Private property and the common good

On October 3, Pope Francis handed down his second social encyclical, On Fraternity and Social Friendship, already known by its incipit, Fratelli tutti. It is, like Laudato si’ before it, a document of penetrating insight and uncommon clarity. Francis astutely diagnoses most of the problems afflicting neoliberal society and points to potential solutions to these problems. Fratelli tutti is a long document and I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have digested the whole thing in a week. It is, I think, a document that will require time to consider and process adequately, especially in the light of Laudato si’ and his other pronouncements on the social question. However, some of his points have already caused a lot of discussion. One such point, which has attracted a lot of attention, particularly from leftists with more or less Catholic sympathies, is that the right to private property is a “secondary right” (n. 120).

In a sense, Francis says nothing new when he calls property a “secondary right.” Pius XI, in Quadragesimo anno, recognized that, like everything else, private property must be ordered to the common good (n. 49). Francis says essentially the same thing, when he writes that “private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods. This has concrete consequences that ought to be reflected in the workings of society. Yet it often happens that secondary rights displace primary and overriding rights, in practice making them irrelevant” (n. 120).

It is clear that Francis, unlike most of his readers on the left, understands Pius’s point: a secondary right is a right, but it cannot be allowed to “displace primary and overriding rights, in practice making them irrelevant.” In this regard, Francis remains squarely in the tradition of Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II. The leftists who take up Francis’s statement as a new charter depart from that tradition. And not merely in the context of property. To say that a secondary right is no right, of course, would be to sweep away, for example, most legal and political procedures, since they are, after all, for the most part only secondary rights. Certainly one does not imagine Francis’s loudest interpreters saying, for example, that a trial by jury may be dispensed with simply because it is a secondary right.

Of course, given the strident criticism in some circles of Ius & Iustitium and the project to recover the classical legal tradition, nothing would give me greater pleasure than seeing the recognition, especially in leftist circles, that legal procedures, whether judicial or administrative or penal, are not absolute mandates and ought to be harmonized always with the common good. Indeed, if the misreading of Fratelli tutti leads people to realize that the common good occasionally requires dispensing with norms in favor of substantive action, I cannot complain too much about the misreading. Certainly, on Twitter and elsewhere, there has long been a rejection of private property. It has only been a vestigial liberalism that insists upon positivistic norms even as it demands the abolition of private property.

Setting all of that to one side, there is another dimension to this question, which has not been adequately considered. That is, it is a commonplace to say, with Pius XI and Francis, that private property must be ordered by the political power to the common good. But there is not nearly as much consideration of whether private property is in some meaningful way connected with the common good. In an October 17, 1946 letter to Charles McCoy, Charles de Koninck observes that Aristotle and Aquinas held that communism—even Socratic communism—is perverse and may be resisted by force. That is, for De Koninck, a communistic people does not seek a common good even per accidens and may be resisted by the ruler who always and everywhere must seek the common good. But De Koninck’s analysis in the letter is a little sketchy.

In an interesting dictum, about which I have written briefly previously, Aquinas connects private property with the ability to resist the despotic power (ST Ia q.81 a.3 ad 2). Aquinas distinguishes the despotic power from the politic and royal power. The despotic power rules its subjects as slaves since they have nothing of their own (ibid.). On the other hand, subjects of the politic and royal power are free subjects because they have private property and can thereby resist the orders of the ruler (ibid.). Indeed: it is due to their private property that they can resist the ruler (ibid.).

Now, I concede here that this point is a little tricky, not least because of the development of the discourse in Catholic circles. Much of the current, illiberal moment has been inspired by the insipid free marketeer rhetoric of groups like the Acton Institute. Certainly their presentation of Catholic social teaching as more or less coextensive with right-wing, free-market economics is a distortion of the Church’s thought. It is, therefore, greatly cheering to see Francis emphasizing the Church’s perennial teaching: private property has to be ordered to the common good. But questioning, whether based on Thomas, there may be some connection between the common good and private property ought not to be taken as an endorsement of Actonite economics.

In the De regno, Aquinas observes that a ruler is unjust insofar as he departs from the common good (4.24). An oligarchy, seeking the benefit of a few, is more unjust than a democracy, which seeks the good of the many (ibid.). In a tyranny, the ruler seeks his own good; in this sense, then, a tyrant is maximally unjust (ibid.). A ruler must seek the common good—it is in the nature of being a ruler—and when he stops seeking the common good, he becomes unjust. There is, of course, a spectrum with tyranny being at the terminus.

Aquinas draws his comment in ST Ia q.81 a.3 ad 2 from Aristotle’s Politics, notably Aristotle’s discussion of slavery. There, Aristotle makes the same point: the despotic power is the power of a master over his slaves (In I Pol. L.3, n. 64). The despot is free to pursue his own interests without resistance from his subjects; the despot, therefore, is a tyrant. Aquinas’s connection therefore is radical: a slave has nothing of his own to resist his master. But someone who has something of his own can resist another. This transforms the person into a free citizen, who must be ruled politically (ST Ia q.81 a.3 ad 2).

There is no discord in resisting a tyrant, as a general matter (ST IIaIIae q.42 a.2 ad 3). The connection, therefore, becomes clear. In order to resist the tyrant, Aquinas, following Aristotle, holds that one must have something of one’s own (ST Ia q.81 a.3 ad 2). Otherwise, one is in the condition of a slave, precisely because a slave has nothing of his own to resist his master. That is to say, a citizen cannot resist the tyrant if he does not have something of his own with which to resist the tyrant. (Perhaps one might call this the material basis of resistance.) Private property therefore serves as a bulwark against tyranny.

The connection is apparent in other ways. Elsewhere in the Politics, Aristotle discourses on common property. He makes, in the course of that discussion, a couple of interesting points. First, Aquinas observes that Aristotle holds that common property leads to dissensions among the citizens (In II Pol. L.4, nn.198–99). It is worth observing that discord among the citizens is per se opposed to ordered concord (e.g., ST IIaIIae q.37 a.1). By the same token, Aquinas notes, when citizens are united in concord, they will share their property freely (In II Pol. L.4, n. 201). He also notes that community of property destroys both the natural love of self and the virtue of generosity (In II Pol. L.4, nn. 202, 204). There is no generosity in distributing common property (ibid., no. 204).

Aquinas returns to these points in the Summa theologiae. Certainly he acknowledges that the common destination of goods is in the natural law, and that private property is superadded to this by human law (ST IIaIIae q.66 a.2 ad 1). But he observes that private property is fitting for several reasons (ST IIaIIae q.66 a.2 co.). His second and third reasons are directed to the ordered concord of the citizens (ibid.). His first reason approaches the point he makes in the commentary on the Politics regarding private property and natural love of self (cf. In II Pol. L.4, n. 202). Seen in this light, one follows his argument that the addition of private property to the natural law is a matter of reason—as opposed to mere caprice (ST IIaIIae q.66 a.2 ad 1).

Furthermore, Aquinas also holds that a tyrant encourages discord and sedition among his subjects, so that he may rule over them more securely (ST IIaIIae q.42 a.2 ad 3). One sees therefore an equivalent connection: common property, tending as Aristotle and Aquinas believe it does, to dissensions among the citizens (In II Pol. L.4, nn. 198–99) ultimately achieves the goal of the tyrant, to secure his own rule through discord and sedition. To put it another way: the discord and disorder created by common property is exactly what the tyrant wants, since through that discord and disorder, the tyrant will be able to rule over his subjects more easily.

In other words, one sees that, so far from providing a material basis of resistance to tyranny, common property sets up a dangerous configuration of circumstances. First, it leads itself to dissensions among the citizens, which is precisely opposed to ordered concord (i.e., the common good). Second, common property is opposed to natural self-love and the virtue of generosity. Finally, the dissensions among the citizens it causes are entirely congruent with the tyrant’s strategy of encouraging dissensions to secure his own rule. All of that is to say, common property is attended by several serious vices conducive to tyranny.

Now, certainly, all of this was and is known to Pius XI and Francis (or their assistants), so we must understand it carefully in light of Quadragesimo anno and Fratelli tutti—and the many other pronouncements that amount to the same thing. It is clear Francis no less than Pius XI understands that this is not an on-off distinction: the right to private property, even if only secondary, “has concrete consequences that ought to be reflected in the workings of society.” To reduce a secondary right to no right at all is, even on Francis’s terms, a pernicious error (even if I am happy about it in other contexts). To understand the manner in which it “ought to be reflected in the workings of society,” I think, one has to understand, as Thomas did, the connection between private property and the common good.