Property: Theft or Right?

Posted on December 2, 2011 at 11:21 am,

This is the latest in our series critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today we’re looking at the start of one of the most controversial chapters, chapter 9 – which covers the economy. Grudem starts this chapter by looking at the question of private property.

Before examining what Grudem says, I want to lay out the various different notions of property that exist (there may be more, but these are the ones I can think of):

  1. Everything belongs to God. For a Christian, this should be the foundation of our views on property. Human beings do not own anything in our own right, everything is essentially on loan from God (see, for example, Leviticus 25:23)
  2. Things can belong to individual people, this is “private property”. The keyboard I am using to type this belongs to me and not to anybody else. This category also covers some cases of mutual ownership: my parents’ house belongs to both of them.
  3. Things can belong to an organisation. My employer (a big corporation) owns the desk I sit at when I am at work.
  4. Things can belong to a family or a tribe. This is less common in countries like the UK, where there are extensive and formal property laws, but in many “traditional” societies, a farm belongs to the family rather than to any one member (or generation) of the family.
  5. Things can be “common property”, belonging to the community, the town, the nation, or the human race. Common land has been a feature of the vast majority of societies throughout history, though it has often been abolished during the process of industrialisation. The creative commons and free/open source software movements have created new areas of common property when it comes to artistic and intellectual endeavours. One church in my area runs community houses – whose residents share most of their possessions with each other.
  6. Things can belong to the government or state. For example, most of the roads in the UK are owned and (sometimes) maintained by the state.

What forms of property does the Bible endorse?

Grudem begins by pointing out that the Bible endorses the principle of private property, pointing out that it is implied by the commands “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15) and “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17). He claims that communism (by which he means the state socialism of the USSR, rather than the communist ideal) is the most dehumanising economic system ever invented, because it means that the state controls everything, and hence becomes one big prison. He does, however, acknowledge that property belongs ultimately to God.

He also cites 1 Samuel 8:10-18 – which warns about the downsides Israel would face in having a king, pointing out that the king would take various things from the people. He cites 1 Kings 21:1-29 as another example of this. However neither passage says that it is wrong for government to own property beyond the minimum which it needs in order to function, which is the implication Grudem is apparently trying to draw.

Grudem then says that private property is one aspect of human beings being made in the image of God – he believes that God’s sovereignty over the universe is something that is reflected in our ability to be sovereign over our own possessions.

Grudem doesn’t really address other types of property (types 3-5 in my list above). None of the ones I’ve listed are incompatible with private property, and none of them are explicitly ruled out in the Bible. And there are passages in the Bible that seem to support some of them. For example, the people of Israel were not allowed to permanently sell their land outside of their family – Leviticus 25:23-28 (see also Joshua 13:8-21:43) establishes that the land in Israel was to be treated as belonging to the family or tribe (type 4), rather than to whoever “owned” it in the current generation. The church in Jerusalem in Acts 2:44 and Acts 4:32 had some form of common property (type 5) – although Acts 5:1-11 establishes that this co-existed with private ownership of land. The one kind of property I can’t find any real Biblical evidence for is ownership by an organisation (type 3). Although equally, that kind of ownership isn’t forbidden.

What are the advantages of private property?

Grudem claims that private ownership is essential for economic development. He says that people being able to own property and a business means that they can build a business, and hence grow the economy. He believes that the lack of formalised property rights in most poor countries are a key factor in them staying poor. Which would be solid reasoning if it weren’t for the fact that a far higher proportion of people in almost all poor countries run their own business than in any rich country. Yes, many of these businesses are not legal entities, but they are still businesses.

His claim also runs into the problem that the term “economic development” is one that has an incredibly wide range of meanings. Grudem appears to reduce the term to economic growth (which effectively means “there is more money going round the economy”), rather than using the more rounded concepts which take into account the human condition (the standard measure of development these days is the Human Development Index – which also takes into account access to education and healthcare).

Grudem also worries that the American state is threatening private property ownership. He criticises the US Government’s actions in 2009 to prevent the collapse of some of the nations big corporations (Citigroup, Bank of America, Chrysler, General Motors) on the grounds that it gave government effective control of these businesses (he doesn’t mention that these businesses would almost certainly have gone under without that intervention).

He also criticises the 2010 healthcare reforms for putting control of the healthcare system in the hands of the federal government (a claim which is – at best – an exaggeration. The US remains the only rich world country where the national government does not provide some form of universal health insurance). He criticises environmental regulations for preventing people from having control over their own property, and laws that allow the government to designate some land as federal property as an assault on the principle of private property.

Finally, he claims that government ownership of companies and property results in a loss of human freedom. He doesn’t consider that in some cases it might result in increased freedom – for example, public use of land may allow more people to make good use of that land than if it remained in private hands. He worries that state involvement in healthcare will make healthcare professionals servants of the government – as if that is somehow worse for them than being servants of insurance companies, as they are under the current US system.

Grudem also doesn’t recognise that there are practical advantages to other forms of property ownership. In 2009, Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel prize in Economics for her work looking at how communal systems of ownership can actually be very effectively managed. Environmental campaigners have long recognised that communal ownership often means that natural resources are managed for their long-term value across generations. By contrast, under capitalism, there are countless cases of fisheries being depleted, vast areas of land being left deforested, or whole areas being left damaged by industrial pollutants.

In Conclusion

Grudem has a much more narrow view of property than is found in the Bible. He restricts the concept to ownership by private individuals (and, though he never says so, private organisations), and regards ownership by government as an assault on freedom. He doesn’t consider other models of property ownership to be morally valid or good for society, even though several of them are found within the Bible.

Also, it’s noteworthy that Grudem does not mention the concept of intellectual property. Given that there are an increasing number of voices questioning the legitimacy of patents in particular, and broader notions of intellectual property (copyright and, to a lesser extent, trademarks), this is a notable omission. Granted, the US Pirate Party probably hasn’t made headlines like its European cousins, but failure to even make a brief nod towards this debate is a significant omission.

As Grudem’s model of economic policy depends on his overly narrow concept of property rights, we will give him the benefit of the doubt over the next couple of weeks as we work our way through the rest of the chapter. Although we will try to point out places where a different concept of property ownership would directly undermine his arguments.

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  1. By Free Markets: Do they work? – Green Christian on January 11, 2012 at 11:17 am

    […] argues that the Bible supports a broadly free-market approach. Based on his (highly flawed) view of private property and human liberty Grudem argues that the concept of government owning property is not Biblical, and […]

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