Money, Greed, and Five Favorite Fallacies

As you may have noticed, my passion against Schneider has burned out a bit, since I finished reading him almost two weeks ago, though I will still do my best to blog through the rest of the book.  I read John Medaille’s Toward a Truly Free Market and it was a fantastic breath of fresh air–I reiterate the recommendation I made before I read it: everyone should go read it.  More about it in due course.  For now, though, I’m afraid I have another very unhappy review to share, Jay Richards’ Money, Greed, and God.  (I will admit up front that I did not finish this book.  I made it to the halfway point, and then determined that to continue, with no promise that I would ever be offered a coherent argument, was merely an act of self-flagellation.  I should also point out, lest I seem to be unfairly singling out really lame books to critique, like a scrawny third-grader beating up on kindergarteners in order to feel important, that the back cover of this book is bedecked with laurels like “the definitive case for capitalism,” bestowed by none other than George Gilder, and is rated very highly on both Amazon and Goodreads.  If this is the definitive case for capitalism, then I’m afraid capitalism had better give up and pack its bags.)

This book is laced with unflattering ironies.  The author repeatedly adopts the stance, so attractive to American audiences, as the champion of common-sense over against the obfuscations of intellectuals, who spin webs of fantasy and idealism out of touch with reality.  But he does this while remaining consistently at the realm of abstraction, hypotheticals, and straw men, never deigning to come down and engage economic realities.  Sometimes this equals blatant falsehood, like where Richards asserts that “government spending as a portion of GNP has grown exponentially in recent decades.”  The actual growth?  12% (from 18.4% to 20.6%) over fifty years, and actually a decline in the last twenty.  (You can see all the details here.)

On a larger scale, it means that Richards never actually touches down to earth and tells us what he is talking about.  What is “capitalism”?  Since he never tells us, he can simply duck and hide from opponents as needed–whenever their attacks hit home, he can conveniently claim that as “not-capitalism,” and whenever there is something good that the modern world has given us, he can claim it for capitalism.  This is common enough in books of this genre, as is the tendency to camp out in abstractions and hypotheticals.  We find here almost no real grappling with modern economic realities, but rather platitudes about how an ideal free market functions in principle, and how wealth need not be a zero-sum game.  

Throughout, though, he writes in homely and down-to-earth style, in order to strengthen the impression of common sense over against the distorting sophistications of the academics.  If he used such rhetoric as an aid to clear and cogent logic, it might work, but when it is used to mask the absence of logic, it just makes him look like a demagogue.  Here’s a case in point: “The Ten Commandments–a sort of summary of all God’s laws–take private property for granted.  For instance, the eighth commandment, the one against stealing, implies that we may have property.  Otherwise, there would be nothing to steal, and the commandment would make no more sense than an order not to fraternize with four-headed Jube Jube monsters.  (No, I don’t know what they are, either.  I just know they don’t exist.)”  As I’ve pointed out before, the eighth commandment taken alone merely implies the existence of fixed property relations of some kind–it says nothing about what form those should take–capitalist, distributist, communitarian, or even socialist!  Perhaps Richards hopes that his readers will be so distracted by Jube Jube monsters that they won’t notice the logical lacuna.  

The same complaint can be made against Richards’s extensive use, early on, of a first-person narrative.  He was once an idealistic socialist, he confides in us, back when he was a teenager and it was cool to be radical.  He used to be convinced of all this rubbish, but then when he started looking at real facts, he learned better, and grew to embrace capitalism.  This, presumably, is to help his case, by conveying to the reader that this is not some ideologue, but someone who knows the other side inside and out, and has rejected it for sound intellectual reasons.  However, given that he never deigns to share any of these sound intellectual reasons with us, but resorts to all kinds of straw men and logical loop-de-loops to make his case, this personal testimony just makes him look naive and impressionable.  

Despite the promises of the title and the back cover, Richards does not really attempt in this book to argue positively for capitalism, and certainly not to offer a theological argument for it (inasmuch as Scripture appears, it is generally only as something that Richards defends himself against).  All he really attempts to do is to show that capitalism “is not the problem,” by means of refuting eight “myths” about why capitalism is bad. Rather than deal with Richards’s responses to these as such, I wanted to respond by pointing out five fallacies that pervade his argument through the first few chapter.  The first three are primarily methodological, the latter two primarily substantial.  I will call them The Dystopia Fallacy, The Tweaking Fallacy, The Not-Necessarily Fallacy, The Coercion Fallacy, and The Theft Fallacy.  In a later post, I will discuss the issue of Private Property and Inequality (non-)Problem, which relates closely to the reasons I researched the book in the first place.


1) The Dystopia Fallacy

In this fallacy, Richards picks the worst possible example of an alternative to capitalism, and uses it as a bogeyman to scare people away from imagining that there could be alternatives.  The first chapter does this on a grand scale, and in the most fantastically cliched fashion: Look at the massive evils done by countries that were professedly Marxist!  Ergo, capitalism is better than all the alternatives.

For this argument to work, it would require at least these four assumptions:

1) Marxism is the only alternative to capitalism.

2) The countries in question practiced Marxism effectively.

3) The evils that these countries wrought were directly due to their Marxism.

4) Similar evils have not been wrought by countries trying to impose capitalism on unwilling populations.

In fact, I think, all four of these assumptions are invalid.  The first is so baseless that it bewilders me how otherwise intelligent people manage to persist in repeating it.  Richards’ book takes no account of phenomena like European democratic socialism, not to mention of course alternative economic visions like distributism.  The second is eminently disputable.  Leninism, Maoism, etc., have their roots in Marxism, but differ in profound ways from what Marx argued for and envisioned.  One massive and crucial difference is the fact, which Richards notes in passing but pays little attention to, that communism took root in agrarian and Third World countries, rather than in developed Western industrial nations, the context in which Marx developed his ideas.  Unsurprising, then, that it failed so abysmally.  The third fails also, for related reasons.  Again, Richards notes that “revolutions never sprang up in advanced industrial societies where there was a strong rule of law, but rather in poor agrarian cultures with career tracks for despots.”  So Cambodia to the United States should not be an apples-to-apples comparison in determining the relative merit of an economic system.  Many of these evils have been due to despotism in general, and communism is just the particular form it has taken for some countries in this century.  Brutal despotisms on a massive scale have been pretty common historically in places like Russia, China, and Cambodia.  The technology of the twentieth century has merely made it far easier for this brutality to occur efficiently on a massive scale.  This then relates to the fourth assumption.  It would be fair to ask whether, in “agrarian cultures with career tracks for despots,” capitalist regimes of some form or another have practiced terrible brutality and tyranny in the twentieth century.  The recent history of Latin America, unfortunately, answers that question in a resounding affirmative.  

 This sort of fallacy continues throughout the book so far as I have read, using, for instance, examples of a really poorly-conceived and poorly-executed government policy to “prove” that government intervention in the “free market” is always bad; or quoting out-of-context and poorly-worded complaints against capitalism to prove that all forms of opposition to capitalism result from fuzzy thinking.  Meanwhile, he routinely chalks up all the marvels of modern life to free-market capitalism without any argument. This is nothing but post hoc, ergo propter hoc–we had capitalism, now we have the microwave; clearly the latter must come only from the former.  

He is correct, in short, to claim that modern capitalism need not be perfect, only that it needs to be better than any viable alternatives.  But to demonstrate that it, at its best, is better than one particular alternative at its worst, doesn’t get him very far to proving it better than the alternatives.  To be fair, he either needs to compare really bad examples of anti-capitalism with really bad examples of capitalism, or really good examples of anti-capitalism with really good examples of capitalism.  Otherwise, it’s nothing but propaganda.


2) The Tweaking Fallacy

This is a common approach among free-marketeers.  What they do is they set up some idealized scenario of a well-functioning market, and then hypothesize one particular change in policy that is intended to make things work better.  Unsurprisingly, the change upsets the system, and ends up doing more harm than good.  But most intelligent people agitating for change don’t just want to make one little change in the system; they want to make a lot of changes, building on one another.  Or they want to change the assumptions inherent in the system.  

An example of Richards’ use of this fallacy (again, quite cliched) is with respect to minimum wage.  If you raise the minimum wage in a well-functioning market, argues Richards, you will increase unemployment, and thus make things worse off on the whole.  Fair enough.  But any responsible initiative to raise the minimum wage would gauge the possible impact of a wage hike on employment (which, depending on the current wage level, might not actually be much at all), and would take steps to avert ill effects.  Or a distributist might propose ways to remodel the entire system so as to both raise wages and employment levels (as quite persuasively argued by John Medaille in Toward a Truly Free Market).

The tweaking fallacy can be conveniently combined with the dystopian fallacy, as Richards illustrates with the minimum wage issue.  He imagines a scenario in which the minimum wage was raised to $1,000 an hour and shows us how bad the effects would be.  Presumably, then, we are to assume that the effects of a smaller raise would be bad too, in the same way, only to a lesser extent.  But logic does not support such an assumption, and the “argument” thus serves only the purpose of alarmist rhetoric.


3) The Not-Necessarily Fallacy

In this, another favorite tactic of Richards’s, the logic of the argument runs like this: Opponents of capitalism say that capitalism makes the rich richer at the poor’s expense.  This complaint assumes a zero-sum game–that wealth is never created, only transferred.  But this is not always the case.  Let me show you some examples of how free exchange can make both parties wealthier.  

Ergo, capitalism is not a zero-sum game, ergo, the rich do not get rich at the poor’s expense.  The problem here of course is that almost no critic of capitalism is so daft as to complain that it is always a zero-sum game.  Everyone recognizes that of course it is quite possible for business to actually add net value to everyone concerned, and that this happens all the time, and is much of the reason for the prosperity of the world today.  But do all resources work that way?  Well, no.  Some resources, like land, are fixed and cannot be created.  Some markets–many financial markets, for instance–are essentially zero-sum markets.  

Now, if some significant parts of the system are zero-sum, then it is quite possible, indeed likely, that many people do get wealthy at the expense of others.  It is not always win-win.  And in general, those already most powerful will succeed in entrenching their position at the expense of those less powerful.  The only way Richards could refute the zero-sum complaint would be by demonstrating that all transactions in a capitalist system end up benefiting both parties, and that is manifestly false.  Instead, he confines himself to showing that it is not necessarily true that someone gets rich at another’s expense, and therefore concludes that it is necessarily untrue, which is about as straightforward an inversion of logic as you can get. 


4) The Coercion Fallacy

I have written on this before at great length, so hopefully I can be brief.  Richards frequently makes his case by indulging in a sense of moral outrage at the coercion of government coercing people to do stuff, even for good ends, and of course he repeatedly defends the free market by insisting that it is, of course, free.  Whatever you don’t like about it, at least it doesn’t force people to do stuff, but lets everyone meet on an equal level, and exchange what they want less of for what they want more of.  Everything is completely voluntary.  

In a modern world that has exalted freedom as the highest virtue, this sort of argument is taken to settle the question–better for people to do bad things freely than good things under compulsion, seems to be the idea.  Of course, once closely examined, this popular moral presupposition breaks down, but we’ll leave that issue aside.  The more immediate objection is of course that it is not really accurate to speak of all government policies as “coercion” unless one presumes radical individualism.  There is a such thing as corporate decision-making, the public will, and all that.  Or there used to be, at any rate; perhaps there isn’t anymore in the United States.  A corporate decision is only coercive to the extent that the recalcitrant make it so.  But let’s even leave that issue aside.  

The most immediate objection, one that is so obvious that only the most propagandist ideology can ignore it, is that it is absurd to talk about perfectly “free” contracts and agreements in a marketplace constrained by inequality and scarcity.  In a contract between an employer who lives in a mansion with security guards, and is making a 20% profit margin, and 1,000 job applicants who are facing starvation if they can’t find some kind of employment, it would be absurd to speak of the two parties as being equally “free,” or even to speak of the job applicants as free at all in any meaningful sense of the word.

Rather than face up to such real-world realities, Richards insists on making his argument in terms of idealized test scenarios and hypotheses–like the “trading game” that his sixth-grade teacher made his class play once upon a time, swapping toys until everyone ended up with something better than they started with.  “An exchange that is free on both sides, in which no one is forced or tricked into participating, is a win-win game.  It’s a positive-sum game.” But this hypothetical marketplace is one without exploitation (preying on someone’s physical needs to get them to do something you want), manipulation (preying on someone’s emotional needs to get them to do something you want), or deception (ensuring that the other party does not know the relevant facts of the transaction), all of which are institutionalized in many modern capitalist markets.  

In short, I continue to insist that if the defenders of capitalism are to rest the vast majority of their case for the goodness of the market and the wickedness of state intervention on the “freedom” in the former and the “coercion” in the latter, they must provide some meaningful definition of these terms that actually fits the real world.  Otherwise, why should we listen to them?


5) The Theft Fallacy

Related to the “Coercion” fallacy is of course the “Theft” fallacy–the repeated rhetorical assertion that any redistribution or contro of private resources by the government is “confiscation” or “theft.”  I’m sure you know the sort of thing I am talking about, but here’s a sample quote:

“Every government has to collect taxes to fund services beneficial to all–to maintain courts, protect citizens from domestic and foreign predators, enforce traffic law and contracts, and so forth.  We have a right to protect ourselves from aggressors, for instance, so we can delegate that right to government. We don’t have the right to take the property of one person and give it to another.  Therefore, we can’t rightfully delegate that function to the state.  Delegated theft is still theft.”  

As I’ve argued before, this argument collapses on its own terms.  Almost any “legitimate” government function breaks down when pressed.  Some citizens have enough mobile capital that if an enemy should attack the US, they could easily pack up and move to London with few adverse consequences, so why is it worth their while to pay tax dollars to defend less affluent citizens.  Maybe they are staunchly pacifist or at least feel that America’s enemies have been stirred up by acts of aggression that such citizens have bitterly opposed.  They didn’t support the actions that created the enemies, so why should they have to pay for the cost of restraining those enemies.  Or what about those of us who live in inner cities and walk everywhere.  Why should we have to pay for the maintenance of the roads and traffic laws?  If societies cannot enact policies that benefit some people more directly than others, then they can’t enact any policies.  Such a reductio ad absurdum suggests that there is a fundamental philosophical flaw in the assumptions behind this “theft” accusation.  

 And sure enough, there is.  The assumption is that private property somehow exists in a vacuum–it is sacrosanct, unconditioned, absolute, timeless.  It pre-exists any society and therefore society has no claims on it.  This assumption turns out to be utterly incoherent once held up to the light of day (and Richards himself discards it in a later chapter when it suits his argument to articulate property differently).  On the contrary, property is, if not a product of society (which I would suggest it ultimately must be from an ethical standpoint), at the very least always conditioned by society.  To say that society has no claims on private property is about as coherent as saying that parents have no claims upon their children.  

Now one can argue that there are limits upon these claims–limits of justice and limits of prudence.  If there were no rules restraining society’s claims on private property, private property would be meaningless.  But conversely, if there were no rules at all regarding society’s claims on private property, then private property would be meaningless.  The relationship is a subtle and dynamic one, not one that is easily defined by throwing around terms like “theft” whenever it is rhetorically convenient.


And that last criticism could sum up my critique of the whole book.  Richards acts as if this is a debate between ignorant idealists and people who take economic realities seriously.  But in saying this, it feels like he is critiquing himself.  Economies are subtle and dynamic, and the real world that we operate in is quite different than the fantasy one that Richards has constructed for us with the aid of fuzzy logic and empty rhetoric.

Doug Wilson on the Eighth Commandment

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.

“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.” 

Locke’s Right to Theft of Private Property?

Is “theft” ever just?  Is the right to private property absolute?  That is to say, does a man in urgent need have a right to the means of his sustenance so that he is entitled, if necessary, to take what he needs from a person who has more than enough?  Regular readers of this blog will recall that this has been a frequent theme of discussion here in the past year.  In the past, however, it was Aquinas who was commonly referenced as the chief example of this concession, this limitation of private property rights (common though it was in the classical Christian tradition).  But although John Locke often figures in such discussions as the symbol for the development of modern, capitalistic, increasingly absolute property rights, it turns out that this theme is not alien to his thinking either.  He remains more traditional than we might expect.  

Locke shares with Aquinas and the tradition the belief that in the beginning, the world and its goods were created for the common enjoyment and sustenance of all mankind, each of whom had an equal right to be nourished by the earth’s fruits.  Although he gets from this point to the lawful existence of private property via a significantly different route than Aquinas, this starting point means that he can hardly allow that anyone’s subsequent private property rights could extend to the point of denying basic sustenance to the starving.  

In his meticulous summary in The Right to Private Property, Jeremy Waldron states that according to Locke, private property rights “are themselves constrained by a deeper and, in the last resort, more powerful general right which each man has to the material necessities for his survival.  This forms the basis of what one might refer to as entitlements of charity in Locke’s system.”  Waldron expounds further: according to Locke, everyone has a responsibility, second only to the preservation of his own life, to preserve the lives of others.  This of course imposes the negative duty not to harm others,

“but Locke quickly makes it clear that the duty has a positive side to it as well.  When it is put together with premisses (1) and (2), it generates the following claim-right as the substantive basis of the Lockean theory of property: ‘Men, being once born, have a right to their Preservation, and consequently to Meat and Drink, and such other things, as Nature affords for their Subsistence’ (II. 25).  That this doctrine imposes positive duties on men to satisfy others’ needs (or at least stand aside while the needy make use of property  acquired by those who are not needy), and that these duties are correlative to the rights of the needy, is emphasized in the following important and often-overlooked passage from the First Treatise: 

‘God the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his Children such a Property, in his peculiar portion of the things of this World, but that he has given his needy Brother a Right to the Surplusage of his Goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it. . . . As Justice gives every Man a Title to the product of his honest Industry, . . . so Charity gives every Man a Title to so much out of another’s Plenty, as will keep him from extream want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise. (I. 42)’

Locke, in other words, is not prepared to concede absolute rights to any owner, no matter how respectable the [147] pedigree of his endowment.”  

Of course, we may notice the oddity of the term “entitlement of charity” and the clause, “so Charity gives every Man a Title to so much out of another’s Plenty…”  This seems a bit oxymoronic, as the whole point of “charity,” one would have thought, was that it was free and voluntary, extending beyond the obligations imposed by justice.  Justice involves strict rights and obligations, it concerns what a man has a “title” to, but charity operates at the less clear-cut level of moral obligation, where one’s duty to render something to another does not necessarily correspond to any right that he has to expect it from you.  Needless to say, the dividing line between these two, particularly on this question of economic justice, has been bitterly contested.  For, if an obligation is one of justice, then, on standard definitions, one has recourse to the justice system in case the obligation is not performed.  And thus, on our particular example, the hungry man would presumably be exonerated in court for taking the loaf of bread from the rich man’s larder.  But if the property owner merely has a charitable duty to forgo his rights in favor of the needy man, then he could still prosecute the thief.  On a wider level, if the right to sustenance is a right of justice, then a government may have some role in restricting property rights accordingly.  Waldron clearly takes the right to sustenance as a fully-fledged right that can genuinely override the right to private property, but the actual language is a bit fuzzy.

Of course, Locke’s ambiguity at this point is not uncommon.  Even in Aquinas, there is a confusing tangle of duties of charity and justice governing the limitations on property rights (though John Finnis has helpfully untangled these–see here); in Leo’s Rerum Novarum, more influenced by Locke than Aquinas, he says “if the question be asked, how ought man to use his possessions? the Church replies without hesitation: ‘As to this point, man ought not regard external goods as his own, but as common so that, in fact, a person should readily share them when he sees others in need.’ Wherefore the Apostle says: ‘Charge the rich of this world…to give readily, to share with others.’”  But, he goes on, “these are duties not of justice, except in cases of extreme need, but of Christian charity, which obviously cannot be enforced by legal action,” a point that has proved contentious in subsequent Catholic Social Teaching.  However, it is worth noting that Leo does make the case of extreme need–of basic sustenance–which is the proviso under discussion in Locke, a matter of justice, and so an actual structural limit on property rights.


One other interesting point on which Locke does not advocate absolute private property rights–he does not believe one has a right to use or abuse one’s property.  C.B. Macpherson claims that according to a modern understanding of property rights (with which he groups Locke), “It is a right to dispose of, or alienate, as well as to use; and it is a right which is not conditional on the owner’s performance of any social function.”  James Tully argues however, that for Locke, property rights “are not rights of abuse; on the contrary, a man ‘has not the Liberty to destroy . . . so much as any Creature in his Possession, but where some nobler use, than its bare preservation calls for it’ (II. 6).”