THE MORAL BASIS OF PROPERTY.
WHEN Mr. Hyndman asked the Socialist gathering on Sunday, whose interest was benefited by such accumu- lations of property as that of the Duke of Westminster, some person in the crowd (who may, however, have been an Irishman, incensed by the Duke of Westminster's recent speech at Chester) replied, with artless frankness, "Shoot him !" And when Mr. Hyndman rejoined that that would do no good, since there would be another in his place to-morrow, the voice, or at least a voice, retorted, "Then shoot him !" As we have said, it is by no means certain that this reply was the reply of a Socialist fiercely deter- mined to make the rich feel that riches are dangerous to per- sonal safety. But it is at least certain that the few,—the very few, we believe,—who support these foolish men in their crusade against large private properties, have not only persuaded themselves that the principle of private property is selfish and mischievous, but have managed to diffuse amongst a considerable class of thinking men, raised far above them in both intellectual and moral calibre, an uneasiness as to the very basis of the institution of property which is much more really dangerous than the doctrines of such simpletons as are most of these avowed Socialists. The altruistic teaching which has had so much vogue of late, has unsettled not merely the convictions but the consciences of a certain number of educated men ;—perhaps Messrs. Hyndman and Champion are amongst them. And from them there will filter down a moral teaching all the more dangerous, and the more likely to be explosive, because it comes with an air of intellectual impartiality from above, and is not the obvious product of the vulgar greed beneath. But surely no ground can be more solid than the ground which claims for the institution of private property,— and therefore for all the necessary logical consequences of that institution,—a basis far deeper than that of positive law, a basis in the very foundations of all that is strong and worthy in human character.
Of course, we are well aware that no phase of human char- acter is more likely to suffer from an ignoble spirit, and to lead to social revolution, if it be thus abased, than that in which pro- prietary rights are rooted. But that is only saying of this side of character what is even more true of other sides of character, that without the exercise of a firm self-restraint, the assertion of the rights and privileges which are most distinctively human may and will bring about the break-up of society, instead of its progressive development. Liberty is essentially good, but liberty is absolutely impossible without opening out the possibility of a license which will soon, if it spreads, render liberty intolerable. The eager pursuit of knowledge is good, but even the eager pursuit of knowledge, if not kept under firm moral control, has led to all sorts of abuses, both spiritual and moral. And so habitual respect for the right of property is essentially good, but the assertion of absolute rights of ownership without regard to moral restraints has undoubtedly led all over the world to abuses so terrible, that they have some- times shattered, and often seriously threatened, the very structure of the social organisation. It is nothing, then, to say that an inebriate and despotic exercise of the rights of property by those who possess them is most dangerous to society. Of course it is. So is the inebriate and despotic exercise of the right possessed over the interior world of thought and feeling by all men. No one has told us more strongly than Christ himself that that which cometh out of a man defileth a man ;" and no one has yet denied that the empire of thought and feeling is liable to the rule of conscience and of conscience alone. No change in the arrangements of outward institutions can seriously alter that. Therefore, it is saying little to say that the right of private property may easily be so abused as to render society impossible. It is perfectly true, but irrelevant, for the question is not between the temperate exercise of the right of private property and the intemperate exercise,—for that mast necessarily be left to the mind which exercises it,—but between the right of private property,—open to abase as it, no less than every other right of an analogous kind, must be,—and the absorption of all rights of property into large collective bodies, States or otherwise, of which individuals are but the organs. Now, let any one who is so filled by horror at the frequent abuse of the right of private property as to doubt the fundamental value of the institution, just remember that as yet there has never been a civilisation of any kind, or even an incipient stage of civilisation, in which the right of private property has not been secure; that "Thou shalt not steal" and "Thou shalt not covet" were at the very basis of the Jewish law, and were expressly repeated by Christ as at the basis of the higher form of law on which he established his kingdom ; that civilisa- tion reached a higher point under the Roman law than under any other, chiefly because the law of property was dealt with with more elaborate equity and subtlety by that law than by any previous law ; and that while Christianity has exerted itself to the utmost to keep the greed and avarice of human nature steadily under, it has done so by insisting on the moral claims of the unfortunate over the sympathies of the prosperous, not by minimising the moral claims of owners over the consciences of the needy. And the reason is very obvious. Without a recognition of the absolute rights of private property, there is no sufficient field within which the moral character of man can be adequately drilled and disciplined. Property,—the external objects to which men extend, as it were, the field of their own personality, and with which they identify .themselves,—is the trial ground of half our moral qualities. If men had nothing to give, nothing to lend, nothing to borrow, nothing to repay, there would not be any field ample enough for the exercise of the qualities of generosity, trustfulness, and honour, on which the health of society so greatly depends. It is true that gener- osity, trustfulness, and honour may be shown, and often are shown, without any field of this sort in which to exercise them. You may be generous of your strength, of your time, of your moral influence. You may trust, and every child does trust, others, long before the sense of property is developed at all. You may show the finest honour in repaying confidence, even if you never possessed a sixpence in your life. None the less, one principal field in which these moral qualities are disciplined among ordinary men, and especially the principal field in which they are disciplined in relation to comparative strangers rather than to intimate friends, is the field of property relations. It is in learning how to be generous with that extended self made up by a man's possessions, how to trust others and to repay their trust in relation to each possessions, how to weigh the moral difficulties which arise in such cases, and how to be
exacting with yourself in relation to the obligations which this field develops, that the seeds of every true moral civilisation are fostered and brought to fruit. It is perfectly true that the greed of property often stifles the noblest elements of our nature, as our Lord recognised when he said that they who trust in riches can hardly enter into the kingdom of Heaven. But then, he recognised with equal frankness that the faithful administration of the "unrighteous mammon," as he called material wealth, was the discipline by which multitudes may best hope to attain true riches. He taught us that all men are in the strictest sense stewards of the wealth they possess, but stewards accountable to God only, not to man. And in order that men should be stewards accountable to God, the institution of private property must exist. It is by the disinterested exercise of such stewardships that mem become worthy to ad- minister those nobler talents which are promised to them as the reward of fidelity in that which is intrinsically trivial, but which becomes in the highest degree important when it is treated as the field in which the higher faculties of men are disciplined and improved.
When it is said, as it is often said, that Christianity is anti-economical, that it does not attach any high value to the duty of thrift, and does approve the dangerous practice of almsgiving, there is, of coarse, a certain superficial plausi- bility in the assertion. But when it is said that Christianity is essentially Socialistic in principle, there is absolutely no plausibility, however superficial, in the assertion. No doubt the early Church was to a certain extent an experiment in religious communism ; but not only was there no sort of pres- sure put upon any one to share in the experiment, but those who were disposed to do so were expressly warned that all their property was their own, that the proceeds of it were their own, and that the act of giving it to the Church was purely and absolutely voluntary, though they were not at liberty to pretend to have done what they had not done. The teaching of the Church is express that every man ought to labour to sup- port his own household, and the disciples are carefully warned not to give even to their fellow-disciples what they cannot give with a willing and cheerful heart. The plea that the institution of private property was in any sense dis- approved by the teaching of the early Christian Church, is absolutely and wholly without foundation. As to the dis- couragement of thrift, doubtless it is discouraged as the prin- cipal end of life. It is encouraged as a secondary end not only by the precepts of the Apostles, but by their personal example, especially that of the chief Apostles. If Christ always keeps the industrial virtues in their right place, if he warns his followers against caring too much for the earthly treasures which they can lose, or worse still, which they can prize till they become dependent on them, that is only one of the evidences that he means his religion to apply to the spirits of men first,—to their thoughts, purposes, and hopes,—and to their mere material habits of life only secondarily. But that is really the best defence which you can make for the institution of private property,—namely, that if it be administered as Christ would have us administer it, it becomes a training and discipline for the higher stewardship by which it will be suc- ceeded; while if it be made the chief end of life, it will corrupt human nature instead of elevating it, and bring civilisation to a standstill, even if it does not, as it probably will, reverse its direction.