Our Social Attitudes

"This is mine. I worked for it. I'll do what I like with it, and you can't have it!" Most of us have said something along these lines, perhaps quite often. There is a strong sense of private ownership and possession in our culture. What is called private property is regarded as something totally and exclusively mine. We are so accustomed to this attitude that perhaps we don't realize how recent a development it is.

Years ago, C.B. Macpherson, a respected political economist and philosopher at the University of Toronto, wrote about the origin of what he called "possessive individualism" in the 16th and 17th century. It marked a major social change, from a society in which people found fulfillment in what they were, to one in which they sought that fulfillment in what they possessed.

This change was connected in some ways with a labour theory of value, that is, with the view that all value comes from our work, that is, from what we put into things. Hence the common defense: "It's mine because I worked for it, it's the result of my personal efforts."

What this attitude neglects is the fact that the value we place on objects or services depends on far more than just the human work that produced this object or service. It depends above all on the goods of this earth, the goods of nature, the air, the sun, all the things that God gave in common to the human race as well as on God's personal gifts to us. Without these no productive human work would be possible.

It also depends on the presence of an organized society, a network of relationships and infrastructure that is required for there to be any production, exchange and distribution of goods and services in the first place.

Two things are clear then. First, since value is rooted above all in the common goods of life and nature that God provides: this earth, our health, our abilities, it has to be said that only God is a true owner. We are more properly referred to as managers and stewards of what we have. Second, since value depends on the presence of a well-organized society: public services, opportunities for work, various social goods, that society has a claim on what we produce. This is why taxes are not an unwarranted grab of what belongs to us; they are the price we pay for civilization.

This second point needs special emphasis. Each year, around the end of June, the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, a conservative think tank, observes what it calls "Tax Freedom Day". It points out that, up to this point in the year everyone's income has been taken over by various levels of government in the form of taxes. As of this date, however, people are "working for themselves". The implication is that taxes are somehow a way of depriving us of what is actually ours. This obscures the fact that taxes support the entire social network that makes our work possible and valuable in the first place. One is not likely to find gainful employment on a desert island or in a war-ravaged city!

In his 2009 social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict spoke about the importance of recovering what he called "an economy of gift". We are "made for gift," he says (no. 34). What he means is that the most important things in life are all gift: our life, our health, our ability, this earth, family, friendship, and so on. They have all come to us freely from God. If we can begin to pay more attention to what has come from God than to what results from our work we are more likely to see ourselves as managers rather than as owners, and as managers who need to be as generous to others as God has been to us.

"Freely you have received," Jesus told his disciples, "freely give." Our time, talent and treasure are all gifts that are meant to be used to promote the common good. Globalization, Pope Benedict tells us, has made us neighbours but not brothers and sisters. What we need to restore to civil society is "fraternity", and that has a lot to do with becoming more aware of how much in our life is pure gift; not "mine" but "ours".

Réflexions par le père Mike Ryan