Friday, September 04, 2009

Biblical Property Rights

Good advice found in the Bible. Who would have guessed?

Deuteronomy 23:25-26 reflects the limits on altruism:

When thou comest into thy neighbor’s standing corn, then thou mayest pluck ears with thy hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbor’s standing corn.

It’s O.K. to take a bit of the owner’s produce for sustenance; but to ensure that what is taken is not for commercial purposes, the taker cannot use machinery (a sickle) that would raise his marginal productivity and thus raise his output beyond what might be for immediate sustenance.

The owner does have some protection, but he is also supposed to charitable. This seems like a pretty reasonable compromise between altruism and property rights.


thinking said...

Notice that the Biblical command is different from property rights as we know them.

For instance, would any grocery store accept a law that said that any person could come into the store, and if they really needed food, take what they needed for sustenance, but just don't take more to sell on your own and make a profit?

In our society, the law is more absolute: no taking of goods or property whatsoever, regardless of need.

I'm not saying we should change that...I don't believe such a change would work in the law.

But it is instructive that sometimes Biblical morality and the law are not the same.

thinking said...

I've been thinking about this passage, and one more point stands out: the passage does not directly instruct the owner to be charitable; obviously, the outcome of this is that the owner is charitable.

But in a real sense, the passage creates a community right; what some conservatives these days might call an entitlement or even welfare.

The person needing food is not instructed to ask the property owner, nor is the owner instructed directly to give the food. Rather, it is taken as a given that the suffering person has a right to eat.

I think if this rule were suggested today that many conservatives would have a problem with it.

Brian Hollar said...

Thinking, a few points:

1) Please stop your anti-conservative political rants. They are not constructive and reflect poorly on you and your comments.

2) The Biblical property rights are in fact not so different from what we have today. If you study property, criminal, and tort law, you will find out that life-threatening conditions are viewed in a proper context.

3) I agree with you -- law and morality are related, but not synonymous.

4) I doubt many conservatives or libertarians would have significant issue with this type of law. They would take issue with the government collecting food from fields and redistributing it to those they deem to be in need. The Biblical example is very decentralized. A government re-distribution program is not.

5) Following on point #4, the principle contained in this verse is to encourage acts of charity. Arthur Brooks has documented quite a bit of research indicating that conservatives are significantly more charitable than liberals -- both in terms of time and money.

6) The Biblical proscription is based more on valuing life over property -- something that common law follows in spades. This is also a value shared by most Americans -- both conservative and liberal. It is not based on a notion of a person's "right to eat".