Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: January-February 1988

January-February 1988

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

Washington, D.C.

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

Boston, Massachusetts

Too Agrarian

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.

Wallace Spaulding

Dept. of History, Chestnut Hill College

McLean, Virginia

'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

Ancaster, Ontario


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

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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.

Thomas Molnar

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

Okinawa, Japan

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