Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Kingdom of God is not an "Ownership Society"

President Bush attended an "economic forum" today to try to drum up support and public attention for his bold economic plan for America. Bush's vision, as he emphasized on the campaign trail, is that of an "ownership society":

PRESIDENT BUSH: I believe our country can and must become an ownership society. When you own something, you care about it. When you own something, you have a vital stake in the future of your country.
Both Bush's broad vision and his specific proposals are worthy of significant policy debate. Does more private ownership increase economic efficiency and, thus, economic growth? Will the negative distributional effects of reducing taxes be temporary or sustained? Can social security as we know it withstand privatization?

Indeed, these are important questions. But a far more fundamental question is whether Bush's "ownership society" is consistent with the Kingdom of God.

What is ownership? Having been a student of Property Law, I can tell you that there is consensus among judges and commentators that the nature of ownership boils down to one thing: the right to exclude others. See generally Calabresi & Melamed, Property Rules, Liability Rules and Inalienability: One View of the Cathedral, 85 Harv. L. Rev. 1089 (1972). In other words, my watch is my watch because I can keep you from using or taking it. My house is my house because I can keep you from entering it. Remember that my argument about the nature of ownership is not about how things should be. I'm merely describing things as they are. When judges enforce "property rights" or "ownership," this is what they enforce: "keep out" or "keep off" rights. I can eat my sandwhich even if I don't need it and you do.

I submit that a society which organizes itself aroud this "Right to Exclude" (as lawyers call "ownership" rights) is inconsistent with the Kingdom of God. First, such a self-centered, other-negating focus seems inconsistent with Jesus' fundamental commandment with respect to our relationship with others: that we must love our neighbors as ourselves. How is granting people more opportunities to selfishly exclude and deny others consistent with this commandment?

This seems clear enough, but we need not rely on such generalities. There are clear applications of this fundamental commandment indicating Jesus' disapproval of the right to exclude. The most obvious is the story of the Rich Young Ruler. My favorite version of that story -- because it explicitly connects Jesus' radical injunction to the summary commandment -- is from the Gospel of the Nazoreans:

"Another rich man said to Jesus, "Master, what good thing shall I do to live?" He said to him, "O man, fulfil the law and the prophets." He replied, I have done that." Jesus said to him, "Go sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and come, follow me." But the rich man began to scratch his head and it did not please him. And the Lord said to him, "How can you say, 'I have fulfilled the law and the prophets,' since it is written in the law: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' and lo! many of your brethren, sons of Abraham, are clothed in filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many goods, and nothing at all goes out of it to them?" And returning to Simon, his disciple, who was sitting by him, he said, "Simon, son of Jonas, it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven."
See Bart Ehrman, The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings, 137.

Jesus' issue with the rich man was precisely his exercising of his ownership rights, of his right to exclude others from his "many goods."

There are still more examples.

In Matthew 5:42 Jesus says: "Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you." This can be seen as another application of the summary law and is the exact opposite of the right to exclude.

In Luke 16:19-24 Jesus describes the condemnation of a "rich man" who refused to help a poor man who lay at his gate and "longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table." Again, the rich man is condemned precisely because he exercises the right which the Bush vision seeks to expand.

One objection to this analysis (weak in my opinion) might be that these are instances of individual decisions to exclude and that they, thus, shouldn't be applied at the social/governmental level. There are several problems with this, not the least of which is that it would deny almost any attempt to build the Kingdom of God -- to apply Christian principles at the social level. Almost every parable concerns individuals, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't structure society to advance the underlying principles. A second problem with this objection is that early Christian communities applied the principles at the social level:
Acts 2:44-45: "And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need."

A more powerful objection to my analysis is that it is tantamount to advocating pure socialism. But socialism does not necessarily follow from the analysis. The question is one of starting point: what is our beginning value, our first principle, from which all other rules will be seen as exceptions. There will certainly be taxation and welfare -- social sharing -- in Bush's "ownership society." But this sharing is conceptualized as an exception to the norm of ownership and exclusion; as necessary to serve what Bush sees as values subordinate to private property rights, such as economic equality.

Under my analysis, private ownership would be seen, not as normative, but as a necessary concession. People need private ownership over some portion of their production to give them incentives to produce for the social good, to ensure economic and social stability, etc. These concessions, though they may produce substantial private ownership, would be understood as exceptions.

The question, then, is over how we should conceptualize a just society:

(1) As a society where individuals have a fundamental right to consume and save what they produce, with necessary concessions to sharing to ensure people don't starve, etc. or

(2) As a society where your production is for "your neighbor" as well as yourself, with necessary concessions to incentivize production and ensure stability.

I think it is tough to argue that the first is more Christian than the second.


At 12:53 PM, Blogger DLW said...

I agree that we should foster less bounded altruism. I think if we taxed general advertisements and subsidized advertisements for NGOs that help the poor in the under-developed world and our own country that this would help to this end.

You're taking, more or less, the same position as Aquinas of viewing private property as a necessary evil. Although, you may just view it as something we can't possibly eradicate and that is essential for the use of private incentives to serve the public good.

I also think that private property is necessary for coordination, inasmuch as many goods and services are exclusive. They cannot be used for multiple purposes and so defining property-rights prevents wasteful struggles. It also may foster decentralization and increased creativity, but that depends on the actual distribution of wealth.

And so one can counter Bush by insisting that distribution does matter, since power tends to corrupt..., and it is not sufficient to say one does not trust Big Gov't and leave it at that, inasmuch as it implies one does trust Big Business ,while the two have similar sorts of short-comings as decision-making bodies.

I hope you can check out my blog. You might like my post on the problem of order. I'd like you're feedback on my idea for depoliticizing and preventing abortion.

At 10:28 AM, Blogger jj said...

I appreciate your sophisticated response. Perhaps I should check out some Aquinas on the subject. I believe that Jesus' teachings do paint private property as problematic at the least, but I also recognize that attempts to eliminate private property are probably unworkable and destructive. It is hard to know what to do with those two beliefs.

At 10:29 AM, Blogger jj said...

Will definitely check out your blog. I'm thinking of starting a "different perspectives" category of links.

At 11:51 AM, Blogger DLW said...

Happy new year!

I hope to hear from you at my blog and maybe to see a link to my blog. I'm going to be creating a list of blogs in the near future.


At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, the problems of property go further than you indicate: where Aquinas treated it as a 'necessary evil,' better views would treat it as unacceptable, and subject to being replaced with a 'stewardship' position.

Think back to your course on Trusts, as opposed to Property - the limitations of a trusteeship better comport with Biblical models than the exclusionary rights (and others included in the notion of property).

Also: recall, "It is impossible for a man to serve both God and Mammon" contains a hint, at least, that Jesus recognized that property itself was subject to idolization.

It's insufficient to treat God as the 'figurative title holder' to all property, who, like the 'absolute owner' is merely possessor of a stronger claim than the current possessor of a parcel. Why? Because the owner is, in a sense, owned by the thing that the owner has. God must be outside the chain of title to the same extent that God is outside the dictates of matter (unless God chooses to incarnate, anyway).

Absent the trusteeship/stewardship approach, I am unconvinced by your arguments to 'social necessity' - the Biblical opposition to property is too strong a hurdle to be overcome by that relativism.

At 8:26 AM, Blogger Nancy Smith said...

jj, I want to quote you in my book "Workplace Spirituality: A Complete Guide for Business Leaders," to be published June 5. I don't know how to reach you. Please contact me through my website


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At 5:07 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

You obviously struggle with a good heart and care for people, but poor hermeneutics. I can see that you really want to help people who are hurting. However, there is a conflict with Scripture and your analysis of how society should operate.

It sounds like you are advocating society structure that supports the idea of the State passing laws to enforce benevolent behavior.

First of all, there is a big difference in making God sovereign and making the State sovereign. When laws are passed to institute benevolence then you just made the State sovereign over the heart, conscience, and possessions of individuals. In each biblical reference that you gave, God is speaking to the individual’s heart to give and to be generous and not the order of society by the State. God’s view is limited government thus limited extraction of funds from its citizenry. Matter of fact, God warns the nation of Israel that the government that extracts more than 10% will make you into a slave to the State (1 Sam 8).

The Acts model (Acts 4) that you referenced where they had all things in common is in fact a good example of private property ownership and the invisible hand of God moving men to give generously and not that of the State requiring it. Each one had all things in common because the Lord was sovereign over their lives. They were not taught against nor encouraged to abandon ownership – quite the opposite. In Acts 5, after everyone was getting in on the generous spirit of giving there was a couple who tried to appear to be bigger givers than they really were- the Holy Spirit took care of them, but we see something very interesting in the story. Peter who had been one of the leaders who help collect the funds in Chapter 4, tell the couple something that sheds light on private ownership. He told them, “The property was yours to sell or not, as you wished. And after selling it, it was yours to decide how much to give.” Notice, they could decide…. It was their property. When you structure laws to make the State the one to decide then the State becomes sovereign over the hearts of men. This is different than having laws that restrain evil or criminal behavior. That is the purpose of law. Benevolent behavior, however, is to come only from God. The State can encourage benevolence and even have campaigns for it to happen, but to pass laws to require it become a totally different issue. At best you would have to have a tax law that is voluntary and for some reason (I have my thoughts), most who advocate benevolence through the State do not want voluntary taxation for those matters.

When Al Gore was running for President he embraced your policies to have the State decide how much each of us should give through liberal tax laws, yet he himself gave only $350 that year to charity. A good example of giving away other’s property. It sounds good and it gets votes, but it is far from biblical. To take from one to give to another by law is in fact confiscation; surely you are not advocating legal theft from a biblical perspective.

The earth is the Lords, but he has made us stewards of what he owns by having us control property under his individual Lordship. There must be the ability to have a say over property. You must be able to say, “No” or you can never say “Yes.” Who decides who can say no and yes. Why did God have Israel to receive land as “their inheritance?” Each family and each tribe were to have property rights to protect. Property will always be owned. The question is who owns it. If we take it away from individuals and families, it will be owned by the government’s redistributive agencies. It is true that we do not have the absolute right to our property because we are under subjection to God. Parents do not have the right to dispose of children as they see fit to the extreme, because ownership is in terms of God’s requirements. To have limits on personal ownership is different than saying that private ownership is at best necessary concession. When the State owns private property it is a transgression against biblical law (Ezek 46:18, 1 Sam 8:14, 1 Kings 21).

Social order must have private ownership. Common property and socialism has already been field tested and failed. Exodus 22 is written to deal with private ownership, theft of property, destruction of private property, borrowing private property, etc.

Jesus’ instruction to the rich young ruler was not to sell everything and give “it” to the poor, but to sell everything and “give” to the poor. Jesus wanted him to be liquid so he could give large amounts to the poor. His heart was set on his riches. I truly believe that Christians must be more generous and be active in dealing with systemic poverty and personal poverty. One of the marks of true Christianity is to see poverty destroyed. It is not the goal that concerns me, but rather, the means by which you propose to accomplish it. To give the State the authority to order society toward benevolence is very dangerous and most unbiblical. In fact to show partiality to the poor is a transgression according to Lev 19:15. There should be mercy, love, care, and generous benevolence from the changed heart of an individual or family, but to make a law to favor the rich or the poor is a major crime and transgression.

Show me one example in world history where private property was discouraged or eliminate and that nation or society prospered and was able to bless others. The greatness of our nation has been built upon the biblical principle of private ownership of property.

You indicate that we as Christians do not have the right to exclude. That simply put can be taken to mean something very troubling. Paul the apostle said not to give to everyone when he said that if a man will not work he is not to eat. Now that man would be begging for sure and to take your understanding of Jesus’ teaching then he should not be turned away. Paul says to not feed a person who refuses to work. He is saying that Christians should exclude such a man from their table or refrigerator. Now that is excluding them, wouldn’t you say? You cannot take one verse and build an economic policy but rather we must search for the whole counsel.

To say that we can never exclude may sound Christian, but it is not biblical. In fact, the way we are to help a lazy person is to warn him not give him something. True love is to bring to a person what is truly best for them not what they ask for. Even God refuses us. We do not get everything we ask from Him.


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