Getting Rights Wrong

In his book The Victory of Reason (which I scathingly reviewed last year on my old blog), Rodney Stark provides a first-class exhibit of how hopelessly confused moderns are on the issue of property rights.  Moderns–perhaps especially modern Christians–tend to slide unstably back-and-forth from pragmatic defenses of private property (it’s essential for prosperity and good order in society), which treat private property as the product of a good legal system, and natural-rights defenses, which treat it as a sacred and fundamental God-given right that must be protected for its own sake.  Although this distinction was recognized as crucial by everyone from Cicero to John Locke, Stark seems paradigmatic of our modern Christian wannabe-economists in being simply unable to recognize the difference.

He begins his discussion of property rights with the familiar assertion, “The Bible takes property rights for granted.” (78)  He then narrates that the early Church regrettably considered private property to exist only as a result of sin, before crediting St. Augustine (incorrectly, as it turns out–Augustine shared the Patristic consensus) for regarding private property “as a natural condition.” 

“By late in the eleventh century,” he goes on, “the writer known only as Norman Anonymous wrote in one of his influential tracts that private property is a human right: ‘God made poor and rich from one and the same clay; poor and rich are supported on one and the same earth.  It is by human right that we say ‘My estate, my house, my servant.’” (78)  In this passage, Stark commits such an elementary misreading that it is hard not to laugh at the poor fellow’s expense, as he anachronistically imports the very modern notion of “human rights” into an altogether different argument.  The Norman Anonymous’s claim is precisely the opposite–that private property is a matter of the ius humana (“human right” or “human law”), in contrast to the ius naturale (“natural right” or “natural law”); it exists only by the agreement of human society.  This is in contrast to the natural state described in the first sentence of the quote (which makes no sense on Stark’s reading), in which the earth belongs equally to poor and rich alike.  

Stark goes on to cite scholastic authorities John of Paris, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas, all arguing that private property was “instituted” for “the convenience and utility of man” (79)–all three authorities are making pragmatic human-law arguments, not natural-right arguments; he states correctly that Aquinas considered private property to be “in accord with natural law,” but ignores the other side of Aquinas’s nuanced position–that it was not by natural law, but could be instituted as a legitimate outworking of natural law.   

Finally, he moves straight to the Lockean-libertarian application, citing William of Ockham in favor of the conclusion “that since it is a right that precedes the laws imposed by any sovereign, rulers cannot usurp or arbitrarily seize the property of those over whom they rule.  A sovereign can infringe on private property only when ‘he shall see that the common welfare takes preference over private interest’.” (79)  Again, Stark’s quote works against his interpretation.  Ockham, in line with his predecessors, is merely asserting that a ruler cannot override private property at his personal whim; of course, says Ockham, since private property is instituted by society to serve society’s interests (a Franciscan like Ockham would never grant that it was a “right that precedes the laws”), any private right to property to property can be overridden when the “common welfare” demands.  

 

A reading this careless shouldn’t have passed a freshman philosophy class, and yet somehow it passes muster in an acclaimed book of economic history, enthusiastically blurbed by modern Catholic leaders like Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel.  So far have we fallen out of touch with our tradition, that we don’t blink an eye when someone stands it on its head.


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