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Thomas Aquinas on Private Property

This is a guest post by Wesley Coopersmith, a recent Grove City College graduate in political science and biblical and religious studies. Wesley is currently interning on Capitol Hill.  What, if any, role does government play in defining, bestowing and taking private property? This question underlies many modern-day political debates, but it’s actually an issue scholars have debated for centuries. At the heart of this debate is the tension between private property and government confiscation: Does private property exist? If so, does government have the authority to take it from the citizens it governs? Thomas Aquinas Unbeknownst to many, Thomas Aquinas addressed this question in his timeless work “On Law, Morality, and Politics.” He argues that private property does exist, and that it can only be taken by the government for the purpose of promoting justice within society. “It is false to say that human beings are not permitted to possess their own property,” he writes, implying that individual human beings have a right to the external goods they own and no one else may possess ownership over their goods. The eighth commandment—”Thou Shalt Not Steal”—assumes the principle of private property. God, by commanding man to refrain from stealing from his neighbor, assumes that man can and does own material goods. This seems straightforward enough, but things become complicated when the question is asked: How is property obtained? First, Aquinas refutes the idea that man individually or corporately gives and takes away property: “God has the chief dominion over all things. And he in his providence has ordained some things for the material sustenance of human beings.” Property is a gift from God. All things belong to the Creator who graciously gives man material goods. In his book “Foundations of Economics: A Christian View,” Dr. Shawn Ritenour of Grove City College puts it quite simply: “Our property is God’s gift.” The socialist idea that property rights come from government is false. Property rights come from our Creator. Aquinas proceeds to argue that God gives man external goods not simply for selfish reasons, such as self-preservation, but also for the task of taking stewardship over the earth. Genesis 1:26 says: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” From the very beginning man is charged with taking stewardship over the created order. This means that man must not only take care of his own needs, but also the needs of his neighbor, community and world—a topic I’ll address in a later post. It’s clear that private property exists. The socialist idea that government owns all, or the communist idea that all own all, is refuted by Thomas Aquinas on theological grounds. Private property is a God-given gift to individuals for their self-preservation and for the preservation of the earth. But of course, this only raises another question: When is government justified in taking property from its citizens? I’ll address that question in my next post.