January 25, 2009 by J. Madson
A friend of mine asked me to read Bastiat lately. It was nice to remember the ideas I used to believe back in my Ayn Rand reading, Limbaugh listening youth before I saw poverty first hand. It reminded me of the story of the Russian KGB agent who on a quiet Moscow night heard the screams of a victim and his worldview changed in that instant. I wondered if Bastiat had ever heard the voice of a victim or if he even cared. It seemed to me that much of Bastiat and many philosophical arguments occur in the abstract. Even worse I had this nagging suspicion that those who parroted Bastiat and other’s ideas did so because at the end of the day they wanted things and they were damned if anyone would take them. but I digress.
Bastiat discusses his idea of “plunder.” Bastiat felt that a government or the “law” only had a right to protect life, liberty, and property rights. Yes property rights are that important, who knew?
In response to Bastiat, I have come to a conclusion: it is wrong to give property rights the same moral quality or value as life and liberty.
The philosopher Cohen argued that there is no reason we should endow people’s claims that they can legitimately acquire external resources with the same moral quality that belongs to people’s ownership of themselves. By making that radical jump we end up creating a world where inequalities arise from differences in external resources, but it does so because it assumes that the world is “up for grabs.”
I do not believe the world is or should be up for grabs. I do not believe that anything and everything can or should be justly appropriated as private property without restriction. I believe this world is a gift from God for all. I also believe that Adam was given stewardship not ownership.
Should this change how we see the economy if we believe we are stewards and not owners? It seems to me that the gospel espouses the values of life, liberty, and even equality, but not ownership. It also appears that much of the free market ideology is rooted in the conceit that things belong to us. It is a self-delusional conceit that seems to miss the gospel idea that all we have belongs to God. I tend to agree with King Benjamin that our substance does not belong to us:
if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God.
At a minimum I think the knowledge we are stewards should temper any allegation that the moral quality of acquiring and retaining stuff is on par with other values. It should also lead us to ask what God would have us do with the stuff. What is the moral thing to do? As far as I can tell the repeated message is to end inequality. Maybe we can finally stop pretending that the “right” to have stuff is a higher moral value than ending poverty even if it means spreading the wealth by the government.