The Bible, immigration, and private property (Part 2)

I ended the previous post on this topic by asking whether the state’s claim to own all the land within its borders is a legitimate claim (given that the state must make such a claim as a prerequisite to imposing immigration controls). How, then, does one legitimately and biblically acquire an ownership right in property? In his Second Treatise on Government, John Locke made the following observation:

 [I]t seems to some a very great difficulty, how any one should ever come to have a property in any thing: I will not content myself to answer, that if it be difficult to make out property, upon a supposition that God gave the world to Adam, and his posterity in common, it is impossible that any man, but one universal monarch, should have any property upon a supposition, that God gave the world to Adam, and his heirs in succession, exclusive of all the rest of his posterity.

In other words, if God’s commandment to exercise dominion over the earth was one that is common to all people, how can any individual claim that he has the right to exclusive dominion over any particular part of creation?

The perceived problem did not prove to be intractable for Locke:

And tho’ all the fruits it [the world] naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common . . . yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man.

This, of course, is the beginning of Locke’s famous labor theory of property (not to be confused with the labor theory of value). Locke concluded that a person may acquire property (to the exclusion of other men), by mixing his labor with it. The question remains, however, whether such a theory of property rights is consistent with the Bible.

God’s sovereignty over all creation is fundamental to Christianity.  It follows that, as Locke acknowledged, “God gave the world to Adam” because “The earth is the Lord‘s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24:1) In a sense then, the universe is God’s property because it is His creation. God, therefore, has the right to use creation as He pleases and that can include delegating authority over portions of it to others, including human beings who are themselves part of creation.

Although God’s grant of dominion to Adam as representative of the human race was a general one, we also see that God granted more specific property rights to specific groups of people. For instance, God granted the Promised Land, a specific geographic area with defined borders, to his chosen people, Israel. Within that area, the land was divided among the tribes of Israel, a task we read about in the latter half of the book of Joshua. Within those tribal allotments land was further divided among families. All the while, the people were reminded that the land, ultimately, was God’s. Although they were free to sell the land, God made clear that he retained ultimate ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine.” (Leviticus 25:23). With that and others caveats in Leviticus 25, individuals had certain property rights as against other individuals. Clearly, the command “Do not steal” would have little meaning in practice if there was no such thing as private property. God went further, of course, forbidding covetousness in addition to outright theft.

In an essay for the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Dr. Art Lindsley draws attention to the story of Naboth’s vineyard:

The story of the prophet Elijah’s rebuke of Ahab and Jezebel for the murder of Naboth and their acquisition of his vineyard is a classic biblical story of theft in 1 Kings 21. King Ahab saw Naboth’s vineyard, which was close to his own, and coveted it. Ahab offered either to exchange another vineyard for Naboth’s or to buy it from him. Naboth firmly refused, saying, “The Lord forbid me that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.”

Jezebel found Ahab sulking on his bed and devised a plan to kill Naboth and steal his land. She proposed a feast with Naboth as the guest of honor, “at the head of the people.” During the feast, “worthless men” would be seated around him to accuse him of cursing God and the king. The plan was executed and it succeeded. Naboth was stoned, and Ahab acquired his coveted vineyard. Elijah, however, pronounced severe judgment on Ahab and Jezebel for this wicked deed.

Naboth’s concern to preserve the inheritance of his fathers is underlined again in Leviticus 25:23: “The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine.” In the broader biblical picture, God is, strictly speaking, the owner of all of the land. He appoints believers as his stewards and expects them to exercise creative rulership or dominion with the land they are given.

Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth’s Vineyard. Print by Sir Frank Dicksee.

I think the story tells us something about the biblically legitimate means of acquiring property. Obviously, taking land by force (deadly force in Ahab’s case) is forbidden; the command “Do not kill” makes no exceptions for “Do not kill unless there’s no other way to acquire that property you want” (which would violate the commandment against coveting in any event). Early in the story, Ahab himself seemed to acknowledge that he could rightfully acquire Naboth’s vineyard only through voluntary exchange: “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house, and I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” (I Kings 21:2). Those efforts failed and, as Dr. Lindsley points out, should never have been made in the first place, given the restrictions God had placed on otherwise voluntary land transfers. Notice, also, that Ahab did not merely declare the vineyard to be his property. At least as far as I can find, there was nothing resembling the modern idea of eminent domain in ancient Israel.

On the question of the acquisition of property in the Bible, Dr. Walter Kaiser, writing in the Spring 2012 volume of the Journal of Markets & Morality, argues that the Bible provides for the acquisition of property by way of reward for one’s labor, through inheritance, “by industriousness (Prov. 10:4; 13:4; 14:23), wisdom (Prov. 3:16; 24:3), or by the development of insight (Prov. 14:15).” The passages in Proverbs, I think, lend some of the best biblical support to Locke’s labor theory of property. Industriousness, wisdom, and insight are all things that can be “mixed” with land or natural resources in order to create a property right. By contrast, Kaiser regards the concept of eminent domain (which is merely acquiring property by declaration), as lacking in any biblical authority. He concludes that section of his article with this: “If it is asked, ‘Then how can roads and buildings be built by the state without the tool of eminent domain?’ the answer is to use procedures that come from other areas of authority rather than from a statist doctrine of sovereignty.”

When it comes to land, the state fails to show that the property it claims to own was acquired by any one of those legitimate means. The state is not God and therefore cannot create its own property rights by mere declaration. Likewise land acquired by killing or other violent force has not been rightfully acquired. If we were to restrict any given state to only such lands as it had legitimately purchased from previous owners or “homesteaded,” I daresay the maps would look radically different. Granted, there are many other issues related to property ownership, especially in countries where land might not currently be occupied by people having the best ownership claim (but I think that’s straying a bit too far afield for our purposes). I think we can say with confidence, however, that no matter how the ownership claims between two given individuals might be resolved, the state’s claim is virtually certain, in almost every case, to be at the back of the line in terms of legitimacy.

I asked in the previous post: “Upon what Biblical basis do we conclude that ‘it is within the rights of the government to determine’ conditions for immigration?” I hope I have made a clear case that the Biblical basis for such a claim is lacking. The state cannot be the legitimate owner of all the land over which it claims the right to grant rights of ingress and egress. In the absence of such rightful ownership, the state’s dictates regarding immigration are more like encroachments on the rights of the true property owners.



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One response to “The Bible, immigration, and private property (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: The Bible, immigration, and private property (Part 3) | Providence, not Fate

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