This is not about extreme forms of private property. It is about the rights ownership of private property in the face of someone in severe or extreme need who is without.
Catholic Social Teaching (CST) includes a standard doctrine on private property. If one parses the many attempts to lay out CST appropriately, the first, and by far the most important (in my view) element of that teaching is that private property is part of the natural law. I heartily endorse this teaching. Private property does not arise merely as a result of social choices to allot and allocate to a man powers over certain goods.
Probably the second most common element of that teaching as found is that the “right” to private property is not absolute: it has limits. A man’s right to his property (or, to ‘his’ property) runs up against other goods, other demands, and must give way in some cases to other rights, needs, or demands of human nature.
I have no problem with this caveat on private property doctrine. I have repeatedly mentioned 2 or 3 of the implied limitations on private property. The most obvious one (arguably) is that having the right to property doesn’t give you the right to do something intrinsically evil with it: you cannot murder someone in cold blood merely because the gun you use is “your property”. Ownership of the gun, while real, does not extend to doing anything and everything you can physically manage with the gun.
Another limitation on your ownership is the right of the state to tax you, and this too I have strongly endorsed in multiple discussions here. Since by nature man is social, and since there cannot be peace among many without an ordering principle, man by nature belongs in a state which is that ordering principle. And states require resources to operate. Since nature does not provide the state with its OWN resources, it must get them from people. The state, and the common good of which it has the care, can demand of men some portion of their goods. This constitutes a limitation on a man’s ownership: he can own property, but not so firmly that the state cannot take a portion thereof.
One of the common sub-theories for the principle that man’s private property claims are limited (though probably not so universally agreed as the above 2 examples) is one supposed to spring from the tenet named “the universal destination of goods”, namely, the right of destitute people to the goods necessary for life. While this proposed teaching is quite common, you won’t find universal agreement among Catholic teachers on it – or at least on how to present the notion - for it harbors rather severe disputed aspects. But you will find it throughout the literature. Here is one:
Cases of extreme need set a strict limit on property rights. This means not only that those in extreme poverty are justified in taking resources, but that those with resources must provide and not withhold them: "No one is justified in keeping for his exclusive use what he does not need, when others lack necessities."
I will note that not all of these offered are stated in absolute terms.
Domingo de Soto makes the analysis more complex when saying that the person “in extreme need” can take remedy on the neighbor’s bread, but not to sell it; therefore it seem that in this case it is not ownership but the right to use that is transferred.
Our own recent discussion on distributism produced this exchange between Mike and Nice Marmot on the very point:
But it seems to me that in the classical/Christian understanding of wealth-getting, the poor man's needs take precedence over the wealthy man's wantsAnd herein is the problem for public policy. If a poor man is sexually promiscuous (which many young, poor men are) and gets a disease, is it incumbent upon the rich man to sacrifice his wealth?
Fundamentally, I'd say yes, if we're working within a Christian context. Exactly how that works out policy-wise is another matter.
If I may summarize the theory: a man’s right to reserve his excess or idle property to himself is qualified by the needs of others. In particular, if a man has excess beyond his needs, and another comes who is destitute and in grave or extreme need and has not the goods needed for life, the first man’s claim to his excess property does not obtain, the second has a right to those good he needs for life. (In a second form, or in a sub-component of the theory, this extends not only to the goods necessary for life, but also to the goods necessary to human dignity. I will not directly take up this latter form here. Let me just say in passing that many are those who profess the former but not the latter.)
Now, I am not prepared to simply repudiate outright to theory that the right of a man to own his property is limited by other persons need for basic necessities such that, as said above, the man in extreme need can simply take because the former owner no longer retains the property right over it. But I am prepared to suggest that the theory, as claimed so far, seems to be missing something important – some needed qualifiers, some unstated bases, some added objective, some required conditions. Something(s), perhaps all of the above. And, further, that without these, the theory as claimed so far is more confused than clarifying, more obscuring than enlightening. Perhaps even: more wrong than right.
I could produce any number of practical problems with the theory. I have done so in the past, different problems, which I will list summarily here: (1) A man is a poor judge of his own case. In particular, a poor judge of his own degree of need. (2) A man (as private citizen) is often not a good judge of whether another’s property is ”excess” or “superfluous” or “idle” in sufficient sense to justify appropriating it on his own cognizance. (3) Without certainty about either whether the property being appropriated is truly “excess” or “idle”, or whether the man doing it is truly in need, i.e. that we have “the right circumstances” to limit the private property rights of the one who previously owned the property, violence is like to result.
But before solving questions of how to apply the theory in practice while avoiding evils as great or even greater than the evils the theory exists to address, there are more basic problems. The first I will pose is that of generosity. If a man has an obligation to use his excess wealth to better the condition of those in need, if he has an obligation to spiritual and (especially) corporal works of mercy like feeding the hungry, how can he do so if that property which would have been his excess is not his because his right to such (excess) property ceases to obtain in the face of others’ need? That is to say, how can a man GIVE AWAY, out of charitable zeal, what is not even his own property? If it ceases to be his own when another is in need, he cannot “give it away”, he has no authority over what is not his.
The second problem is like to it: if a man who receives beneficence as a gift owes anything to the giver, it is that of gratitude. He owes it to those who help in his misery to lift him up, that he be thankful for their kindness (first to God, and then to them). But if all they are doing is allowing him to use property that he already has a right to, he has no debt of gratitude to them at all. Or, are we to say that while a man's need is minor and petty, he has a debt of gratitude to him who helps out, but when it has advanced rather to severe or extreme condition the debt of gratitude passes away? Is this not insanity? Has any man rescued from extreme need ever so acted? Would the beaten and robbed man, when the good Samaritan returns to the inn, not shower him with thanks?
Suppose the ship is sinking, everyone gets into the lifeboat, and when Sam jumps into a lifeboat with the others, his backpack holds a 6-pack of water bottles because he is a boy scout, is always prepared, and has a particular concern for not going thirsty. And suppose that there is no other water aboard, and rescue (if it will happen at all) is certain to be some time in coming. Now, the practical problems with the theory proposed run something like this: when can we say that “rescue is taking too long, we have to ‘rely on our own resources’ to survive, so we can simply expropriate the water bottles and dole them out”? And “how do we decide when Bill, who is fat and sweating, is more ‘in need’ than Jane who is skinny and tends to dehydrate herself even when there is water available” – and none of us is a doctor to tell which has physical need versus which merely has the desire? I think that these problems, though somewhat difficult, have possible solutions.
But the principled problem is more worrisome: if Sam says: “hey, I have 6 bottles of water, I want to offer them so they are here for everyone on a fair basis”, do the others owe him a “thank you” to Sam? If it his property, they do.
Or, do we say rather that Sam is being outrageously proprietary to even have used the word “offer”, his only proper course of action is to POINT OUT the water, and (perhaps, if he feels it is not perfectly clear) that the water has already become common property.
I think we would reject the second and approve the first. Sam is right to make the offer, he is right to take what is, for the moment still his own property, and turn it over to the community at large for the good of many rather than his own good alone. And this act of his is an act of generosity, not merely one of simply recognizing he no longer has _any_ claim at all over the water. And that the others owe him gratitude for his generosity.
These problems obtain generally: If a man is in need, and someone else has excess, he can always ASK for help. And if he gets the help he asks for, he owes thanks for the gift. If a rich man ought to give of his wealth to succor the poor, and the poor asks it of him, and he gives it, then he makes an act of generosity, for “corporal works of mercy” like feeding the hungry are acts of mercy, and mercy is over and above justice. And to the act of mercy is owed not a return of payment for goods received, but a return of thanks. The theory that the excess or idle property ceases to belong to the heretofore owner because another man is in need and has no way of satisfying that need except from the goods of others would do away with generosity and gratitude, in direct contradiction to actual experience.
And these problems with generosity and gratitude unfold still further: if a man is in need, and asks of a rich man, and the rich man says no, but he can ask of another rich man who can say yes…on what basis can he expropriate what he needs from the first rich man who said no when what he needed was available for the asking elsewhere? Or, to put it another way, if a man is in need, and there are 2 or more from whom he can receive the help he needs from excess goods, which one no longer owns the property that the poor man needs?
But suppose we modify the theory with just a nudge: if instead society says to the rich man: “you are free to keep your excess wealth, and if a man in need asks it of you, you have the legal power to say yes or no: but if you say no, your rights to such private property are null and we will expropriate it from you to meet his needs”, then the rich man does not really have the property right to decide whether to give or not to help the poor man as an act of mercy: he is forced to. In order for the rich man to have the noble, loving, and meritorious act of generosity, he has to have the possibility of NOT so acting, the possibility of acting badly, of choosing evil, of the demerit of ungenerosity. And a rule that he will either “give it freely or we will take it away” defeats giving freely.
The third overall problem is that of saving, not of merely setting aside what is excess pure and simple with no particular purpose, but setting aside for some future definite purpose. When Joseph was taken to Egypt, he ended up in charge of a savings program to set aside grain for 7 years for a future need. Are we to imagine that during all that time nobody was in need. In the Pentateuch, Moses sets forth a law (as will apply in the Promised Land), where the people are to harvest for 6 years, but in the 7th year the land is to rest, and THEY are to rest, and to live off the yield from the 6 years – which means they must have saved. Are we to understand that they had no neighbors, neither those near nor those somewhat farther afield, with a sad story of need at which they were obliged to say “sorry, this grain is set aside for another purpose?” More generally, when a man saves and saves and breaks his back to work harder to save for some bigger, better, difficult project that will take much in resources, (a project, we may assume, that is for the good of many including many poor), are we to understand that he must not set aside when a poor person asks of him out of their need? Christ tells the tale of the man who sets out to build a tower: will he not be a fool if he does not determine beforehand if he has enough set aside to finish the job? And if this tower was to help protect the walls of the city in attack? Or (moving forward a few centuries) was to be a factory for making shoes and employing dozens of poor? Or a hospital to take care of the sick, including the poor sick? Or a laboratory to come up with antibiotics?
Every large endeavor in the world, every project needing the excess resources of many men, or of many years output – the dams that protect villages from floods, and produce power for thousands, the city walls that protect from barbarian thugs, the Ag & Tech colleges that teach men to farm well, the library at Alexandria or the statuary of Phidias – they happen only because men have the foresight to see how a great work would benefit the many, and they either receive donation from one who has great excess, or they encourage many to set aside some small excess amount and give it to them, or they request of the many part of what they have already set aside. Not one such project would be possible, if it is wrong to set your excess aside when there is a poor man in need. There is ALWAYS a poor man in need. There is no end to the need.
Ecclesiastes 11:2 Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.
Are we to imagine that the man who invests in 7 or 8 ventures does so with money left over after
And even if the goal or project is not some endeavor that will serve for the good of many, but is rather for the superlative good of one, must we ALWAYS AND EVERYWHERE forego each and every element of luxury until all the poor have been satisfied? Must we never spend money upon a good wine when we could have bought the lesser (or just managed with water) and spent the rest on the poor? Is there never a time to spend abundantly in joy, in celebration, in exuberance?
But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said,5"Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?"… Therefore Jesus said, "Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. 8"For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me."
The fourth kind of problem is that of idleness or excess that is, but is not, idle. It is excess or idle only in a sense, not absolutely. Above we identified the theory with regard to goods that are excess or idle. If a man has land that he does not use it could be given to those who have no land. But who decides that the land is idle: if the Jew plants for 6 years, and the 7th he allows it to rest, is that “idle”? He does not think so, as Scripture tells him so. But if his neighbor, not being a Jew, thinks “he isn’t using the land”, on what basis is the one or the other to be correct? Or, if a county sets aside land to be a nature reserve, to reduce the encroaching overburden of development, to give nature a place protected, to retain an area of green and living free from man, and a poor man says “I need land to farm and you yourself said ‘you aren’t using this’, on what basis is he to be told no? Or, a man on a lot of half an acre uses 1/10 for the house, and 6/10 for a vegetable garden, and leaves 3/10 for an untouched space on St. Francis’s dictum that in each (Franciscan) priory they set aside a portion for nature to be untouched, but a poor person comes and says “I need a place to build my home, and you aren’t using this, so I am going to use it.”
And the 5th problem is when to stop throwing good money after bad. If a poor woman is in desperate need of a liver transplant – will die in 2 weeks if she doesn’t get it - and there is indeed a liver waiting for her, must we provide the many thousands for health care costs to do it? what if she also has stage 4 cervical cancer that will kill her in 6 months no matter what we do? Must we “save” her from death in 2 weeks if we can? If a drug user keeps spending the welfare check on crack, or the drunkard spends it on booze, must we keep paying them for “basic living needs”? Or, to get back to Mike’s example, if a poor but charming philanderer gets an STD, must we spend money to cure him, when he is going to return to his same old behavior? When are we to say: “we will no longer cooperate in your evil”? Surely, surely, there are limits, there is a BASIS, upon which we can say that we are not obliged to keep contributing to the support of a man who will not (or has not) done his own part to avoid that condition of need.
If a man will not work, neither shall he eat. 2 Thessalonians 3:10
So, if a poor man comes to a rich man’s house where there is food in excess, and he says to himself “I can take and eat that; because of my need and his excess it is not his property any more”, what shall the poor man say when the rich man finds him eating the food, and says to him “I would have given you work to do had you asked, but if you will not work, neither shall you eat” and takes the food away again? And if the rich man has the right to ask the poor man to work and then pay him wages out of what goods he has, then those goods he has remain his to command in the process, they do not cease - due to the poor man’s need - to be his own property even before he bargains with the poor man for work. And Alejandro Chafuen remarks on the fact that the real claim of the one in extreme need does not, of itself, extinguish the possibility of recompense later – which again implies that the claim is one of use, not of ownership. The original owner can (be obligated to) make over the property, but may do so as a loan, and then receive back the same or like in the future as a matter of justice.
These are not easy problems to solve while maintaining the theory. In fact, I have hardly seen anyone of a liberal bent even try for real. And I would submit, that without an attempt to address these issues, the theory is so deficient, so troubled, potentially so ready to run us off the rails of good social teaching, that perhaps we need to stop claiming it until there is a solid defense of it. I think the theory, as currently presented has holes you can drive a Mack truck through, and a lot more work needs to be done before it can hold its head up in polite society.