Embedded in the ten commandments are at least two injunctions having to do with property, which makes it one of the main subjects of the Decalogue and presumeably of central concern for the Gospel. We are told both that we should not covet that which belongs to another and that we should not steal that which belongs to another. These seem like simple and rather obvious ethical precepts, but it turns out that the concept of property is anything but simple. Consider the simple question of what constitutes theft. Black’s Law defines larceny as “the unlawful taking and carrying away of someone else’s personal property with the intent to deprive the possessor of it permanently.” Notice that theft consists not simply of taking someone’s stuff away and keeping it, but doing so unlawfully. In other words, stealing cannot be define purely in terms of action, but always requires norms.
Consider the ancient law of gleaning. Under the law revealed to Moses on Sinai, it was unlawful for a farmer to harvest the crops in the corners of the field or to gather the grain scattered on the ground during the harvest. These crops had to be left for the poor to gather, and they had the right to do so regardless of the wishes of the land owner. Indeed, the rule extended even farther, as the law forbade the muzzling of oxen in the field. In other words, an ox had the right to eat what grain he could get as he was in the traces. None of this was regarded as theft.
The United Order contains a similarly nuanced attitude toward property. One one hand, there are sweeping claims about how all things belong to the Lord and we hold them only as stewards for Him. Yet when the Saints in Missouri structured their inheritances under the law of consecration as contracts, they were rebuked by the Prophet Joseph. An inheritance was a parcel of property that was given back to a member after they had deeded all that they owned to the Church. By structuring the inheritance in terms of a contract, the leaders in Missouri sought to maintain control over the property after it was deeded to the inheritor, placing conditions on its use and providing for reversion of ownership to the Church in the event of apostasy, etc. By insisting that inheritances be structured as deeds rather than contracts, the Prophet Joseph was insisting that the inheritances be structured so that the inheritors gained full legal rights in their inheritances, free of any legal oversight from the Church.
Historically, there have been three main ways in which property has been understood. First, there is a utilitarian argument. The creation of private property rights solves certain economic problems — most notably the so-called tragedy of the commons — and the contours of our property rights are set by the functional, economic purposes to which it is put. Second, there is a liberal argument. Property, so the claim goes, is an extension and protection of individual autonomy. On this view, human freedom is a fragile thing, constantly threatened by social or political forces. The sanctity of property provides a sphere in which the individual can exclude these collective forces and live as he or she sees fit. Property in a sense becomes the locus of freedom. Finally, there is the view of property as a nexus of social obligation. The most dramatic example of this is the feudal land law. Under this system the way in which one owned property defined ones rights and obligations within an integrated social hierarchy. One who held their land “in knight’s service” had certain military and financial obligations to the lord “from whom” he held the land, while at the same time his property “in knights service” gave him claims on the lord for protection and other assistance. The web of reciprocal rights and obligations tied to land extended from serfs at the bottom all the way up to the king at the top, who held his land in service to God.
To the extent that the Gospel, especially the detailed rules with regard to property that it has promulgated at one time or another, teaches us anything it suggests that none of these views is absolute. The law of gleaning identifies property as a point of obligation to the poor and to the dumb and laboring beasts. The law of consecration and stewardship seems concerned with preserving a private sphere of freedom, even within the integrated sphere of inheritances. Finally, in all of their experiments in communal economics, the 19th century Mormons struggled with specifying property rights in such away as to overcome economic difficulties so that God’s people could enjoy the bounty and prosperity of Zion.
[Note: This is the first in a series of meandering posts on Mormonism and Markets. More to follow. Brace yourselves.]