Is private ownership of property contrary to human nature? Since the “earth is the Lord’s” (Ps. 24:1), it would seem that humans have no right to own anything. Is there a natural precedence to reject private property?
Reading church history often provides answers to what appear to be novel questions in our own day (Eccles. 1:9), to support and explain what scripture teaches. Thomas Aquinas provides a solid argument for private property in his Summa Theologica (see especially, Part I–II, Q66, answers 1 and 2). Here are five of the most important aspects of his argument:
1. God designed creation to support life, especially human life.
God has sovereign dominion over all things: and He, according to His providence, directed certain things to the sustenance of man’s body.
Here, Aquinas clearly demonstrates a basic recognition of the uniqueness of humans in creation, and that God intended humans to utilize natural resources for personal benefit. This doesn’t get to the heart of the private property question, but it does deflate the argument that humans are alien parasites on the earth that should avoid using natural resources. This thought from Aquinas is a beginning point for the discussion: Man is a unique part of creation. Men and women have a unique role in nature that is different from the animals and plants because of the Imago Dei (Gen. 1:26).
2. Private property engenders good stewardship.
Every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all: since each one will shirk the labor and leave to another that which concerns the community.
Work held in common, without someone designated as responsible, is typically poorly done because everyone assumes that it is someone else’s responsibility. This was one major problem (but certainly not the only one) with production on collective farms in the Soviet Union: they both under-and over-produced because there was no personal ownership of the land or its product.
In the 1980s, the Soviets were buying American grain, though the USSR had as much arable land dedicated to grain production as the United States. Farmers who had once owned their own farms and built wealth through their efforts were now deprived of the work of their hands because any profit from their hard work was granted to the collective. If the Soviet farmers had owned the land and the produce from it, their productivity levels would most likely have increased.
3. Private ownership supports order in society.
Human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately.
Watching a group of six-year-olds play soccer is an apt illustration for society without private property. Most of the children don’t understand the differences between the roles of each position, so they all cluster around the ball, madly trying to kick it toward a goal.
Even if everyone is actively engaged in working toward a common goal, the opportunity for success is diminished without a clear distinction of roles. Aquinas points out that when people have ownership, they can have a better understanding of their role as steward of that to which God has entrusted them.
4. Private property helps maintain peace in communities.
It is to be observed that quarrels arise more frequently when there is no division of the things possessed.
Aquinas observes that people cannot be content with what they own if there is no understanding of what they own. In other words, when things are held in common, everyone has an equal right to it. Who then decides how to determine who should get the use of the communal property? Is it simply according to the order that someone requested it, or should there be a determination as to the relative need? According to Aquinas, these are questions that private property helps to answer, which, in turn, helps to reduce conflict.
5. Private property benefits the community.
Man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need.
For the contemporary reader, this is the most challenging aspect of the concept of private property. Aquinas shows that we can and should own things, but that we should be holding these things as stewards. What we own is held in trust for God, so we can use our resources for his glory. Private property is necessary to provide us the opportunity to be generous.
The problem with the rich man with big barns (Luke 12:16–21) was not his private property, but the manner in which he held it. The rich man in this parable held his wealth only for his own gain and was “not rich toward God.” This is a sin to avoid, but according to Aquinas, it does not preclude private ownership.
Editor’s note: Explore how the biblical view of freedom upholds private property in Free Indeed: Living Life in Light of the Biblical View of Freedom.
On “Flashback Friday,” we publish some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was first published on Sept. 10, 2013.