The Eighth Commandment and Private Property
The eighth commandment, “you shall not steal,” receives quite a bit of attention from Christians interested in promoting capitalism. Prominent theologians will even claim that from this minimalist commandment can be drawn an entire theory of property that undergirds the capitalist political economy we have now, all but baptizing it. I think this is a strange and irresponsible way to interpret the Bible and a lazy way to approach the question of what economic arrangements Christians should favor.
The primary claim is that the commandment not to steal implies that there is private property. If theft exists, there must be something that belongs privately to someone else and not to you. Right away, however, we encounter a problem: this is an invalid assumption. Suppose we lived in a society where absolutely nothing was privately owned—everything was owned collectively. Could you still steal? Of course you could. If you took for yourself anything that belonged to common property, you would be stealing and breaking the eighth commandment. It would be just as invalid to say that the eighth commandment implies communal property as it is to say it implies private property: it does not logically require either.
As far as biblical interpretation goes, then, this is not the best quality. However, I think it also turns out to be incredibly lazy as a way of thinking about property. The question of what system of property satisfies justice is the question of what belongs to whom. The commandment not to steal raises this question, but does not answer it. Does something belong to someone because the law says so? Is there a moral accounting of what belongs to whom, even if it is different from the legal one? How do we know which competing moral definitions of what belongs to whom are correct? The commandment not to steal does not answer any of these questions. Saying it implies private property swerves around the debate by simply reading the preferred answers into this commandment in order to give them an aura of God’s authority.
But what if we believed, like John Chrysostom and many of the other earliest defenders of Christian orthodoxy, that the excess of the rich belongs to the poor? This means that the status quo order of things, where some become rich while others remain impoverished, is a status quo of constant theft. Even worse, the government is backing up that theft with violent force. Since it is evil for the government to violently steal, justice under this understanding of what belongs to whom would require redistribution from those who had excess to those who had need.
Nothing about the eighth commandment requires that productive property, as a rule, ought to be owned privately. We have to have a substantive conception of what just ownership looks like, and the particular institutions we create from that conception are going to differ across history. It makes sense in ancient Israel—an agrarian economy with small-scale production and very little technological change from generation to generation—for the productive resources of society (namely, land) to be distributed fairly equally across families. That schema does not make sense now: we are no longer an agrarian economy where you produce most of the things you use from the land that you own. We have to make judgments about what principles of economic justice Christians should adhere to, and further judgments about what actual economic institutions can enact that justice in the world.
What’s important to recognize is that none of this can be derived from the eighth commandment. It is not a magical verse that will dispense your desired theory of property. We must instead be wise readers of both the Scripture and our own contemporary circumstances so we can make wise judgments about how best to order our economy toward the flourishing of everyone.