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Private Property Rights

Written by Gary North on December 12, 2015

Thou shalt not steal (Ex. 20:15).

God, as the Creator, possesses absolute sovereignty over every aspect of the creation, including property. God is the owner of the world (Ps. 50:10-12). Christ’s parable of the talents presents the sovereignty of God in terms of the analogy of a loan from a lord to his servants. They have the obligation to increase the value of the goods entrusted to them. They are directly responsible to him. Ownership is therefore stewardship. Men’s rights of ownership are delegated rights. God’s “loan” must be paid with interest (Mt. 25:27). Each man is responsible before God for the lawful and fruitful administration of God’s gifts to him, both personal and economic (Lk. 12:48).

The original distribution of wealth, including human skills, made Adam and Eve responsible for fulfilling the terms of the cultural mandate. They were to be fruitful (Gen. 1:28). In their sinless condition, this initial distribution of resources was made in terms of the harmony of men’s interests. There was an original inequality of responsibility between Adam and Eve. She was functionally subordinate (though not ethically inferior) to her husband (Gen. 1:20; l Cor. 13:8-9). The church, as the body of Christ, is similarity described in terms of an organic unity which is harmonious, with each part essential to the organism’s efficiency, yet with each performing separate tasks.

God’s universe is orderly. There is a God-ordained regularity in economic affairs. There is a predictable, lawful relationship between personal industriousness and wealth, between vanity and the loss of wealth (Pr. 13:11). This applies to individuals as well as to nations. Not every godly man will inevitably prosper economically, and not every evil man will lose his wealth in his lifetime (Lk. 16:19-31), but in the aggregate, there will be a significant correlation between covenantal faithfulness and external prosperity. In the long run, the wealth of the wicked is laid up for the righteous (Pr. 13:22). The same principle applies to national, racial, and cultural groups (Deut. 8). Covenantal law governs the sphere of economics wealth flows to those who deal honestly with their fellow men and with God. To argue that wealth normally flows in the long run toward dishonest and faithless men is to deny the Bible’s explicit teaching concerning economic affairs. It is to deny the covenantal lawfulness of the creation.

Christian commentators from the beginning understood that the prohibition of theft, like the prohibition of covetousness, serves as a defense of private property. Theft is an autonomous, willful act of economic redistribution, and therefore it is a denial of the legitimacy of God’s moral and economic laws. The immediate economic effect of widespread theft in a society is the creation of insecurity. This, in turn, discourages economic production. Resources must be shifted from production and consumption to crime fighting. This clearly lowers per capita productivity and therefore per capita wealth among the law-abiding members of society. Theft produces wasted resources. The internal restraints on theft provided by godly preaching and instruction help to reduce crime, thereby increasing the per capita wealth of the society. Godly preaching against theft is therefore a form of capital investment, for it frees resources that would otherwise have been spent on the protection of private and public property.

Economic inequality is no excuse for the use of force in redistributing wealth, either by theft or by the ballot box. Inequality is basic to God’s covenantal law structure, as the parable of the talents indicates. Different men begin with different initial talents–monetary and personal. The Westminster Larger Catechism (1646) provides a good summary of the mutual responsibilities of social and economic inferiors and superiors. One’s wealth is to be employed carefully, no matter what one’s station in life happens to be, and men are to be content with their station (l Cor. 7:20-21). The goal of each man should be moderate wealth (Pr. 30:8-9), but moderate according to one’s station and responsibilities (Large Catechism, questions 129, 130, 141, 142). It should be obvious that the leader of a nation or a large corporation should not be required to live in the same home as an unskilled worker in India might be able to afford. A leader with major responsibilities could not be expected to perform efficiently under such conditions. The goal of total economic equality as a standard for society is demonic, for it denies the law of God: men were unequal from the beginning, and differences in character and competence must result in differing economic positions. Forced economic equality is theft, biblically speaking: autonomous man’s attempt to reconstruct society by defying the laws of God.

(For the rest of my article, click the link.)

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