By:Thomas Fleming | December 12, 2012
Property is the broadest term and the one most likely to be misused. In English, we can use property to refer to everything we possess, including our personal characteristics, or more narrowly as the things we own, such s real estate, or to the more abstract notion promoted by Locke, that as human beings we have a right to property, along side our rights to life and liberty. I shall be content to use it, here, in a basic etymological sense as that which belongs to us (proprius is a Latin adjective meaning one's own), but not (even though a case could be made for such usage) including our physical or mental attributes.
Property, as Aristotle observed, is natural because it is essential to human functioning and thriving. We have to eat and shield ourselves from the elements, hunt animals with weapons and grow food with implements. I am going to postpone an extended discussion of property until later because I do not wish to lose the thread of this albeit simple argument.
Property is universal in human societies and claims to the otherwise, put forward by Marxist and feminist anthropologists, can only hold up if we insist that property be defined in Anglo-American terms. It is true that in a tropical climate a hunter-gatherer people needs little property: privileged access to watering holes, spears to hunt with, perhaps baskets to store the nuts and berries our women gather, but anything a man makes or improves or finds can be (though it is not always) property, even if he is expected to share its use with his relatives.
Anthropologists are fond of myths like the accidental discovery or fire or the invention of property and marriage. Let me put forward my own myth, which is the fruit of years of study.
Since in such primitive circumstances there is no means of storing a surplus, these humans lived from day to day, consuming what they got. Such a life is primitive and precarious. When droughts or freezes come, the whole community might die out. Fortunately, some clever people learned to store food in holes they dug and later to fire-harden the clay, thus sealing it against vermin. Finally, someone learned (this is my speculation) how to lift the baked clay out of the ground, and the pot was born.
Which came first, the pot or the surplus grain to store? It hardly matters. With storage comes the possibility of surplus that can be used to tide the family over during bad times. Let us call this stored surplus wealth. At first it might have been only wild grains. Later the family storehouse might have included some cooked or aging meat or cured vegetables. It would also include extra clothing, tools, and weapons.
As men learned to specialize, they could trade their products with each other, assigning some value to a bushel of wheat compared with a gallon of wine, or a goat, or a well-made pot or weapon. Metals became a form of wealth both for their utility in making tools and weapons and for their beauty and durability. An ounce of silver might be equivalent to a pound of copper, a cow, or a barrel of wine. Some brilliant Lydian appears to have come up with the idea of putting his name or symbol on a fixed amount of metal. He invented money. Naturally, a king smart enough to invent money was also smart enough to realize that he had to pay his metalworkers. Ever since, even the most stable currencies have been overvalued by perhaps 4%, which covered the ruler's expenses and perhaps a bit more.
It is an irrelevant consideration here, but it might be helpful to point out that Jesus got it exactly right in asking whose name was on the coin. The name and the face on currency are the mark of the sovereign's control over money. In early times, it was probably very useful to have a currency that it was more convenient to redeem in the sovereign's markets.
This is all very crude myth-making though not so ill-informed as some parts of the early chapters of Niall Ferguson's Ascent of Money. Really, he is an intelligent man who teaches at Harvard. Could he not have walked over to talk to ancient historians before putting his erroneous notions and high school level bibliography down on paper? (From the Renaissance on, his book improves rapidly.) Let us try to get to the point.
Property is natural and so too is most of what we call wealth. Money, however, being a social construction to measure wealth in abstract terms (a bit like the Celsius scale) is artificial. This is what lies behind Aristotle's view that for money to breed money (the Greek word for interest is tokos, offspring) is unnatural. Small wonder that many moralists have coupled usury and sodomy.
I do not wish to enter into the polemical arguments between classical liberals and Catholics, primarily because I think both sides are equally wrong and right. The liberals are certainly correct to emphasize the importance of investment in modern economic life and the significance of opportunities that are lost when one man lends another man money. It is as silly to analyze late capitalist systems within the framework provided by St. Thomas and Pope Leo XIII as it is to apply Freudian analysis to the plays of Sophocles.
But the Catholic tradition, going back to Cicero and Aristotle, is right on the moral fundamentals. Man is not an isolated individual, and as a social animal—a man born for citizenship--he does owe justice and charity to his neighbors, and—this above all—however correct the liberals are in their analysis of (comparatively) free markets and of the costs attendant upon distorting markets (through regulation, tariffs, etc.), they miss the obvious truth staring them in the face that wealth (as I pointed out in installment IIC) is an instrument of human happiness and not vice versa. If the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath, how much truer this is of other conventions and institutes that developed to fulfill human needs. To acknowledge this reality is not socialism, whatever Mises and his followers might pretend, any more than it is capitalism to recognize the superior efficiency of markets in supplying man's material needs.