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Private Property Biblical

Private Property

Art Lindsley, PhD

We have all seen signs that say, “Private Property: KeepOut,” or, “Private Property: No Trespassing.” Seeing such a sign is not likelyto make you leap for joy. But perhaps it should. Private property laws havebeen a key—maybe even the key—to the economic flourishing of the West.

To understand why, let’s look at the biblical teaching onthis topic and examine how this affects our economic perspective.

Biblical Emphasis of Private Property

Two of the Ten Commandments implicitly uphold privateproperty. “You shall not steal” and “You shall not covet” prohibit both thedesire to steal and the actual theft of private property.1 Of course,without private ownership, there can be no stealing. Minimally, the prohibitionof stealing means that it is wrong to take someone else’s property without hisor her permission.

Divine prohibitions against moving boundary markers occurfive times throughout the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 19:14 says, “You shall notmove your neighbor’s boundary stone which the ancestors have set.” Thisinjunction is repeated in Deuteronomy 27:17: “Cursed is he who moves hisneighbor’s boundary mark.” Proverbs 22:28 says, “Do not move the ancientboundary which your fathers have set,” and Proverbs 23:10 warns, “Do not movethe ancient boundary or go into the fields of the fatherless.” Note also Job24:2, which includes in a list of those that do evil: “Some remove thelandmarks; they seize and devour flocks.”

The story of the prophet Elijah’s rebuke of Ahab and Jezebelfor the murder of Naboth and their acquisition of his vineyard is a classicbiblical story of theft in 1 Kings 21. King Ahab saw Naboth’s vineyard, whichwas close to his own, and coveted it. Ahab offered either to exchange anothervineyard for Naboth’s or to buy it from him. Naboth firmly refused, saying,“The Lord forbid me that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.”2

Jezebel found Ahab sulking on his bed and devised a plan tokill Naboth and steal his land. She proposed a feast with Naboth as the guestof honor, “at the head of the people.”3 During the feast, “worthless men”would be seated around him to accuse him of cursing God and the king. The planwas executed and it succeeded. Naboth was stoned, and Ahab acquired his covetedvineyard. Elijah, however, pronounced severe judgment on Ahab and Jezebel forthis wicked deed.

Naboth’s concern to preserve the inheritance of his fathersis underlined again in Leviticus 25:23: “The land, moreover, shall not be soldpermanently, for the land is Mine.” In the broader biblical picture, God is,strictly speaking, the owner of all of the land. He appoints believers as hisstewards and expects them to exercise creative rulership or dominion with theland they are given.4

In the context of Leviticus 25, the Promised Land wasdivided among the tribes and among families within the tribes. The setting was,of course, the largely agrarian and tribal culture of ancient Israel after theJews settled in the Promised Land. The original plots of land were to remainperpetually with the original owners. The Jubilee laws set out by the OldTestament mandated that no matter how irresponsible a family member might be,the land would come back to the biological family every fifty years.5 Jubileelaws are no longer applicable today since our economy is neither tribal noragrarian, but they do underscore the sanctity of private property in that time.

The prohibition against stealing was not, of course, uniqueto the ancient Jews. Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser notes that “Rome madethis crime one that was punishable by death, so seriously did they view such anaction.”6

Christianity inherited this prohibition:

In the New Testament, Jesus reiterates some of the TenCommandments including, “Do not steal,” to the rich young ruler.7

After meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus promises fourfold restitutionto those he has defrauded.8

In Romans, Paul argues that the eighth commandment is partof what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.9

In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul lists habitual thieves asthose who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Paul clearly states, “He whosteals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his ownhands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who hasneed.”10

It is evident that the New Testament restates emphaticallythe prohibition of theft which clearly implies the upholding of privateproperty. Moreover, the controversial passage in Acts 2-5 does not constitutean exception to this, as the early believers retained private property whilebeing generous with their possessions and voluntarily sharing what they hadthrough what seems to have been a temporary arrangement.11

Christians have accepted the biblical prohibition againsttheft and have continued to work out its implications. According to Kaiser,“John Calvin found removing the boundary stone to be an act of double deceit,for it was both an act of theft and one of false witness.”12

Implications

While there is near-universal prohibition against theft invarious religious traditions, it should come as no surprise that privateproperty laws would be most richly developed in the Christian West. These lawsfollow quite naturally from the Christian worldview, and are essentially apolitical and economic interpretation of this biblical truth. The biblicalteaching on private property has implications for our economic perspective. Toput it bluntly, if private property is good then Marxism is bad. Marx declaredin his Manifesto of the Communist Party that “the theory of the communists maybe summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of private property.”

Marxism violates another biblical principle, namely that oflimited government.13 If we are committed to the two principles of privateproperty and limited government, then we should reject both socialism and largegovernment. This is just one way in which our perspective on private propertyhas profound implications for political and economic theory. Moreover, we nowknow how important these two moral principles are for economic freedom andprosperity.

Private Property and Poverty

The centrality of private property in addressing poverty isaddressed in a brilliant and groundbreaking book by Peruvian economist Hernandode Soto titled The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the Westand Fails Everywhere Else. He argues that even the poorest nations have morethan enough assets to be successful. He estimates that the total value of thereal estate owned formally or informally by the poor in the developing world is$9.3 trillion.14

So why do so many remain so poor? There are many factorsthat contribute to poverty, but de Soto argues that the legal status of theassets of the poor in the developing world is a primary problem. These assets,such as they are, remain dead assets. Land only becomes property when there areproperty and titling laws in place that are widely recognized. In order to bemade alive and active, in order to become capital, the land under the feet of thepoor—much of which lacks formal ownership—needs to be formalized throughproperty laws that allow these assets to be used for credit like allowingmortgages, loans, etc. This is the mystery of capital that has allowed so manycountries to eradicate absolute poverty and enjoy widespread wealth.

We take these things for granted in the West. TheologianJohn Schneider puts it well:

In the United States an ordinary teenager lacking allmaturity, insight, or any remarkable skill at anything, can slide a credit cardinto a gas pump slot and draw immediately on the magical mystery of capital.His parents take for granted that they can have a mortgage, or loan on theirbusiness, that will enable them to secure among many other things, therequisite four years in college.15

But in order to have this kind of credit, one needs secureprivate property laws, a fixed address for sending bills and collecting taxes,a basis for checking credit history, access to public utilities, and a basisfor mortgage based on securities that can be sold. Since we have inherited allthese things, we often take them for granted.

In poorer nations, these conditions either do not exist orexist in a very imperfect form. The process to acquire formally owned propertycan be daunting in these places. De Soto says that the procedure to formalizeproperty in the Philippines could:

Necessitate 168 steps involving 53 public and privateagencies and taking thirteen to twenty five years…In Egypt, the person whowants to acquire and legally register a lot on state-owned desert land mustwork his way through at least 77 bureaucratic procedures at thirty-one publicand private agencies…This can take anywhere from five to fourteen years…Totaltime to gain lawful land in Haiti: nineteen years…Yet even this ordeal will notensure that the property remains legal.16

Starting a business in these countries can be just asdifficult and frustrating. For instance, de Soto and his team tried to open asmall garment shop with one worker in Lima, Peru. The team worked six hours aday, and it still took 289 days. The cost was about three years’ salary.17 DeSoto says:

Imagine a country where nobody can identify who owns what,addresses cannot be easily verified, people cannot be made to pay their debts,resources cannot conveniently be turned into money, ownership cannot be dividedinto shares, description of assets are not standardized and cannot be easilycompared, and the rules that govern property vary from neighborhood toneighborhood or even from street to street. You have just put yourself into thelife of a developing country or a former communist nation.18

Clearly, establishing easy, quick access to clearlydocumented property rights is a crucial pre-condition for moving a country frompoverty to prosperity.

Ignoring this insight could cause decision-makers tomisdiagnose the source of poverty in the developing world, prompting them totry to solve this problem with foreign aid or different trade policies. Thesethings may do some good, but without clear rights to private property, the pooras a whole are unlikely to escape poverty.

Conclusion

Signs that designate private property in the West are morethan mere taboos. They symbolize a whole system of laws and cultural mores thathave developed over time. These are rooted in biblical teaching and shouldprovide an interpretive key to our economic views.

From the biblical teaching on private property and limitedgovernment, it naturally follows that belief in Marxism, socialism, and a largestate is wrong.

Private property laws also point toward the solution. A keyto addressing poverty worldwide is an establishment of clear and enforceableprivate property laws.

Many Western states enjoy private property laws and haveflourished because of them. The next time you see a private property sign,remember that this has been a biblically based key to the West’s success, andit is one that we should commend to the developing world.

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Art Lindsley, PhD, is Vice President of TheologicalInitiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. For moreinformation, visit www.tifwe.org.

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®,Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The LockmanFoundation. Used by permission.

© Copyright 2014 Institute for Faith, Work & Economics

1 Ex. 20:15; 20:17.
2 1 Kings 21:3.
3 1 Kings 21:9.
4 Gen. 1:26-28.
5 Art Lindsley, “Five Myths about Jubilee,” Institute for Faith, Work& Economics, http://tifwe.org/resources/five-myths-about-jubilee/.
6 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Ownership and Property in the Old TestamentEconomy,”http://tifwe.org/resources/ownership-and-property-in-the-old-testament-economy/.
7 Mark 10:9; Luke 18:20.
8 Luke 19:8.
9 Romans 13:9.
10 Ephesians 4:28.
11 Art Lindsley, “Does Acts 2-5 Teach Socialism?” Institute for Faith,Work & Economics,http://tifwe.org/resources/ownership-and-property-in-the-old-testament-economy/.
12 Kaiser, “Ownership and Property.”
13 For a thorough examination of the biblical arguments for limited government,see Art Lindsley, “Government: Small or Large?” Institute for Faith, Work &Economics, http://tifwe.org/resources/government-small-or-large/.
14 Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs inthe West and Fails Everywhere Else (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 35.
15 John R. Schneider, The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture ofWealth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 218.
16 de Soto, 20-21.
17 Ibid., 20.
18 Ibid., 15.

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