The Only Possible Defense of Private Property by Bojidar Marinov

In my previous article I showed that Classical Liberalism and Objectivism can’t defend private property on ethical grounds. They defend it on historical, pragmatic, linguistic grounds, etc., but they don’t give a defense of private property as ethical in itself. In all their views private property appeared long after man appeared, and is a later development. Therefore, it is not “natural” to man, that is, it is not part of his “natural state.” It is not sacred, Ludwig von Mises said, and thus he declared the impossibility of defending it on ethical grounds.

Unfortunately, there were others who started from the same philosophical presuppositions: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.[1] And unlike Dietze, Mises, or Rand, Marx and Engels were logical and consistent with their presuppositions: If private property was external to human nature, then it was alien to human nature. If mankind is to return to its “natural state,” it must abolish the source of all alienation and suffering: private property. Marx and Engels took the philosophical separation of property from human nature that the defenders of natural law upheld and developed practical ideology consistent with it. That ideology looked monstrous, unnatural, ugly, and it was monstrous, unnatural, and ugly. But it was logically and intellectually consistent, and it won the day, and it is still winning the day. What Dietze, Mises, and Rand lamented—the decline of property rights—was nothing but the predictable result of the superior logical consistency of Marxism.

There is only one ideology that defends private property on ethical grounds: Christianity, with its Biblical worldview, its doctrine of the creation of man in the image of God, and its doctrine of the moral superiority of the Law of God to any man-made laws.

Dietze got it right at the start: Property is an ethical institution, and first and foremost an ethical institution. It can’t be anything else, it can’t be defended on any other ground, any other ground is sand, and it will eventually collapse under the assault of the opponents of private property.

Then Dietze went in a completely wrong direction, philosophically. So did Mises. So did Rand. In order to defend property, we must declare its sacredness. We must declare its intrinsic goodness. And we must declare its naturalness. If it is not sacred, if it is not intrinsically good, and if it is not part of human nature—as opposed to external to human nature—property is only an expedient tool to be disposed of at will. If it is so, we have no recourse against those that want to confiscate our property in the name of expediency or of “return to nature.”

And the only way to declare its sacredness, goodness, and naturalness is to accept the Bible’s claim that man was created an owner, and that he owned private property from the very beginning of his created existence. Humans did not develop the concept of property, nor did it evolve in result of man’s praxis or interaction. Property was inextricably part of man’s existence in the Garden, and there is no way to define man as a being without property.

That view of property as being inextricably part of the very nature of man is reflected in the Ten Commandments. The same law code that protects man’s life protects his property too—in the Eighth and the Tenth Commandments. We can’t define man without his life; in the same way, we cannot define man without his property. His life is an “ethical institution,” it is sacred, in the same way, his property is an “ethical institution,” it is sacred.

This definition of man as a being that naturally has life and property is not a mere philosophical assumption; it flows from the very nature of objective reality because God Himself is a Proprietor. In the Third Commandment—which corresponds to the Eighth in the first five Commandments—God declares limits to man’s use of His name. God is not a remote being. He owns everything, including the breath from our mouth, and we are not allowed to use that breath in a way that violates God’s name. Using God’s name in an inappropriate way was as heavy a crime as worshipping other gods, and violating His property was a crime against the Person of God. In the same way, Biblically, violating a man’s property was a crime against the person of man.

It is no wonder, then, that the idea of sacred property rights originated with Christianity, and it developed as Christianity developed doctrinally and worked out its doctrines in practice. Even as early as the 4th century Bishop Ambrose declared to Emperor Theodosius the theological connection between God’s property and a private man’s property. When he was commanded by the Emperor, “Surrender the Basilica,” Ambrose replied:

It is not lawful for me to surrender it nor good for you, Emperor, to receive it. By no right can you violate the house of a private person. Do you think that a house of God can be taken away from Him? . . . If you hope for a long reign, submit yourself to God.

Notice the argument: The house of a private person is just as inviolable as is the House of God. In a remarkable early defense of property rights, Ambrose didn’t hesitate to declare: “By no right!,” and he made a connection that the Bible made from the very beginning. Had Ambrose wanted to defend property rights on the basis of natural law, he would have been as helpless as Dietze, Mises, or Rand. But his firm stand on the theological foundation of property made Theodosius yield and repent.

The “evolution” of property rights was only observable in the Christian West in the last 1500 years. Moreover, it was not an independent event: It followed the “evolution” of the doctrines of Christianity, as Christian thinkers studied the Bible and applied it to their theory and practice. The “Renaissance” in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Scholastic revolution, contributed to the development of private property rights more than anything before.

And of course, the Protestant Reformation, in its return to the pure teachings of the Bible, exalted property rights to the level of a “divine right” for the individual. Contrary to what Mises and Rand believed, capitalism did not create property rights. It was the perfection of the legal concept of property rights by Protestant theologians that created capitalism, and therefore created the modern world. Capitalism did not create property; property created capitalism; and the Bible established property and built a defense perimeter around it, and sanctioned its ethical and economic advance.

Much is said by Classical Libertarians and by Ayn Rand herself about the American Revolution and its great principle of the rights to Life, Liberty, and Property. And yet, one will be pressed hard to find a justification of that belief on any other basis but Christianity. Why would Property be equal in value as a right to Life, if we accept natural law as our foundation? After all, man was man long before he had any property, if one accepts the evolutionist ideas of the believers in natural law. It is only when we lay the Creation account as our foundation that we can add Property to Life as an unalienable right. And therefore, the greatest victory for property rights in the history of mankind—the American Revolution—cannot be understood without its Christian foundations.

Christianity as the only philosophical foundation to property is also the explanation for the decline of property rights in the 20th century. The more Christ is banned from the public discourse, the less His Law—the only foundation for property—has influence over the public actions of men and their political representatives. Modern society still has some notion of property because of its Christian past; in fact, Classical Liberals themselves wouldn’t be able to produce their great works if it wasn’t for the Christian roots of our civilization. They intuitively accept the logical conclusions of the Law of God – the importance of the private property rights—while intellectually rejecting its premises. But the removal of Christianity from society has taken its toll; and the decline of all rights, including property rights, is part of that toll. There is only one possible defense of property—ethical defense—and there is only one ideology that supplies both the epistemological foundations and the legal corpus for that defense. That ideology is based on the Biblical worldview. Remove that foundation, and property rights will follow.

Therefore the restoration of property rights can and will start only with the restoration of Christianity to its place of a dominant religion in the West. Only when our law codes, our cultural practices, our economic, political, scientific, scholarly and other fields of society submit to the revelation and the requirements of the Law of God, we will see the property rights truly upheld and defended. Like all other rights, property rights come from God, and they stand or fall with our obedience to God, as a nation under Him.


[1] See Communist Manifesto, Anti-Düring, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Das Kapital, The Principles of Communism, and others.

The Only Possible Defense of Private Property by Bojidar Marinov, Feb 11, 2010

Transforming Word Bible Institute


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