12 thoughts on “Private Property and the Redistribution of Wealth

  1. The conclusion of the article that it is the government’s job to ensure that private property is used justly or else redistribution is in order sounds totalitarian. It does not have my intellectual assent. The government’s job is to ensure that no crimes are committed. The job of religion is to promote unselfishness.

    • There are two possibilities: Either the author has missed a nuance in the Church’s teaching, or the Church has missed a vital truth.

      I prefer to believe the former because I am a Catholic.

      But there is more reason than that. Notice the following: “Measures taken by the State with this end in view ought…to affect those…who continue to accumulate [capital resources] to the grievous detriment of other.”

      Question: Are all accumulations of more-wealth-than-you-need the result of accumulations of capital resources to the detriment of others.

      No. No they aren’t. And yet the Church here teaches that only those detrimental accumulations justify redistributive “measures taken by the State.”

      The Church does not teach that all accumulation of capital resources is to the detriment of others, but only that sometimes accumulation of capital resources is to the detriment of others. This allows us to hold that the “measures taken by the State” are appropriate only when targeted at those situations where capital accumulation is to the grievous detriment of “other.”

      When would that be?

      Well, let us consider the land-use situation in medieval Europe, or in modern rural-and-impoverished areas in Latin America. In economies where the only form of productive capital a person can wield is tillable land, there might be situations in which one man accumulated all the land and thus all the opportunity for generating wealth. In such circumstances it would be his responsibility to rescue the starving by alms, of course; but also his responsibility to rescue the starving who are able to work by some policy of allowing them to work his land and eventually to own it for themselves.

      If he withholds all opportunity from them, then their starvation is specifically at his hand, and a kind of assault against them…and they have just authority from God to use force against a person who would assault them in such a way. In the absence of a civil society, this would probably look like mob violence and end badly. But in a civil society, their proper recourse is to hire armed men to defend their right and competent legislators to carefully regulate the behavior of the armed men. This is called constituting a government. And thus when that government forcibly confiscates the wealthy landowner’s property and devises some scheme to distribute the land more broadly amongst the people, it is “the people” who have taken action, delegating their just authority of armed self-defense to their own employees (the legislators and policemen).

      This is all very well, provided the redistribution scheme doesn’t turn out to be unwisely devised and incompetently or corruptly managed. It usually does. But that’s beside the point: The moral authority of the poor persons deprived of any chance at productively making use of the land to force the land-monopolist into a redistribution of the land is undeniable, even if they usually mismanage it once they’ve got it.

      Ah, but in this situation we are talking about land. There’s only so much land. What about other forms of capital, though? Intellectual capital? Stock ownership in private firms?

      Here also are forms of capital, but they are different from land ownership in a purely agrarian economy, because the use of them is generally for the benefit of others. Does Apple have patents on iPhones? You bet. Do they get wealthy as a result? You bet…but, do millions of people have pretty darned good phones as a result? Why, yes. And for that matter, do millions of investors manage to improve their retirement years by having invested in Apple stock? Why, yes.

      G.K.Chesterton, in promoting “Distributism,” said that the problem with capitalists is not that there are too many, but too few. Karl Marx wanted the proletariat to murder the bourgeoise and take their stuff and distribute it amongst themselves; but that always produced poverty. Stock ownership, by contrast, allows millions of persons to be part-owners of “the means of production.” This raises the number of capitalists from “few” to “many.” And the use of that capital redounds to the benefit of all.

      This is why, if the Church’s teaching is to be strictly followed, we would not have had just authority to seize control of Apple Computer and its assets from the late Steve Jobs.

      It is not that he didn’t accumulate a lot of wealth. He did.

      It is not that it wasn’t more than he needed. It was.

      But, it didn’t fulfill that critical requirement of being an accumulation of capital “to the extreme detriment of other.” Every cent he made was made by making his customers wildly happy about the quality of the products, with fanboys lining up ’round the block for every new release. And the capital which produced this wealth was Apple Computer…owned not by Jobs alone, but by millions of persons through stock ownership.

      Only a moron, or a person who embraced the zero-sum fallacy, or a communist ideologue (but I repeat myself), could hold that this particular concentration of wealth came about through the accumulation of capital to the extreme detriment of everyone else.

      In conclusion: We “free marketers” in the U.S. need not be afraid of this teaching of the Church.

      It certainly encourages us to give voluntarily to the poor, and we should.

      But it never authorizes the government to seize our property except under circumstances which, frankly, rarely happen in modern economies.

      Like capital punishment, it is not so much that government redistributive seizures are always and everywhere intrinsically wrong. It’s just that — in the prudential opinion of modern popes — you might just as well outlaw it, since the circumstances under which it is justifiable are, in a modern economy, so very, very rare.

      Now in the United States, only the states have such a power anyway, because it was never delegated to the Federal Government in the U.S. Constitution, and, per Amendment X, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

      So one reason the U.S. Federal government should never be involved in redistribution schemes is because they’re so rarely — practically never — justified, and another is because that would be a usurpation of power from either the states or the people.

      At any rate, the Church teaches that forcible redistribution is sometimes called for, but under circumstances that probably haven’t applied in the U.S. in your lifetime or mine.

      Therefore, let us get on with the kind of redistribution which does apply, all the time: Voluntary almsgiving.

      If you’re a Catholic, are you tithing?

      If you’re a Catholic living in the U.S. whose income percentile is anywhere north of 50th percentile…aren’t you more than tithing?

      If not, why not?

      And really, is it wise for you to be advocating for a wrongful use of force by parts of the government that aren’t constitutionally authorized to wield it anyway under circumstances the Church hasn’t traditionally described as justifying forcible redistribution…if you aren’t, yourself, yet exceeding 10% of your pre-tax income to the needy?

      Think about it.

      • Thanks for the comment.

        You said, “Question: Are all accumulations of more-wealth-than-you-need the result of accumulations of capital resources to the detriment of others.”

        Is theft detrimental to others? The Catechism, quoting St. John Chrysostom, says, “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs” (2446). So if stealing is detrimental to someone, then any accumulating wealth that is not enabling those without basic resources falls into the criteria of this teaching.

        You said:

        “Stock ownership, by contrast, allows millions of persons to be part-owners of “the means of production.” This raises the number of capitalists from “few” to “many.” And the use of that capital redounds to the benefit of all.

        This is why, if the Church’s teaching is to be strictly followed, we would not have had just authority to seize control of Apple Computer and its assets from the late Steve Jobs.

        It is not that he didn’t accumulate a lot of wealth. He did.

        It is not that it wasn’t more than he needed. It was.

        But, it didn’t fulfill that critical requirement of being an accumulation of capital “to the extreme detriment of other.” Every cent he made was made by making his customers wildly happy about the quality of the products, with fanboys lining up ’round the block for every new release. And the capital which produced this wealth was Apple Computer…owned not by Jobs alone, but by millions of persons through stock ownership”

        A couple thoughts here. First, in my study of these teachings the Church is referring to individuals and not businesses or companies. I could be wrong of course, but please direct me to the document that I missed if I am. This distinction is important because it means that we are referring to Steve Job’s personal wealth and not the value of Apple stock. So yes, any personal wealth he had beyond the needs of necessity and propriety that wasn’t actively being used to enable the poor was unjust wealth that did not belong to him.

        Second, making customers widely happy isn’t the criteria for the just use of wealth. It can be a means to an end, but it’s not an end that could justify the unjust accumulation of wealth.

        You said, “Only a moron, or a person who embraced the zero-sum fallacy, or a communist ideologue (but I repeat myself), could hold that this particular concentration of wealth came about through the accumulation of capital to the extreme detriment of everyone else.”

        Which concentration of wealth are you talking about specifically? And it potentially could be causing the grievous detriment of others if it’s stealing from the poor.

        You said, “At any rate, the Church teaches that forcible redistribution is sometimes called for, but under circumstances that probably haven’t applied in the U.S. in your lifetime or mine.”

        You will need to argue that statement with more facts before it’s a given.

        You said, “Therefore, let us get on with the kind of redistribution which does apply, all the time: Voluntary almsgiving.”

        Personal almsgiving is necessary, yes. But it doesn’t preclude the teaching my article presented about the role of government.

        “If you’re a Catholic living in the U.S. whose income percentile is anywhere north of 50th percentile…aren’t you more than tithing?

        If not, why not?”

        I don’t fully understand your question here, please explain.

        “And really, is it wise for you to be advocating for a wrongful use of force…”

        Wrongful according to who?

        “…by parts of the government that aren’t constitutionally authorized to wield it anyway under circumstances the Church hasn’t traditionally described as justifying forcible redistribution…”

        Please share the documents you’re citing that indicate that our current situation is except from this teaching.

        “…if you aren’t, yourself, yet exceeding 10% of your pre-tax income to the needy?”

        Are you trying to imply that teaching of the Church I presented has less merit if I don’t give away more than 10% of my income? Further, there is no Church teaching that I know of that says we should be giving away 10%. Please correct me if I’m here. From what I’ve read we should be giving away anything above what’s necessary for survival and what’s necessary for our vocation to those in need…and that’s because doing otherwise is theft. Charity doesn’t kick in until we give from our need.

        • In the Bible, tithing, defined as 10% of one’s increase (this, arguably, could be either net or gross income) precedes the imposition of the Mosaic Law. It goes back to the Book of Genesis. It is most notably seen in Abraham’s tithe to Melchizedek. As such, tithing should still be incumbent upon Christians.

          I’ve seen Catholic apologists try to wriggle out of this. I am aware that there is no explicit teaching of the Church that we must give exactly, or at least, 10% of our income to the Church. There is also no explicit teaching of the Church AGAINST tithing. Given that uncertainty, I will fall back on what the Bible both teaches and implies: a 10% tithe or income (gross or net is not clear to me) is required of Christians.

          • The teaching of the Church is that we must help provide for the needs of the Church and that what we own beyond what what is necessary for our survival and vocation is owed to the poor. As Pope Leo XII taught:

            “True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, ‘for no one ought to live other than becomingly.’ But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over.” (Rerum Novarum, 22)

            I think that tithing, giving 10% of our income, is very Biblical and a very good practice for Christians. However, I wouldn’t ever tell anyone that the Church’s teaches that we must tithe.

      • I like the idea of employing people to till your land; but why is it your responsibility to have them eventually own it? If the owner has land that needs cultivating; the only way that people starve is if he withholds wages. Then there would be reason to get upset. This is a situation that would invite government intervention; but not to redistribute the land. The landowner should pay a just wage.

        • Yes, we agree here, because the property (in this case land) is being used to enable the poor to share in the goods owed to them out of justice. Likewise, wealth that is being used for the ends of justice and human flourishing is perfectly just and good and encouraged. However, excess wealth that is not actively contributing to justice and the common good is theft, and therefore grievously detrimental to others.

            • Yes. But that isn’t what the Church is talking about here.

              The competent authority, the government, can regulate (and even redistribute) private property if that property is being used unjustly (an objective standard, not a subjective feeling).

              • That assumes that the government is honest, has a Catholic understanding of just and unjust uses of wealth, and has not been corrupted by power or wealth. None of these things is true of our present American government, nor of most other governments in the world, ASAIK.

                • Well that is the question. I presented a principle of Catholic Social Teaching, how and when that principle should be applied is a matter of fervent debate. Really what this teaching does is set the parameters. A society that denies private property is out of the question, and so is a Libertarian free market. And what’s allowed in the middle should be informed by these principles.

                  In other words, It really just gives us the playing field for a discussion.

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