The Metaphysics of Ownership

Zippy Catholic had a great post the other day on the nature of property that got me thinking about legal property versus ontological properties. I think I have been able to tie his account of ownership of property to a metaphysical basis.

Zippy’s post is short and succinct – unlike this one – and worth a read. The most important bits for my purposes here are these:

But real authority which produces genuine moral obligations does not ultimately derive from the human will, either simpliciter or in some theoretical aggregation mediated through some heretical theory of consent of the governed. The foundation of real authority is Nature and Nature’s God. …

Property exists when an owner exercises fungible authority over subjects with respect to one or more objects.

By “object” we don’t mean physical objects: we mean the things in the property relation which are not subjects. Subjects are of course persons: moral agents with the capacity to choose behaviors.

Bear these paragraphs of Zippy’s in mind as you work your way through what follows. We don’t begin with them; rather, we are working our way toward them.

To begin then at the beginning: the form of a thing is ordered to its telos. The form of an acorn cannot be even partly that of a carburetor, or it won’t be able to produce an oak. If it is to act as an acorn acts, it has to have the form of an acorn, which is to say, all the properties of an acorn.

We could equally say that the telos of a thing is implicit in its form. Formality and finality, then, are mutually reducible, each implicit in the other.

The form of a thing, which characterizes it as just the thing that it is, and allows us to distinguish it from other things, is impressed upon it, engraved or stamped, by that portion of the Logos peculiar to it. ‘Character’ is “from Greek kharakter, ‘engraved mark,’ also ‘symbol or imprint on the soul.’”

A property of a thing is a feature of its character. ‘Property’ is “from Latin proprietatem (nominative proprietas) ‘ownership, a property, propriety, quality,’ literally ‘special character’ (a loan-translation of Greek idioma), noun of quality from proprius ‘one’s own, special’ (see proper: “’one’s own, particular to itself,’ from pro privo ‘for the individual, in particular,’ from ablative of privus ‘one’s own, individual’”).” Idioma is “from idios, ‘personal, private,’ properly ‘particular to oneself.’”

‘Property’ translates literally as ‘quality for through.’ The qualities of the acorn are for the oak that can be actualized through the acorn. The properties of any object, then, are aspects of its formal ordination toward its final end.

The properties of a thing include both essential and accidental features. The former are given by the sort of thing it is. The latter are given by what it is vis-à-vis its historical circumstances – vis-à-vis the accidents of its history.

Essential properties are inalienable. Delete the essential properties of a thing and you destroy it, transforming it into another sort of thing altogether. To destroy the essential properties of a thing is obviously to prevent the perfection of its telos in act.

Accidental properties are alienable. Move a hammer from Arizona to New Mexico, and it is still a hammer. This does not mean that they are trivial, for the accidental properties of a thing are also Providential. The accidental aspects of the telos of a thing – i.e., those aspects of its final end that relate to the act for which it is formed vis-à-vis its accidental circumstances – are a derivate of the Divine integration of disparate creaturely acts into the Providential Act that furnishes to each creature its world. It is by virtue of that Act that each thing has its existence in the first place, and with it a Divinely ordained Purpose in regard to its cosmos, and thus its form and character, and also its importance and significance.

As in the final analysis there can be nothing in a coherent causal system that is merely adventitious, neither is anything ultimately trivial. The world hangs together only because every one of its members assumes exactly the position it does vis-à-vis all its fellows. An essentially small thing like a horseshoe nail, a bacterium, a diamond, or a bullet may have great import on account of its accidental properties. Likewise, an essentially great thing may come to very little, as do many human lives.

The want of a nail can spell – can signify – the loss of a kingdom; or not. Either way, the nail (however relatively unimportant or insignificant it may be to one person or another) plays a crucial part in maintaining the causal order. That order being, evidently, valuable to God (or it would be unmade), all actualities are more or less valuable absolutely.

So no actuality is utterly insignificant, or wholly unimportant. The zero of import and signification is the zero of being.

Value is a measure of significance and importance – and, consequently, of causal efficacy, of power.

The absolute value – the value to God – of a thing is a function of its role in salvation history – i.e., of its accidental telos in the history of the cosmos as it is understood by God. And the relative values of things – their value to each other, each from its own perspective – derive from that absolute value, as relative being derives from absolute being.

All of economics and physics – and, therefore, law (whether natural, moral, or juridical) – are implicit in the differentials of causal value – of import, significance, efficacy, power, agency – between different creatures. All transactions are moved by such differentials, and proceed in pursuit of homeostasis at optimality for the whole world – of perfect and perfectly general rest in the Good. So it is that the duties and privileges of things, as expressed and manifest in their teleotropic features and properties, jointly encode and embody the coordination of events that procures a coherent and regular world. Then the whole order of the world is implicit in each member thereof. Whitehead somewhere says, “each atom is a system of all things.”

As coherent in its world, so each atom is, not just for the ends given by its own essential nature and accidental circumstances, but also for all the ends of all its fellow creatures, with whom it participates and coordinates to enact their world; and the ends of each creature are integrated in and by the source and end of all creatures, their Alpha and Omega, in and by whom they live, move, and subsist: the Way of Heaven, the Tao, the Logos.

Thus the acorn is not only for the production of oak trees. It may turn out to be valuable also as mast for the rooting pig, or for the production of squirrel meat. Is the acorn eaten, rather than sprouting and growing into an oak? Then such was its Providential telos, given its accidents.

However we find things to be for us, from one moment to the next – no matter even how ugly or painful our inheritances from our past, or therefore how difficult things now are – we must take such deliverances as somehow meant, and indeed important (albeit not strictly necessary) to and for the Providential plan of salvation for the whole cosmos. Humility under suffering then is noble, while pride goeth before a fall – and a further fall is always possible.

The value of things in themselves, quite apart from our own purposes, and deriving from their Providential arrival in the world, ought then to give us pause in all our operations upon them. It is fitting and prudent for the artisan of any sort to treat his materials with respect, and to take heed of the causal valences they embody. After all, the objects we discover around us cannot be for us, or pertinent to our purposes, unless they are first in and for themselves; they are fit to our purposes, or not, on account of what they themselves are. So it behooves us to treat them, and to dispose of the values they embody, with due care.

To use a screwdriver as a chisel, or vice versa, is suboptimal. Misuse ruins a thing for the perfection of its telos. It is just then, and correct – literally ‘with the right’ – to operate upon an object in such a way as to permit it to achieve its end, its telos: to realize that portion of the Logos peculiar to itself – its privy logos, its privilege. To do this is to recognize and honor its natural dignity, and to magnify the Glory of the Lord in his creation. To do otherwise is to increase the creaturely cost of the world’s fruition at the eschaton – to increase the suffering she must endure, her groaning and travailing.

Thus it is that in our doings we are bound to consider and respect the essential and accidental properties of the objects we encounter. This is no great insight; indeed, it is mere common sense, and known in ordinary speech as keeping one’s wits about oneself.

Among the accidental properties of objects we are bound to consider is that of possession. That a hammer happens to be in Joe’s hands rather than Peter’s, as belonging particularly to Joe, and under his authority, is an accidental property of the hammer that, as being after all an artifact of Providence, we are duty bound to notice and respect. This is so even if Joe came by the hammer unjustly.

Read now again from the first two of Zippy’s paragraphs quoted above:

The foundation of real authority is Nature and Nature’s God. …

Property exists when an owner exercises fungible authority over subjects with respect to one or more objects.

Ownership of an object consists in the authority to use it according to its telos – or, obviously, to fail thereat. It is respect for that telos of an object – as implicit in both its essential and accidental features, including that of its ownership – that exerts moral suasion upon subjects other than the owner to treat it as properly his, so that he has special and private authority over its disposition.

Now the powers of a man over objects, which are the incidents of his ownership, are his own accidental properties. His historical powers – natural, social, political – derive from his predicaments, his circumstances. And these too come about Providentially. They are not merely adventitious. No more then are his political circumstances – his duties and rights in respect to his polis – at all adventitious. They were produced by intentional acts (whether those acts intended such productions, or not). If a man holds a certain office, or owns a bit of property, this fact is in some sense ultimately due to the outworkings of Providence. And Providence has some purpose in mind, some telos, for men in their offices and properties, given their station in the order of history.

This is why it is wrong to steal (and to covet). Stealing is to the accidental properties of a man as murder or enslavement is to his essential properties. Both sorts of crime prevent the realization in act of a man’s Providential telos. We are bound to respect a man’s proprietary relations to objects over which he has power, for the same sort of reason we are obliged to respect his proprietary relations to his essential features. [1] [2] A failure of either sort of respect to a man has the same result: the prevention of the perfection in act of his Providential telos.


[1] Note that “feature,” too, denotes an element of a thing that is ordered to its telos: “feature” = “facture.”

[2] What does not exist can have no features. It cannot therefore be fungible – cannot change owners. This is why usury is sinful; for it is a type of lie about what exists. As a fraud upon the borrower, it is both false witness and theft.

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51 thoughts on “The Metaphysics of Ownership

  1. The foundation of real authority is Nature and Nature’s God.

    What is this “Nature” and how it is conferring authority on anything or anybody?

    • Is that a trick question? This was discussed at length in the post (albeit not, perhaps, quite exhaustively enough to settle absolutely all questions that might possibly arise – I’m open to that!). I’m not sure, therefore, what you are asking. I get the impression you are skeptical of some claim or other that the post either makes or presupposes, but I’m not sure what that claim might be. Perhaps it would be simpler if you were to set forth your concerns straightforwardly.

      • No trick, only I wondered about the capital ‘Nature’–a reification?

        I mean why not just say authority comes from God?

      • Ah, I see. Well, you could. In the final analysis, everything comes from God. Yet while his Providence accounts for, integrates and utilizes everything that happens, God does not do everything that is done. Creatures act, more or less according to their natures. And there is a basic nature common to all creatures. ‘Nature’ in the broadest sense then is the actual behaviour of creatures.

      • Nature, philosophically speaking, is the intelligible principle in things.

        That is, the essence of a thing.

        To be rational animal is the nature of man. His actual behavior may be irrational to any degree.

        Thus, we need to be specific and clear what “Nature” is here and what work is it doing.

      • … we need to be specific and clear what ‘Nature’ is here and what work is it doing.

        The OP, with all its talk of essential and accidental properties, of formality and finality, was shooting at clarity on that question, albeit in general rather than specific terms.

        What is your worry about its arguments?

      • 1) “Among the accidental properties of objects we are bound to consider is that of possession. ”

        Not “possession” but “rightful possession”.
        Or do you accept Moldbuggian notion of property as control? Of course, that makes theft a meaningless notion.

        2) “This is so even if Joe came by the hammer unjustly.”
        NO. For this means that Joe committed a theft and mere passage of time does not do anything to annul this fact.

        I submit that you do not appreciate how a man comes to own something. That’s what makes a man “own” something rather than to “possess” it merely.

      • You raise an excellent point. I was rather hoping someone would.

        That Joe now possesses the hammer does not mean that we ought to let him keep it. Perhaps we should; perhaps not. That question ought to be answered by due process of law. But what it does mean is that since Joe does in fact possess the hammer, we ought to let him keep it until due process of law determines that it is not actually his property. Possession is nine tenths of the law. So, as I said, we are bound to *consider* the fact of the hammer’s possession by Joe.

        “Possess” is from Latin potis, “able, powerful, potent” + esse, “to be.”

        Yet possession is not the whole of ownership, as you point out. As I said in the post, the powers of a man over objects are among the *incidents* of ownership; but they don’t suffice to ownership. As Zippy’s definition of property makes clear, ownership requires the willing agreement of the polis to the authority of the owner over his property. A man may assert his ownership; but his fellows may or may not agree with it. If they do not, the ownership vanishes, even if the powers do not. And in that case, the illicit possession of the property in question is evidence of a crime.

        This is why a deed is, not a declaration that a man makes all by himself, but an effectual agreement between a man and the polis. A purchase agreement, likewise, or a receipt on a transaction, or the like, is a testimony to the community that property has justly changed hands. Such documents impose a duty of recognition upon the polis.

      • A man may assert his ownership; but his fellows may or may not agree with it.

        Ownership is not “asserted” but “proved”. You are still confusing “ownership” with “possession” and not realizing the rational nature of property that crucially distinguishes it from non-rational “possession”.

        A crow or a dog may possess something, a piece of bone may be, and his fellows may or may not agree with it. But it would be simply silly to use the word “own” or say that the dog has property rights in the bone.

        The agreement of the polis in a man’s ownership must be rational, and can not be an arbitrary act of will. The polis has something to do here, in particularly, regarding the ownership of Land.

        The land ownership needs to be carefully distinguished from chattel ownership. As the land comes in the very definition of the polis. The land along with the people is the material cause of a polis.

        Chattel property is pre-political and its argument is biblical: Man must eat by the sweat of his brow. This argument does not depend upon polis and it equally holds for citizens and strangers.
        If I sweat and produce something, it is mine, even though the polis, may be a communist or a slave-holding polis seizes it. I remain the owner and the polis a thief, eternally,

        The landed property exists within a polis. The Polis (or a tribe or nation) possesses or occupies a territory, and not by an argument. The territory was won by force and would be lost by force.

        The dogma of Universal Destination of Goods holds that the earth is to be held by mankind in common. Thus, there is no eternally valid property in land. You can rightfully own a parcel of land in America and you can argue its ownership in American courts but the Chinese may take over, invade and conquer the American land, and your ownership in land is rendered moot. There is no injustice if the new conquerors do not honor your landed property but there would be injustice if they take over without recompense; i.e., steal your chattels.

      • In the term “rightful possession,” the adjective “rightful” does not mean assent by the polis but something that is “right” by itself. The rights are not bestowed by the polis but merely recognized by it.

        Property, being a lawful claim, is in the nature of an argument. Now the universe of such arguments pertaining to a particular City (or polis) is that City. That means, particular laws are different in different cities. Some polities may not award equal inheritances to daughters and sons, for example. Being lawful, property must not be stolen but can be.

        Since the universe of argument and thus ‘property rights’ is contained in a particular sovereignty (i.e a Polis), the sovereign will overrides each claim and is an unanswerable argument. But the sovereign will does not imply arbitrariness, since all polities are informed by Natural Law, the polities that achieve a closer approach to the Natural Law admit of greater rationality in that moves the sovereign will.

      • Vishmehr, you insist that I am errant and then proceed to articulate notions that either recapitulate what I have said in different terms or that agree with them perfectly.

        You say:

        You are still confusing “ownership” with “possession” and not realizing the rational nature of property that crucially distinguishes it from non-rational “possession”.

        I wrote:

        Yet possession is not the whole of ownership, as you point out. As I said in the post, the powers of a man over objects are among the *incidents* of ownership; but they don’t suffice to ownership.

        You say:

        The agreement of the polis in a man’s ownership must be rational, and can not be an arbitrary act of will.

        I wrote:

        That Joe now possesses the hammer does not mean that we ought to let him keep it. Perhaps we should; perhaps not. That question ought to be answered by due process of law.

        You say:

        In the term “rightful possession,” the adjective “rightful” does not mean assent by the polis but something that is “right” by itself. The rights are not bestowed by the polis but merely recognized by it.

        That is a great statement. I totally agree! When I said that we ought not to just take Peter’s hammer away from Joe – for, this might be theft – but rather ought first to determine whether it was rightfully his by due process of law, I did not mean to imply – nor, in fact, do I think that I did actually imply – that the due process of law *creates* or *bestows* property rights. I meant only that it is intended to *discover whether property rights do indeed exist,* and to *recognize* them when they do.

        You say a lot of interesting things about the differences between landed and chattel property, and about the justice of sovereigns, and so forth. I have not said anything, so far as I can tell, that either agrees or disagrees with them. The OP was not intended to cover these distinctions in detail, but just to arrive at a metaphysical basis for the property relation in the most general terms.

        There is however one thing you have said in your most recent comments that I would qualify. You wrote that possession is “non-rational.” But if a man came by a hammer unjustly, that does not make the event of his possession non-rational or, therefore, wholly unintelligible. What happens must somehow be intelligible, and therefore rational, *in some sense,* or we would not have a world. Injustice is not the zero of rationality, but a defect thereof. We can understand how Joe came to possess Peter’s hammer, but we can see that it would make more sense if Peter still had possession of it.

      • “possession is non-rational”

        simply means it can not be argued with.
        It is not a matter of argument. A dog possesses a bone.
        We don’t talk about dog owning that bone.

        Things that are secured with force
        are “possessed”.

        Things that are secured with argument are “owned”.

        Thus, America does not own its territory but possesses it. A lot of people waste time in arguing whether Americans are joint owners of America or the American Govt owns America (the Moldbuggian position). It is just nonsensical to talk this way.

      • Things that are secured by argument are said to be “owned”.

        And this is how polis comes into picture. Arguments can only be engaged in when the arguers share certain premises. And a polis is precisely the space of shared premises. America exists because Americans share certain premises.

        Now certain arguments are pre-political. That is, the moral premises are so general that all human communities may be expected to share them. That allows for instance trading between nations.
        So frontier is the natural space of pre-political arguments. Interestingly, libertarianism is defined by its readiness to accept the pre-political arguments and denying the political arguments.

        The libertarians are for free exchanges but disallow building up of moral consensuses in other matters. Thus, the frontier is the libertarian utopia and this explains its peculiar American character.

  2. Stealing is sin, but conquest?

    Did whites steal Indian land or conquer it?

    Are they morally obliged to return it or not?

    Stealing is wrong because it violates the rational nature of man. Things are owned by argument, the kind of arguments one uses in a court of law to prove ownership. But the thief does not argue. He merely takes.

    Conquest is not wrong per se. The lands are not owned by nations but only possessed by them.

    Contrary to what many people believe, the national territories are not owned, either by the sovereign or anybody else. The national territories are possessed, i.e. occupied, held and justified by force. So a national territory is not justified by arguments and thus it is not wrong per se for another nation to dispossess the previous occupant.

      • Basically, it is analysis of terms. Where do we use “own” and where “possess”?
        And why is conquest not regarded as wrong while stealing is.

    • I don’t know where the idea that conquest isn’t wrong comes from. Just wars are always defensive.

      Also the idea that the descendents of some people[*] should return stolen property to the descendents of other people is at the very least vastly more problematic than returning actual stolen property to its actual rightful owner.

      [*] Frequently not even the actual descendents of actual thieves, but rather just folks who have come into possession through some natural progression.

      • What say you to the Spanish conquest of the New World?

        Endorsed by Popes, no less.

        It is not “conquest isn’t wrong” but “conquest isn’t wrong per se”

      • Conquest is a result of a war. Just war tells us to go to war or not.

        So Just War says nothing about conquest.

        In WW2, Germany attacked Russia and Poland. It was defeated and its territory was partly taken over by Russia and Poland. That is, Germany was partly conquered. Was it wrong for Russians and Poles to do this?

        Notice, that the adjustment of borders is a different matter than expulsion of German inhabitants of the adjusted territories.

      • vishmehr24:

        Endorsed by Popes, no less.

        I am generally unmoved by the political endorsements of Popes. That isn’t where their Magisterial charism lies.

        On the other hand, I do think you are using the term “conquest” differently than I had assumed. A just defensive war might put one in a position where one must assume sovereignty over a region which was previously under different rule; and if that is “conquest” then sometimes conquest is just.

        But that is rather like impounding a robber’s getaway car, so I don’t find it particularly troubling.

      • The “right of conquest” such as it is is simply the recognition that a conqueror, having won power over a particular area, has likewise assumed the responsibility of governing that area well. This doesn’t actually bear on whether or not the conquest is legitimate.

        In a similar way, a man who impregnates a woman out of wedlock does so illegitimately (by definition!), but he nevertheless assumes by doing so a duty to care both for her and for her child, and thus the right to do so by the usual means.

      • Proph:
        I’m down with “you broke it you fix it”, but:

        but he nevertheless assumes by doing so a duty to care both for her and for her child, and thus the right to do so by the usual means.

        If “the usual means” implies “acting as husband and father in the fullest sense” I would disagree. Knocking her up doesn’t necessarily entitle either party to marriage. I suppose that may be a weakness in the analogy though.

        I’m hesitant to buy into some sort of right of a conqueror to govern the territory he conquered. If by any means he can restore the old regime and depart, he has a duty to do so. And if he can’t do that, he has a duty to facilitate some other good governance that isn’t him.

        Maybe a child kidnapper is a better analogy. A child kidnapper has a duty to restore the child to his rightful parents. If he killed the rightful parents in the act of kidnapping, he has a duty to turn the children over to the best possible third party; say, the Church. But the children have no duty to obey him, and he does wrong by ruling over them every moment that he does so.

      • Let me put it this way:

        A conqueror who actually had some sort of conversion experience and decided to do the right thing would abdicate power completely, in an orderly fashion, and turn himself over for trial and execution.

      • Zippy,

        I don’t get this aversion to conquests and conquerors.

        All states, past and present, are result of conquests. And no moral tradition, I believe, denounces conquests per se.

      • vishmehr24:

        And no moral tradition, I believe, denounces conquests per se.

        Isn’t the Just War doctrine a moral tradition? (Not to mention a doctrine of the Church).

  3. So owner should treat his property with respect to its telos. What about the relationship between failure to this moral duty and legal consequences like dispossession? To what extent should human law treat such failures? What measures one should take? Is there universal one or should it be decided on case by case basis? The question is too broad, perhaps.

    I mean there is the libertarian concept of absolute individual ownership (as proposed by Hoppe for example) on one side and the Wiclif/hussite’s heresy that sinners are automatically deprived of their possessions or authority on the other.

    • Well, in most cases the misuse of property is ipso facto a step toward poverty of property. A fool and his money are soon parted. So it would seem superfluous for the state to pile on with penalties of its own.

      • <in most cases

        I am not sure history bears this out. It seems that more often than not property owners are more than happy to socialize the costs while privatizing the benefits. It seems one coherent response to this is what RT cited above. But a “Hoppean” society would open all sorts of not only economic and political problems but also social problems many of which most traditionalists would oppose.

      • Well, perhaps because the misuse of property is not specified here the question becomes too abstract. Misuse of screwdriver is not a big deal while misuse of public authority is. Misuse of small amount of money might be something else than misuse of huge amount of money (or not).

        Consider ownership of animals. Bad treatment of animals is morally wrong. In libertarian society with absolute ownership no legal action against such owner is possible, only public pressure or market forces. Is it sufficient? He is kind of legitimate tyrant over his property. Perhaps in cases like this the state’s action is appropriate. Or not?

        Another example: imagine non-catholique ruler in mostly catholique society. Can his rule be considered illegitimate because he promotes a policy that is at odds with catholique morality?

        This sort of questions I had in mind.

      • @ Ita Scripta Est: you write:

        It seems that more often than not property owners are more than happy to socialize the costs while privatizing the benefits.

        Sure, if they can get away with it. But as an uncompensated taking of the property of others, this is a derangement of society. I.e., it is incompetence in the management of property, compounded by theft.

        If incompetence is punished by the taking of the property of the incompetent, that is one sort of social derangement; if it is somehow or other subsidized or socialized, that is another. Let the incompetent suffer the penalties of incompetence that the world will naturally feed back to him, and the incompetence will be self-correcting.

      • I haven’t worked all the way down into the weeds yet, but I would say no. For example, the taking of property by the sovereign could be just in the event that the owner’s use thereof was injurious to the public weal in such a way as to be otherwise unaccountable, as with externalities. Or it could be justified as compensation for the injury the owner had done to another, as under tort law.

        Also, property rights are not ever limitless, for the interests of proprietors over an object do not necessarily exhaustively cover all the interests that might attach thereto. This is one reason why Zippy’s definition is so clever: the authority of an owner over an object *must be granted by others.* As he says:

        Property is an authority that we, as proprietors, hold over other human beings. Authority, in turn, is a capacity to create specific moral obligations that others are morally required to carry out. As with all legitimate forms of authority, compliance with a proprietor’s authority is both mandatory and voluntary.

        If others do not agree that my property rights to the Mona Lisa, or to Mount Vernon, include the right to destroy them, then my control of them is not perfect.

        But I doubt that in practice the owner’s control over any asset – or, at least, any valuable and irreplaceable asset – is ever quite perfect.

  4. The political view of property resolves, really dissolves, various paradoxes that libertarians have created by misapplying the homesteading principle.

    Suppose I am walking through a virgin forest and I pluck a fruit. I truly own this fruit since it being in my hand and ready to be eaten comes by my labor.

    But my enclosing and claiming a part of forest does not make me the owner. The question is how is this plot secured? If I am securing it by arms, then I may be displaced by arms and there is no injustice in it I guess many a Americans will bridle at this. (Those that live by the sword shall die by the sword). You may say that I have improved the land. But this so-called improvement is biased towards particular agricultural views of the land. Suppose a hunter-gatherer tribe that wants to keep the forest “unimproved” as a hunting ground. Why should they be denied their preference?

    The error is in considering isolated men. But man ever lives in polis or nations or tribes. The popular picture of individuals settling as individuals is misleading. It is the Nation that settles and individuals settle as individuals within the nation. Otherwise, why did Englishmen settle in English colonies, the French in French colonies, Spanish in Spanish colonies and so on?.

    So, the homesteading works in the framework of established nations and thus an existing state of law. Thus, the homesteaders must have shared moral premises. It is absurd to conceive that I could homestead air around you.

    • Libertarians say that border of a property must be visible so others can perceive it. Agricultural or any other improvement of the land is not necessary. They also say that homesteading principle (ownership of land in this case) can be defended rationally and I really think it can. Nobody else can claim that piece of land by argument so he has to use force.

      I don’t think anyone wants to homestead air. I remember discussions about how high in the air or how deep into earth the ownership of land reaches which is quite practical question.

      I agree the weak spot of libertarian theory is their diregard of reality of collective life or polis as you call it. For the sake of discussion collective can be reduced to acting individuals but in reality these individual must have accepted rules of the polis or moral premises as you say before they started to act.

      However, I don’t think conquest is legitimate way of aquiring land. If homesteading principle applies for individuals it applies for nations, too. The fact that land has to be secured by arms means there is no higher arbiter that could resolve disputes between nations by force if necessary but it doesn’t make a conquest just or ownership of land less rightful. That would mean that on the level of polis or nation we are mere animals.

      • … on the level of polis or nation we are mere animals.

        Or as Hobbes puts it, the Princes are in a state of nature.

        But the state of nature does not mean actual war. That would be the state of war.

        I don’t think conquest is legitimate way of aquiring land.

        Legitimacy does not enter here at all. The word “legitimacy” refers to compliance with a state of law. But conquest replaces a state of law with another state of law.

        Your argument that “If homesteading principle applies for individuals it applies for nations, too,” is plausible. But there are further difficulties involved in homesteading itself. It is not clear why and how mixing some labor entitles one to own a piece of land. How do I relate it to the moral premise that “Man should eat of the sweat of his brow”? If I grow a crop on a piece of land, I own the crop, but not the land. The land is given over to mankind in common by the dogma of Universal Destination of Goods that implies that there can not be a perpetual and absolute ownership of land.

        And if homesteading was to apply to nations, then you would have multiple ownerships. You have a landed property in America but the American nation too has ownership over your land since it lies within America. It is not the usual way of putting things and thus I conclude that homesteading can not apply to nations.

      • … border of a property must be visible so others can perceive it.

        An interesting point. The ownership relation must be a public one. And this is a great modern problem, of anonymous property. Look at the giant corporations, who owns them? And various mutual funds, pension funds, hedge funds. Who owns these funds? Millions of people who hold units in them. But this relation is a very private one and not too stable either.

        Thus, these giant corporations are effectively owner-less and we see the consequences in the lack of stewardship. The giant corporations simply can not exercise good stewardship over the earth.

        For a proper stewardship, we need a public and stable relation between owners and the things they own.

      • … these individuals must have accepted rules of the polis.

        Not just the rules but the bonds of friendship that bind a particular people. Americans are a particular people, not merely because they have accepted the American laws, but because they love America.

        As CS Lewis talks about the classical notion of friendship (“philia”) in The Four Loves, friends are possessed by a common truth or object of love. They are pictured standing side-by-side looking at the common object of love.

  5. … ownership, which is a right.

    A ‘right’ is an argument and thus requires a state of rational discourse between individuals.There can be two levels of rational discourse:

    A) Rational discourse between strangers: think of a trading post in Indian territory or at frontier between two tribes. This is called the ‘state of nature’ and the arguments made in this discourse may be called ‘pre-political’ or the Law of Nations. It is libertarian utopia, as it were. These arguments suffice for property in chattels and protection of persons (“self-ownership”). The justice is arbitrative.

    B) Rational discourse in the City. This is called the ‘state of law’ and the arguments made therein may be called political. It provides for full spectrum of property rights including property in land. The justice is sovereign.

    The absence of rational discourse is called the ‘state of war’. There is neither security of person nor of property.

    The reason why the ‘state of nature’ can not provide for property rights in land has to do with the definition of “State”. In Aristotelean terms, the territory along with the people constitute the material cause of the State.

  6. Capitalism as separation of ownership and work:

    In 1931, Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. In it Pius characterized
    capitalism as “that economic system in which were provided by different people the capital
    and labor jointly needed for production”

    It is the fundamental fact of the separation of ownership and work, of capital and labor.
    But the mere fact of such separation, as Pius goes on to say, is not unjust,

    Rather what is the root, so to speak, of capitalism’s evil is that whenever the
    separation of ownership and work becomes widespread in a society, the result is
    exactly what Chesterton called capitalism, the “economic condition in which there
    is a class of capitalists roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose
    possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very
    large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.

  7. @vishmehr24

    What you say makes sense. Still I have questions and objections.

    Legitimacy does not enter here at all.

    Perhaps I should say ‘proper’ and not ‘legitimate’. If there is rational discourse in the ‘state of nature’ as you call it then homesteading principle (firstcomer is the owner) seems to be a strong argument. The lockean mixing labour is not necessary – firstcomer simply has better right than latecomer. He only needs to mark borders so they can be perceived by latecomer as I have pointed out. If attacking nation can’t defend its violent actions rationally then the war is unjust and so is the possession of conquered land – in the pre-political sense.

    If I own crop but not land do I really own the crop (while it is in the soil)? Or you mean when somebody takes over the land he’s supposed to compensate for my not yet reaped crop?

    The land is given over to mankind in common by the dogma of Universal Destination of Goods

    Does it really mean there can’t be any property rights on land? Why doesn’t that apply for individuals? Isn’t it a moral double standard? The purpose of property rights is to avoid conflict over scarce resources like land and it works for individuals within polis or nation. Why would it not work among nations? And what about civil wars and rebellions? Is a conquest of land by rebelling group different from conquest by foreign power? If not isn’t it promoting anarchy?

    And if homesteading was to apply to nations, then you would have multiple ownerships

    State has rights over its territory and transfers some of them to individual owner. Wouldn’t that answer the multiple ownership objection?

    …giant corporations are effectively owner-less and we see the consequences in the lack of stewardship…

    I don’t think this is the case. Corporations often have majority owners who can make effective decisions. Anonymity of ownership and some legal advantages are the real problem because it allows for transferring or limiting liabilities and socializing costs as some people tend to think. Their suggestion is that corporate persons as not being real persons should not own other corporations. Only real persons could own them. This and other tools like different taxation policy should bring the cost/benefit thinking corporate owners back to the real ground. I am no expert on corporations but it sounds plausible.

    …what is the root, so to speak, of capitalism’s evil is that whenever the separation of ownership and work becomes widespread in a society…

    I am not sure that Quadragesimo Anno hits the nail on the head. The distinction between capital and labor and their separation is overly emphasized. Although the encyclical is critical to marxists’ view of society as class struggle it reflects it by using the same terms.

    Chesterton’s and Belloc’s idea of small capital holders seems to be kind of agrarian utopia. Moreover, there is no evidence that all capital is in hands of small group of owners.

    I am inclined to think that it’s not capital and labor but rather capital and national interests what matters here. In addition to what was said above, corporations exercise too much influence on governments, they have too much protection and they are not tied down to national or local interests. In fact, they are threatening capitalism, not representing or expanding it.

    • … first comer simply has better right than latecomer. He only needs to mark borders so they can be perceived by latecomer.

      Many tribes lack the idea of individual LAND ownership but they still have the sense of a tribal possession of their territory. Do you think you could just go into a nomadic territory, mark off a piece of land, and then that land is rightfully yours for ever?

      Don’t you think this procedure and the argument behind it is rather biased against nomadic people?

      The material cause of a City or polis is the territory plus the people. That makes landed property a special case.

      Does it really mean there can’t be any property rights on land?

      There are property rights in land, of course. But they are only defined within the context of your nation (or Polis). Many nations, e.g. nomadic hunter-gatherers, do not define individual property in land. That is, there is no absolute property in land, unlike in chattels.

      If you hold or secure land by force, you don’t own it. You possess it like a nation does.

      Ownership or property rights come only when a thing is held or secured by laws. Since, reason is the only thing that generates obligation on others, the authority as Zippy argues is the essence of ownership.

    • Don’t you think this procedure and the argument behind it is rather biased against nomadic people?

      Nomadic areas had borders and nomadic people had a notion about property. There is an opinion the tribes learned by experience to let each other to enter their lands freely for hunting (but not for anything else) as they all were dependent on game travelling around. They just didn’t get the full idea of property. It came later with population growth and rise of cities. So there was the problem of different meaning of the word “property” between primitive and civilized people.

      To the question of bias in general. Is definition of marriage as a bond between one man and one woman biased against polygamous societies? If there is true definition of marriage and true definition of property than I don’t think there is any bias. There is just adjusting the principle to special circumstances or misunderstanding the principle or its implications.

      There are property rights in land, of course. But they are only defined within the context of your nation (or Polis).

      I am curious why it can’t be extended to relationships between nations at least as a guideline. The only reason I see is there is no (earthly) authority above the level of nations i.e. anarchy or state of nature. Still, if you stick to it or not the principle is functioning. The more you stick to it the more you avoid conflict which is the sole reason for existence of property. And more importantly, if the principle is morally sound then acting against it is immoral.

      That could be an anwer to your question if conquest is a sin. If it wasn’t a sin why would any attacking nation ever bother to find (create) reasons or excuses for attack?

      • … you avoid conflict which is the sole reason for existence of property.

        This is the libertarian take, I believe. But it does not capture the richness and fullness of the Catholic idea of property. Property exists for reasons such that family may exist, that power is distributed, that man may exercise due stewardship over the earth.

        Man is commanded to make a garden out of the wilderness and thus each individual should have a property.

        … why would any attacking nation ever bother to find (create) reasons or excuses for attack?

        To comply with Just War criterion, which all nations do, implicitly or explicitly. But as I argued with Zippy, conquest is a separate thing from Just War criteria.

        Conquest is replacement of one tribe by another over a land that is, replacement of one state of law by another. It is morally neutral. Morality comes in how this replacement is effected.

        Do you think White conquest of New World was immoral?

        English conquest of India was immoral? Conquest is a national activity, not an individual one. Are nations moral actors?

        … why it can’t be extended to relationships between nations at least as a guideline. The only reason I see is there is no (earthly) authority above the level of nations i.e. anarchy or state of nature.

        Also, a nation is an object of love, and this love is the source of authority that nation has over individuals and families. The co-nationals are united in this love and this creates bonds of friendship between them. Another name of nation is republic or commonwealth. You share something with your co-national (i.e. your neighbor) and that you don’t share with the stranger.

        The strangers do not share this love and thus your nation has no authority over them. They may comply with the national rules, if expedient. Of course, stealing is wrong in itself. But the political rules, they have no obligation to obey. That is, it is their choice-they may come as invaders or as sojourners.

      • Thanks for your time.and explanations. It’s much clearer now.

        I would say that in reality conquest can’t be so easily separated from war. It is difficult to imagine conquest without war. Then, is possible to have unjust war and just conquest?

        Nations are not moral actors but individuals in charge are and so they bear responsibility.

  8. @Kristor: Wow. Very well said. Thank you for referencing Zippy’s post but you have also done a stellar job of discussing and expounding on this idea.

    Re: some of the comments:

    Hobbes’ description of the state of nature specifically references that it consists of war of all against all, so I’m not sure how one can reference a specifically Hobbesian state of nature as explicitly different from a state of war. Since Hobbes explicitly uses the term “war” to describe the state of nature, I think this is an incorrect reading of Hobbes.

    I also don’t understand the references to Quadragesimo Anno and class struggle distinctions between capital and labor. A reading of the text illustrates nothing of the kind, in fact the complete opposite. Perhaps there is some confusion over where the Pope is describing and advocating against socialist, class-based ideology and instead advocating a holistic Catholic social perspective? Likewise the reference to Chesterbelloc distributism as agrarian misses the large body of their work (as well as Rerum Novarum, QA, and other Catholic texts) which expressly discuss means of distributed ownership in industry. I have to think that those making these various false assertions simply haven’t read the relevant texts closely enough. These texts simply do no not say any of these things; they say the exact opposite.

    • Locke distinguishes between three states, viz, the state of laws (in which individuals live), the state of nature (in which the Princes live) and the state of war.

    • Where is any reference to agrarian, Chesterbelloc or otherwise? Where is any reference to “class struggle distinctions’?

      Only “Capitalism” is defined as a society-wise separation of ownership and labor and in this agreeing with the definitions of QA and Chesterton.

    • Chevalier, I admit my knowledge might be lacking. I don’t have enough time to read everything about those topics so I made my opinion after reading a few articles on distributism and some critiques of it from economists. Perhaps I am biased but the critique of distributism by Block for example is quite convincing.

      Also I discussed distributism with proponents of catholique social teaching and economists inclined to libertarianism elsewhere. I noticed that local catholique trads often tend to “agrarianism” or the ideal of mostly agrarian society with small and self-sufficient landholders. So I have mixed it up with distributist ideal of distribution of capital among small owners in my previous reply to vishmehr24 for the sake of keeping it short.

      I read social encyclicals some time ago, some other works about catholique social teachings and Wood’s critiques that again seemed to be more convincing than defences. The encyclicals criticize socialism as well as capitalism and propose a third way but are very general about it. What does it mean in terms of economics and politics? What political decisions are called for? Is there any third way at all? I am rather sceptical. There is historical example of Salazar’s Portugal with economic performance only slightly better than that of east-european socialist countries. From that and with help of economic theory I conclude that it was a slightly better form of socialism.

      Of course, I could get it wrong. I had to change opinions and convictions about many things in recent past. Perhaps you can recommend a sound work on CST that succesfully deals with critiques.

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