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.