Sunday, September 12, 2010

Francis Wayland and the Morality of Private Property

I've previously noted that Lee Haddigan has done an excellent job identifying the importance of Christians in the 20th century libertarian movement. One of the main reasons that the Christians cited by Haddigan were led to support the free society was the Christian ethic of private property. These convictions did not spontaneously spring to life only in the middle of last century. Historically, Christians have embraced private property as required by Christian ethics.  The morality of private property was recognized by many of the patriarchs in the early church and the broader Scholastic tradition. What is not always recognized by contemporary evangelical Christians is that key thinkers in the Protestant tradition also argued for the legitimacy of private property.

One such figure was Francis Wayland, a Baptist minister and educator who was the president of Brown University for 28 years. An excellent introduction to Wayland and his social thought has been written by Laurence Vance, director of the Francis Wayland Institute. Wayland explained the Christian ethic of property in his treatise on ethics, The Elements of Moral Science. In his chapter on personal liberty, Wayland explains that everyone possesses a physical body, mental understanding, and will. He then argues that if a person uses them

in such manner as not to interfere with the use of the same powers which God has bestowed upon his neighbor, he is, as it respects his neighbor. . . to be held guiltless. So long has he uses them within this limit, he has a right, so far as his fellow-men are concerned, to use them, in the most unlimited sense, suo arbitrio, at his own discretion.

Wayland viewed the right to property as something God reveals to us in three ways: our conscience, the general consequences of a society either embracing or rejecting property, and Holy Scripture. that our conscience testifies to the ethic of private property is demonstrated by all people, as soon as they are old enough to begin to think, perceiving the difference between mine and yours. He notes that possessive pronouns are used in all languages.  People naturally feel that he who violates property rights is wrong.

Secondly the created order bears witness to the rightness of private property.  God has shown in history that both the existence and progress of society and the human race itself depends on the right to private property.  Wayland notes that in those lands without the right to property, people tend to labor only enough to manage their individual subsistence, neither accumulating capital goods nor planning for the future.  Consequently, there would be no accumulation of capital, no tools, no provision for future, no houses, and no agriculture.  As Wayland rightly observes with characteristic prose, without private property, “the human race must perish or exist in wretchedness.” Civilization progresses, therefore, in proportion to the right to private property being recognized, protected, and defended.

Finally, Wayland appealed directly to the Scriptures. He noted that they

treat the right to property as a thing acknowledged, and direct their precepts against every act by which it is violated, and also against the tempers of mind from which such violation proceeds. The doctrine of revelation is so clearly set forth on this subject, that I need not delay for the sake of dwelling upon it. It will be sufficient to refer to the prohibitions in the Decalogue against steeling and coveting, and to the various precepts in the New Testament respecting our duty in regard to our neighbor’s possessions.

Wayland further defended private property rights and developed its implications for economic society in his Elements of Political Economy. It was the leading economics text written by an American in its day and Donald Frey reports that it was so popular that, taking into account total college enrollment at the time, Wayland’s book had more per capita sales than Paul Samuelson’s Economics.

In a section about the incentives that apply labor to capital, Wayland explains that the motive to productively use capital can be destroyed by either common ownership of property or by theft.  He shrewdly notes that theft can be perpetrated by individuals or by the state, which he classifies as the most destructive.  Wayland writes:

Of all the destructive agencies that can be brought to bear upon production, by far the most fatal, is public oppression.  It drinks up the spirit of a people, by inflicting wrong through means of an agency which was created for the sole purpose of preventing wrong; and which was intended to be the ultimate and faithful refuge of the friendless.  When the antidote to evil, becomes the source of evil, what hope for man is left?

According to Wayland, whenever the state engages in theft by confiscatory taxation and wealth redistribution, this is an evil and economic prosperity will be slow in coming.

The implications of Christian ethics relating to private property are relatively straightforward.  As Francis Wayland explained in Elements of Moral Science, the right to property “is the right to use something in such manner as I choose, provided I do not so use it as to interfere with the rights of my neighbor.” Applying this principle to the actions of rulers, who Wayland saw as the agents of society, he concludes, “Each one has a right to use what is his own, exactly as he pleases. If society, interfere by directing the manner in which he shall appropriate it, it is an act of injustice.”

Such a view of property has clear implications for economic policy. Wayland counseled against usury laws, government trade restrictions, government funded internal improvements, and government intervention in the banking industry. He also opposed confiscatory taxation, government granted monopolies, and government regulation of money. He did so because he believed that interventionist economic policy is not only economically destructive, it also violates Christian ethics.

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