Some commentary on Rerum Novarum

The other day I was by chance linked to Rerum Novarum, a 1890 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII on Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor. I’ve only read a few encyclicals and the ones I have are very densely written if not also lengthy. I find that I really need to focus if I’m to get through them. Anyway, what I’m going to do here is just highlight a few parts and include some commentary of my own.

“It is no easy matter to define the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and of labor. And the danger lies in this, that crafty agitators are intent on making use of these differences of opinion to pervert men’s judgments and to stir up the people to revolt.”

Now the first thing I’d like to point out is that if most political philosophy could start out with the first sentence, I’d be far more inclined to to take it seriously. It is a simple statement but a very true one and I imagine this will be so as far into the future as humanity gets. With regard to the second sentence, consider again that this was issued in 1890, over twenty years before the revolutionary bloodbaths of the 20th century began. There were already troubles in Europe and anarchists and other revolutionaries throwing bombs about, but this seems prescient for what was to come.

And if you aren’t convinced of this prescience, let me quote at length what follows:

“To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer.”

Nobody with a properly ordered mind could disagree that this is exactly what proceeded to happen repeatedly for most of the next century and is looking to continue into the current century. This has proven true of even the softest forms of socialism.

“Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life. “

Let me note that in just a few samples of this encyclical are showing a lot more sense than almost any political commentary I read today. This might seem odd to the average man, (who is told frequently by his betters), of how backward and irrational the church is. Yet just one document, that is well over a century old, puts a lie to this.

To continue, I’ll quote a few more samples which make a powerful defence of property rights.

“What is of far greater moment, however, is the fact that the remedy they propose is manifestly against justice. For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own.”

“It is the mind, or reason, which is the predominant element in us who are human creatures; it is this which renders a human being human, and distinguishes him essentially from the brute. And on this very account – that man alone among the animal creation is endowed with reason – it must be within his right to possess things not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living things do, but to have and to hold them in stable and permanent possession; he must have not only things that perish in the use, but those also which, though they have been reduced into use, continue for further use in after time.”

Again, this is the anti-reason, backward Catholic Church defending man as a rational being with inherent rights in 1890.

“Man’s needs do not die out, but forever recur; although satisfied today, they demand fresh supplies for tomorrow. Nature accordingly must have given to man a source that is stable and remaining always with him, from which he might look to draw continual supplies. And this stable condition of things he finds solely in the earth and its fruits. There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.”

The same irrational cult putting the rights of men above the State. Also noting that man’s desires are infinite, and resources are finite. Something I have never managed to explain to socialists who are supposedly receptive to reasoning and evidence.

“The fact that God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race can in no way be a bar to the owning of private property. For God has granted the earth to mankind in general, not in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they like, but rather that no part of it was assigned to any one in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man’s own industry, and by the laws of individual races.”

Perhaps mentioning God is all that is required to dismiss arguments, no matter how well constructed.

“They assert that it is right for private persons to have the use of the soil and its various fruits, but that it is unjust for any one to possess outright either the land on which he has built or the estate which he has brought under cultivation. But those who deny these rights do not perceive that they are defrauding man of what his own labor has produced. For the soil which is tilled and cultivated with toil and skill utterly changes its condition; it was wild before, now it is fruitful; was barren, but now brings forth in abundance. That which has thus altered and improved the land becomes so truly part of itself as to be in great measure indistinguishable and inseparable from it. Is it just that the fruit of a man’s own sweat and labor should be possessed and enjoyed by any one else? As effects follow their cause, so is it just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor.”

We have fallen so far that a Pope writing in the late 1800s sounds like a character from Atlas Shrugged. Most people still seem to look at property as a zero-sum game. If someone owns land that produces abundance, it is somehow imagined that someone else is losing out. When they take the land by force and it ceases to produce this abundance, as in Zimbabwe, they can’t understand why.

This childish thinking deserves an explanation using children. Say a child has a toy that breaks which they then throw away. Another child comes and salvages the toy and spends his time and energy repairing the toy to working order and then enjoys playing with it. The child who threw away the toy comes back and seeing the toy working, throws a tantrum and demands it back. It goes completely over this child’s head what the other child has done to restore the broken toy. This is the kind of thinking that infects otherwise intelligent adults today. They childishly demand things they have done nothing to earn. They come as close to possible as believing money literally grows on trees.

This is only a little way in but I do recommend reading the whole thing. It truly amazes me how much good sense has been written and is all but lost to the world today. Even the most serious of political commentary in the media comes nowhere close to this.

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