Private Property, Self-Regulation, and Just Price: A Response to Philip Booth and Samuel Gregg

By Finn, Daniel K. | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Private Property, Self-Regulation, and Just Price: A Response to Philip Booth and Samuel Gregg


Finn, Daniel K., Journal of Markets & Morality


In the previous issue of this journal, Philip Booth doubts that it is possible to stray from Catholic social thought because it is a corpus much wider than the subset of pronouncements of popes and bishops that we call Catholic social teaching. (1) However, some themes have been so universally endorsed in Catholic social thought that it is indeed possible to stray. One of the best examples is the view of private property endorsed not only by popes and bishops but also by scholars without episcopal office, such as Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas.

Concerning private property, Booth asserts that "private property does, indeed, give the owner complete control over everything that is owned." He then argues that Catholic teaching understands taxation as a permitted (perhaps necessary) "violation" of private property. Booth asserts, "I do not deviate in any sense from the Church's position." (2) As a result, he judges that I unfairly described his position because I see it as a notable example of straying from the Catholic tradition. (3) He and I have been unable to resolve our differences on this issue in private correspondence, so the reader will have to judge.

In my view, the Catholic tradition understands that the very idea of private property necessarily entails inherent duties to share from surplus wealth, so that taxation is not a violation of private property but one of several normal ways that property holders fulfill the obligations entailed in owning property.

This idea has a long history. In the book of Deuteronomy, it was required that the owner of a field of grain was to leave the corners unharvested--to be used by the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien (Deut. 24:17-22). The fathers of the early church taught that those owning a surplus are obliged to share from it with those whose needs are unmet. Concerning help offered to the poor, Ambrose of Milan said, "When giving to the poor man, you are not giving him what is yours; rather you are paying back to him what is his." (4) Augustine of Hippo said, "The superfluous things of the wealthy are the necessities of the poor. When superfluous things are possessed, others' property is possessed." (5) Thomas Aquinas defended private property but taught that it includes "common use"--that what one owns beyond what he needs for his station in life must be shared if others have unmet needs. (6) In all cases, the very idea of private property includes the duty to share from any surplus with the needy. Such a duty is not a violation of private property but an essential dimension of it.

What have the modern popes to say? John XXIII said, "There is a social duty essentially inherent in the right of private property." (7) Paul VI quotes the line from Ambrose above. (8) John Paul II talks about a "social mortgage" on all property:

   The goods of this world are originally meant for all. The right of
   private property is valid and necessary but it does not nullify the
   value of this principle. Private property, in fact, is under a
   "social mortgage," which means that it has an intrinsically social
   function based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the
   universal destination of goods. (9)

The mortgage analogy makes clear that the owner has no right to claim "complete control over everything that is owned."

To my knowledge, no pope, bishop, or major theologian in this tradition has ever taught that taxation is a violation of private property because the property owner by definition necessarily has a debt to the community. It is for this reason that I claim that Booth's presumption to the contrary is prima facie evidence of the influence of libertarian error (an excessively strong depiction of property rights) seeping into what he and others take to be authentic Catholic thinking.

What difference does all this make? It is not mere semantics. If taxation is a violation of rights, it should be kept to a bare minimum. …

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