Religion & Liberty Online

Property Rights Vital for Empowering the Poor

On Jan. 27, Acton’s Rome office sponsored a presentation of The International Property Rights Index at the Dominican-run Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. The private seminar was a premier event in Rome for the index’s publisher, introducing data and case studies sampled from 129 industrialized and developing nations. It was attended by some 40 leveraged opinion makers from the ranks of legal, political, academic and religious sectors.

coverSpeakers included the university’s dean of social sciences, Fr. Alejandro Crosthwaite, who gave an excellent exposition of St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatise on property, including the medieval philosopher’s explanation of incentives for personal responsibility by way of individual as opposed to collective ownership. He also took time to explain what the Catholic Church teaches on the universal destination of goods, which is often misinterpreted as a contradiction to individual ownership. In referencing the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (quoted in part from No. 177), leaders in attendance were reminded:

“Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute…The principle of the universal destination of goods is an affirmation both of God’s full and perennial lordship over every reality and of the requirement that the goods of creation remain ever destined to the development of the whole person and of all humanity. This principle is not opposed to the right to private property but indicates the need to regulate it. Private property… is in its essence only an instrument for respecting the principle of the universal destination of goods; in the final analysis, therefore, it is not an end but a means.”

Also speaking were the Italian conservative MP Alessandro Pagano and Giorgio Spaziani Testa, an attorney who heads up Italy’s influential private property and homeownership lobby, Confedilizia. Both pointed to increased incentives for private investment and ownership, which spur personal responsibility and free enterprise but also issued several caveats, namely: the overregulation on Italy’s proprietary norms, a burdensome property tax code that discourages multiple individual holdings, and ever-changing eminent domain laws that are used to expropriate lands from owners at will with unjust compensation from the state.

Tying all the major concerns and core philosophy together was Lorenzo Montanari, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Property Rights Alliance. During his summary of data from the index, he stated the defense of property rights – including the protection of patents and other IPR-related cases – is absolutely vital because of its close correlation with economic performance, prosperity and wellbeing of populations. “The importance of property rights,” according to the summary he distributed, “is directly related to the values and principles of individual liberty. A strong system of property rights not only promotes prosperity but also creates a virtuous circle of human flourishing in society.”

The 2015 edition of The International Property Rights Index placed the small Scandinavian country of Finland as the country that enjoys the greatest defense of private ownership. It ranked Canada (9th) ahead of the United States (15th), while other struggling social democracies such as Spain (49th) and Italy (51st) towards the middle of the pack and China (53rd) just slightly above Greece (56th). Myanmar, a former British colony in Southeast Asia that has suffered from decades of military socialist rule and basic human rights violations since the 1960s, was listed last among as 129 nations surveyed.

In an interview with veteran Vatican Radio journalist Charles Collins, which aired following the event, Lorenzo Montanari stated the defense property rights is very important to the Catholic Church which “considers [them] as a basic human right for everyone,… not only a right for entrepreneurs or business leaders.” He also cited the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, a document admired by many top church officials that attack various forms of social injustice. Among the many rights it includes “property rights – even intellectual property rights – [as] basic human rights,” he said. “So Catholic social teaching states and supports [property rights] as one of the most important individual liberties.”

In terms of the Church’s traditional teaching on serving and empowering the poor, Montanari concluded that facilitating access to private ownership, including its protection by the courts and rule of law, is a pivotal vehicle for uplifting impoverished nations. During the Vatican Radio interview he referenced a case study by Hernando De Soto which correlates Lima’s passage of more than 90 laws in the 1990s in favor of property rights. The Peruvian government’s increasing legal access to and protection of land titles, patents and commercial real estate, according to Montanari, led to the legalization of about 389,000 small and medium-sized enterprises and resulted in “a positive impact” of over a half a million new jobs.

“If you allow the poor to own a house….or to have a title to a property, you can allow them to enter a credit system” which they can use as collateral for starting up a business or other investments, he said.

Listen to the rest of the Vatican Radio interview below.


Michael Severance

Michael Severance earned his B.A. in philosophy and humane letters from the University of San Francisco, where he also studied at the university's St. Ignatius Institute, a great books program. He then pursued his linguistic studies in Salamanca, Spain where he obtained his Advanced Diploma in Spanish from Spain's Ministry of Education before obtaining his M.A. in Philosophy and Modern Languages from the University of Oxford. While living in Italy, Michael has worked in various professional capacities in religious journalism, public relations, marketing, fundraising, as well as property redevelopment and management. As Istituto Acton's Operations Manager, Michael is responsible for helping to organize international conferences, increase private funding, as well as expand networking opportunities and relations among European businesses, media and religious communities, while managing the day-to-day operations of the Rome office.