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Constitutional Coups: A Threat to Private Property

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Raul y Chavez by PongIn the twenty-first century so-called “democratic elections” are being used to grasp power and foster objectives that challenge the basic institutions of free societies. One vote, one man, voting once, some cynically say about some of the Middle Eastern countries during and after the Arab Spring. The problem is not novel. The French political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel (1903-1987) can be counted among the few scholars and political philosophers who saw the potential dangers of democratic governments for the liberty of the people. More than three hundred years ago Montesquieu warned his contemporaries that the individual’s right of taking part in power does not necessarily guarantee his liberty:

As it is a feature of democracies that to all appearances the people does almost exactly what it wishes, men have supposed that democratic governments were the abiding-place of liberty: they confused power of the people with liberty of the people.The confusion between individual power and liberty has been compounded this century most particularly in Latin America, the focus of this article.

Collectivist Politics and Raw Power

Bertrand de Jouvenel warns us in his book, On Power and Sovereignty, about the dangers of a rationalist individualism that often lead to collectivist politics – views that were already anticipated by the French historians Alexis de Tocqueville and Hippolyte Taine. They also predicted that “democracy in its centralizing absolutist shape was the time of tyranny’s incubation.” Taine claimed that the twentieth century would witness the perversion of science at the service of a “retrograde movement towards a barbarous and instinctual egotism,” a retrogression made possible by the triumph of the modern plebiscitarian state. Man’s ambition for power and domination has not changed substantially since the imperial days of the Roman Empire. The methods used for the acquisition of power may have changed but, in the last instance, raw power continues to be the ultimate goal.

The private ownership of property is, in no uncertain terms, one of the last bastions of political and economic freedom. To destroy it means to consolidate raw power, a fact that runs counter to the nature of all free human beings and constitutes a violation of natural law. Thus, any violation of private property is an infringement upon one of man’s most basic inalienable rights.

In Defense of Natural Law

St. Thomas Aquinas defines natural law as “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.” Thus, natural law ought not be violated. It flows from the Wisdom and Will of God. According to Aquinas, the ownership of private property is not against natural law. On the contrary, in the Summa Theologiae he declares that it is legitimate for a man to possess private property. Among the three reasons that Aquinas gives is:

[E]veryone is more concerned to take care of something that belongs only to him than of something that belongs to everyone or to many people, since in the case of common property he avoids effort by leaving its care to others, as occurs when one has a large number of servants. Secondly, human affairs are more efficiently organized if the proper care of each thing is an individual responsibility. There would only be confusion if everyone took care of everything in a disorganized fashion. Third, peace is better preserved among men if each one is content with his property. So we see that quarrels frequently arise among those who hold a thing in common and undivided.

Natural law, St. Paul tells us, is found in the heart of man itself. Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, wrote that he strongly affirmed the right to private property against the socialism of his time. This right, which is fundamental for the autonomy and development of the person, has always been defended by the Church up to our own day. In a similar way, in Chapter IV “Private Property and the Universal Destination of Material Goods” of his 1991 encyclical, the late Pope John Paul II and his predecessors have equally maintained the need and legitimacy of private property. The concept of natural law and its importance for the well-being of society is not limited to theologians and philosophers in the Christian West. There is an important legacy transmitted to us from Greece and Rome that is well manifested, among others, in the writings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle fully realized the existence of natural law and its contrast with the laws made by man. Sophocles, in his play Antigone, mentions his heroine disobeying the positive law in order to obey a higher law that comes from Eternity; the divine law is the supreme law.

John Locke, the seventeenth-century British philosopher, had already warned that the erosion of private property would greatly endanger the pillar of liberty and bring about the totalitarian state later described by George Orwell in his book Nineteen Eighty-four. If private property is degraded into a precarious de facto possession and ceases to be one of the natural and primary rights of man, then, as the late German political economist Wilhelm Roepke reminded us in his book A Humane Economy, the end of free society is in sight. Once power falls into the hands of unscrupulous leaders democratically elected by a mass society, often suffering from pathological symptoms, the basic institutions of the country are challenged in order to meet the demands of those in power. Such a policy is crucial for the success of collectivist policies eventually leading to socialism. The natural right of private property is among the first institutions to be challenged and, if possible, abolished in the name of “social justice.” There is no longer a need for military coups to obtain these objectives. They can be obtained through democratic means. The erosion and gradual elimination of private property are the first steps in the process of collectivization…  

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Alberto M. Piedra

About the Author:

Alberto M. Piedra is the Donald E. Bently Professor of Political Economy at The Institute of World Politics (IWP) in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining IWP he was the Chairman of the Department of Economics and Business at The Catholic University of America where from 1965-1982 he also served as Director of the Latin American Institute. On 8 September 1983 United States President Ronald Reagan accorded him the personal rank of Ambassador. From 1984-87 Dr. Piedra served as U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala and subsequently from 1987-88 was the Senior Area Advisor for Latin America, U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Early in his career he was a professor at the University of Villanova in Havana, Cuba before he became the Director General of the Cuban Ministry of Commerce in 1959. Very soon thereafter Dr. Piedra defected from the revolutionary regime of Fidel Castro. Dr. Piedra was educated at University of Havana (LL.B), University of Madrid (Ph.D.), and Georgetown University (Ph.D.).

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