Society and Culture

Is the Right to Property Fundamental, Absolute, or Both?

At the Beliefnet blog Jesus Creed, David Opderbeck reflects on the Christian tradition and the social theory of contract. He has some interesting things to say, and his post inspired a good debate in the comments about the nature of the right to property. Still, I think he gets off on the wrong foot when he quotes a statement from the Acton Institute, and then calls it “an essentially libertarian approach to freedom of contract.”

Here’s the quote from Acton:

Private property and the freedom to contract are fundamental human rights, as each person is entitled to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Opderbeck seems to think that this is the same as saying the right to property as absolute, which means, presumably, that one can do whatever one wants with one’s property. At the very least, he thinks it’s a “libertarian” view, that depends on a utilitarian, Enlightenment mentality that “elevates the individual far above the community,” which contradicts the older Christian idea that contract is not merely a private but also a community act.

Having thus framed the issue, Opderbeck, quoting the great legal scholar Harold Berman, then pines for the possibility of a third way. Now whenever I hear talk of a “third way,” I’m reminded of Richard John Neuhaus’ great quip: “The vicissitudes of history . . . have not dissuaded them from their earnest search for a “third way” between socialism and capitalism, namely socialism.”

In any case, Opderbeck could use a few more tools in his philosophical tool kit—as the comments below his post make clear. The quote from the Acton Institute does not presuppose an Enlightenment or utilitarian view of property. In fact, insofar as there is an official “Acton Institute” view on property, it is very similar to Berman’s, whom Opderbeck approves.

In particular, Opderbeck needs to make finer-tuned distinctions. First of all, there’s a difference between a right being fundamental and it being absolute. Ultimately, God owns everything. We are simply stewards. Our God-limited right to property stems from our intrinsic dignity as creative creatures made in the image of God. As Pope Leo XIII said, “the right of private property must be regarded as sacred.” At the same time, one of Acton’s ten core principles (all of which I endorse) is the “social nature of the human person.” This doesn’t contradict the fact that we have a fundamental right to private property.

Second, there’s a difference between the “community” and the state. The right to private property is, among other things, a bulwark against an all-powerful state. The fact that God ultimately owns everything, and that contracts are in part communal acts, is no justification for weakening the fundamental right to private property. Too often, when Christian scholars start talking about “society” and “community,” or referring to God as the ultimate owner of everything, it’s a quick jump to an argument for increasing the power of the state over the individual, family, and civil society. (See, for instance, Operbeck’s comments in responding to critics.) But just because something involves the community, or is ultimately owned by God, it doesn’t automatically fall under the jurisdiction of the state. This should be an obvious point, but too many religious scholars fail to maintain it, or even to anticipate it.

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