“If there were a fire in your house and you could only save one thing, what would it be?” For most people, the answer to the familiar question is immediate. The photo album. The heirloom. It’s never the most expensive thing. Nobody drags a Peloton out of their burning home. Sometimes it takes a disaster to find out what really matters to you.
Right now, the COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare what matters to our society. Defying epidemiologists’ advice on how to curb the disease, President Trump has declared his wish to have the country “opened up” and “raring to go” by Easter. A growing chorus of voices is asking whether the financial costs of mitigating the pandemic are worth the lives those measures will save.
Our economic health is indeed a matter of life and death, especially for the poor. Avoiding complete economic collapse and its attendant suffering will certainly require extraordinary costs.
That’s the hard decision facing us, we’re told: Sacrifice lives or sacrifice the economy. This is a false choice. Sacrifice is necessary, but it doesn’t have to be lives or our common well-being.
What we may have to sacrifice is protecting property and profit above all else.
In a catastrophe, should we start to think about acquiring and holding wealth the same way we think about hoarding of vital supplies?
Consider the recent story of the Tennessee man who responded to the pending pandemic by stockpiling Purell to sell at elevated prices. Under normal circumstances, we have no problem with an entrepreneur leveraging supply and demand to make a living. If someone wants to keep 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer in his garage and sell it online for profit, so be it. In a pandemic, we call it profiteering — and we prohibit it.
Our marketplace needs money far more than alcohol gel. Capital is the lifeblood of our economic system, but it has to circulate. What happens if it’s just pooling in the extremities of the body politic instead? In 2019, the 400 richest Americans held $2.9 trillion between them, and that didn’t include the assets of the 221 billionaires underneath them. The coronavirus has certainly reduced these figures, but the fact remains that the money exists to avert disaster for all. It's just held in the hands of the few.
Why should these vast fortunes be viewed as sacrosanct while the general population absorbs the full economic pain of the crisis? Why is “go back to work during a spreading pestilence” a less outrageous public policy option than, say, a sweeping tax on all privately held assets over $1 billion, which could pay for the costs of sustaining individuals and businesses while the disease is contained? Why is it politically viable to ask workers to choose between life and livelihood, and unimaginable to ask the very rich to live with a lesser version of more money than can be spent in a lifetime?
Under normal circumstances, most people imagine that the right to private property is both unlimited and absolute: that is, the government should protect the ownership of as much as someone can legally acquire. A disaster, however, brings the political dimension of property to the foreground. It reminds us how wealth is accumulated in the first place.
Particularly significant is the distinction between possessions and property. Possessions are what you can have and hold by your own strength. Property is something that’s yours because someone else says so. I don’t leave my house in the morning worried that someone will move in while I’m away and refuse to give it back. A common authority — which in our case means the law, which means government, which means, at the end, people with guns — guarantees our rights to our property.
Property rights are so fundamental to our politics that we often think of them as a simple fact of nature. They are not. The ancient Roman writer Cicero observed that property was why political communities existed in the first place: “so that men could hold on to what was theirs.” The foremost function of politics, in his view, was to ensure suum cuique — to each his own — which meant the “free and unworried guardianship of … possessions.”
In other words, property is a human-made concept, not a God-given right. The Bible clearly prohibits theft as sin, of course. But the early church was also clear that God had made all things in common. Gregory Nazianzen, a fourth-century theologian, voiced a typical view in declaring that “poverty and wealth” were among the “common diseases” of human sin. Private property was viewed as a necessary concession at best, given human greed. As Augustine wrote, it was human law, not God, that allows us to say of anything that “this is mine.”
This means that the very concept of property requires other people. I can possess whatever I can hold, but I can’t own anything without a body politic to guarantee it. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a nation to make a billionaire.
Take as an example Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man. What does it actually mean to say he “has” $100 billion? Certainly he can’t hold it all on his person. No, Jeff Bezos has $100 billion because everyone else collectively says he does. We don’t owe it to Jeff Bezos. We guarantee his ownership of unimaginable assets precisely because we want the same guarantee to apply to our own property, however meager by comparison. But if everyone on earth agreed that Jeff Bezos shouldn’t own anything, the richest man on earth would suddenly have nothing more than the clothes on his back.
This is not a proposal for the elimination of private property, nor for its unjust appropriation. It is simply the observation that the unlimited right to acquire and hold property is a political decision, not the self-evident truth we often assume it to be. If the unchecked accumulation of wealth by a few threatens economic cardiac arrest for the whole body politic, we need to ask whether property rights ought to have limits — and if so, what form they should take, and how they should be implemented.
I am a priest and theologian, not an economist. I don’t know what policies should be implemented. But the questions raised by the pandemic go deeper than economic policy. They speak to our core values as a body politic.
We have a choice to make. When we’re trying to prevent a pandemic, the extraordinary public need for hand sanitizer outstrips the ordinary right to property. When we’re trying to prevent the worst economic consequences of a pandemic, does the extraordinary public need for the movement of money outstrip the ordinary right to hold wealth?