The Kingdom of God is not an "Ownership Society"
President Bush attended an "economic forum" today to try to drum up support and public attention for his bold economic plan for America. Bush's vision, as he emphasized on the campaign trail, is that of an "ownership society":
PRESIDENT BUSH: I believe our country can and must become an ownership society. When you own something, you care about it. When you own something, you have a vital stake in the future of your country.Both Bush's broad vision and his specific proposals are worthy of significant policy debate. Does more private ownership increase economic efficiency and, thus, economic growth? Will the negative distributional effects of reducing taxes be temporary or sustained? Can social security as we know it withstand privatization?
Indeed, these are important questions. But a far more fundamental question is whether Bush's "ownership society" is consistent with the Kingdom of God.
What is ownership? Having been a student of Property Law, I can tell you that there is consensus among judges and commentators that the nature of ownership boils down to one thing: the right to exclude others. See generally Calabresi & Melamed, Property Rules, Liability Rules and Inalienability: One View of the Cathedral, 85 Harv. L. Rev. 1089 (1972). In other words, my watch is my watch because I can keep you from using or taking it. My house is my house because I can keep you from entering it. Remember that my argument about the nature of ownership is not about how things should be. I'm merely describing things as they are. When judges enforce "property rights" or "ownership," this is what they enforce: "keep out" or "keep off" rights. I can eat my sandwhich even if I don't need it and you do.
I submit that a society which organizes itself aroud this "Right to Exclude" (as lawyers call "ownership" rights) is inconsistent with the Kingdom of God. First, such a self-centered, other-negating focus seems inconsistent with Jesus' fundamental commandment with respect to our relationship with others: that we must love our neighbors as ourselves. How is granting people more opportunities to selfishly exclude and deny others consistent with this commandment?
This seems clear enough, but we need not rely on such generalities. There are clear applications of this fundamental commandment indicating Jesus' disapproval of the right to exclude. The most obvious is the story of the Rich Young Ruler. My favorite version of that story -- because it explicitly connects Jesus' radical injunction to the summary commandment -- is from the Gospel of the Nazoreans:
"Another rich man said to Jesus, "Master, what good thing shall I do to live?" He said to him, "O man, fulfil the law and the prophets." He replied, I have done that." Jesus said to him, "Go sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and come, follow me." But the rich man began to scratch his head and it did not please him. And the Lord said to him, "How can you say, 'I have fulfilled the law and the prophets,' since it is written in the law: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' and lo! many of your brethren, sons of Abraham, are clothed in filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many goods, and nothing at all goes out of it to them?" And returning to Simon, his disciple, who was sitting by him, he said, "Simon, son of Jonas, it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven."See Bart Ehrman, The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings, 137.
Jesus' issue with the rich man was precisely his exercising of his ownership rights, of his right to exclude others from his "many goods."
There are still more examples.
In Matthew 5:42 Jesus says: "Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you." This can be seen as another application of the summary law and is the exact opposite of the right to exclude.
In Luke 16:19-24 Jesus describes the condemnation of a "rich man" who refused to help a poor man who lay at his gate and "longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table." Again, the rich man is condemned precisely because he exercises the right which the Bush vision seeks to expand.
One objection to this analysis (weak in my opinion) might be that these are instances of individual decisions to exclude and that they, thus, shouldn't be applied at the social/governmental level. There are several problems with this, not the least of which is that it would deny almost any attempt to build the Kingdom of God -- to apply Christian principles at the social level. Almost every parable concerns individuals, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't structure society to advance the underlying principles. A second problem with this objection is that early Christian communities applied the principles at the social level:
Acts 2:44-45: "And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need."
A more powerful objection to my analysis is that it is tantamount to advocating pure socialism. But socialism does not necessarily follow from the analysis. The question is one of starting point: what is our beginning value, our first principle, from which all other rules will be seen as exceptions. There will certainly be taxation and welfare -- social sharing -- in Bush's "ownership society." But this sharing is conceptualized as an exception to the norm of ownership and exclusion; as necessary to serve what Bush sees as values subordinate to private property rights, such as economic equality.
Under my analysis, private ownership would be seen, not as normative, but as a necessary concession. People need private ownership over some portion of their production to give them incentives to produce for the social good, to ensure economic and social stability, etc. These concessions, though they may produce substantial private ownership, would be understood as exceptions.
The question, then, is over how we should conceptualize a just society:
(1) As a society where individuals have a fundamental right to consume and save what they produce, with necessary concessions to sharing to ensure people don't starve, etc. or
(2) As a society where your production is for "your neighbor" as well as yourself, with necessary concessions to incentivize production and ensure stability.
I think it is tough to argue that the first is more Christian than the second.