Volume > Issue > A Christian View of Economic Virtue

A Christian View of Economic Virtue

PRIVATE PROPERTY, SÍ; THE FREE MARKET, NO

By Stuart Gudowitz | March 1984
Stuart Gudowitz, the son of a steelworker, is a librarian at Cornell University and a book reviewer for Library Journal.

Among some orthodox Christians there exists a most curious affection for and commitment to free-market capitalism, the roots of which do not lie in Christianity itself. My purpose here is to ex­plain why Christians should feel neither affection for nor commitment to the so-called free-market economy.

Nevertheless, I would insist that opposition to the free market implies no necessary opposition to the institution of private property as such.

Indeed, the relationship of private property to the “free market” is closely akin to the relation­ship of coition to “free love.” Advocates of free love may accuse those of us who believe that sex­ual relations are only licit within the context of a lifelong marriage of hating human sexuality. But this is not true. Similarly, those of us who believe that the right to private property is not absolute (and that property rights ought to be limited) may be accused of hating private property. But this is not true either. To believe that something must be limited and controlled is not the same thing as wishing to see it abolished. As Clement of Alexan­dria said, “We need not take away from man any of the things that are natural to him, but only set a limit and due proportion to them.”

So, private property is something to which man has a right. But what is private property? Or rather: what is that aspect of property which makes it “private”? As others have pointed out, a number of quite dissimilar things are often subsum­ed under the appellation of private property. Surely the shirt on one’s back and the fifth of scotch in one’s cabinet are private.

But is it quite so cut and dry when we consid­er the means of production ? Take the hammer of the shoemaker or the scissors of the tailor or, for that matter, the computer of the freelance accoun­tant. All of these are intimately related to the own­er and the owner’s trade or profession. With these tools the owners make a product or perform a ser­vice which may (and should) be for the good of their fellow men. And by doing so, it is hoped that the owners will earn a livelihood to support them­selves and their dependents in dignity, to provide for the future, and to assist the needy. These tools are clearly personal, private property — and it would be very wrong indeed to abolish such private ownership of the means of production.

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