Does the Bible validate private property in land, or does it require that land be communally owned? With Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-professed socialist, doing surprisingly well in the Democratic Presidential primary campaign, such thoughts become increasingly common.
Someone recently wrote:
It seems to me that a theology that takes Creation as evidence of a Creator … would recoil at privatizing Creation as a private income-generating asset. The way I come at environmental issues is by starting with public policy that acknowledges commonwealth in the economic rent of Land. That at once puts the responsibility for stewardship on everyone’s head without incentivizing a portion of the population to disregard social good to gain private advantage … we all uphold or trash Land together, in equal shares, as well as put into the community chest an enormous and Creation-derived sum for social purpose, obviating much if not all of the need for dunnages (taxes) upon individual or private labor. What do you think?
First of all, it’s good to see someone trying seriously to build his understanding of political, legal, and ethical issues like property rights on the Biblical worldview of God as Creator and so sovereign over all things. God’s ultimate ownership of land—and everything else—predicated on His having made it, is clearly revealed in Scripture, e.g., Psalm 24:1–2. As Owner of all things, God has the authority to allocate stewardship over various parts of them to others under him, and those others then have a subordinate authority over those things. For instance, in bringing Israel into the promised land, God divided the land by tribe and then by family, and He provided in His law (Leviticus 25) for the perpetuation of family ownership of the land. The justice (right) of people’s having private property (property to which others are deprived [the root of “private”]) is embodied in the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not steal.” It is not surprising, then, that just as Psalm 24:1 says the earth is the LORD’s, Psalm 115:16 says, “The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man.”
God’s division of the promised land to the tribes and families of Israel was of course a one-time event special to Israel. He has not so divided any other land since, and at the coming of Christ and the breaking down of the wall of partition between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:11–22), even that division of the land (such of it as had survived Israel’s exile in Babylon) was abolished. How, then, does anyone establish just claim to property in land now? By analogy to God’s own claim. “The earth is the LORD’S … because He made it.” We of course don’t make something of nothing, but by applying our labor to something we, made in God’s image, reflect God’s own creativity, enhancing its fruitfulness or beauty or safety, imparting something of ourselves into it. The wild field bears little, but the cultivated field can bear much more. The labor of cultivating gives someone property (the word derived from Latin proprius, proper) in that land. And with property (not the thing itself but the right someone has to it) comes the right (Latin ius, from which we get our words use [the opposite of abuse] and justice) to use the thing as we please, including conveying it to another, so long as in so doing we do not do injustice to another (Matthew 20:15).
It is tempting to reason that common ownership of land “puts the responsibility for stewardship on everyone’s head without incentivizing a portion of the population to disregard social good to gain private advantage,” but it is also mistaken. In reality, common ownership of land leads to precisely the opposite result. A “responsibility” universally shared effectively is a responsibility that no one particular individual is obligated to embrace. Each can always excuse himself on the ground that someone else will embrace it.
The importance of private property to good stewardship of land (and all other things) is clear from both Scripture’s teaching about property (to which I’ve given but the barest introduction above) and history. Where land is held in common, what economists call “the tragedy of the commons” constantly arises. That is, if ten people have equal access to the same plot of land, each has an incentive to maximize his profit from that land, and none has an incentive to delay the exhaustion of the land because each knows that the other nine might maximize their profit in the short term even if he doesn’t. In other words, where land is held in common, people have an incentive to maximize its output while minimizing their inputs—which leads to the land’s rapid exhaustion. But if only one person has property (the right of use) in a piece of land, he has incentive to prolong its profitability to himself, i.e., to ensure that his inputs (fertilizer, water, pest control, etc.) are sufficient to sustain his withdrawals (harvests) over the long term—and where land is heritable, he has an incentive, from his natural love of his offspring, to do that with an eye not just to his own lifetime to but to his children’s as well.
The same basic principle applies to pollution. Where land is private, the owners have an incentive to protect it from pollution. Where it is public, held communally, no one in particular has incentive to bear the costs of protecting it from pollution. Our simple shared experience of finding graffiti on public restroom walls but not on the walls of our home bathrooms illustrates this. The fact that privately owned forests are routinely healthier than publicly owned ones (national and state forests) also illustrates it. The hideous environmental records of communist and socialist countries versus countries in which most land is privately owned does likewise. (The world’s worst environmental disasters have consistently occurred in communist and socialist rather than in free-market countries. One example is the shrinking of the Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union [now within Kazakhstan] by the diversion of rivers, causing the salt poisoning of vast stretches of land and the generating of dust storms that devastated lands hundreds of miles to the east, as illustrated in the aerial photograph at right and in the picture above.) For a good introduction to this subject, see Terry Anderson and Donald Leal’s Free Market Environmentalism for the Next Generation.
I have discussed the Biblical basis of private property (in land and other things), and refuted arguments that the Bible supports common ownership of property or government-mandated limits on inequality of income or wealth at length in my book Prosperity and Poverty: The Compassionate Use of Resources in a World of Scarcity, which is available from our online shop.
Embedded image: “The Aral Sea disaster,” Kazakhstan, 3 Sept. 2011, en route Hong Kong to London on an Air New Zealand 777, by Phillip Kapper, Flickr Creative Commons. Featured image: “Journey of Discovery | En Route to Beijing,” by Land Rover MENA, Flickr Creative Commons.