9.1. Self-determination and economics
As we said earlier, economic activity stems from the nature of a human being as a self-determining being. We set goals for ourselves and then go about achieving them; and in achieving them, we have to use the world around us.
But just using the things in the world is not economic activity. If you were the only person alive, or were someone like Robinson Crusoe on your island, you'd have to do some of the things that are considered "economic activity"; based on the tools you could contrive and the things you could find, you'd have to set priorities for your goals, and maybe give up some in order to achieve others. For instance, you might have to spend time building a stockade to be safe from wild animals before you went about planting.
But this is practical activity, not economic activity, because it doesn't involve transactions with other people. Economic activity begins when we want to use the things around us, but we discover that someone else has got there first, and won't let us use them unless we do something to further his goals.
So now let's consider what is implied in using things when others have got at them before you. How did the things get into their possession, so that we have to ask their permission to use them? In other words, what is the right of ownership?
9.1.1. The right of ownership
[The issue of ownership is also treated in Modes of the Finite, Section 2, Chapter 3.]
What is behind this is, as I said, that, when we set goals for ourselves, we need to use the world around us to achieve them; and so we have to get our hands somehow on the things that are in that world.
But if each of us has to use the world, what part of the world can each use? There are no name-tags on the things around us that say "This is to be used by George Blair and no one else." "This is to be used by John Doe and no one else." But clearly, using things (like food) often means using them up, so that they are destroyed and no one can use them afterwards; and even when they are not used up, they are often transformed in such a way that their original use is gone. So that in practice, if we are to use the things in the world, we have to be able to appropriate them for our exclusive use.
Notice here that the problem is not how we get possession of things, but how we can morally prevent others from using them. That is, the question of property involves a relationship with other human beings, not primarily a relationship with the objects in the world.
But, as we saw, to be able to prevent others from doing something is the essence of a right; and so, what we are talking about here is the right of ownership or the right to private property,
9.1.2. A human right?
Now what title do we have to own things in general? Is this a human right, or a civil right, or what? And can we own anything we please (like the air), or only some things, and if so what?
This is not an idle question. Communism treats ownership as if it were a civil right; and though it allows people to own consumable items, it does not allow people to own what is called "real property," or other things that are not used up when they are used.
We saw that we can claim a right if we can show that there is a contradiction in our not being allowed to exercise it. We can establish a human right to ownership, then, if we can show that we are dehumanized in some respect if we can't own things.
First of all, if we don't eat, we will starve. But if I am to eat this pizza, then by that very act I am preventing you from eating it; and if you have as much right as I to it, I can't eat it, and I will starve.
Therefore, human beings have the human right to own consumable items such as food.
Do we have a human right to keep consumable things that we don't consume at the moment?
As human beings, we can foresee what is likely to happen in the future; thus, we can see that droughts can occur and crops can fail, so that, even if we have enough to eat at the moment, it is possible and even likely that if we have only enough for the moment, we won't have enough to keep us alive when times of scarcity come. But then if we couldn't store up an excess and keep it, we would be in the self-contradictory position of (a) foreseeing a time when we would need it, (b) knowing what to do to provide for the need, and (c) not being allowed to do what would provide for the need.
Thus, human beings have the right to keep what they don't need for the moment's consumption.
And since you can't tell exactly what a person may need, there really isn't any limit that can be set on this right as such. So if a person acquires more than what he could really need by any stretch of the imagination, he has not done what he has no right to do; because in order to restrict him, you would have to draw a line and say, "beyond this point, you have no right to acquire more and keep it;" but that would mean that one person just below that line would have a vast excess, and there would be bound to be someone who was just above the line and would turn out not to have enough (for example, if he gets a wasting disease which costs a fortune to keep him alive).
Now this does not mean that people have a right to amass vast possessions if their doing so deprives someone else of necessities; but that is just saying that we have no right that violates the rights of others (which is true of any right); and we will treat this later. Here, I am only concerned with the right itself, and the point is that a person can claim a human right to keep consumable things, and no limit can be set on what he can keep.
But So far, all we have talked about are consumable things. What about things like houses and land and so on, which don't get used up? The answer is that obviously, you can see that if you don't have shelter, you won't survive the winter; and if you don't have land, you won't be able to plant crops next year to get you through the future. And if you couldn't keep people off your land, then you could forget about having crops that you could count on. But the point is that, since we can use "real property" as well as consumable things--even though we don't use it up--and since in practice there isn't any way we can provide for the future without using such non-consumable things, then we have as much right to them as to keep consumable things.
Hence, people have a human right to keep non-consumable items such as housing and land.
Further, since people have others, such as children, dependent on them, and can foresee their own death and how this would deprive their dependents of the necessities of life (if they could not hand on things to them), it follows that it would be contradictory not to allow them to will their possessions to children and others; otherwise, they could not fulfill their moral obligation to care for those dependent on them.
Therefore, people have a human right to own, not only consumable items, but non-consumable things, and to pass this ownership to others at their death.
This right cannot of itself be restricted just to children or what might be called "natural dependents," because a person might make a promise to care for some crippled friend who was not really a dependent; and if he could not will his possessions to him at death, he would not be able to fulfill the promise. So, as in the case of keeping things, no limit can be set in itself to the right to will things to others. A person can will whatever he has to anyone he pleases (always supposing no one else's right is violated by this).
9.1.3. Initial acquisition of property
So human beings have a human right to own property. However, since there is nothing in nature assigning what is to belong to whom, how does a person get the right to a given part of the world?
Of course, once things are owned by people, we get the right to own them by being given the property by the previous owner, who gives up his right to it and assigns it to us--either as an outright gift, or for some compensation in exchange. We will discuss this later; the question now is how he got the right--or rather, how the first owner (the one who didn't get it from a previous owner) got the right.
John Locke thought that initial ownership was established by a person's work on something. Since a person had the right to his life and liberty, he had the right to his actions; and it followed (Locke thought) that he then had the right to the "fruits of his labor." This is the seed that grew into the "labor theory of value." that one finds in economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo.
The trouble with it is that if it is your labor that establishes your right to own what you have worked on, there is no reason why this logic should apply only to unowned things you happen to be working on. (Marx saw this difficulty.) That is, if my claim to own something is based on this reasoning: "I have a right to my actions and their consequences; but this is a consequence of my actions; therefore, it contradicts me as a worker not to be able to claim it as mine," this applies not only to the worker who has worked on land (say) that no one has yet claimed; it applies to one who has worked on a farm that someone else already owns.
Hence, even though the previous owner simply allowed the tenant farmer to work on his land, with no intention of giving the land to him, the tenant farmer could claim that he now owned the land he worked on, simply because he worked on it.
But this would make it impossible to loan anything to anyone for him to use; as soon as he had used it, he would have "worked on it," and then it would become his, not yours. It would also be impossible to hire someone to work for you; because as soon as he did any work, the work and everything he worked on (e.g. the machinery as well as the raw materials) would be his, and you would lose your claim to it.
Or perhaps, because you had worked on it first, you would retain a claim to part of it; but then which part? If you lend Michelangelo some marble to carve a statue from, what part of the statue do you own, if any? But it was your marble.
Obviously, that way lies absurdity. Ownership is supposed to give people control of what they own, and to make it clear to others that they have to respect the owner. But claiming the right of ownership based on "work" makes who owns what problematic, and contradicts what the right of ownership means.
Hence, it does not follow that a person has a right to the fruits of his labor. If you are working on something someone else already owns, your work does not give you the right to own it.
Then how do we acquire the right to own something previously unowned? The answer, actually, is very simple. By making a claim.
Yes, Virginia, there is a free lunch. Even today, if you come upon something (like a stray dog, or an abandoned bike), and no previous owner can be discovered, and you want it, you don't have to do anything to get it except claim it, and it's yours.
A person who makes a formal claim to own what was previously unowned acquires the right of ownership of that thing.
A "formal" claim is a claim that is recognized as a claim by the people who will have to respect the right of ownership (the people who might themselves want to have the thing). This can take the form of some kind of formal statement ("I now lay claim to this land") or some action that amounts to a statement, such as building a house on it or clearing a part for farming, or putting up a fence, or using it as if it were one's own.
22.214.171.124. Limitations on the claim
What, then, is to prevent a person from on the claim saying publicly, "I hereby lay claim to everything that has not been claimed by anyone else." Doesn't he then own everything not previously owned? That sounds even less attractive than the "work" theory of claiming ownership. I think, therefore, that there are certain restrictions on a person's ability to lay claim to own something.
First, a person must know in the concrete what he is laying claim to. Since you can't use abstractions, and you don't in fact own abstractions, then you can't lay claim in the abstract to ownership. But to make a claim to "everything" or to something like "This whole continent," where you don't know what is there, is to make an abstract claim. You don't have to know every detail about what you claim ownership of (as if you had to know every part of the car you own); but you have to know enough about it to make it reasonable to say you know what you're claiming to own.
Secondly, what is claimed must be ownable. That is, it must be such that it can be appropriated for oneself exclusively. If you're going to claim a right to own something, then you're going to claim that others must refrain from using it--and you're going to have to defend that right if they try. But if you claim ownership of the air, for instance, which blows where it pleases, how could another person respect your right, if he doesn't know what part of the air you own, and how could you defend your right by shutting him out of it?
Thirdly, the claim is invalid if it dehumanizes someone else. This is the general limitation of any right again, and it is the next topic. But what it amounts to is that just because you got the idea first, you can't claim all the water in a given area (even if you know what it is) and then tell everyone, "This is mine now; pay me or die of thirst."
9.1.4. Claims against others' property
It is worth exploring this limitation of others' property claiming the right of ownership when others are dehumanized by it. How is one to know when this happens, and when the claim is invalidated by the necessities of others?
Obviously, if a person has no right to what he owns because of the dehumanization of someone else, then that other person has some sort of claim against the property the original claimant would like to own (or thinks he owns). What kind of claim is that?
Let us approach it gradually. Suppose you and another person get shipwrecked on a deserted island. You both explore it, but you tell him, "Okay, no one's here, and so no one owns anything on the island. I now claim ownership of it. You will serve me if you want any of my property.
Your claim now deprives him of the opportunity to get food, shelter, and clothing unless he serves you. But the original basis for making any claim to property was that only if we had the right of ownership could we live a human life. But your exercise of this "right" prevents him from providing for himself (except under the conditions you set).
Therefore, he has a claim against you for the necessities of life. Your claim to property is not something that gives you the right to have a slave; and so you don't have the right to all the property on the island just because you thought of claiming it first.
That should be obvious. Then do you have to divide the resources on the island equally? No; you did think of making the claim first, and your having more than he does does not dehumanize him; but you have to allow him enough so that he can live humanly, or you have contradicted the basis on which you claim the right of ownership in the first place.
Who has more and who has less has to be decided upon--because, after all, he has to be willing to agree to your claim or the two of you will be at war all the time, trying to defend the property you lay claim to.
Now suppose you have divided up the property; you have two-thirds, and he has a third (because you've convinced him that your getting the idea first gives you a right to a bigger chunk). Then another person is shipwrecked on the island.
Clearly, he can't live unless he gets some property from either or both of you; so he has a claim against you (plural) for the necessities of life. If both of you hold on to your superfluities, then he starves or dies of exposure, and you have in effect killed him.
Now how much of a claim does he have against you as an individual? First, the limit of the property he can claim as a right is that which will allow him not to be dehumanized; he doesn't have any right to live as well as you, who got there first.
It would seem to me that, since the property he has a claim on belongs to both of you, and the total property, which he can lay claim to, is divided two-thirds/one-third, each of you loses the right to two-thirds and one-third, respectively, of the amount necessary to avoid dehumanizing him.
So if you give him half of what is needed for him to live a human life, you are still guilty of in effect killing him, because if the other person gives his share, the man will still die (lacking the difference between the half you gave him and the rest of the two-thirds that you have no moral right to hold onto). The amount you have kept back is not really yours, even though you owned it before he got there, since ownership's function is to allow people to live human lives, and is consequently not absolute.
Now suppose you give your share and the other person doesn't. Can you say, "Well, let him die; I've done my part"?
No, but not because he has a claim against your property now. Now the cooperative relationship among human beings takes over, and you have the obligation to see to it either than the other owner does his part, or to do something for the starving man if that fails. To let him die when you could prevent it (just because he has no claim against your property) implies that we are all totally independent of each other, and rights are the only thing that has anything to do with our helping others. But this is false, as we saw in the previous chapter.
But it is wise to remember, nonetheless, that a person has a right against those who in effect are violating his right; nor really against the world in general. So what I am saying here is that you lose the right to part of your property amounting to two-thirds as much as is needed to keep him from dehumanization. You have obligations in sociality (the traditional term is "in charity") beyond this, but not in commutative justice.
How much of a claim the starving person has on your property, however, changes if the arrangement you made with the second person (two-thirds/one third) gives him now little more than the bare necessities to live on. Then if he were to contribute to this third party, he himself would be in a dehumanized condition; and you would be the only one left with more than enough to live on.
In that case, you would lose the right to whatever is necessary to keep both of the others from dehumanization. It might be that you would have to supply all the needs of the newcomer; but it could also be that you might have to supply seven-eighths and the other owner one-eighth.
In the cases above, the one who is being dehumanized is easily identifiable, what he needs to avoid dehumanization is at least something that can be figured out, and who he has the claim against is something that is known. Now what happens when the number of owners is very large, and the number of needy is also very large?
When the number of owners becomes very large, it is hard to see what proportion of their property they have lost the right to, since it isn't at all clear (a) how much in toto is needed by the needy, (b) how much one owner has in relation to other owners (i.e. what his share would be), and (c) how much hardship (if any) it would cause the owners to supply their share of the needs of the needy.
Furthermore, it is not at all clear which one of the needy people has a claim against which one of the owners. Each of the needy people has a claim against all of the owners, since it is the fact that they own everything that is depriving him of the necessities of life. That is, it isn't the fact that George Blair owns a house in Cincinnati that is depriving Ahmed Ali of food in Afghanistan; it is the fact that all the owners have used up all the property, so that Ahmed can't claim enough to keep living.
But by the same token, each owner has a claim on him by all the needy. Because it isn't just Ahmed who needs some of my property to stay alive (provided I could figure out how much). He hasn't any special claim on me, any more than any other needy person. So I would have to distribute my share among all the millions of needy.
But my share isn't all that much to begin with, and it can't be divided into a million parts. If it were, then each person would get something worth less than a thousandth of a cent (considerably less, probably)--which would do nothing to relieve his poverty. So to say I have lost the right to this infinitesimal amount because Ahmed has a claim on it is absurd.
Notice that the obligation to give what is excessive to those who are needy is not discharged if I "give all my excess to charity." That is, suppose I find a number of poor people, and distribute half of my possessions to them.
First of all, is half of my possessions my share? I don't know if it is more or less. Secondly, what about all the people I didn't give anything to? They have just as much claim as the people I picked out. Thirdly, since the people I picked out have no claim against me personally, then by relieving their poverty, I have done to them something they had no right to have me do; and so I have been "generous" to them.
That is, they are in the equivocal position of receiving what they have a right to receive, but not from me. Therefore, they have to be grateful for receiving something they have a right to receive. This is obviously self-contradictory.
So when the number of owners and the number of needy become large, then it becomes impossible in practice for individual owners to fulfill their obligation to give the needy what the needy can claim of their possessions.
What then is to be done?
In this case, civil society must take upon itself the task.
It must (a) identify the needy, (b) discover how much each needs, and how much is needed in the aggregate, (c) discover how much the owners own, (d) assess what is to be the contribution of each owner to the general fund, taking into account how much damage the assessment is going to do to the owner, and (e) distribute the general fund to the needy, taking care not to create incentives against working for a living.
This is no small task, and will necessarily be a failure in many respects. Nevertheless, since it is impossible for the individual owner to fulfill his duty to the needy by himself, it is only civil society which can do any kind of a job of it that doesn't dehumanize by having the needy "thank the generous for their charity." Only civil society can demand that owners give what they should, and only civil society can have real claims made on it by the needy, since it is the organization whose function it is to see to it that citizens are not dehumanized. When it gives to the needy, they don't have to thank anyone for receiving what they have a right to receive.
So essentially, the needy have a claim to the necessities of life against civil society; and it is civil society which has the obligation of taking from the affluent and giving to the needy.
Morally speaking, what this means is that when an affluent person or business has paid its taxes, it has discharged the claims against it by the needy.
This supposes, of course, that the society is making a reasonable effort to help the needy. If not, then the affluent person or business has an obligation to see to it that the government fulfills its responsibility.
It is not enough just to "give to charity." The assumption, if society is shirking, is that there are other affluent people who are not being assessed for their share of the claims against them; and to allow them to hold on to property they have no right to is unjust, harming not only the poor, but all those whom the unjust excess gives a competitive edge against.
But even with the best of intentions, society's effort will be imperfect, and there will be needy people who will "fall through the cracks." In this case, the affluent do not have to make a special effort to seek them out, but have to do something to help out those who come to their attention. This, again, is based on the social obligation of cooperativeness.
How much does an affluent person have to give if he has paid his share in taxes? Not enough, obviously, to impoverish himself. Nor does he have to give to everyone who appears. He has to do something more than he is taxed, but he has no obligation to put himself to any significant inconvenience. He is, in a sense, doing more than he has to--and, paradoxically, he has to do more than he "has to" as far as claims against him go, or he denies cooperativeness. But since it is more than he has to, then how much more is rather up to him. Of course, if many, many people are very, very poor, cooperativeness would demand more; if few are, then he can legitimately say, "I've done something extra; let the other rich do the rest."
Unfortunately, there is no international society, which can make demands on affluent societies for the sake of distribution to the people of needy societies. There is at the moment no way in which affluent societies and people in them can in practice discharge whatever claims the needy societies have on their possessions; and no matter what they give, there will be people in the societies who do not get enough, there will be societies which do not get enough, and what the "fair share" is of the developed societies for each needy society will be a matter of individual societies' views.
Thus, Latin America might think the United States owes it more than it owes Africa "because we belong to the same hemisphere," which is irrelevant--and so on. And Latin America (with some justification) resents our notion that when we give foreign aid to them, we are being generous; because they see only that they are receiving what they have a right to receive (as they think, from us).
Hence, justice in the international distribution of this world's possessions can never come until there is some kind of international society, which has the authority to make assessments of the rich nations, demand contributions, and distribute these contributions equitably. And that is a long way off.
Given that situation, cooperativeness demands that the affluent societies give "foreign aid," more or less analogously to the duty of the individual when society is not doing its job for the poor in it. Justice will not be done by this; but it is the best we can do at the moment.
However, it is obviously incumbent upon mankind to work toward some kind of international society, which can do for the poor of the world what civil society itself does for the poor within it.
This does not mean, however, that the property of the world ultimately has to be distributed "equally." But that is the next topic.
126.96.36.199. Equal distribution
It doesn't seem fair that, just because one person gets the idea first, he can claim possession of more than he needs and more than anyone else, and have opportunities that others won't have, either because they didn't claim as much, or because they couldn't claim anything just because they were born too late, and everything was already claimed.
It isn't fair. But who says things have to be fair? "Fairness" means "equality," and a right to be treated fairly can be claimed only if it is a fact that human beings are equal--and they aren't.
There is no aspect of human reality by which a person could have a title either to equal possessions or equal opportunity with others.
We treated equality of opportunity earlier; but it is worth mentioning again, because it is a myth of our society that the function of society is to provide everyone with equal opportunity--which supposes that everyone has the right to equal opportunity. But since people do not have equal talent, then providing them with equal opportunity would deprive the very talented of the "opportunity" to exercise their vast gifts--since they would have no more than the untalented--and would give the very untalented opportunities that they could not possibly use. Rights are based on personhood, not equality. It is not dehumanizing for a person not to have as much of a chance as someone else.
And the same goes for initial possessions. Since there is not an equal capacity (or an equal desire) in humans to use things, then there is nothing in each person which would be contradicted if one person owned more than another person. Hence, there is no basis for a claim to a right to have as much as someone else.
Furthermore, in practice it would be impossible to have an equal distribution of this world's ownable things. Supposing it were done. Since new people would be born, the property would have to be redistributed each time someone new came into the world (why should he be discriminated against just because he was born late?); hence, there is no real meaning to "equal distribution." Also, to try to do this might very well deprive people of the right to provide for their dependents.
Secondly, since people can give up their right to possessions, it would soon happen that the people who didn't particularly care about owning things, and the people easily conned, would give up what they owned to the people who were greedy and clever; but then almost at once, there will be an unequal distribution of property.
Hence, there is nothing wrong with one person's being extremely wealthy, while other people are relatively poor.
As long as the poor are not dehumanized, they have no claim on the wealthy person's wealth, and it is morally wrong for society in this situation to "redistribute the wealth" more "equitably." Society can tax the rich to prevent the dehumanization of extreme poverty, but not to make things "fair." It is not only a morally wrong goal, it is a goal that doesn't make sense, when you think it through.
It violates the Principle of Subsidiarity for the government to tax the rich and "redistribute wealth" by giving the poor more than the bare minimum they need not to live a dehumanized life.
Making a demand on the rich for more than is needed to prevent a violation of rights exceeds the authority of civil society. And this, of course, violates the generic right of self-determination of the rich citizens. It is therefore coercion, not legitimate force, however laudable the intention.
But it also violates the same right of the poor, because by giving them more than the minimum, it takes away the incentive to set goals for themselves and make themselves into what they want to be. In return for a small material prosperity (it can't be much), it tempts
them not to take control of their lives.
If people have a human right to own property, then it follows that the right of ownership is at least relatively inalienable. We saw that all human rights are at least relatively inalienable. Here, the reason is that if the government demands that no one own anything (or any "real property," or whatever), then, since the citizens cannot not belong to civil society, they have to act as if they didn't have the right to ownership, when in fact they do.
It might seem that the right of ownership is absolutely inalienable, because a person has a moral obligation to provide for his future, and certainly he has an obligation to provide for the needs of those who depend on him.
But it could be that a person would join a group, who would contract with him to provide for his needs (and the needs of his dependents, if any) if he would give up the right to own anything. Since his future and his dependents would be taken care of, and since he freely joins the group, there is no dehumanization in his giving up the right.
Religious orders, in fact, actually make this demand. One who joins a religious order makes a vow of "poverty," which is not a vow to be needy (which would be immoral), but a vow not to own anything. It is, however, understood that his human needs will be supplied by the group, so that he will have clothes to wear (which will not be his, strictly, but lent him by the order), food, shelter (again lent him), and so on. He may even have the use of typewriters and computers and all kinds of equipment that can help him in his work; it is just that he doesn't own them, and can't dispose of them as he pleases. Many people misunderstand Religious poverty, assuming that it is a kind of neediness, and not simply a lack of ownership.
But Communism as a system of civil society, denies a person the right of ownership; and since this is a human right, Communism is a morally wrong form of government.
Can the government ever take away the right of ownership from the people? Yes, under certain circumstances, using the Double Effect.
1. The government can take their possessions away from those people who are using their possessions to dehumanize other people--provided that this is the least socially damaging way to prevent the others from having their rights violated.
For example, suppose a few land owners are in effect making slaves of vast amounts of the population by making them work long hours under inhuman conditions just because they (the owners) have control over the land, which is the workers' only means of livelihood. The government has the obligation to prevent the dehumanization of the workers; and it may be that the way of accomplishing this that does the least harm to the least number would be to take away the land from the owners and redistribute it according to some formula. In that case, choosing the restoration of rights to the workers, the government may take this course of action, with the violation of the owners' rights an unchosen side-effect. In general, some compensation must be offered the owners, however.
The government might even institute a kind of Communistic society as a temporary measure until things are straightened out. This would not necessarily be in itself immoral; but it must be pointed out that such arrangements, although intended to be temporary, tend to become permanent; and insofar as this is likely, it becomes immoral to choose what will likely turn into a permanent denial of citizens' right of ownership.
2. The government can take, by what is called the "right of eminent domain" given pieces of property owned by citizens, if that property is needed for legitimate public projects. Here, the owner must be given "fair value" for his property; but the point is that he can be forced to sell.
Thus, if a person owns a house in the path of an expressway, he can be forced to sell his home. The assumption is that the expressway is a legitimately needed one for the common good. If it is, then the selling of the house is one of the demands for cooperation that the government can legitimately make on the citizen.
In discussing the distribution of property, we have so far been talking as if all property were land and what is growing on it. Most of this, of course, is in the nature of "raw materials," which are not in a form that anyone wants, let alone needs; and so most of these things have to be transformed somehow into useful objects before they become valuable.
But the transformation process can't take place efficiently without a rather large concentration of wealth in the hands of the enterprising; and so any redistribution of property, even to prevent dehumanization, has to take into account what it is going to do to the transforming process; if it kills it, then the last state will be worse than the first.
This seems to happen in Communistic societies. When the enterprising don't have enough to work on, or incentive to work, then they don't do much; and so people tend toward a rather evenly distributed poverty rather than a greater prosperity for even the poor.
The point here is that unevenness of distribution is not of itself morally wrong. If it were, then the end (greater total prosperity) would not justify the means (uneven distribution). But since the means are not in themselves evil, the Capitalistic economics can be allowed to work.
This is not to say that the initial ownership of things is totally irrelevant in the present day. First, it is necessary to see the principles involved; but it actually still happens, as I mentioned earlier, with what was owned, when the owner cannot be discovered. But for practical purposes, everything has in fact been claimed. The question for the next chapter is how those of us born into this condition gain possession of what we need from those who have it.
Summary of Chapter 9
Allocating resources and postponing some goals to achieve others is practical activity, not necessarily economic activity; economic activity involves transactions in doing so. But since people do not have infinite desires, it does not follow that it is bad economics not to try to maximize profits.
To introduce economics, consider ownership, or appropriating things for one's exclusive use. Is this a right: that is, can we prevent others from using the things we have appropriated? If so, is it a human right?
First, if we can't prevent others from using what we are to consume, we will starve; so we have a human right to own consumables. Second, if we can't store such things for future emergencies, we are put in a position of foreseeing an adverse future and not being able to provide for it, which contradicts our nature as foreseeing the future; therefore, we have a right to store consumables. Since we need stable property to be able to produce consumables and have shelter, or we will die or be harmed, then we have the right to private property. Since we have children, who have rights for support against us, then we have the implied right to provide for them; and therefore we have the right to will our property to others after our death. There is no limit to how much property we may own or transfer to heirs.
Property which is owned by someone else is transferred by deed (gift or sale). Property which is unowned is first acquired, not by working on it (which would logically demand a transfer of owned property if the one it was lent to worked on it), but simply by making a claim to it. The claim must be recognizable as such by others, since they have the obligation to let the claimant own it. Hence, the person must know concretely what he is claiming; it must be ownable (able to be cut off from others' use); and owning it must not dehumanize anyone else.
If the ownership of the property forces another person into an inhuman condition (because he can't get enough to live a minimally human life) the claim to that portion of the property necessary for the other's humanity is invalid (you never have a right that violates another's right). A person who is dehumanized by not being able to have property because it is all owned by others has a claim against all owners for what is necessary to life; each owner therefore has claims against him by all those deprived because all property is owned. Therefore, something must be done to see what portion of each owner's possessions does not really belong to him because of the needs of the need, and what portion of what is in the aggregate needed must go to a given needy person. In practice, this is the function of government which must (a) discover the needs of the needy, (b) discover the surplus of those not in need, (c) assess how much each one with a surplus must contribute, using the Principle of Least Demand, and (d) must distribute this to the needy according to need. If government is basically doing its job, a person who pays taxes has discharged his obligation in justice to the needy. If, however, he happens to know someone who has been missed by society's distribution and he can alleviate that need by a personal contribution, he must do so. Government must do no more for the needy than what is necessary to avoid dehumanization.
No one has a right to be as wealthy as others; rights are not based on equality. It is perfectly legitimate for some in a society to be extremely wealthy, and others to be just this side of dehumanization. Therefore, taxation for the purpose of "redistributing income" is morally wrong.
A person may freely give up his right to ownership to a group on the condition that the group see to his needs, since a person whose needs are taken care of has no obligation to own anything. But since a person is forced to belong to civil society, government cannot make giving up private ownership a condition for belonging to civil society. Ownership is a relatively inalienable right, and so Communism as a system of government is morally wrong. A kind of temporary communistic denial of ownership would in principle be legitimate if this were the only solution to dehumanization because of ownership of all of the property by a very few; but it would have to be temporary. In practice, such "temporary" measures seem to become permanent, and so are probably morally wrong.
Exercises and questions for discussion
Note: These questions are to be answered on moral grounds, not legal ones. We are not interested in what the law is here.
1. Is it all right morally to get into a business which you foresee will lose money, because you happen to want to provide some service to the consumer? Is it good economics?
2. Do people like basketball players really have a right to fabulous wealth, when teachers, nurses, and others who perform necessary services to the community are just making ends meet?
3. Would a starving person be morally wrong in stealing what he needed to live from a rich person? If not, would the rich person have a right to prevent the theft if he saw it happen (supposing he knows that it is to stave off starvation in the thief)?
4. Does the "owner" of a business have a right to pay his workers a salary so low that they are barely above dehumanization?
5. Can government prescribe a minimum wage for people? If so, what would it have to be? What of the fact that some people have others dependent on them for support, and some people are working but are simultaneously supported by other (e.g. their parents)?