The Forms & Scale of Private Property
NOR’s October symposium on humane socialism and traditional conservatism initiated an important and long overdue discussion on the tenets of a non-capitalist conservatism. While many symposium participants effectively critiqued both “growth” capitalism and socialism, the relation of these systems to the concept of private property was not fully explored. The issue of private property and private enterprise is crucial in any attempt to merge traditional conservatism with humane socialism.
Conservatives defend private property as a fundamental and even “sacred” right. Socialists often decry private property as the source of continuing class exploitation. At the outset there is probably agreement between clear-thinking conservatives and socialists that all forms of ownership of land or capital are not sacred as asserted by conservative capitalists, nor are all forms necessarily mischievous as asserted by extreme socialists. Thus any attack on or defense of private property is nonsense unless it specifies the particular forms and “scale” of the property being discussed.
Definition of the scale of acceptable private property ownership is an especially important task for non-capitalist conservatives. The capitalist asserts the importance and primacy of private property. In that conservatives also believe in private property ownership, it is their burden, when attacking industrial capitalism from a conservative perspective, to differentiate their view of acceptable property ownership from the capitalist’s view. This differentiation was made early in the century by G.K. Chesterton and the distributists and later more fully articulated by thinkers such as R.H. Tawney and E.F. Schumacher (unfortunately, it is rarely discussed today).
As explicated by them, private property is in essence a matter of proper scale. For it is not private property but the ownership of property divorced from responsibility and work which is exploitative and environmentally destructive. Non-capitalist conservatives, and many of the respondents in the symposium, will support private property in the form of small farms or other enterprises which are an aid to creative work, but will oppose the private property of the passive owner who lives as a parasite on the work of others. They will additionally refuse to consider “capital” used in speculation or usury as “property” in any acceptable sense.
Thus, small-scale farms and other enterprises are seen as productive, natural, socially just, and relatively harmless to the environment. Medium-scale enterprises are more problematic. They require many employees and can be exploitative if ownership is absentee and/or is concentrated in just a few hands. Thus “workplace democracy” with ownership privileges to actual workers is the proper manner in which to run these enterprises. Legislation may be required to assure that such enterprises do not negatively impact the environment. In large-scale enterprises there is no real ownership at all. Here the idea of ownership is contorted to create a ruse which allows “owners” to profit off the labor of others.
Ownership of large corporate entities, usury, and speculation are the negation of the small-scale concept of private property ownership. The defense of private property for the small farmer, craftsman, and entrepreneur is centered on the view that such property increases creativity, responsibility, and is socially just in that each receives the produce of his toil. By this logic, if we wish to encourage private property ownership which leads to creativity and just rewards, we must abolish “ownership” which leads to speculation, usury, the exploitation of others, and standardized uncreative work.
Large-scale capitalism can never be conservative because it cannot “conserve” anything, but rather consumes people and the resources of the earth. It does not involve individual work, creativity, and responsibility, but rather centers on greed and exploitation of the work of others. Yet it is precisely these large-scale enterprises which are the centers of contention between capitalists and traditional socialists. These technology driven, over-centralized corporate networks control the economies of both capitalist and communist countries. Traditional conservatives and humane socialists can hopefully agree that such “corporate” enterprises (relatively recent creations in human history) should not be thought of as private or public property, but as destructive, exploitative, parasitical organizations whose continued existence threatens social justice and the very survival of the planet. Certain large-scale industries or services (transportation, communication) may be necessary. If so, public ownership and decentralized semi-autonomous small units should be preferred, with larger organizational levels used only when necessary.
In sum, much of the debate between capitalists and socialists on whether IBM, General Motors, or AT&T should be privately or publicly owned obscures the question of whether such enterprises should exist at all. It is now clear that the vast majority of these large-scale enterprises, whether owned by capitalists or state-owned, cannot exist without unacceptable exploitation of people and the environment.
Meanwhile, these capitalist corporations and their socialist counterparts are buying up or destroying the small farms, craftsmen, and entrepreneurs who truly represent the creative, socially just, and environmentally responsible concept of ownership. Therefore, the formidable task of non-capitalist conservatives is to rescue the responsible, creative, and stewardship forms of private property from destruction by capitalists and socialists alike.
Andrew Kimbrell, Policy Director
Counsel Foundation on Economic Trends
The Perils of Perfection
I was less than pleased with the symposium on humane socialism and traditional conservatism (Oct.). It reminded me of a letter I received from a friend who had decided to give up on his commitment to the Religion and Socialism Commission of the Democratic Socialists of America.
He wrote that he had been reading Jim Wallis’s Revive Us Again and that Wallis “talks about a conflict between political doctrine and prophetic integrity.” He might have said with sharper point that there’s a conflict between political practice and prophetic integrity, but things are worse than that. Even the goals of politics are charged with chronic bad breath.
My friend continued: “True, I guess there needs to be a program, but right now at least my feeling is that the main focus must be on the heart and spirit, that doctrines such as socialism get in the way and put people off. Once people get ‘right with God,’ as they say, the politics will flow from that.”
In the symposium Thomas Molnar said it differently, but the message is the same: “Why should those among ‘conservatives’ who want to save traditional Christian values search for allies? Their aim ought to be their own Christian convictions which attract good people.” James Hanink suggested we unite under the banner of Dorothy Day’s personalism. Does he realize that Dorothy Day, that sainted soul, whose first trip to jail was over woman’s suffrage, never bothered to cast a vote in her entire life, and was proud of it? Juli Loesch (God bless her too) proposes a new movement to be called “Ice Cream Socialism: radical, sweet, and something you can get on your own street.”
None of the participants in the symposium would put it as baldly as Karl Barth, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that deep down most of them agreed with him when he said that politics is grundschmutzig, “dirty to the roots.” So what did Barth do about that? He let his membership in the Social Democratic Party lapse, discouraged the organization of Christian socialists at a crucial conference in Tarnbach, Germany, in 1919, retreated to academic felicity, and watched Germany slide into the abyss of Nazism, at which point he decided to rejoin the Social Democrats as an act of defiance. But it was too late. Fortunately for him he had a good job waiting in Switzerland. It was not so fortunate for the rest of the world.
I wrote to my friend, “Of course there is a conflict, or at least a potential conflict, between political doctrine and prophetic integrity. I could not, offhand, name a political party whose doctrine was 100 percent consistent with ‘prophetic integrity.’ Prophets have the lovely luxury of not having to organize and maintain a political organization. With all due respect, reverence, and admiration, prophets can just run off at the mouth ad infinitum and keep the old integrity flying forever and ever. I am not all that contemptuous of prophetic integrity…but I do get impatient with the reluctance of idealists and religious folk to allow themselves to be besmirched with realpolitik. Dammit, if we’re ever going to get any basic change in this rotten old world, we have simply got to bow our necks to the yoke of political organization…. Let the purists go chase themselves, which is what they will probably wind up doing anyway.”
John C. Cort
I found the symposium on humane socialism and traditional conservatism (Oct.) most stimulating, and the Michael Lerner and Samuel Hux contributions to it especially perceptive. My overall question is, however: hasn’t any of those people heard of the population explosion? A case might be made that the latter is promoted by Roman Catholic moral theology, but I am not taking any stand on that. My point is that current population pressures and economic factors unrelated in some respects to either socialism or capitalism do, in at least some geographic areas (my own included), dictate certain forms of population distribution if an overall satisfactory environment is to be maintained.
The rural life favored by so many of the contributors is going to be available to very few if sufficient land is going to be set aside for agricultural, environmental, and recreational purposes. People must be concentrated, preferably along transportation/communications axes. And we know that while cities usually produce the most socially aware elites, they also seem to spawn the most socially irresponsible groups at the lower end of the scale. This is a problem that should have been addressed (and probably would have been if continued urbanization had been regarded by the symposium as a given assumption rather than an avoidable alternative).
Finally, I have a bone to pick with Lerner’s statement that “the breakdown of family and community, then, is a direct product of social and psychological dynamics that are rooted in contemporary capitalism.” I think that from a Christian (or Jewish?) perspective one could make a better case that the breakdown of these interpersonal relationships is a product of the breakdown of religion most immediately, but (or in turn) ultimately a product of human sinfulness per se.
Dept. of History, Chestnut Hill College
'Red Tories' in Canada
I was intrigued by your issue devoted to the possibility of a coalition between traditional conservatism and humane socialism on the basis of a common opposition to liberal individualism (Oct.). Might I suggest that your conversation would be more complete if you would cast your sights north of the border and ask some Canadians to address your questions? You may well discover that your discussion would be better understood here than in the States. Indeed, unlike the United States, Canada has both a traditional tory party (the Progressive Conservative, which, however, is becoming less conservative and more liberal in the classic, 19th-century sense) and a social democratic party (the New Democratic), both of which have a large following despite the historic dominance of the Liberals at the federal level.
Moreover, there is in Canada the phenomenon of the “red tory” which has no equivalent on the American scene. The red tory is either a member of the PC Party who finds himself sympathetic with the NDP, or a member of the NDP who often finds himself in agreement with the PCs — this despite the fact that, according to conventional political classifications, the Liberal Party should stand between them ideologically. Louis Hartz, in his Liberal Tradition in America (1955), explains this in terms of the shared emphasis on community within both “feudal” conservatism and socialism — something which is un-American precisely because it departs so fundamentally from the dominant liberalism of John Locke. Hartz’s thesis is all but forgotten in the States, but here it is alive and well and often forms the basis for discussions concerning Canadian distinctiveness vis-à-vis the U.S.
A good person to look at in this regard is George Grant, an Anglican and one of Canada’s foremost philosophers, whose classic Lament for a Nation (1965) is simultaneously a requiem and a rallying cry for a Canadian nationalism rooted in the older British conservative tradition. In his English-Speaking Justice (1974), he eloquently points out the ethical poverty of liberalism with respect to such basic questions of justice as are raised in the abortion issue. His recent Technology and Justice (1986) contains essays dealing not only with euthanasia and abortion, but also with technology’s impact within the liberal society. Grant, who teaches at Dalhousie University, is said to have friends in both the New Democratic and Progressive Conservative parties. I can think of no one better to bring into your conversation.
David T. Koyzis
University of Maryland, Asian Division
I read your November issue with deep satisfaction. I was very much moved, and impressed, with John Cort’s memoir. As for your editorial, it seems absolutely right: your philosophy is personalist, very close to that of Emmanuel Mounier and others. Yet I do not think you ought to define the NOR as “personalist.” It is not necessary. Your convictions are sufficiently profound to eschew definitions that may be too easily bandied about. I say this as a convinced personalist.
By the way, during my 41 years in this country, I’ve written for other religious periodicals, but I’ve always felt out of place, at least somewhat. But not with you. With you I feel at home.
Prof. John Lukacs
For States and Nation
Your November editorial was unjust and un-Christian with its juxtaposition of Mother Teresa and General Franco/Oliver North. The three fulfilled different functions, the protection of the soul and the defense of country, not incompatible tasks. It is easy and comfortable to condemn generals and lieutenant-colonels when we live in a land not threatened, not occupied, not oppressed. My native Hungary is closer than the U.S. to some vital truths. In 1956 it was defended, triumphantly in a sense, by men like Oliver North (one was Colonel Pal Maleter) and by the other 50,000 butchered by Khrushchev — and by Cardinal Mindszenty. Without such men, in every century, the Magyars would not exist. Without Franco, Spain too would be a Hungary now, dozens of thousands of Jews would not have been saved, and Hitler’s troops would have reached North Africa by July 1940.
Clichés? God does not seem to think so: He created State and Nation. They protect us and give us identities as important here below as the Christian identity.
New York, New York
Let Your Opponents Name You
The November issue was excellent, but by my lights the October issue, with the symposium on humane socialism and traditional conservatism, was the best one I have seen in the 10 years since I started reading the NOR. My only objection is to your desire to find a name for the ideals toward which the NOR is inching. As much as I like Juli Loesch’s proposal of the name “Ice Cream Socialism,” I am afraid that all such names are rather artificial and tend to make the ideals to which they are attached seem artificial too. Most of the names that really stick to movements — usually, the really good names — are the ones applied to them by their opponents, not names invented by their advocates. Let your enemies give you a nasty name; then wear it with pride.
Thomas H. Robinson
You May Also Enjoy
If It's Good for the Goose... Killing Michael Rose... The Register Steps into the Ring... Burn, Baby, Burn!... From "Rembert the Reconciler" To "Rembert the Unperson"?... and more
Review of the The Reformed Jesuits
In case you know of women who want to be ordained, and/or same-sex couples who want a church wedding.