismayed to read my recent post “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” not unreasonably (given some interactions with Wilson on the previous incarnation of this blog) imagining it to be a direct attack on Wilson’s post earlier this month, “Football Players or Pirates.” As it turns out, I just stumbled upon that post today, and can thus assure you that Wilson was in no way the target of my post, despite the remarkable parallels in what was discussed. I have always thought that attacking someone publicly without naming them was rather worse than doing it openly, so that is certainly not what I was up to. However, since some may have already noticed it, since the contradiction between our conclusions is quite striking, and since it affords me a good opportunity for reiterating the significant and relevant parts of my earlier post, I might as well interact explicitly with his post now.
Wilson starts off by insisting that this is all quite simple and straightforward: “I don’t believe in complicating economic discussion more than is necessary,” and then turns right to the eighth commandment as his prooftext: “The Bible requires some form of capitalist society in the basic commandment, ‘Thou shalt not steal.'” This command, he asserts, is enough to show that private property is divinely mandated: “This command presupposes the institution of private ownership — private property as a divine institution — and sets up a fundamental protection against assaults on the right to own property.” And then, remarkably enough, he goes on to fortify the case by drawing on the same analogy I did–the seventh commandment: “It does this in just the same way that the prohibition of adultery presupposes the institution of marriage. If marriage is just a “social construct” that our laws can redefine or abolish, then the same goes for adultery.”
Now, Wilson is not undertaking a detailed exegesis here, so perhaps it would be unfair to criticize him for being simplistic, but as he starts out by suggesting that it really is just that simple, it is worth reiterating why I just don’t think it is. First, a “private property” regime and “a capitalist society” are simply not the same thing. Believe it or not, most people who rail against capitalism till they’re blue in the face are not, on the whole, opposed to private property. In fact, those who could justly claim to be the most adamant anti-capitalists–the distributists–rail against it on the very basis that it is too hostile to private property. All kinds of private property arrangements have existed long before what we know as capitalism emerged, and the conception of private property that capitalism advocates is far from the only possible conception. Second, it still seems clear to me, that all that the eighth commandment, taken on its own, could prove is that it is wrong to violate the prevailing property rules, not that these must be private property rules. Third (as a corollary of the second point), while certainly appearing to permit and safeguard a private property arrangement, it does not seem at all evident that this commandment mandates one, as a “divine institution”–a phrase that is rather too rashly thrown around in political theology and ethics. Fourth, even if it did mandate a private property system, I am convinced by Jeremy Waldron’s argument that there are a variety of possible conceptions of that system. This being the case, it does not follow that the eighth commandment “sets up a fundamental protection against assaults on the right to own property”–since by this Wilson means, I take it, not an individual’s taking it upon himself to take another’s property, but a society’s attempt to place certain constraints on property rights in general. In fact, as I never tire of pointing out, subsequent chapters in Exodus go on to make what our society would consider fairly radical “assaults on the right to own property.”
The comparison to marriage, rather than strengthening the point, actually raises a further set of problems. First, it highlights why we can’t equate property as a “divine institution” with marriage as a “divine institution,” for the seventh commandment rests on an explicit divine act of institution that has no parallel in the case of the eighth. Genesis 2:21-24 provides about as clear-cut a “divine institution” as one could ask for, giving us a pretty straightforward answer to anyone who would claim that marriage was only a “social construct.” But if the first discussion of the subject we had was the seventh commandment, then I don’t know that we could be sure it wasn’t just a social construct. Perhaps in that case, all that the adultery commandment would mean was that, given that you live in a society that observes marriage boundaries, you shouldn’t trespass willy-nilly on those boundaries. And this is where we are left with the eighth commandment. There simply is no Genesis passage that says,
“And God saw that it was not good for man to be propertyless. So he took Adam to a plot of land, and mixed his labor with the soil, and presented the plot to Adam. And Adam said, ‘Sweat of my brow and labor of my hands! You shall be called “Adamsland” for you came out of Adam’s labor.’ Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and seek his fortune in the world, and it shall be his private property.”
Second, the example of marriage actually proves the role of social construction. For, as I mentioned in my previous post, the particularly understanding of what marriage involved, and the accompanying rights and boundaries, were dramatically different in Moses’ Israel than they are for us today. Presumably, even assuming that some kind of property regime, even private property regime, were a “divine institution,” we could expect equally dramatic variation in its particular form. Third, the analogy with marriage might well be taken as evidence of the optional-ness of private property. After all, the logical corollary of “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is not “Thou shalt get married.” Singleness is a perfectly appropriate option. So is propertylessness. Based on Wilson’s analogy, it would seem that at the very least, a Christian society should have as much room for mendicants as it has for celibates. Of course, it is perhaps then no coincidence that in American evangelicalism, the one ideal is mocked and marginalized almost as much as the other.
Perhaps all this may come across as “complicating economic discussion more than necessary,” but unfortunately in this case, such complication seems the only way to handle the text with integrity.