Giving Families Equal Properties
Destroys the Natural Order
Since we are witnessing in the United States today the rebirth of old Catholic-Socialist errors under the name of Distributism, it seems very timely to remind our readers of the perennial teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Universal Doctor of the Church,
on this topic.
St. Thomas Aquinas
Given that the Philosophers (Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato) spoke about the community of possessions, it seems fitting to see what others, who themselves established societies, said on this topic. There were two philosophers who, thinking that disputes in their cities arose from the fact that one had a surplus of what another was lacking, wanted their communities to have equal possessions. One was Phaleas of Chalcedon, whom Aristotle mentions, and another was Lycurgus, the son of the king of Sparta, who established laws for the Lacedaemonians, as Justin reports, so that by all having equal possessions, no one would be more powerful than another.
Aristotle describes how Phaleas wanted to make properties equal by incorporating this into the constitution of his city, taking into consideration the ensemble of inhabitants and fields. Since this goal was difficult to achieve, he ordered that marriages be made between those of greater and lesser possessions in order to eliminate strife, injury, and the pretext for arrogance or pride. To move in this direction, he gave the example of other communities in which the inequality of temporal goods was supposedly the cause of social disturbance, being occasion for envy and giving rise to cupidity, and this, according to Paul, “is the root of all evils” (1 Tim 6:10). For this reason, in the laws he gave to the Lacedaemonians to conserve their society, Lycurgus abolished artificial riches or the use of coins for buying things, allowing interchanges only for natural riches.
Aristotle condemned this position, and demonstrated that such egalitarianism is completely impossible and, consequently, against reason.
First, because of human nature, according to which families do not multiply equally. It happens that the father of one family has many children, while that of another has none. It is impossible for them to have equal possessions, because one family would lack provisions while the other would have too much. This is against nature, because the family that had more children would become much less inside the community compared to the family that failed to have children. However, by natural law, the country or community should provide more for those who merit more.
Further, nature does not fail to give what is necessary, as I said above, and therefore neither should the civil government. But this would happen if possessions were made equal among families, because members would evidently die of penury, and the community would be corrupted.
However, what is most problematic does not result from the consideration of nature, but from the differentiation of persons. There is a difference among members of a community just as there is, analogously, among members of a body. The capacity and function of the various members are different. It is known that a noble or a man of higher level is obliged to have greater expenses than one who is not. It is for this reason that the virtue of liberality is called magnificence in a prince on account of the greater expense involved. This could not happen where possessions were equal, and this is why the Gospel itself testifies that the father of a family or king who set out on a journey distributed goods to his servants, but not equally: “to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another just one, to each one according to their particular capacity” (Matt 25:15).
Nor does the very order of nature permit equality, for Divine Providence established all created things with a certain inequality, both by their nature and their merit.
So, to enforce equality in temporal goods such as possessions, is to destroy the order that exists in things, which Augustine, with regard to inequality, defines as such: Order is “the disposition of equal and unequal things, giving to each what it deserves” (The City of God, 19, 13). In this respect Origen was censured when he said in his Periarchon that all things are equal by nature, but were made unequal on account of their defect, that is, on account of sin. Therefore, egalitarianism of possessions does not prevent disputes. On the contrary, it increases them, and doing so, destroys or injures natural law when possessions are taken away from the poor, who deserve more.
Similarly, it is against reason that all things should be equal in a community, since God instituted all things “in number, weight and measure” (Wis 11:12), which places degrees of inequality in beings and, consequently, in cities and communities.
(St. Thomas Aquinas, De Regime Principum,
Rome: Marietti, 1948, book 4, chap. 9, pp. 76-77)