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Oct 06, 2009

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Travis Greene

"No where in Scripture do we see a mandate for an equal distribution of income."

I don't think anyone is arguing that it does. But the Law certainly provides what we might call a social safety net.

Michael W. Kruse

"I don't think anyone is arguing that it does."

You haven't been hanging around my Mainline PCUSA world of social justice advocacy. ;-)

Yes. I agree that there is the presumption of a social safety net. That is one of the high level ethical imperatives that seems to transcend cultures and eras.

But I caution against too quickly jumping to the conclusion that this means massive centralized government programs ... or that it doesn't. We can't get a direct answer to this from Scripture.

JMorrow

Michael,

"But I caution against too quickly jumping to the conclusion that this means massive centralized government programs ... or that it doesn't. We can't get a direct answer to this from Scripture."

-I agree with the way you put this. I'd go further in saying that the answer to those questions lie more in how respective cultures interface with Scripture. I think that is a shade of analysis that's missing in the conversation. Even your conclusion that private property is the "most economically productive arrangement" is as much a cultural statement than anything else. I'd be curious as to whether that statement holds across cultures and social groups. Different cultures conceive of private property and the checks upon it in different ways. How culturally conditioned or "normative" are these statements about property?

Also while you mention there are concerns that place a check on private property as an economic model, where I think theologians and economists have been derelict is in developing a ways for the public to decide if their particular property rights (or desire for property) are getting in the way of other concerns. Take the example of the US housing market crisis. One finding that several studies have backed up is that a large number of people who could not afford or care for houses were buying them. Financiers were helping to push a personal desire that had negative social consequences. In response to making home ownership the "American Dream" I've seen articles pop up recently about the joys of renting.

If theologians and economists came together to put a check on the desire for personal property (at least among Christians) some of those mistakes might have been avoided.

Michael W. Kruse

"Even your conclusion that private property is the "most economically productive arrangement" is as much a cultural statement than anything else. I'd be curious as to whether that statement holds across cultures and social groups."

That is an empirical observation that spans cultures. Every culture that has experienced extended widespread prosperity has had a strong sense of property rights though, as you note, there is some difference in how the rights are reckoned from culture to culture. It need not be precisely American notions of property rights. I'd also add that part of what has made Anglo-American economic emergence possible is common law and the ability it gives for rights to morph and evolve over time.

China is going to be interesting to watch. The theory is that as prosperity rises and spreads pressure grows for greater respect for property rights and rule of law. There has been pressure growing toward this but it remains to be seen how it all plays out.

As to the housing crisis, I don't know that I'd say that was a property rights issue. That was more the judgment about whether people should use their resources to buy real estate versus alternative uses. The positive economist can give us some insight about trade-offs and risk but without stipulating what values we are operating from we can't really choose in a particular direction.

I do agree with you that we need to give serious theological reflection to the idea of the "American Dream" and rigorous examination of what motivates us to buy what do in a post-materialist (i.e., no longer focused on meeting basic material needs) society.

JMorrow

Michael,

Thanks for your clarifications and nuance on property rights. Do you happen to know of any authors or resources that address the issue across cultures? I think what sometimes makes this issue difficult is that "property rights" becomes conflated with "anglo-american tradition of property rights." In that way, other cultures are not as free to experiment until they find ways of instilling property rights which make sense given their history, narrative and goals.

My comment about the housing crisis would perhaps be better stated as a concern about the way property is valued in our society. It feeds into my fear that the "American Dream" has been warped so as to encourage practices that may become societally undesirable and untenable.

The same groups of people who unwisely bought homes are likely think of homes as personal assets which accord them status, connection to the land, and stability. Maybe a good question to explore would be where property fits in among the assets that lead to wealth. What other assets besides property fulfill that kind of material and existential need for status, connection and stability?

Michael W. Kruse

It doesn't precisely answer your question but I would start with The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else by Hernando de Soto. It is really more about how property rights emerged in the West. But from that I think you can begin to see why property rights are important but there is also some room for variation in how property questions get addressed.

gilliganbrady

please excuse my novice approach and question ... but ..

in this modern day and in the US, would education be a fair correlation to OT property? people guaranteed the MEANS to take part in a productive society? if i understand things properly, land ownership then wasn't intended as a societal comfort as we now treat it. it was the only thing the individual could hang on to to retain his ability to take part in a productive society and to retain his ability to be self-dependent. land ownership is no longer required to do that, but in most cases education is. does this shift someone's "right" to land over to education?

Michael W. Kruse

I think there is merit to that idea. Throughout most of human history, land and labor were the primary means of production. Then came capital with the industrial revolution. Increasingly, human capital ... knowledge, experience, mental ability ... is becoming important.

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