America and Europe: John Locke vs. Saint Augustine

By Steven Hill, The Globalist, March 7, 2011

Both the European and American ways are deeply rooted in old traditions — even in different branches of Christianity. These forces continue to shape attitudes across the Atlantic. Nowhere are these ideological differences more instructive than in the conception of property and social responsibility, argues Steven Hill, author of “Europe’s Promise.”

In Europe, the ownership of property and the exercise of individual and commercial property rights are not seen as absolutes, as they are in the United States. Rather, they are viewed as a privilege that confers reciprocal social obligations.

In the European conception, those who own and hold property — especially the wealthy and corporations that own lots of it — have a responsibility to contribute to the common good for the privilege of exercising those property rights.

Article 14 of the post-war German constitution, for example, specifies that “property imposes duties. Its use should also serve the public weal.”

This, in turn, affects attitudes toward government. Across Europe, government fosters the conditions in which prosperity can be broadly shared. There is a great commitment to the notion that all residents should have an equal right to participate in economic, political and social life, and the government is more than a safety net of last resort.

It is the fundamental vehicle for the delivery of this equality. This is the European consensus, for the most part agreed to by all sides of the political spectrum — right, left and center — as it was when it was conceived by the conservative politicians of Europe following the devastation of two world wars.

They saw the European Way not as some kind of utopian or socialist undertaking, but as a pragmatic and carefully constructed barrier against the return of economic depression, extremist politics and continental war, with a democratic and representative government acting as the principal catalyst of this endeavor.

Today, even leading European conservatives such as German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy support the social democratic notion that corporations have social obligations.

In contrast, Americans prioritize the principle of protecting individual property rights and commercial interests, which is believed to be best accomplished by limiting the power of government to interfere with those rights. Government is viewed more skeptically as inefficient and inept or — even worse — as a vampire that sucks the life out of the body politic.

Government regulation, seen as an infringement on individual property rights, is to be used as little as possible.

British author Will Hutton, chief executive of the Work Foundation in London, says, “These differing attitudes between Europe and the United States are rooted in history and culture, even in religious beliefs.

“America was discovered as a wilderness by settlers who had risked all crossing the Atlantic — and who, as pious Puritans rebelling against the authorities that were persecuting them, believed in their direct and individual relationship with God.” They adopted a “work hard, get ahead” creed, believing fervently that God had provided the land for those who could show by their diligence that they deserved it.

Surviving on the New World frontier, surrounded by land that was seemingly limitless, the Puritans conceived an individualist — rather than a social — view of property. Their individual liberty allowed them to worship as they chose, and it also protected them from any coercive government constraint on how they used their private property.

Thus, individual liberty was the foundation of their quasi-theocratic way of life. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed this quality still present in the United States in the 1830s, commenting, “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.”

In the 18th century, the ideas of political philosopher John Locke were stirred into this religious stew. Locke’s Second Treatise provided an epistemology capable of justifying the claim that individual property rights were conceived by the divine creator as “natural rights,” and government was enacted by individuals to protect those property rights.

“That government governs best which governs least,” is how Thomas Jefferson translated Locke in a nutshell. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), which immortalized an iconic “invisible hand of the free marketplace” as a divine economic auto-regulator, was the next keystone providing the intellectual rationale for extending this “laissez-faire” philosophy to commercial rights and the economy in general.

Europe, on the other hand, was founded on a feudal and Catholic value system which believed that the exercise of privilege by the wealthy came with wider social obligations beyond mere charity. Typical of this view, St. Augustine in the 5th century AD declared, “He who uses his wealth badly possesses it wrongfully.”

St. Thomas Aquinas argued that one of the duties of government was to regulate private property for the common good, and that “a Christian is obliged to make his wealth available for common needs.”

The medieval world, despite its episodes of barbarity, fostered a tradition of noblesse oblige between the lord or baron and his vassals. This provided a bond in addition to that between the Church and its supplicants — a relationship which was eventually transferred to the state as a kind of parental overseer of its citizens’ well-being.

One can still see a certain degree of identification of the EU with Christian social doctrine. This is ironic, since secular Europe supposedly has abandoned religion, while a more pious America mostly ignores those parts of the Christian theological doctrine of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

Over the centuries, this difference has become magnified and distorted, with the United States very much dominated by a strict orthodoxy protecting individual rights of property and ownership.

In Europe, on the other hand, the idea of the social contract has been extended to the notion that companies and businesses must earn their commercial rights by operating in a socially legitimate fashion and by accepting the responsibilities that accompany ownership.

In an age of globalization, this is a doctrine that has greater utility for the greatest number of people, since it provides the flexibility to fine-tune certain parts of a nation’s economy.

Rather than being locked into rigid and even fundamentalist notions of property and commercial rights, a nation can subject these rights to negotiation and compromise via the vehicle of a pluralistic, representative government.

The political process then is what allows the economic process to be harnessed for the good of all, subject to ratification by a consensus of all sectors of society.

That’s why the European approach of a society that balances property rights with social obligation is a better fit for today’s world.

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