Theft, Envy, And Private Property

San Diego County has places of obvious beauty. Mt Palomar is grand and so are the beaches and, of course, the Pacific Ocean. My little corner of San Diego County (North County), has areas of quiet beauty. The back roads are quiet and some of them lead to lovely surprises. On the one of the back roads between Escondido and Ramona there is a grassland and even a few head of cattle and some horses. It is a favorite place to visit. The cattle do not mind and the horses come and go as they please. There are limits to where one can wander, however. They are marked with signs. One might be put off. I have been. More than once a trip down a quiet lane brought to an end by a sign, by the assertion of private property.  Where I come from, county rounds and state highways go for farther than I can. Fences and signs are more common place here. Even in the back country of California, fences and signs appear more often than one might like. Still, I own property and I believe in the natural right to private property, so whence the irritation? Why do I not rejoice when I see someone asserting his liberty to use their goods as he pleases? Because I am affected by the fall. Because, by nature, I am prone to violate the 8th and 10th commandment and so, dear reader, are you.

The eighth commandment, as numbered by the Reformed, says: “You shall not steal” (Ex  20:15; 20:15; Lev 19:11; Deut 5:19; Matt 19:18; Rom 13;9). The tenth commandment says: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his male servant, his female servant, his ox, is donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Ex 20:17; Deut 5:21; 7:25; Rom 7:7; 13:9). Lately I have been meditating on some of the assumptions behind the biblical language about property and it occurs to me that without the assumption of private property these two commandments make no sense. One of the assumptions underlying the eight commandment is that there are things that are not mine. Those things belong to others. If I take them without permission or without buying them (by trading money, goods, or services for them), then I am a thief. In other words, unless there is such a thing as private property, theft is impossible. Theft exists, ergo private property exists. If everything belongs to everyone, then theft is impossible. How can one steal what is his already? The same reasoning applies to the 10th commandment. One cannot envy what is his. He envies what belongs to others. He is dissatisfied with the Lord has provided to him and wants what the Lord has provided to someone else. Here we are not talking about purchasing a good or service (though we might be guilty of envying in that instance too) but we are thinking about ungodly desires for the goods of others. Private property is assumed in both commandments.

There are Christian traditions, however, that oppose private property and there seem to be a fair number of late-modern evangelicals who are suspicious of private property. Whence this suspicion? The French Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) hated the idea of private property. He argued that, in a state of nature, there were no fences.  In the state of nature, everything belonged to everyone. Ergo, as we seek to return to the state of nature, fences (private property) should be abolished. This, of course, was nothing but self-justification for his Narcissistic self-indulgence. Rousseau was the first hippy and, like the hippies of the 1960s, he made a mess of his life and abandoned his children to the care of the people of Geneva. Granting his dubious and speculative assertion (that the state of nature was a worker’s paradise) what Rousseau neglected to mention, in his (cultural) appropriation of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works, was that we do not now live “in the state of nature” after the fall. The fall brought with it corruption and death. There will be no restoration of the “state of nature” in this life until the New Heavens and the New Earth.

Still, Rousseau’s ethic of envy (ressentiment) has had a powerful effect in the modern world. It fueled not only the French Revolution but the Communist revolutions in Russia, China, and elsewhere. In the 20th century alone, class envy led to the slaughter of millions of people. Today, American school children are catechized in class envy in their textbooks and few parents seem to care. Christians are influenced by the ethos of the French Revolution. I was. In university I was taught by some of my professors that some version of socialism was the most just social arrangement. Over time, however, I learned that what I had been taught was not true and that my professors did not really believe what they were telling me. After all, they made a voluntary agreement with the university to trade their skill and labor for a fair-market wage. They formed no commune. They went home to decent houses in middle- or even upper-class neighborhoods in private cars. They talked about a workers paradise but they did not live in one. They lived in a nice college-town largely created by entrepreneurial capitalists, who paid the taxes to pave the roads and build the bridges over which the socialists in town drove. Socialism is institutionalized envy.

Even before university I had heard grown ups grumble about how “those businessmen” got their wealth unjustly, by “stealing” it from others. Those grumblers never explained how this process worked. I do not remember a store owner once pointing a firearm at me and demanding my money. I do not remember anyone forcing me to walk into their business. Did the grocery store owner charge exorbitant prices? If so, why did we not go to another grocer? There were several in the neighborhood? In fact, these claims about “those greedy businessmen” could not stand scrutiny. Those complaints were nothing but envy disguised as righteous indignation. We know it is envy and not truth when we see business people, who evidently believe in charging a fair market price for their goods and services, complaining about “evil” businesses. Really? It is just for you to charge a fair-market price (what the market will bear) for your goods and services but the other business person is “evil” for doing the same? How is that not just envy?

Anyone not old enough to remember how the hippy communes actually worked needs only to watch Forrest Gump for a brief tutorial. None forms of socialism (the public ownership of the means of production, the state-enforced community of property) with which I am familiar have ever produced anything like Rousseau’s state of nature. They have produced misery and death from many fled and many more died trying. My millennial readers are too young to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall but that wall existed literally to keep people from fleeing the “socialist paradise” of the Soviet Union. Socialism was so wonderful that those who tried to leave were shot in the back by guards in towers. Socialism was so glorious that when the Soviet Union collapsed, those who lived behind what Churchill called “the Iron Curtain” danced in the street and top of the wall even as it crumbled. Robin Williams’ 1984 film Moscow on the Hudson captures some of the reality of socialism in practice. One of the books that most convicted me of my envious heart was Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction. The 2nd edition (1993) contains a foreword by Robert Bork.

The gospel is good news for thieves and for the covetous. Christ obeyed and died in our place. He was raised from the dead, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he shall return to set everything right and to judge the living and the dead. All who trust him shall be saved. All the saved seek to obey his moral law, among which are the eighth and tenth commandments.

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  1. Envy is:

    “The passion which causes evil, the father of death, the first entrance for sin, the root of wickedness, the birth of sorrow, the mother of misfortune, the basis of disobedience, the beginning of shame. Envy banishes us from paradise….Envy made Joseph a slave. Envy is the death-dealing sting, the hidden weapon, the sickness of nature, the bitter poison, the self-willed emaciation, the bitter dart, the nail of the soul, the fire in the heart, the flame burning on the inside…” (Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa, quoted in Death by Envy, Fr. George R.A. Aquaro, p. 74)

    Envy has played a part in human dynamics ever since the Evil One persuaded the envy-bitten Cain to murder his brother Abel, Judas to betray Jesus Christ, the Pharisees to crucify Him, and Saul to suddenly throw his spear at David in a murderous attempt at pinning him to a wall. (1 Sam. 18:11) In fact, the envy-bitten Saul tried three times to kill David with a javelin (1 Sam. 18:10-11, 19: 9-10) as well as bring about David’s death at the hands of the Philistines. (1 Sam. 18:25)

    In our own time, envy is the spirit animating British philosopher Adam Smith’s sophistry, that is, his phony concern postured in sophisticated questions and so-called ‘evidence’ such as,

    “Is having a loving family an unfair advantage?” “Should parents snuggling up for one last story before lights out be even a little concerned about the advantage they might be conferring?”

    “Evidence shows that the difference between those who get bedtime stories and those who don’t – the difference in their life chances – is bigger than the difference between those who get elite private schooling and those that don’t.” (Parents reading to kids blasted as ‘unfair,’ Joe Kovacs, WND, May, 2015)

    Envy in its every malignant, sadistic permutation is the green-eyed spirit animating left-wing ideology and its’ totalitarian fantasy:

    “Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.” (Winston Churchill, British orator, author and Prime Minister during World War II, 1874-1965)

    “When I say that Marxism is based on envy, I mean that the glorious revolution of the proletariat…was really a promise to put a final end to all the conditions that make for envy.” (Joseph Epstein, author and former editor of The American Scholar, from Truths about Socialism, Coral Ridge Ministries, p. 66)

  2. Linda, great comments. God’s command to Adam was the first revelation of God’s law, as the condition of life in glory. But Adam was not content to honor and obey God by accepting God’s authority and conditions. Adam thought he was able to determine his own, better destiny without God’s restrictions. Adam denied God’s righteous demands and in doing so actually denied God’s right to sovereignty, as do we whenever we transgress the law, in thought, word, and deed. How marvellous that God, by the gift of His Son restores the relationship by a righteousness that is outside of us, in Christ. In Christ, His own righteousness becomes ours. In effect we become the righteousness of God! What a powerful incentive that should give us to live a life of love and gratitude to God, striving to obey His holy law. It should make us ashamed to question or complain what God has given us in His providence. Discontent and envy are motives for sin. Submission to His will for us, as revealed in His Word and providence motivate obedience. When we realize the treasure we have in Christ, we have every reason to be content and submit to His will.

  3. The Bible does not teach Socialism, but it DOES teach Jubileism – but in our heterogeneously skilled society, what’s completely levelling out everyone every forty nine years or so, bang bang, going to do to enterprise? Wouldn’t a moderate socialism serve as an acceptable substitute? I don’t propose to go into figures here – that would require a more-than-doctoral thesis (Call it “Torah-Guided Economic Models”), we’d have to factor in interest rates and inflation, for instance – but a realistic regular sharing of wealth and opportunity would be called for.
    I don’t need my name plastered on your website, it wouldn’t (speaking personally) even contribute towards procuring my earthly desires if it were, but you must realize as a thinking person with a conscience that you do have to introduce the aspect of Jubile (This is John Rokos under a pseudonym).

  4. Rousseau must not have spent much time observing nature. Animals are territorial. Further, just because the landowner is away, that does mean the property is up for grabs.

  5. Having the philosophical markers that have shaped the contemporary cultural narrative is invaluable on the street. Was Rousseau studied in the writing of Decartes? Did they each in turn, with Hume, create the conditions for, Russell and the existentialist’s JP Satre et al?

  6. Scott,
    I’m not sure about your assertion that unless there is private property, there is no such thing as theft. The paintings in the National Gallery belong to no private individual but to the nation at large. yet they could undoubtedly be stolen.

    Moreover, your suggestion in the comments that the general equity of Jubilee is private charity is not clear to me. Perhaps you could to join up the dots for me? It seems to me obvious (and significant for Jubilee) that the land of Israel during the theocracy was precisely not private property in the way that, for example, Abraham’s ownership of the Cave of Machpelah was. They had not purchased it, nor did they build its cities or plant its vineyards. The land belonged to God and he gave them the right to use it (which interestingly he allocated to tribes and families, not a central collective). As a result, the tithe and firstfruits belonged to the Lord and he could command them to leave it fallow every seventh year and return it to its original sub-ownership every 50th year, along with forgiving debts. This is precisely not socialism, since any wealth apart from land and debts was not included. It was a foreshadowing of the gospel, as passages like Isaiah 61 make abundantly clear. But the Biblical vision of society is certainly not unfettered capitalism either. If the label of “envy” fits socialism (which I think it does), our free market system has hardly proved to be the remedy for it, as the current seasonal festivities attest.

    • Hi Iain,

      If we use the 10th commandment to inform our understanding of the 8th, then the first frame of reference is what we ordinarily think of as private property, “your neighbor’s donkey” etc. When the law says, “you shall not steal” it assumes an ordinary state of affairs. Hence Heidelberg 110 says:

      110. What does God forbid in the eighth Commandment?

      God forbids not only such theft and robbery as are punished by this magistrate, but God views as theft also all wicked tricks and devices, whereby we seek to get our neighbor’s goods, whether by force or by deceit, such as unjust weights, ells, measures, goods, coins usury, or by any means forbidden of God; also a covetousness and the misuse and waste of His gifts.

      When we say “neighbor’s goods” we are envisioning and assuming the private ownership of goods. WLC 142 is more expansive (helpfully) but follows the same trajectory.

      As to the dread “unfettered capitalism” there are relatively few examples of such in history of which I’m aware but no, that’s not my intent. Capitalism as it was practiced in Geneva was heavily regulated, as I suggested in one of the two recent posts on property. The examples to which critics usually point are not examples of truly “unfettered” capitalism. They are examples of “crony” capitalism, where the government chooses winners and losers. The transition from an agrarian economy to an urban, industrial economy was difficult and painful for many. I am aware of the dire conditions under which many lived in the early stages of the industrial revolution but I’m also aware of the dire conditions under which virtually everyone lived in the pre-industrial economies. The truth is that life was pretty awful for most people, from a longitudinal historical perspective, until about last week. It’s not been that long ago that physicians actually started washing their hands in between patients. The regular use of anesthesia by dentists is relatively recent. There’s some debate now about the extent to which “child labor” was actually used.

      As to stealing state-owned property, the commandment would forbid it on the principle that it isn’t mine particularly. It belongs to the magistrate. You would know better than I but I don’t think there were state-owned art museums in under the Israelite polity. So we’re applying the law to a somewhat different situation now. Stealing from the magistrate would be a violation of the 5th, 8th and 10th commandments.

      The Jubilee laws seem to assume the private ownership of the means of production:

      In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property. And if you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. You shall pay your neighbor according to the number of years after the jubilee, and he shall sell to you according to the number of years for crops (Lev 25:13–15; ESV.

      Obviously, there are some difficulties here, since Israel was given the land by a grant from Yahweh. Yet, clearly there was a sale of property under jubilee and one cannot sell what one does not (in some sense) own. Jubilee does’t not presuppose the state-ownership of all property nor does it assume “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This is not a state-run welfare program. Inasmuch as it was a matter of theocratic law we we might say that it had a public character but it does not entail the public ownership of the means of production.

      Even if jubilee is ambiguous, and I concede that there are ambiguities, they test the rule but they do not invalidate the general principle that the law assumes an ordinary state of affairs in which what is mine is not yours. Anything to do specifically with Israel’s unique, temporary, typological theocratic state is bound to create difficulties. Indeed, it is meant to create difficulties. It is meant to be unusual.

      The general equity of jubilee is care for the poor among God’s people. How did the NT church care for the poor? As I tried to address in the first essay, members of the church freely, voluntarily sold private property to be able to share the proceeds with others. That is the essence of private charity. The poverty relief program was voluntary. It is private. As far as I can tell, its intent and effect was limited to members of the visible church. There’s no instruction in the NT for the state to collect taxes for poverty relief. I’m not saying that such is unjust or that Christians should refuse to pay such. That would violate Romans 13 among other places. The picture we have from Acts is of the visible church privately (without the state) caring for her own as an illustration of the new life endowed by the Spirit to believers.

      I don’t know a great deal about the “biblical vision” of society per se. I might understand Isaiah 61 a little differently than you seem to do. I see it first as a typological revelation of the coming Messiah (about which I’m confident we agree). The life that is described is full of prophetic hyperbole, which makes use of Israelite imagery, describing the life of his church more than society generally. I don’t think Isaiah is to be taken as a prescription for secular life under the new covenant.

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