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Distributism and the Purpose of Private Property

In the plan for establishing a distributist society — that is, a society of widespread private property ownership, that Hilaire Belloc sketches in his book, The Restoration of Property, the chief means he proposes are a system of taxation, whereby concentrations of productive property will be subject to such a high rate of taxation that, in order to avoid this tax, owners will sell off the excess property, thereby bringing about a better distribution of property. As Belloc writes:

There must be a differential tax on chain-shops, that is, on the system whereby one man or corporation controls a great number of different shops of the same kind. To control two such may involve but a small tax, to control three a larger one in proportion; and so on, with the curve rising steeply until the ownership of, say, a dozen in the territory over which the Government has power becomes economically impossible. [i]

A similar scheme of taxation would attack “multiple shops” — that is, stores selling many lines of goods, such as department stores, and stores with “large retail turnover” [ii]. To avoid this high rate of taxation, owners would choose to sell their excess property to other private buyers, not to the government. Now, such a conception of taxation seems to some confiscatory and immoral, an attack on man’s natural right to own property, a right the Church has ratified and defended. But is this really so?

One way to approach this question is to think about the concept of the final cause — that for the sake of which something is done — a concept of great importance in the philosophies of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. This concept is one of the missing elements in most of modern thought and has made many of our modern discussions of important issues pretty much pointless.

Consider the desire for food. Obviously, humans need to eat, and we have the capacity to eat in order to nourish and preserve our bodily life. Eating has other legitimate but secondary purposes: the good fellowship of a shared meal, the enjoyment of fine food and drink. But if we divorce our eating and drinking entirely from its primary end of bodily health and preservation, and we do so repeatedly, what do we end up with? Obesity, diabetes, alcoholism, cirrhosis of the liver. The Roman epicures who vomited up their food so they could enjoy another round of dishes sought to enjoy the secondary purposes of eating severed from the fundamental, and I think that even today, most of us would regard their behavior as unnatural and perverse. We humans do not have the right to break the connection between the secondary purposes of eating from its fundamental purpose, for these connections are rooted in the nature of man as God created us.

The basic purpose of something, then, acts as a limit on it, in the sense that whenever our use of any process or thing disrupts the purpose for which that process or thing is primarily intended, there is at least a potential moral problem present.

Just as our morality about food and sex must be in accord with their primary purposes, so it is with property. But does property have a purpose?

Just as our sexual organs are not simply so many appendages that happen to adorn our bodies, so it is no accident that God made man in such a way that he has a natural capacity and need for external goods. Property, too, has a purpose, and as in the case of food and sex, it is not too difficult to discern what it is. It is for providing the things we need for human life, for supporting family, for obtaining the goods upon which a truly human culture is based. Surely, the acquisition of external goods is not an end in itself, but is for the sake of our family life, our community life, our intellectual life, our spiritual life — or, as Pope John Paul II put it in Centesimus Annus, as “necessary for one’s personal development and the development of one’s family” (no. 6).

It is our human nature that ultimately determines or suggests what is “necessary for one’s personal development and the development of one’s family.” One man can eat only so much food or wear so many clothes. If I have fifty pairs of shoes, in all probability, I will keep most of them in my closet and never or rarely wear them, because that number of shoes has no rational relationship to my need for shoes. If I own ten houses, probably I will spend very little time in most of them. And so on. Our temporal needs are determined by the human nature which God gave us, which should be the regulator of our acquisition and use of external goods. As St. Thomas wrote, “the appetite of natural riches is not infinite, because according to a set measure they satisfy nature; but the appetite of artificial riches [e.g., money] is infinite, because it serves inordinate concupiscence” [iii].

Now perhaps one can see how distributism and its program of widely distributed property ownership fits into a Catholic vision of man and society. Property has a purpose; therefore, it has its proper limitations. If society, via law or custom, makes acquisition of greater wealth than is necessary for a rational satisfaction of our human nature difficult to acquire, it is not acting in an unreasonable manner or imposing anything contrary to legitimate human freedom. If laws against polygamy are just, it is hard to see how Hilaire Belloc’s proposed taxation of excessive concentrations of property is unjust. Both restrict only dis-ordered human freedom.

There are several obvious objections that must be addressed in connection with such a program. The first is the claim that to force a sell-off of property is the equivalent of confiscation and that this is necessarily unjust. This objection appears to rest upon an erroneous understanding of the right to private property, an understanding based upon the ideas of such Enlightenment philosophers as John Locke, that the right to property is absolute and that human positive law plays no part in setting limits to the right to property.

But this is not what the Church’s Magisterium has said about the subject. Pius XI, for example, in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, devotes sections 44–52 to a careful discussion of property, its rights, and the limitations on those rights. He notes the historical fact that different ages and cultures have had differing understandings of this right.

History proves that the right of ownership, like other elements of social life, is not absolutely rigid, and this doctrine We Ourselves have given utterance to on a previous occasion in the following terms: “How varied are the forms which the right of property has assumed! First, a primitive form in use among untutored and backward peoples, which still exists in certain localities even in our own day; then, that of the patriarchal age; later came various tyrannical types (We use the word in its classical meaning); finally the feudal and monarchic systems down to the varieties of more recent times.” (no. 49)

This does not mean that there is not a real right to private property. The “State has by no means the right to abolish” private property, but it does have the right “to control its use and bring it into harmony with the interests of the public good.” Thus:

… when civil authority adjusts ownership to meet the needs of the public good it acts not as an enemy, but as the friend of private owners; for thus it effectively prevents the possession of private property, intended by Nature’s Author in His Wisdom for the sustaining of human life, from creating intolerable burdens and so rushing to its own destruction. It does not therefore abolish, but protects private ownership, and far from weaking the right to private property, it gives it new strength. (no. 49)

In Laborem Exercens, John Paul II spells this out more explicitly:

Christian tradition has never upheld this right [to property] as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone. (no. 14) [iv]

Paul VI, in Populorum Progressio (1967), goes as far as to state that when there exist “large and sometimes very extensive rural estates which are only slightly cultivated or not cultivated at all,” it can be lawful to expropriate these estates in order to provide land for the poor, with compensation for the prior owners (no. 71). Thus, we must judge distributism not by Enlightenment notions of an absolute right to property, but by a Catholic understanding of that right.

Another retort that is often made to Hilaire Belloc’s taxation proposals is this: who will decide what are the reasonable limits on property? And what is to prevent restrictions on property ownership that might be reasonable at first from degenerating into tyranny? In the first place, if a distributist society were ever established, it ought to err on the side of allowing a somewhat greater concentration of property than the opposite. Moreover, I should note here that distributists do not favor an absolute equality of property or of income. Some will always be richer than others, some poorer than others. What we seek to eliminate are the disparities of wealth that create real social problems, problems of concentration of power and problems of poverty. But there will always be differences in wealth, and far from this being an evil, it is an occasion for the exercise of that charity that will be necessary even if a more just state of society is ever established.

But I do acknowledge the real truth that underlies this objection. Rulers and their bureaucracies, even without becoming tyrants, can become officious busybodies. Worse than that, real tyrants are not unknown to history. But such fears concern, or ought to concern, all human laws, not simply those designed to establish and support a distributist state. That is, there seems to me no reason why we need fear that a government will abuse its power over our property any more than over any other area of our life. Governments have always had many ways of abusing their power, and there are more direct ways of silencing opposition or doing away with troublemakers than by excessive tightening up of laws on property ownership.

Moreover, there is reason to think that in certain respects, a distributist state will be in a better position to resist tyranny, since the population will be more attached to its property and thus will be fiercer defenders of it than in a capitalist society. In a capitalist society, property, having become divorced from its fundamental purpose, tends to be conceived as mainly an item for exchange, and any connection with its owner is purely accidental and often temporary. This is most clearly seen in the matter of stock ownership, where shares change hands minute by minute, as sellers and buyers seek to discern and take advantage of opportunities to be found in the constant volatility of the market. This can be seen even in the case of more permanent goods. When someone buys a house, quite often, he sees it as an investment as much as a home. In the recent housing boom that occurred in the United States, people were glad to be able to buy houses not so that they could become rooted in a place and a piece of land, but so that their investment could appreciate and they could resell and make a profit. Such an attitude toward property is worlds away from the attitude that Pope Leo XIII advances in Rerum Novarum (no. 47) as a justification for the ownership of private property.

Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which is their own; nay, they learn to love the very soil which yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of the good things for themselves and those that are dear to them.

Where property is conceived of as having a real connection with a man or a family, a different attitude prevails. The dispute between capitalism and distributism, then, is not fundamentally about the details of property ownership, but about the very conception we have of property, of society, and at bottom of man himself. Just as both Pius XI and John Paul II point out that the root error of socialism is not economic, but an error about the nature of man and society [v], so the fundamental difference between capitalism and distributism likewise is a disagreement about the nature of man and society, about our purpose on Earth and our use of the things of this world [vi]. If this is not clearly understood, then distributism’s call for widespread ownership and for a legal structure that supports such distributed ownership, will be judged from capitalist presuppositions, presuppositions that place “an absolute value” on property because they do not acknowledge any hierarchy of human and divine goods. But when we recognize such a hierarchy, then we see things in a different light, and recognize that far from being contrary to man’s natural right to private property, distributism respects it far more than does capitalism. For, as G.K. Chesterton wrote in a striking passage:

I am well aware that the word “property” has been defied in our time by the corruption of the great capitalists. One would think, to hear people talk that the Rothchilds and the Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property; because they are enemies of their own limitations. They do not want their own land; but other people’s[.] … It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate; just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem. [vii]

[i].  The Restoration of Property (New York : Sheed & Ward, 1946), p. 69.

[ii].  Ibid.  As to this last Belloc writes, “Your large retail distributor who has only one place of business and who deals with only one kind of business can be, and is, in his way, destructive to the small man just as much as the large distributor who owns chain shops or as a multiple department store” (p. 72).

Belloc also sketches the means for the establishment of a rural distributist order. See pp. 93–118.

[iii].  Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 2, a. 1, ad 3.

[iv]. Cf. Centesimus Annus (no. 6), where John Paul wrote that Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum was “well aware that private property is not an absolute value[.].”

[v] For Pius XI, see his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, nos. 117–19. For John Paul II, see Centesimus Annus, no. 13.

[vi] John Paul also points out in section 13 of Centesimus that just as atheism is at the root of socialism, so also atheism was at the root of “the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which views human and social reality in a mechanistic way.” He clearly refers here to the ideological founders of capitalism and free-market economics, such as the Physiocrats in France or Adam Smith in Scotland.

[vii] What’s Wrong with the World, Part I, chapter 6.

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