The question of private property and weather it is just and good for human kind can be understood at the most basic level as a question of what separates man kind from all other creatures on this earth. Animals exist with two primary instincts, self-preservation and reproduction. Human beings, however, posses all of these instincts as well as the ability to reason and comprehend a life beyond the immediate present, “and on this very account- that man alone among the animal creation is endowed with reason- it must be within his right to possess things not merely for temporary and momentary use… but to have and hold them in stable and permanent possession”2. Permanence allows people to feel a sense of security when planning for the future or a life other than the one that they are currently living and it is this innate desire to plan for the future that drives man to find stability by gaining ownership of something, thus promoting the idea that mankind should have the right to privately own property and land in order to feel truly secure.
After understanding that possessions are necessary for man, it is also important to understand how man comes to have ownership over something. For example, what is the difference between an unclaimed field and acres of farm land owned and used by a farmer? The definition of ownership is “to acknowledge as one’s own; recognize as having full claim, authority, power, dominion, etc.:” 3. Understanding the true definition of ownership, one may question if it is possible to pinpoint a singular concept or element that would give a person full authority over any type of property that wasn’t completely man made, yet we acknowledge all types of private property and ownership in today’s society. The reason for this is because of the work and sacrifices a person has to contribute in order to earn that property. Pope Leo XIII states that “It is just and right that the result of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor”, meaning that if man contributes immensely or improves upon a property then he should have full authority to reap the reward for his efforts. 2
We all know that with great power comes great responsibility, and the power to have authority and control over property is no exception to that rule. Because human beings have the right to private property it is also fair to assume that there are certain responsibilities that come with that right. As a democracy, we rely on our government to enforce most of these responsibilities, an idea supported by Pope Leo XIII when he states that “the right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone”. It is clear then that government should have some say or control over private property, but how much control should the government be able to maintain before it oversteps and abuses its power, taking the ownership away from the people? A 2015 study that assessed the fairness of state and local tax systems by measuring the taxes paid by different income groups throughout all 50 states concluded that “virtually every state tax system is fundamentally unfair, taking a much greater share of income from low and middle-income families than from wealthy families.”5 This study shows that by allowing our government to control the amount of taxes a person pays based solely off of income we also leave our society vulnerable to the unequal taxation of the same private property we are all assured the right to. This varying rate of taxation was created as a way for our government to try and collect taxes in a way that would benefit the upper, middle, and lower class, but can a system really be just if it means that one person has to pay more to exercise their constitutional and natural right than another person? The right to private property that is discussed in Rerum Novarm disagrees with this inequality stating that, “the state would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair”2 The issue then becomes deciding what counts as fair and unfair. To a lower income citizen having to pay even the smallest amount of taxes means skipping a meal or loosing a place to sleep so how can that be just? At the same time however, as a country that prides itself on being the land of opportunity, how can we justify forcing the wealthier population to absorb the cost of not taxing the lower income households. Should the wealthy be punished for being successful?
Another issue surrounding the amount of control the government should have over private property is eminent domain. Eminent domain is the power of the government, allocated to them by the fifth amendment, allowing them to take private property and convert it into public use as long as they provide just compensation to the property owners. The idea of just compensation aligns with Rerum Novarum and Pope Leo XIII’s belief that property becomes a person’s after a person puts work into it or buys it with money they earned by working an equal amount somewhere else, but how well is the government policed to insure the “just compensation” is actually just? “If private property may be condemned and given to another private individual for private profit, and if the determination of which properties are to be condemned may be delegated to the person benefiting from the condemnation, and if the public purpose of the condemnation project may not be reviewed by the courts, and if the question of the necessity of the condemnation may be delegated to the beneficiary and may not be reviewed by the courts, then are there any limits on the exercise of this government power?”4 Furthering this idea, if it is fair to say that there are no limits on the government’s power over private property then it is also true that private property would no longer be considered private as any authority or control a person had to that property would no longer exist.
It is fully understandable and arguable that these theories on private property outlined by Pope Leo XIII are ideological ideas that don’t have a practical use in today’s society, but isn’t that what our for father wrote the constitution for? To protect the peoples rights and prevent the government from abusing their’s.The constitution assures us that “all rights, not specifically delegated to the government, remained with the people–including the common-law provisions of private property”1 as a way to limit our governments control, but in today’s society the governments power seems to continue to reach far beyond our for father’s limits Although it may be easier to run a country by telling people they have full ownership of their land yet possess the ability to force a family out or tax them for their property without their input or consent, the ramifications for these actions are increasingly coming into questioning by members of society who grasp a greater sense of the people’s rights, a sense Pope Leo XIII seemed to have over a hundred years ago.
In concluding these ideas I think it is necessary to clarify that neither the religious understanding of private property, through Rerum Nevarum, nor the political understanding of private property, outlined by the constitution, have a step by step system on how to deal with every possible situation that could arise in a society so these observations on the right and wrong interpretations of natural and civil law are just that, observations. But with Donald Trumps recent news scandal on the use of eminent domain to build a casino and the constant battle between the taxation of the rich versus the poor, the governments control over private property is not an issue that is going away any time soon.
- Pecquet, Gary. “Private Property and Government Under the Constitution.” FEE Freeman Article. Accessed May 05, 2016. https://fee.org/articles/private-property-and-government-under-the-constitution/.
- Pope Leo, XIII. “Rerum Novarum (May 15, 1891) | LEO XIII.” Rerum Novarum (May 15, 1891) | LEO XIII.
- Popular Webster Dictionary, Self-pronouncing. New York: World Syndicate, 1928.
- “Public Power, Private Gain: The Abuse of Eminent Domain.” : Publications : The Federalist Society. Accessed May 04, 2016. http://www.fed-soc.org/publications/detail/public-power-private-gain-the-abuse-of-eminent-domain.
- “Report: Fundamentally Unfair Tax System In Every State.” Its Our Economy. 2015. Accessed May 04, 2016. http://itsoureconomy.us/2015/01/report-fundamentally-unfair-tax-system-in-every-state/.