August 29, 2013 § 21 Comments
We’ve discussed how modernity’s concept of property is broken, because in its zeal to reframe all authority as abuse it attempts to substitute the human will for natural-law based authority. Thus modernity frequently appeals to heretical and false theories under which some aggregation of human wills – some form of “consent of the governed” or alternative theory of the triumph of the will – forms an essential basis of the only authority permitted to operate as such in the modern social order.
Real exercise of real authority does involve the choices of human beings: the person in authority literally crafts specific moral obligations from the raw material of natural law, obligations which bind the consciences of those subject to that authority. In turn, those subject to authority choose the good when they act in obedience to legitimate authority. 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.
That still leaves many questions open, of course. One question it leaves open is what distinguishes ownership from other kinds of authority. In this post I will propose an understanding of property and ownership which addresses that question. I don’t claim that this understanding is perfect or fully refined, but I think it does provide a foundation for reasonable discussion. So here we go.
Property exists when an owner exercises fungible authority over subjects with respect to one or more objects. That is the gist of it, though additional explanation in order.
In ordinary language we use the term “property” to refer to the object or objects in the ownership relation; but for property to exist the entire structure must obtain.
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.
Fungibility implies that the authority may be transferred from the owner (himself a subject) to a different owner through commerce, gift, inheritance, or some other means.
In the comments below, Nick Steves asks:
So are my children property? My (hypothetical) servants? Am I the property of my employer? Does every material obligation make the obliger to some extent property of the obligee?
Under this understanding of ownership, the answer is no — for the simple reason that children, servants, and employees are subjects, not objects. In fact rather than “property” as a label I recommend resurrecting archaic language for cases where a property-like relation obtains with persons rather than objects: “subject,” as in “subjects of the king” seems particularly appropriate.
This also permits some fine tuning on the issue of slavery, serfdom, etc.
Unlike many modern day traditionalists I am not troubled by development of doctrine, generally speaking. (The reason is because I am not a positivist; but that potentially leads to a rather wide digression from the subject of the post, so that’s all I’ll say on that for the moment). I have no doubt that chattel slavery – treating human beings as property – is intrinsically immoral, despite the fact that it has not been always and everywhere condemned as such by infallible acts of the Magisterium. Note that this is true even under the concept of property I’ve discussed in this post, not merely under modernism’s triumph-of-the-will reframing of authority, since it requires that we place a person – a subject – into the structure where the theory calls for an object. Treating persons as things (subjects as objects) is a basic violation of charity and has always been considered to be so by Christianity.
Serfdom, however, was not intrinsically immoral; or at least it wasn’t so for the same reason that slavery is intrinsically immoral. A serf was bound to the land; but the lord of the manor and the serf existed in a web of mutual human obligation. It might even be said that the serf had an ownership interest of a sort in the manor – although that interest was not fungible, or at least not via the serf’s own autonomous choice.
But whatever else may be said it is clear that as a moral agent in his own right the serf is not treated as property. He is treated as a subject. Serfdom may have been morally wrong – I rather suspect it wasn’t in broad brush, though of course it is likely that it was in specific situations, as is frequently the case with relations which are not intrinsically immoral – but if so, that conclusion would have to be reached through some other theory.
Apologies to Brian Wilson for the post title.
 I haven’t made up my mind if fungibility is essential to the property relation, but I include it because it does seem to be part of the general understanding most of the time. Also, it isn’t clear that fungible property becomes not-property when the decision of whether or not authority transfers isn’t the owner’s choice. Certainly in some cases – taxes, fines, etc – the property is fungible but the transfer is not the owner’s choice. I don’t think these considerations are central to the discussion though, at least offhand.
 There are modern forms of property which are almost impossible to get rid of – property which cannot be given away and has negative value in real terms. Timeshares, commercial properties with environmental concerns, homes with underwater mortgages in full recourse states, and Time Magazine come to mind.
August 28, 2013 § 28 Comments
Paul Zummo characterizes it like this:
Furthermore, there’s something thoroughly un-Catholic in Bottum’s white flag approach. I’m not just talking about the failure to defend and uphold Church teaching with regards to marriage. No, we have a faith that is rooted in the cross. Jesus, the ultimate sign of contradiction, gave up his ghost in the ultimate sacrifice to redeem mankind. Martyrs have spilled their blood to defend the faith in the centuries since then. Jesus told us that his teachings are hard, and that those who follow him would be shunned. Yet Bottum preaches the Gospel of “please don’t hate me.”
Yet I sense that despite ostensibly writing from a Catholic perspective in a Catholic publication, Bottum’s main concern is not really with the Catholic Church. No one with a passing familiarity with Church history could seriously claim that this is the thing that will make her lose legitimacy or blunt the import of her overall message. No, this is ultimately nothing more than Bottum’s attempt to salvage (in his mind) the Republican party and move the debate along because he thinks it is damaging to his political party.
I agree. Gay “marriage” is not something any self-respecting Catholic should ever compromise and go silent on for the sake of “fitting in” politically; any more than one should compromise and go silent on no-fault divorce, legalized contraception, or the Jeffersonian/Lockean heresy that the legitimacy of government authority derives from the consent of the governed.
August 27, 2013 § 7 Comments
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.
The authority we call “property” is frequently defined and thought of in relation to non-human things (houses, cars, land, stock certificates, contracts); but in its fundamental essence property represents legitimate moral obligations on the part of other human beings which we, as proprietors, can impose through our choices.
There are two general kinds of persons over whom a proprietor can impose obligations. Firstly and most obviously he can impose obligations over other persons generally: e.g. the land owner can impose obligations not to trespass. Secondly, the proprietor can impose obligations over the sovereign: one of the responsibilities of government is to prevent theft and trespass, and to carry out justice when theft or trespass has occurred. So a proprietor imposes an obligation on the sovereign to enforce his choices in particular cases, when the choices the proprietor makes are morally good choices.
One thing a proprietor can never do, though (it is literally impossible for him to do this), is impose an obligation to do evil on another human being. That includes the sovereign.
 Theft (distinguished from trespass) I understand to be an unjust violation of a proprietor’s authority in a way which permanently (until restoration of the property, if restoration is possible) alienates the proprietor’s authority.
August 27, 2013 § 36 Comments
Abuse of authority is pretty pervasive in human societies, because human beings are fallen creatures and we frequently abuse the things over which we are stewards. A recent thread at The Orthosphere turned into a discussion of the relationship between Christian orthodoxy and slavery. This discussion in turn depends on mostly unspoken assumptions about property.
Liberalism has always used the fallenness of actual human beings in authority as a rhetorical means of attacking authority in general. In manosphere terms this represents a colossal multi-century cultural “reframe”: rather than expressing outrage at actual abuse and attempting to get actual abuse corrected, distinguishing between legitimate authority/hierarchy and its abuse, authority/hierarchy in general is treated by liberalism as intrinsically abusive.
Ironically, by attacking all hierarchy/authority as abuse liberalism leaves us with only arid concepts of authority (including the authority of ownership), concepts which are intrinsically abusive. My comment in the Orthosphere thread:
I’ve been saying for a long time now that it isn’t just slavery that is intrinsically wrong under modern conceptions of property: all “ownership” is intrinsically wrong under modern conceptions of property. The proprietor understood as tinpot god, completely unfettered triumphant Will, unchecked lord and master over some (any) material thing at all is morally problematic.
When ownership is understood properly, as a cognate of stewardship and sovereignty, the supposed problems disappear.
In attacking all authority/hierarchy (monarchy, aristocracy, male headship of the household, etc) as intrinsically abusive – because the mere existence of nonconsensual authority/hierarchy violates the core liberal tenet of equality – liberalism creates a world in which nothing but abuse is possible.
August 20, 2013 § 19 Comments
Yes, it is both/and not either/or.
Refraining from committing murder is voluntary. It is also mandatory.
Refraining from committing adultery is voluntary. It is also mandatory.
Submitting to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church is voluntary. It is also mandatory.
Wives yielding to their husbands (in the words of the Catechism of Trent) “in all things not inconsistent with Christian piety, a willing and obsequious obedience” is voluntary. It is also mandatory.
Doing the right thing is always voluntary. It is also always mandatory.
Modern people have a peculiar habit of interpreting the possibility of rebellion as a putative justification for committing rebellion.
August 20, 2013 § 20 Comments
Just yesterday I received news of another person in my circle who was killed by her doctors, this past weekend.
In totally unrelated news it recently came to light that actually, as it turns out (oops), Andrew Wakefield was right all along that the MMR vaccine actually does cause autism. The mainstream media’s reaction is, as usual, to step up the denunciations.
The pervasive lies told and believed about modern medicine might lead one to believe in massive conspiracies. But don’t be fooled by that. The reason people pervasively tell lies is to protect their gods. It doesn’t matter if it is true that MMR sometimes, in fact, causes autism. What matters is that if the benighted masses come to believe that it is true, they might not worship the pagan gods of modernity with unequivocal devotion.
And the idea of a society in which the pagan gods of modernity are not worshipped by the masses with unequivocal devotion is terrifying to its high priests.
 A nuclear family relative of an in-law.
 It doesn’t follow that people should not be immunized for measles, mumps, and rubella. If you think that, you need to do more reading before collecting your pitchforks and torches.
August 1, 2013 § 10 Comments
The modern world is in significant part composed of vast human institutions staffed by technological and functional experts. Jim Kalb gives a compelling take on (among other things) why that is the case in his books.
But given a background of vast institutions staffed by technological experts, I am frequently puzzled by the starry-eyed idealism with which many folks approach them. This idealism manifests itself in viewing these human institutions as unmitigated goods or unmitigated evils. Some vast human institutions are given unwavering deference while others are treated with jaundiced suspicion: we live in a world of Good Institutions and Bad Institutions.
Which institutions are which depends on the individual and his tribal alliances, and many examples could be given of the Pure vs the Corrupt: the military vs the civilian government; the medical establishment vs the food industry; big finance versus organized labor; etc etc.
I suspect what we are witnessing is a kind of Manichean spiritual template impressed upon a naturalistic, modern, technocratic world view. A naturalistic world view crowds out the Divine; and when you crowd out the Divine, man will seek perfection in created things. Technocratic modernity builds a world made of vast institutions staffed by technocratic and functional experts. Because evil and corruption manifestly exist, though, the Good Institutions must be opposed by Bad Institutions in the anti-spiritual spiritual economy of modernity.
So some vast institutions become as pure as the whitest snow, trustworthy and good; while others are treated as if they provide no public good whatsoever, only serving the selfish interests of some oligarchical elite. When big institutions assert “trust me”, sometimes folks do and sometimes they do not, based on tribal alliegences. The military-industrial complex can’t be trusted when it says “we only kill bad people”; but calling into question the unmitigated good of biochemically altering billions of people through various vaccines is heresy. Trust doctors, but don’t trust generals. Or trust generals, but don’t trust doctors.
I would suggest that vast human institutions composed of technological and functional experts should be treated as what they are, though; not as tokens in a Manichean spiritual economy filling in after the death of God.