Is Private Property Just?

Rachel Campbell – Period 3

A common debate found in the discussions of many economists today revolves around the idea of private property, and whether or not the possession of private property is morally just or necessary for the success and happiness of an individual. This deliberation has been considered for many ages and has developed many arguments both for and against the ownership of private property, with people such as Karl Marx, Ludwig von Mises, and even Aristotle commenting on the dilemma. With this topic taking center stage in the world of economics in the past century, it has become a difficult conversation not to consider or partake in, even for establishments such as the Catholic Church and its previous leader Pope Leo XIII, whose encyclical, Rerum Novarum, sheds a distinct light on the situation at hand, as well as provides critical stances on the rights and moral obligations of man. The following question remains: is private property beneficial to the existence of man and necessary for the success of the human being, or should it be eradicated?

The first step in assessing the morality of the ownership of private property is to discuss the opinions of those who have previously exercised their efforts to research what they believe to be the most practical and beneficial system regarding the involvement of the State in the personal affairs of a country’s citizens. For instance, Aristotle, a renowned philosopher, concludes in his work titled The Politics that the State exists for the purpose of creating and protecting “the good life”[1]. He argues that in order to achieve a properly functioning State, which in and of itself must provide the happiness that defines a good life, the freedom to own private property must be present in the life of each individual. Aristotle states that, “they who contribute most to such a society have a greater share in it than those who have the same or a greater freedom or nobility of birth but are inferior to them in political virtue; or than those who exceed them in wealth but are surpassed by them in virtue”[2]. This theory supports the idea that private property is a right for every person who puts work back into the society that works for them. This theory is more commonly known as the capitalism, which is put in practice in many countries around the world, including the United States of America, and is supported by many well-known economists, including the famous author of Liberty and Property, Ludwig von Mises. With many published works and years of research backing his credibility, the opinion of von Mises is hardly one that can be ignored. Von Mises argues that all pre-existing economic systems resulted in the restrictions of man and his capabilities[3]. With capitalism as the economic practice of a country, man becomes unlimited in the amount of possible production available to him through the principle of marketing, which in turn, as von Mises states, caused a significant decrease in infant mortality, an increase in the longevity of an individual’s life and in population size, and the amenities of life became more easily attained for the average working man[4]. In an argument for the right to private property, Ludwig von Mises mentions that “pioneers of new ways of thinking and acting could work only because private property made contempt of the majority’s ways possible,”[5] which furthers the idea that private property is not only a right, but that it is beneficial on an individual and State level. This theory makes it much more difficult to argue that private property is not an essential right in the life of each human being.

Although both Aristotle and von Mises offer extremely well-thought out arguments with little to no room for a valid opposition to the theory of capitalism, another economic philosopher attempted to offer credible opinions opposing the very essence of capitalism and proposes his own economic system to correct societal and governmental mistakes which he calls communism. As the author of the Manifesto of the Communist Party and a famous historical figure, Karl Marx encouraged the existence of a State with complete control over all property, negating any right of an individual to possess private property. Marx wanted the separation of classes, which he referred to as the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat, to become extinct[6] through his new economic system. He believes that “the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie”[7] is an inevitable outcome of capitalism. As a result of this revolution, communism will take over, creating a society in which no private property is available to the common man without it being allotted to him by the State. However, the process in which a society would get to a workable practice of communism includes morally unjust actions, as described by the “violent revolution” Marx discusses in his Manifesto, leading many people to stray away from his idea of an idyllic society.  Thus, further options must be considered in order to find a perfect economic system.

After the examination of the works of distinguished economic philosophers, it becomes necessary to assess the morality of economic systems in order to determine which system would be most beneficial for the human race, but also one that causes the least amount of harm to both the individual and society as a whole. The Catholic Church, a source of great influence for those who are both religious and non-religious, presented an encyclical written by Pope Leo XIII that explains both the natural rights of a human being regarding private property and the moral obligations of every person, especially those who are capable of sharing their wealth with those in poverty. Pope Leo XIII states very early on in his encyclical that “the impelling reason and motive of [an individual’s] work is to obtain property,”[8] which reinforces his argument that without the possibility of private ownership, each person would lose the motivation to work at all, therefore causing an inevitable increase in unemployment. He goes on to say that “every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own”[9] because of the fact that God gave the earth to humanity and that “the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man’s own industry, and by the laws of individual races”[10]. Pope Leo XIII makes a persuasive remark that by putting one’s own work into production of goods or the fruits of nature, one “makes [their] own that portion of nature’s field which he cultivates” which cannot be justly violated or taken away[11]. With these rights established, Leo XIII moves on to discuss the moral obligations of an individual, especially of a person owning a large amount of private property. He quotes St. Thomas Aquinas’ words when he says: “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.”[12] These words reflect the principle of charity, and of sharing one’s blessings with those who are less fortunate. Pope Leo XIII also states that “the blessings of nature and the gifts of grace belong to the whole human race in common, and that from none except the unworthy is withheld the inheritance of the kingdom of Heaven,”[13] which confirms previous statements that express the basic right of private property since all of earth belongs to all of humanity. Although the Church has no direct power in the State, its influence is widespread and affects the choices of many, even those who do not believe in Catholicism. With the publication of the Church’s opinion on the idea of the right to own private property published by Pope Leo XIII, over time many governments have adopted the practice of freedom to own private property while encouraging the wealthy to share their prosperity with the poor, thus encouraging the existence of Capitalism and ensuring the continuity of private ownership. Most Western countries have implemented policies that follow this middle road between capitalism and communism by permitting the ownership and exploitation of private property while using taxation and regulation to protect the vulnerable and provide a social safety net for the impoverished.

Upon considering the published opinions of esteemed economic philosophers and the influential Catholic Church, it can be determined that private property is not only morally just, but a necessity in the success of each individual and of humanity as a whole. The right to own property is not only beneficial to the human race and society, but its existence is undeniable, proven through both spiritual and practical reasons. Although it is possible for private property to exist without the practice of capitalism, it is a very limited possibility, making capitalism a viable option for protecting and ensuring the basic right of a human being to own private property and create a meaningful and fulfilling life.

[1] Aristotle. “The Politics.” Edited by Bernardo Aparicio. Dallas: Ursuline Academy, 2016.

[2] Aristotle

[3] “Liberty and Property.” Ludwig von Mises in How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch, ed. Mr. Aparicio, Ursuline Academy, 2015.

[4] Von Mises

[5] Von Mises

[6] Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, Samuel Moore, and David McLellan. 1992. The Communist manifesto. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[7] Marx

[8] Rerum Novarum, Encyclical Letter of Pope Leo XIII on the Condition of Labor. New York: Paulist Press, 1940.

[9] Pope Leo XIII

[10] Pope Leo XIII

[11] Pope Leo XIII

[12] Pope Leo XIII

[13] Pope Leo XIII

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