Serfing USA

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[1] 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[2].

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

§ 21 Responses to Serfing USA

  • Gian says:

    “A political community pretending to sovereignty, that is, pretending to a moral right of defending its existence against all other communities, derives the civil and temporal authority of its laws not from its actual rulers, nor even from its magistracy, but from itself. ”
    Belloc, Political theory of the revolution, (from French Revolution).

    If this is heretical, where it has been declared so?

  • Zippy says:

    I’m confused by the question. Where does that brief statement suggest that the just powers of government derive from the consent of the governed, or from some other derivation of will (as opposed to nature)?

  • Gian says:

    Consent of the governed seems to be a special case of the general idea that a political community derives its authority from itself. In other words, sovereignty is an assertion.
    Eg. American founding. Some colonial agitators got together and asserted that the colonies are now sovereign. The English counter-asserted.

    Now assertions can not be argued with. They can only be accepted or denied. And since no argument is possible, the only recourse is to arms.

  • Zippy says:

    Consent of the governed seems to be a special case of the general idea that a political community derives its authority from itself.

    There is a categorical difference between “the community itself” and “the will of the community”.

  • A) I am skeptical of any formulation of the derivation of just powers of government. The proof of justice is in the eating, not in the recipe.

    B) That said, I think that the consent of the governed does play some role, at least in the very limit of exit, and usually more.

    C) I would agree, however, that it is certainly false (heretical?) to see consent of the governed as fully determinative.

    Okay, so the “debtor” is not “property”. But the “debtor” is still obliged. So say a debt, an obligation, requires a ward to work for his master all his natural life in exchange for ordinary care and oversight. Now may the obligation, not the person, be sold?

  • Zippy says:

    C) I would agree, however, that it is certainly false (heretical?) to see consent of the governed as fully determinative.

    In terms of functional analysis, consent theories propose that the legitimacy of authority ends when consent (under whatever consent theory is being propounded) is withdrawn. This of course is tommyrot: non serviam under a thin veneer of theory to make it seem respectable. People who rebel against their legitimate rulers are wicked people: rebellion is not its own justification.

    On the other question, I would suggest that fungibility is fine as long as it involves treating the subject as a subject. Not breaking up families is basic to treatment of fellow human beings, and uprooting from a community is an extension of this concept. So I am reluctant to conclude that transactions which do so are morally licit. (Note that this was not the situation when a medieval lord transferred the manor to a new owner: the serfs stayed with the manor).

  • Zippy says:

    Oh and consent theories are definitely heretical, not just wrong. See e.g. the papal encyclical Immortale Dei.

  • […] Speaking of Zippy. He also covers the natural conception of property (vis-à-vis the modern one), with a followup. […]

  • Cane Caldo says:

    I’m not sure how all this works, but I know that God almost invariably consents to the will of the people in their government. That’s not to say that it’s not without serious cost.

    We wanted to be our own masters, and He made it so. We wanted men to judge us and He made it so. We wanted kings and Ha made it so. We want to subject ourselves to vices, and He makes it permanent. Most of the requests in this list were actually aired by mankind; not just inferred from their behavior.

    One way to view it seems to be that Our Example shows that the consent of the governed is to be forgiven and not obstructed. Another way to view it is that the consent of the governed is the path of pain.

    Leo XIII…that guy is on my frown-y list.

  • Zippy says:

    One of my favorite Popes of all time, and as prescient on politics as Paul VI was on contraception.

  • Cane Caldo says:

    Haha! I am not surprised.

    If you’re RC today, I think Leo XIII has to be in one of the top five slots; along with Pius IV (also predictably frown-inducing). The other three are really a matter of personal taste.

  • @Cane:

    Pius IV eh? And I thought I was well versed in Catholic trivia ūüėČ

    TAN published a compendium of Leo XIII’s encyclicals a while back. The jacket blurb describes it as reading like a systematic takedown of modernity, and it does. But he holds a special place in my heart just for composing the St. Michael prayer.

  • […] Catholic had a great post the other day on the nature of property that got me thinking about legal property versus […]

  • Ita Scripta Est says:

    Under this understanding of ownership, the answer is no ‚ÄĒ for the simple reason that children, servants, and employees are subjects, not objects.

    This distinction seems lost on most libertarians and the philosophical result is often horrifying. For instance libertarians apply a notion of absolute property rights to justify abortion this rationale was a much more proximate to the minds of justices in Roe v. Wade as opposed to any other influence.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    Fascinating and enlightening.

    I’m going to annoy some people by saying this, but this framework seems on the whole compatible with the principle of equality as formulated by Abraham Lincoln.

    “You work; I’ll eat” — that was Lincoln’s most concise rendering of the principle of tyranny: at base a grave and permanent violation of the 7th Commandment which usurps the legitimate authority (the property interest) that the laborer has over the fruits of his labor.

    Now it’s true that Lincoln frequently compared slavery to “divine right of kings,” clearly appealing to the strong residue of anti-monarchy that runs in American blood; but Catholics will surely recognize that the divine right in question was a modern and Protestant derivative of the older mediaeval principles of monarchy. I think Zippy gets at it well in highlighting the phrase “subjects of the king”: before the turmoils of early modernity and the beginnings of the consolidation of modern rulership, reciprocal obligations and a thicker civil society prevented many kings, even kings who desired it, from enslaving their subjects.

    Anyway, lots of food for thought in this post.

  • tz2026 says:

    There is civil authority (which may or not be aligned with Natural Law).

    There is ecclesiastical and magisterial authority, which also has boundaries.

    Also, to me it appears as a semantic “not true Scotsman” game. If you only accept Authority as such if it is real, legitimate, or whatever qualifier, perhaps that might be technically correct, but misses the point.

    Your root complaint is that people complain “Authority is abusive”. Do they mean legitimate, real, authority, or abuses of authority sufficient to render it as not really being authority? It can’t be the former. If they are using shorthand to indicate the latter, they may err in what they consider to be real, right, or legitimate, but I don’t see how they are making a different point.

    I’m not even sure that Authority applies to an object. You either own the object (and thus can do what you want with it) or not. An object is not capable of obedience or submission to either right or wrong authority.

    We can shift between “ordinary language” and “argot” but it only confuses things and itself is not legitimate.

  • Zippy says:

    An object is not capable of obedience or submission to either right or wrong authority.

    True, but that object isn’t property unless other subjects have moral obligations with respect to the object-and-owner. There is no such thing as an owner absent potential trespassers: a property right necessarily and authoritatively discriminates between owner and trespasser, and treats them unequally[*].

    Also, I don’t have a “root complaint” — other than, I suppose, that we have to understand things like property and authority correctly in order to make correct moral judgments about them. This may seem like so much airy philosophical pedantry; but it does have both practical and eternal consequences.


    [*] That’s why “equal rights” isn’t just a wrong concept, it is an incoherent concept: it requires authoritative discriminations (rights) which do not discriminate.

  • […] leftist is just a libertarian who realizes that property is a form of traditional patriarchal lordship or authority (perhaps after reading a little Marx: the Marxist critique that classical liberalism is no true […]

  • […] there are always due limits to the authority of men because of the nature of authority: because authority produces moral obligations, and it is literally impossible to produce or voluntarily take on a moral obligation to do evil. […]

  • […] previously covered the subject of property and my thoughts on moral theology related to property: usury, currency, slavery, and the like. In order to do that I had to do some reading and take […]

  • […] to think of property as a matter of a man and his stuff in isolation, but in reality property is a relation of¬†multiple people:¬†authority, objects, owners and […]

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