Property-Based Ethics: Environment Edition

I recently wrote on Dissent’s blog about what property-based ethics look like; namely, people being more upset about looting than shooting. I didn’t think I would have another occasion to provide an example of what property-based ethics are like so soon, but I had forgotten Pope Francis is due to release an encyclical on the environment soon, which has US conservatives positively seething.

In Forbes, Steve Moore accused Pope Francis of advancing a “modern pagan green religion,” and proclaimed that the encyclical will, through circuitous routes, “make the poor poorer.” On a December 30th edition of Fox’s Special Report, correspondent Doug McKelway surmised the letter would put Pope Francis in line with “environmental extremists who favor widespread birth control.” Crisis Magazine, a hard right Catholic publication, featured a piece by Rachel Lu suggesting the unpublished encyclical “smack[s] of intellectual faddism,” while Maureen Mullarkey opined in a First Things post that Francis’ letter is evidence that “he is an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist.”

Part of the outrage about this unpublished letter is tribal. ‘Climate’ anything just ruffles right-wing feathers; there’s a partisan divide in which Dems tend to buy climate change theory more than Repubs, and more to the point, an internal GOP division in which regular Repubs tend to buy it more than Tea Partiers. The harder right you are, the more you resist the idea of climate change and its attendant political questions.

I’m sure most of these people have no idea why they reject this stuff strongly enough to accuse Pope Francis of being a narcissist, pagan, and supporter of eco-terrorism based on an encyclical they haven’t read a word of because it hasn’t been published yet. However, it is pretty clear to me why the issue is such a nightmare for rightwing thought-generators.

The liberal story on property is that civil society, and thereby the flourishing of all, is premised upon a kind of absolutized system of property rights, in which the self-sovereignty of each person is guaranteed by their right to self-ownership and ownership of goods. So says Ellen Meiksins Wood, of Locke:

“Locke states unequivocally that the ‘chief end’ of civil society ‘is the preservation of property.’ This seems unambiguous enough, and at first glance appears to leave no room for rights that inhere in the person as distinct from property. Yet, in his chapter on property, Locke often uses a broad definition which includes ‘life, liberty, and estates.’…His reasons are complex, but one clear objective is to strengthen the inviolability of property by making it independent of, and prior to, civil society: if men have a right to property before and apart from civil society, which belongs to them by nature and not by grant from government or community, that simply reinforces the principle that no government can interfere with property unlawfully.”

Locke’s conflation of person with property is, as I have argued, a chief element in the atomization of individuals, and it comes along with the fantasy that what we all do with our property is as much our personal business as what we do with ourselves; this not only reinforces the myth of the atomistic ‘self’, but suggests that we can all carry out whatever operations we want upon our property without affecting anybody else. It also means property rights are as pre-political as the right to live, and therefore that state ‘interference’ with property is as wrong as states randomly killing their citizens. Autonomy means, literally, governance of the self; and the idea of a billion tiny kings and kingdoms is the liberal ideal.

But climate change, and crucially general destruction of the environment, reveal what a ridiculous fantasy this all is. If the operations I perform on my property destroy the quality of the air, water, or atmosphere, leaving other people at risk for bodily harm, then it is empirically false that what I do with my property is strictly ‘my business.’ More tantalizing yet, if the protection of human flourishing is actually best ensured by the regulation and mass cooperatization of behaviors related to property, then the whole story about everyone being best off when property rights are treated as pre-political and tantamount to human life is shattered.

Of course, as I have repeatedly shown, the Christian theory of property has always been premised upon the good of humanity and the flourishing of all people; the Lockean-liberal story on property, on the other hand, “includes a neat justification of gross inequality,” as per Wood. If Pope Francis’ encyclical says we are obligated to use all our tools (states included) to regulate the use of property so that future generations and persons outside our immediate geographic zones don’t endure the runoff of our carelessness, then his statement will be entirely in keeping with Christian tradition.

Which is precisely why the rightwing should be afraid.

Units of Resistance

One of the more popular topics on the Christian circuit is the strength of the family. Poor family units are suspected of weakness and brokenness; wealthy ones of coldness and distance, though admittedly the former concern is much more pronounced than the latter. But policies are always a much easier sell in the Christo-sphere when they can be shown to strengthen the family, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But it has certain outcomes.

Back in the day, in much third-way Christian literature suspicious of both capitalism and socialism, one used to read that the point of strengthening the family was to set it up as a bulwark against the onslaughts of un-Christian cultures/states. So while the state and dominant culture might instruct a bad set of ethics, your dominion in your family would allow you to counteract those narratives with positive ones. Thus families would be, in effect, units of resistance against bad external regimes.

Which has historically been the case, at least in a variety of interesting examples. Sophie and Hans Scholl, members of the Christian anti-Nazi resistance group The White Rose, were siblings. This is a positive example of a familial pocket of resistance.

Yet negative examples keep piling up. The Tsarnaev brothers, of Boston Marathon Bombing infamy, developed their ideology and plot together. Two of the shooters believed to be behind the attack on Charlie Hebdo are brothers. Siblings and cousins grouping into clusters and pairs is not uncommon in cases of insurgency. Islamist terrorism is not an exception here: all sorts of terrorists come in familial sets.

In other words, it’s quite true that the family can serve as an incubator for (pardon the pejorative associations here) anti-social sentiment, which can germinate into outright resistance. It appears to be a shaky compromise of the liberal order to imagine that we can simultaneously form independently powerful units of identity-construction, intentionally built for resistance, and then suppose that they will passively cooperate with a culture that marginalizes them. It rather seems that the opposite happens; the more liberal cultures tolerate the marginalization of particular groups, the more families function more or less as they’re ‘supposed’ to: as bulwarks of resistance. The more inclusive these cultures become, the less need there is for families to form specific identities that contribute to resistance.

My prayers are with the families of those injured or killed in these terrible attacks.

Logic Problems in Christian Libertarianism

I was inspired by Mike Konczal’s (@rortybomb) appearance on Stossel, wherein he discussed the unlikely possibility of strictly voluntary charity replacing social welfare altogether. At roughly 7 minutes, Mike quotes me on the topic of charity versus welfare, which is something I think about a lot. But this particular conversation got me thinking about what the role of the state is, in the mind of the Christian libertarian.

One of the things a person encounters when they argue against libertarianism is the notion that no two libertarians think exactly alike, and that there are in fact as many versions of libertarianism as there are libertarians. This makes the school of thought virtually impossible to argue against, as you would have to deal with each individually, one at a time. So I will get this out of the way early: this argument deals with libertarians who think in the Rothbard, Hoppe, and Von Mises stream, not libertarians who could also be described as ‘socialists’ or ‘social democrats.’

The logic problem in Christian libertarianism has to do with the role of government and the nature of property. Christian libertarians typically maintain these two things:

I. Property rights are pre-political, that is, human beings are entitled by nature to property ownership prior to the existence of the polity.

II. It is the role of the state to recognize and protect people’s rights, including their right to own property.

Based on these premises Christian libertarians argue they should suffer no interference with their property, either by state or individual. Assume both of these premises are true.

In this case, pre-political property rights are attached to all people, because they arise from human nature, i.e. the way God made people and things. In this case, the question is: how do we know who gets what? Remember, this has to all be pre-political; we can’t say ‘let market exchanges determine who gets what’, because those institutions are post-political and presuppose property. So we look to the telos of material creation to determine how it should be allotted.

Creation was made, so say the church fathers, for the sustenance of all people. It came to all men in common, but to make orderly use of it, we institute regimes of private property. So we know all persons are due ownership of what resources they need to live. So far, so good.

But this means that when people, through post-political institutions of acquisition, manage to extend ownership over more than what they need, and meanwhile others have less than they need, those with excess do not actually own the excess. Consider Basil of Ceasarea:

“The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help but fail to help.”

This is very typical of the Patristic view on property, and it springs from the notion that all people have some kind of pre-political relationship with creation (though whether or not this should be called ‘ownership’ is another matter.) Ambrose, Augustine, and Chrysostom certainly agree: excess belongs to the poor. They don’t mean this in the poetic sense of, say, ‘my heart belongs to my paramour.’ They mean this in the most literal sense: by the same decree you’re due what is not excess, they are due what is. You’re both due what you need to sustain you; that is what you are entitled to. If the poor are not entitled by right to the excess, then you are not entitled by right to any of it. God made the rich and poor of one clay, says Augustine, and he’s right.

Now we come to how the state should respond to these circumstances. It seems pretty clear. If the state is here to recognize and protect property rights, then the state must recognize that the excess of the wealthy quite literally is the property of the poor, and act accordingly. Just as the state would work to retrieve a stolen article, it must retrieve the hoarded wealth being stolen from the poor, and deliver it to them. If it’s not obligated to do this, it’s not obligated to protect property rights whatsoever: after all, why yours, and not theirs?

So a state that fits within these parameters of Christian libertarianism would be involved in redistribution for the protection of the vulnerable. Perhaps this is what Pope Francis refers to when he imagines a just redistribution of wealth. Sounds good to me.