Thoughts on Property, Economics, and Catholicism

An exchange of economic ideas closing out the second night of the 2015 Portsmouth Institute conference, on Pope Francis, gave a real contrast of thinking (full video below).  Taking up the side of economic progressivism was essayist and Brown PhD student Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig; taking up the more-free-market side was Cliff Hobbins, a teacher of history and economics at the Portsmouth Abbey school.

Government or God as the Origin of Property Rights

Perhaps the most striking comment of the discussion came from Bruenig, who claims that “your property is not private property in any meaningful sense unless the government agrees to protect it for you.”  Progressives appear to have found something essentially semantic in that claim that leads them to believe it is as obvious as those who disagree believe it is plainly wrong.  In fact, right after this presentation, I became mired in a lengthy Twitter exchange with Bruenig’s husband, Matt, and together, we drew an elaborate lesson in argumentation from hypotheticals.

A decent starting point to enter the overlapping interaction of property, government, and morality is to consider a property owner who is stronger than anybody around him; he can protect his own property, perhaps hiring others to help him watch over it.  At the most basic level, what it ultimately comes down to (which the Twitter argument illustrated in absurd detail) is that property belongs the one who is willing and able to claim and protect it.

Matt Bruenig’s hypothetical came with the prerequisite that the owner couldn’t use violence to protect his stuff.  That doesn’t prove that government is the origin of private property; it proves that if the people involved can’t agree to a moral code for property ownership, then it comes down to force.  To violence.  Government doesn’t create the right to private property by agreeing to defend it; the owner simply transfers his preexisting right to protect his goods to some authority, with the calculation that the benefits outweigh the costs that he must incur and the compromises that he must make.

The only sense in which Elizabeth Bruenig’s statement could be conceivably true is semantic: Without government, of some kind, there cannot truly be said to be such a thing as public property, and private property is mainly defined in contrast.  But note, that’s only in the abstract.  In the concrete and personalized, the concept that “this is mine” does not require the existence of a “public,” but simply of somebody else.  This observation blends immediately into the theological components of Bruenig’s presentation.

She cites Saint Augustine as putting forth the notion that “from sin comes the Fall, and from the Fall, scarcity,” leaving government as “a gift from God” in order to regulate its use.  She quotes him as writing (in his Tractate 6) that property is a human right, and “God has distributed these same human rights to the human race through the emperors and kings of the world.”

The construct of a human right is in distinction from a divine right; the former are rights that were created by humans.   As Augustine puts it, “by divine right, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’”  The leap that progressives make, in this regard, is to assume that, absent the Fall and scarcity, the ideal was of everything’s being common property. Rather, everything was God’s property.

Indeed, in Genesis 2:15-16, the relationship of God, man, and property is clear:  “The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.  The Lord God gave man this order: ‘You are free to eat from any of the trees in the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad.’”

There was only God’s property and His permission to make use of it, with one rule.  Two events immediately following mankind’s failure to follow that one rule go right to the heart of the concept of property. First, God punishes man by decreeing that he will have to work to earn food; it won’t simply be given over to him anymore.  “In toil shall you eat” the yield of the soil (Genesis 3:17).  Second, God makes leather garments specifically for Adam and Eve, an action much more resonant of a gift from one being to another than the stewardship of caring for the world.  Finally, it is by their separation from God that the notion of human ownership of property comes into being.

Property Belongs to the Best User

Turning to St. Augustine’s Letter 153, section 26, the notion of just ownership of property is clearly prior to human rights and human laws.  Citing from the book of Proverbs, Augustine argues that the scripture should lead one to conclude that people “enjoying possessions they have acquired lawfully, but who don’t know how to use them” are “keeping what belongs to someone else.”  (The text is different, but Proverbs 13:22 fits the sentiment: “The good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the just.”)

It is the right use of property that indicates a person possesses it rightly, and Augustine jokes about “how many people ought in fact to return property that isn’t theirs, and how few can be found who ought to have property returned to them.”

As for “civil laws” (Augustine’s quotation marks), they “are not intended to make [wrongful owners] use possessions rightly, but rather to make them less oppressive in misusing them, until the time when the faithful and pious reach that city where their inheritance is eternity.”  These sentiments are all bound up in the assumption that those who use wealth properly will not really to want it — “the more justly they own property, the more they despise it” — but it does give some good context to formulate an answer to an unavoidable question that progressives seem adept at avoiding:  Who decides to whom property should go?  By whose lights do we say that one person will use property rightly?

Who Decides Best Use?

Some common ground can likely be found in noting that somebody who is going to buy basic necessities for his family would be using wealth properly, but that common ground quickly peters away.  The first grain to fall has to do with discerning who will actually rightly use the wealth.  A man who uses a cash gift to buy drugs, rather than food, clearly would not be using it rightly.  If the society gives the man food and he uses the money that would otherwise have gone to that purpose in order to buy drugs, rather than to improve his situation, he would also not be using it rightly.

The second grain has to do with the moral agency of the man himself.  Perhaps he rightly takes the money and spends it on food for his family, but then he learns not that he must improve himself — in health, in outlook, in skills, and in spirituality — but that others are obligated to provide for him.  Then he is not rightly using the wealth.  Indeed, he is arguably pushing back on God’s just punishment of Adam and the command to toil for one’s food.

So, who decides, in all this?  Turning to Cliff Hobbins’s commentary, in which he cited the economic writings of Saint Pope John Paul II, the answer might be (in essence) the market controlled by the democratic expressions of a moral population.  Only with that confluence of three ideals can capitalism be in the right, according to John Paul’s thinking.

Indeed, that’s a wonderful guide, but in practice, it leaves us having to draw lines against the inevitability of democratic tyranny and the corrupting influence on government of its power to confiscate and reassign wealth.  The challenge, in other words, lies in knowing when the morality and the democracy are sound.

As democracy becomes corrupted through self-interest and morality wanes, government can become a more-efficient tool for protecting property that is wrongfully held than it ever was for helping redirect it to the right people.  Mano a mano, the motivated man with higher aspirations will keep his property from the man who merely wants possessions and is hoarding them, but government of any type is an unfit means of judging aspirations.  By definition, innovation and advancement are risks and typically impossible to articulate on a broad enough scale to overcome the more immediate promises of demagogues who promise immediate material rewards.

The Economy of Exclusion

Of course, technological advancement should not be taken to be the highest purpose of humanity, and our morality encompasses more than property rights.  The Church and somebody speaking purely in materialist terms of economics are speaking of substantially different things.

In a free-market system, innovators strive to collect resources by providing products on which a great number of people place some value, and gaps undoubtedly exist, leaving people missed and, as it were, assigned no value by the market.  Catholic social teaching, meanwhile, is mainly concerned with the disadvantaged and those who aren’t well suited for the worldly rat race.  Whatever their value to the market, they remain within God’s embrace, or as Elizabeth Bruenig put it, “they still deserve some opportunity for some standard of living just as they deserve opportunity for salvation that Christ offers us.”

No Christian should deny that proposition, but the danger (to pick up one of the threads of this series of essays) is in adopting a patrician attitude that objectifies the lowly as the targets of our good intentions.  We tend to make ourselves God, providing a standard of living for the disadvantaged, rather than their fellow people ushering them toward salvation.

Bruenig raised some of Pope Francis’s most colorful language on the subject, such as an “economy of exclusion” and an “economy that kills.”  (During the Q&A, one audience member called those “fighting words.”)  The objective — as Bruenig articulated it, and as Francis appears to agree — is an economy in which it is possible for everybody to, in some way, answer God’s punishment of Adam and toil for his sustenance.

The question can’t simply be dismissed, however, whether make-work provides dignity.  Money without real work — without the earning and the creation of some value for somebody else — is simple materialism.  The commandment to serve one another is not merely a performance ritual, and those who are less able to compete, for whatever reason, are not exempt from its requirements.  That is, Jesus was not merely speaking to the able bodied.

Moreover, make-work makes us all poorer.  To the extent that solidarity implies that all goods are common goods, the market serves the whole.  Just so, when we use the market inefficiently — by, for example, having somebody do work that doesn’t need to be done — we do so to the detriment of the whole.  In a simplistic equation:

Market = output – (pay + consumption)

Paying a worker simply so that he or she has work creates a negligible economic benefit in output, although there is some economic benefit from the enabled consumption.  However, that consumption merely moves the resources from somewhere else to where the worker allocates it, and that isn’t necessarily its most productive use.

An economy that’s planned to the degree of guaranteeing work for those who are not particularly well suited toward it makes everybody, collectively, poorer by insisting that paying off the bottom rung is the most efficient way to redistribute.  A different view is that competition is a better route to more-just distribution, because it begins with incentive for the individual to find some way to add value to the world.  Central planning, redistribution, and regulation hinder that process.

Even more, to the extent that government becomes both a mechanism for protecting wealth that is wrongly held and for redistributing wealth toward those who have proven unable to add value, it harms those who are pursuing the most moral path — whether as leading-edge, society-changing innovators or as struggling workers pushing, with gritted teeth, through the brambles of adversity.  The fundamental problem, for progressives, is that they want to take money from those who don’t want to give it.  Adverse outcomes are inevitable, because those from whom progressives attempt to confiscate wealth will strive to pass the bill, and people willing to sacrifice will take it up.


In her time speaking and as part of the panel, Bruenig made a point of insisting that charity is a completely separate thing from an economic system, but as a simple fact, all wealth is within the economic system.  Charity just comes at economic questions from a different direction.  Bruenig would better have said that charity brings a different set of priorities to the individual’s allocation of some of his or her wealth.

In that regard, encouraging charity is an unmitigated good.  Even the best-intentioned people will waste money, if they have more than enough for basics, and on the whole, charitable giving will subtract more from waste than from productive use.  One would expect the millionaire to discard a useless bauble in favor of charity before he eliminates a profitable investment.  That is, if people prioritize advancement (progress), then charity will tend to displace other items that have a lower priority for them.

On the receiving end, the distinction between receiving charity and receiving a just wage is crucial.  Since the Fall we have not taken — and should never take — it for granted that the world will provide all of our material needs.  The world is God’s; it owes us nothing.  We implicitly sense that there is something not only risky, but also beneath our calling, to exist entirely on charity, or if we no longer have that sense, it’s another indication that we’ve lost our way.  (Note that “existing entirely on charity” is very different from accepting charity as a temporary measure.)

Disguising charity as make-work doesn’t erase this basic deterioration of our purpose.

To be sure, individual businesses and society can be helped or hindered by their sense of their own missions and belief in themselves.  A company that accommodates disabled people, for instance, will give others of its employees a sense of mission and send a virtuous message all around that may, in the long run, improve its productivity.  For this to be distinguished from charity, however, those whose vocation is to fill such roles must understand it and agree that it is their own unique calling.

If one danger of a patrician, progressive attitude is that it leads those with advantages to think of themselves as caretaker gods, another danger is that it will sap those with disadvantages of their sense of purpose — or rather, their sense that they must seek their own purpose and their own source of value.


After the Fall came Cain (a farmer) and Abel (a shepherd).  Each brought a gift of his labor to God — the arbiter of value — and God preferred Abel’s.  Cain (whose name is a play on the word for “I have produced”) reacted negatively, and God explained, “Why are you so resentful and crestfallen? If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master.”  Then, in envy, Cain killed his brother, and as punishment, God removed his ability to be productive in his vocation.

Dignity comes with doing as well as we can, not with reward.  Dignity comes from within, and the comfort of that knowledge is among the chief benefits of religion for the poor.  A worldview that encourages a sense of their own victimhood is a grievous harm to them: Just as a wealthy man receives no moral credit for giving away what he wrongfully possesses (in Augustinian terms), a poor man cannot give to God material gifts that he did not earn.  The latter will be sin’s master when he can hold up his head, and an economy of inclusion would be one that enables him to do so.

More to the point, one cannot give what one does not possess.  This interaction of work, property, and exchange with God is fundamental; it is more important than and prior to government.  Government, therefore, cannot be the source of a right where government has no inherent rights of its own.

The two economic visions expressed that June evening at the Portsmouth Institute conference come down to this: Progressives harken back to the ancient hierarchy of God then government then individuals, and they would like to return us to a condition of righteous kings and emperors; free-marketers take the more-evolved understanding of economics in which the hierarchy is God then individuals then government.

Because we are higher than government in that more-evolved schema, we can interact with each other — and do things for each other — in other ways than through government, which is the lowest, most base, most prone-to-sin arena for our interactions.

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