Sunday, February 03, 2013

A Royal Pain in the Assets

My "snug property"

Abandoned assets - you can't take it with you
I’m puzzling this weekend over the meaning of property, ownership and the oft-repeated Biblical declaration that, “. . . the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

On the one extreme, we have George Bernard Shaw’s “property is organized theft,” and on the other, Maria Edgeworth’s “Some people talk of morality and some of religion, but give me a little snug property!” And then we have the Biblical Levite Joseph (aka Barnabas) who in the early stages of the Christian church is reported in Acts to have “. . . owned an estate which he sold; brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet,”

(To the latter, some cynics and property rights advocates would undoubtedly add, “. . . and went out and applied for social assistance and food stamps.”)

In Economics 101, I was taught that an asset is “anything tangible or intangible that is capable of being owned or controlled to produce value,” a very capitalist definition indeed but pretty much right on in today’s Western economies (and more and more so in China, et al). By this definition, a brain or a strong back are assets, as is an education, as are tools, your home (which could be sold for value in the form of cash which could buy tools or an education, etc.), your savings, your connections (which could land you a better position that generates more value) . . . you get the drift. And in our culture, you have legal title to dispose of, keep or exchange your assets . . . property rights, in other words.

One could argue that exchanging one’s brain or one’s strong back for something else looks pretty impossible, but think about the dock worker who ruins his back in exchange for a living wage and the scientist who labours in the interests of a corporation and property rights can be clearly extended to all kinds of assets over which we hold dominion.

Slavery is a theft of assets; Joseph aka Barnabas’ case was a donation of personal assets to a cause, the persecuted Christian church in his case.

I admit, like Maria Edgeworth I am in love with my “snug property,” my small stash of tools, my electronics, my house and its contents, my paltry savings. Steal any of it and you might feel the wrath of the courts descending upon your head. “It’s MINE, you usurper! Give it back, and speedily!”

It’s not surprising that “talk of morality and religion” normally take second place to property rights, particularly in stress times: property is the measure of a person’s worth, the hedge against poverty and the safe haven in a dark, uncaring world (sorry; sometimes a bit of exaggeration goes a long way!)

So keep your hands off my stuff!

In response to the adage, “You can’t take it with you,” Jack Benny is reported to have said, “Well, then I ain’t going.” He went anyway (December 26, 1974) and by all reports, without his wealth.

I’m moderating a discussion in adult Sunday School this morning on “Giving to the Church.” Wish me luck, or pray for the class if that’s your way of supporting good causes. We’ll be defying the tenets implicit in Economics 101, let alone the entire capitalist club of nations!

Or not.

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