Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: property

The True Source of Our Security

True security can only be found in a community of citizens who honour their obligations to each other.

I love the Frank Capra film – It’s a Wonderful Life – it is pure socialism (in the word’s truest and best sense) wrapped in Americana.

Bedford Falls is an image of America, torn between two forces: George Bailey and his comrades work to free people from poverty by helping people buy their own homes. George is in the citizenship business. Set against him is Old Man Potter, a capitalist who sees exploitation as his right. On the surface both are men of property and of money; but one is governed by that money, while the other is governed by principles love and duty.

The final scene, pictured above, shows how George Bailey is rescued from the plots of Potter by the townsfolk, who are his friends – in Latin the word ‘socius’ – the source of the ‘social’ in socialism – is a companion, fellow-traveller or ally. They pool their resources in order to free George from the bankruptcy being threatened by Potter (a bankruptcy built on Potter’s theft).

It is easy to understand this final scene as a sugar-rush of human sympathy and compassion, triggered by love and admiration. But really what this scene shows us, in allegory, is the emptiness of Potter’s power – the power of money. It is a choice – a social choice – to live in fear or awe of money and to think of those who have it as being beyond justice. The redemption of George Bailey (for this is what redemption means quite literally) is based on the realisation of the community that it they who make the money, create the power and determine the course of the community towards or away from justice.

Of course, the people of Bedford Falls would not have declared a revolution – they would have saved George and then got back on with their lives – torn between justice and the pressures and impositions of Potter and his power. But – in this one heady moment – you can picture a revolution being made – the discovery that the power of Potter is the power we give him. We make property and its rights – it has its proper role – but once we allow it to fall into the clutches of the monopolists, the elites and the greedy we will keep paying for it. And the only redemption is collective – we need to wake up the trick being played up on us – seeing that truth on your own changes nothing.

The Problem of Giving

We do not quite forgive the giver. The hands that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson on Gifts

The problem of giving is profound and double-edged. If we are the recipient of a gift there is a danger that we see our own need as a weakness (which it is not) and this then erodes our sense of our own value. If we are the giver then the danger is that we view our gift as some subtraction from ourselves (which it is not) and that we feel a pride and superiority to which we are not entitled.

One approach to this problem is to deny the reality of property (the property as theft argument). But this leaves us all poorer – or all subject to whatever power is in the business of organising property (the state, the market or the gangster).

A better approach is to welcome the concept of property and the notion of property rights but to recognise that property rights are not absolute. Property rights must be balanced with other social rights in order to ensure that everyone has the right to enough – even if some have more and some have less.

Paradoxically the healthiest perspective is to recognise that everything is a gift – not from other human beings – but from God. Humility before God takes nothing away from the soul.

Dignity Comes First

If you take a cloak from a neighbour as a pledge you must return it to him before sunset, for it is the only covering for his body and what else has to sleep in. If he shouts out to me I will hear him with mercy. 

Exodus 22: 26-27

In other words no debt entitles you to rob another of their basic rights, including their dignity. The cloak is also a symbol of our social covering – the means by which we maintain our dignity and appear with respect before others. Property rights exist – but they are not fundamental and they must be limited by the demands of basic human rights and our shared human dignity.

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