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.

Blessed are the Poor? Poverty in the 16th Cent.

In chapter 2 (“The Rise of the Disciplinary Society”) of his magisterial A Secular Age, Charles Taylor offers a fascinating discussion of the contrast between medieval and early modern attitudes toward the poor.  The gist of his claim is that whereas in the Middle Ages, “there was an aura of sanctity around poverty,” in the early modern period, they came to be viewed as a nuisance and as basically depraved and in need of strict reform.  And this got me to thinking, as I am wont to do.

For the medievals, voluntary poverty was a path to holiness, a state of sanctity, while involuntary poverty, while not itself meritorious, at the very least “offered an occasion of sanctification” for the wealthy: “One of the things which the powerful of the world did to offset their pride and their trespasses was to offer distributions to the poor….Well-off people left a provision in their wills that alms should be given to a certain number of paupers at their funeral, and these in turn should pray for their soul.”

By the years just preceding and following the Reformation, however, “there is a radical change in attitude.  A new series of poor laws is adopted, whose principle is sharply to distinguish those who are capable of work from those who genuinely have no recourse but charity.  The former are expelled or put to work, for very low pay, and often in stringent conditions.  The incapable poor are to be given relief, but again in highly controlled conditions, which often ended up involving confinement in institutions which in some ways resembled prisons.” 

If this weren’t troubling enough, “The extreme Puritan view was even harsher than this….Beggars, for Perkins, ‘are as rotten legs and arms, that drop from the body.’  There was no place for them in a well-ordered commonwealth.” (Quotes are from pp. 108-9.)


All this seems likely enough as a description of many modern American Protestant attitudes toward poverty, but haven’t we been told that the Reformers were different?  That they put concern for the poor front and center, as Martin Bucer certainly seems to in his De Regno Christi, for instance?  That even Reformation iconoclasm was a result of concern for the poor, over against the greedy medieval church that hoarded its wealth?  

These narratives are not perhaps as incongruous as they seem, and the medieval approach is not perhaps quite as godly as it seems.  After all, the Reformers did care about the plight of the poor, and that’s why they wanted to abolish poverty.  Poverty was an undesirable state–for society as a whole, to be sure, but also for the poor themselves.  Hence it had to be remedied in the most effective, permanent way possible, and that was, they were convinced, creating workers, reducing dependency.  The more responsible thinkers of the modern right care about the poor too, and they too want to abolish property, but they agree with the sixteenth century that the way to do so is to put people to work.  They would criticize the modern left as encouraging dependency and permanent poverty, as the medieval period could perhaps be criticized: “the [medieval] stance to the poor had the sense it did partly because it was taken for granted that ‘the poor ye have always with you’.  More, this made sense, because the poor, while being succoured by the fortunate, were also an occasion of salvation of these latter.  There was a complementarity here….Within this way of understanding, it was unthinkable that one try actually to abolish poverty.’”  

Surely there is something unhealthy in this attitude, which seems rather like the attitude of the benefactor culture that Jesus devastatingly critiques, a culture that laid considerable stress on “alms for the poor” to keep them just above subsistence level, comfort the consciences of the powerful, and cement the relationships of power and dependence, but had no interest in redistribution.  Jesus says, “Blessed are the hungry” but he follows it with, “for they will be satisfied”–not “so let them continue in hunger.”

Interestingly, although the modern left is accused of creating a culture of dependency, it too uses the rhetoric–indeed, far more aggressively than the right–of “abolishing poverty.”  And while this certainly seems more wholesome on the surface, there is a danger here as well.  For if the sixteenth-century drive to abolish poverty arose at least partly out of the rich’s disgust with the poor, and desire not to have them continue sullying society (as Taylor suggests it did), then could there be something similar in the liberal crusades to rid the world of poverty, crusades carried out from the comfort of our living rooms with a phone call and a credit card?  

At their best, some of the medievals understood that there could be a blessedness in poverty, that we had something to learn from the poor, that they could be agents of grace for us, and we shouldn’t simply try to pack them away and put them to work.  Jesus was not, after all, chiefly concerned with the economic advancement of the poor, but with their incorporation into the community–he wanted the rich to learn to live face-to-face with the poor.  The medieval understanding was perhaps, for all its faults, closer to that.  The modern attitude, whether in its right-wing “put them to work” or its left-wing “give them whatever they need” variants, seems dangerously removed from this.