Who Owns the World?

A sermon by Doug Muder delivered at the Community Church of Chapel Hill on 4 October 2009

Opening Words

The opening words are the first verse of an anonymous poem from 18th century England. It protests a process known as Enclosure, or what today we would call privatization. Through Enclosure, a village’s common land would become the private property of some rich lord.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.


The first reading is from a papal encyclical, Laborem Exercens by Pope John Paul II. 

Working at any workbench, whether a relatively primitive or an ultramodern one, a man can easily see that through his work he enters into two inheritances: the inheritance of what is given to the whole of humanity in the resources of nature, and the inheritance of what others have already developed on the basis of those resources, primarily by developing technology, that is to say, by producing a whole collection of increasingly perfect instruments for work.

The second reading is from Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, specifically from the 100-page speech by John Galt that is the novel’s climax and centerpiece. Here, Galt discusses the relationship between one of the novels’ heroes, the industrialist Hank Rearden, and his workers:

The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, is the power that expands the potential of your life by raising the productivity of your time. If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist of an iron bar produced by your hands in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for Hank Rearden? Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden.

I’ll hit this point harder in the sermon, but right now I want to call attention to what Galt’s speech has done to the Pope’s second inheritance, the inheritance of technology. In this passage Rand anoints the factory owner as the sole heir to technological progress. His workers inherit nothing from the inventors of the past. If they benefit at all from the progress of technology, it is not by right of inheritance, but due to the generosity of their employer. It is “a gift from Hank Rearden.”


When Unitarian Universalists talk among ourselves about social justice, we all more-or-less know what that means: Things should be more equal. The poor should be richer. The disadvantaged should be less disadvantaged. No one should be hungry. The sick or injured should be cared for. Education should available to everyone. And so on.

We’re much better making these kinds of lists than we are at explaining why this world we’re envisioning is just. I think that’s because, among ourselves, we don’t need to explain it. Most people with UU values just feel it, without explanation.

You say, “Isn’t it awful that in such a wealthy country, some people are poor or hungry or have to go without healthcare or education?” And whoever you are talking to says, “Yes, it is awful.” And the conversation goes on from there.

There’s nothing wrong with that conversation. But if that’s what we’re expecting, we’ll be at a loss if people feel differently.

They might, for example, focus on the cost of doing all these things and wonder why they should pay it. In his We Surround Them broadcast, for example, Glenn Beck made this one of the 9 principles of his 9/12 Project (principles which he stated not simply for himself, but because he expected his listeners to share them):

“I work hard for what I have, and I will share it with others when I choose, who I choose, should I choose. The government cannot force me to be charitable.”

At a townhall meeting in Indiana this summer, someone said, “I’m responsible for myself and I’m not responsible for other people. I should get the fruits of my labor and I shouldn’t have to divvy it up with other people.”

If working people feel that way, imagine how rich people must feel. The CEO of Whole Foods began his newspaper editorial against President Obama’s healthcare plan with this famous Margaret Thatcher quote: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

When you’re expecting a compassionate response and don’t get it, it’s tempting to write people off as selfish or hard-hearted. But many of them aren’t. Some people who look at the world this way are quite generous. They give money away. They put themselves out for others. They volunteer. But the model they put on this behavior isn’t justice, it’s charity. Justice, to them, would mean keeping what is theirs. Giving it away is charity.

American history includes some outstanding examples of charity. In the Gilded Age, it sometimes seemed that the more ruthlessly money was acquired, the more generously it was distributed. People like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie endowed countless libraries, museums, hospitals, and universities.

The richest men in today’s America, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, have put tens of billions of dollars into a foundation that is doing wonderful work around the world.

But charity and justice are very different models. The Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara got right to the root of the difference in this quote: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

A charitable worldview doesn’t critique the way the world works, it just tries to mitigate the unfortunate results. If the world’s resources are controlled by relatively few people, and if that small class gets richer and richer as time goes on, a charitable person may think that’s fine as long as the privileged class is generous.

By avoiding a critique and embracing compassion, charity is fundamentally a system of the heart. And a society that relies on charity to solve its problems will find itself in a perpetual argument between head and heart. In any situation there will be the sensible thing to do and the compassionate thing to do, and the two will rarely align.

By contrast, a justice-focused worldview does critique the system. It asks why the poor have no food. It asks how the difference between rich and poor came about. It asks how the system that leads to this result justifies itself.

A justice-based view does not accept that head and heart are naturally in conflict. If your reason has led you to a system that your compassion rejects, maybe you missed something. Maybe you’re taking something for granted that you shouldn’t. Social justice does not ask you to give up on thinking and follow your heart. Instead it asks you to check your assumptions and think again.

Today I want to focus on one of the great works of the justice tradition, which unfortunately is not nearly as well known as it ought to be. I’m talking about a short, simple, and very insightful little book by Thomas Paine called Agrarian Justice.

Thomas Paine’s name-recognition has gone up recently, because Glenn Beck has written a best-seller that claims to update Paine’s American-revolution classic Common Sense. This shows the difference between name-recognition and being well known, because if people have heard of Paine but think of him as an 18th-century Glenn Beck, they don’t know him at all.

By the time he writes Agrarian Justice, Paine has already played his role in the American Revolution, has gotten himself thrown out of England for preaching revolution there, and is in Paris trying to keep the French Revolution from going off the rails. Agrarian Justice is his proposal to the English, that they should give each young adult (of either gender) a stake of capital to get started in the world, and also establish an old-age pension, and that it should all be funded by an inheritance tax — or (as Beck might say) a death tax.

And what is most interesting from our point of view this morning is that he proposes this not as charity but as justice. Paine is speaking not just from the heart, but from head and heart together.

Paine’s analysis challenges one of the most fundamental economic concepts: property. He realizes that once you accept the property system, you’re stuck in a charity model. If you accept that people own what they own, free and clear with no obligation to anyone, then from that point forward, Margaret Thatcher is right: doing anything for the poor means using other people’s money. Those people own it, and you have to either beg it from them by appealing to their generosity, or take it from them by force.

When people have lived under a property system their entire lives — as the English had then and we have today — they tend to take it for granted. But Paine did not take property for granted, because he had seen the example of the Native Americans. He writes:

The life of an Indian is a continual holiday compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand, it appears to be abject when compared to the rich. Civilization, therefore, or that which is so called, has operated in two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.

But wait, civilization is supposed to be a good thing, isn’t it? Paine agrees:

The first principle of civilization ought to have been, and ought still to be, that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period.

Now that’s a fine sentiment, a statement of the heart. But if our heads are going to go along on this trip, we  need to understand why things didn’t turn out that way. Is there some reason why the poor have to be wretched, or did we make some initial mistake that led to that result? Paine says there was a mistake, and it has to do with how we created property.

Let me stop here for a minute, because I just snuck in a radical idea: We created property. A lot of people today write about property as if it were a natural concept, something that exists prior to all societies or governments. 

Not at all.

Paine expresses this idea in Biblical terms:

Neither did the Creator of the earth open a land office from which the first title-deeds should issue.

He might also have pointed to the animal world, because nothing remotely like property exists in nature. Animals have territory, which is a very different idea. A bird may build its nest in a tree and chase off all competing birds. But no bird has ever sold a tree to another bird, or rented a nest, or taken in someone else’s egg in exchange for a few worms. When a lion kills a zebra, the other animals stay away until he has eaten the lion’s share. But when the lion trots away for his nap, the hyenas and jackals and vultures don’t buy the zebra corpse from the lion. They don’t owe the lion any future favors, because the zebra is not property.

Private property is not a natural concept, and it is not some mystical connection between a person and an object or a piece of land. Paine writes:

The earth in its natural, uncultivated state, was, and ever would have continued to be THE COMMON PROPERTY OF THE HUMAN RACE. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life-proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

Being a practical man, Paine recognizes that American or English-style agriculture would not work on those terms, because it requires a long investment of effort before you see any product. You have to cut down the trees and pull up the stumps and dig out the rocks. Each year you have to plow and plant and fertilize and weed. And who would do all that if, in the end, he had no more right than anyone else to gather the harvest?

And so Paine believed it was right and just for the difference in value between cultivated land and uncultivated land to be private property. Not the land itself — the difference in value between cultivated and uncultivated land.

And here he locates the original mistake, the original sin for which the poor pay the price. Rather than just let people own the value of their improvements in the productivity of the land, we created a system in which they own the land. We created a system in which the Earth itself is owned, not by humanity in general, but only by the people who have their names on deeds.

In other words, the poor of Europe were worse off than Native Americans not because God created them that way, but because they had been disinherited; their share of the common inheritance of humankind had been usurped.

Paine was just talking about land, but it’s easy to see how his ideas extend to other areas. Individuals deserve to have some kind of property in the mines they dig and the wells they drill, but what they pull out of the Earth — the gold, the silver, the coal, the iron, the water, the oil — is also part of the common inheritance.

And consider not just our physical inheritance, but our cultural inheritance. I’m a writer. I work in words and I sell my words. But I did not invent words. I did not invent the English language. I did not teach it to all of you so that you could understand me. So if there is value in my words, I didn’t create that value out of nothing. Part of that value should belong to me, but part rightfully belongs to the common inheritance.

Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” He did not say: “Those are my giants. I own this perch up here on their shoulders. I — and not you — are the heir to these giants.” 

No. Inventors, researchers, and technologists do indeed create value, but they don’t create it out of nothing. The ideas that are the raw material of their creations belong to the common inheritance. Only part of the value they create should belong to them; the rest  belongs to everyone.

Once you buy into the illusions of property; once you accept that people own what they own and owe nothing to anyone — you’ve given the social-justice game away. You’ve accepted the usurpation of our common inheritance. You’ve agreed to disinheriting the poor. And the resources that are needed to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to educate the young — you can beg for them or you can seize them by force, but you can’t claim them by right anymore. From that point forward, your heart may still be with the poor, but your head will always pull you back towards Margaret Thatcher, because all the money in the world is other people’s money.

So if you accept that the poor have an inheritance coming, how should they collect it? Paine, as I said, was a practical man, and he recognizes that he can’t even calculate the rents and royalties that the poor have coming, much less collect and distribute them. 

Instead, he proposes that everyone be offered a deal. In payment for your share of the common inheritance, in exchange for your acceptance that you were born into a world where every single object of value was already claimed by someone else — we’ll offer you this: When you reach adulthood, we’ll give you a stake, some bit of capital that you can use to buy a little land or some tools or something else that will launch you into a profession. And if you make it to old age, to the point where you can’t reasonably expect to work any more, we’ll give you a pension.

Notice that Paine does not propose a dole, or some program of bread and circuses, or make-work projects that will give everyone a meaningless job. His proposal is much more radical than that: The poor should be capitalized. Everyone should have a stake, a chance to launch themselves into the middle of the economy rather than start at the bottom.

In Paine’s day, there was a world of difference between a poor family and one with just little bit of capital. Think about all those traditional English names. With some capital, you could buy a wagon and become a Carter. With a grindstone you could be a Miller. With some tools and a little training you could be a Smith or a Taylor or a Cooper. But without capital, you were a nobody.

In Biblical times capital meant land, and so in Micah’s vision of the just world “Every man shall sit under his own vine or his own fig tree, undisturbed.” Later on in the encyclical I quoted, Pope John Paul II envisions the world not as a Great Feeding Trough but as a Great Workbench, where we all have our place and access to the tools we need.

Launching yourself into the middle of an information economy is more complicated, but by now the value of the common inheritance has grown. Exactly what deal it makes sense to offer today, in lieu of the inheritance we can’t deliver, is a topic for another day. Certainly education must be part of it, and childhood nutrition. In general, people should be freed from poverty traps, from situations in which their short-term survival depends on doing things that harm their long-term interests. No heir of a rich inheritance should ever have to eat the seed corn.

The Pope’s image goes a long way towards helping us evaluate the adequacy of any proposal: Everyone should have a seat at the Great Workbench. That seat should belong to them by right, and not through anyone’s generosity.

Even if we had such a program, if we had a way to deliver to each and every person the value of their share of the collective inheritance, things could still go wrong. Some Prodigal Sons would waste their inheritance. Some unlucky people would lose it to accident or illness. Some people’s abilities would be so limited that, despite our best efforts, we could not find tools that would make them productive.

There would, in other words, still be occasions for charity — even if all people received the full value of their inheritance.

But that is not where we are today. In the world we live in, people are poor because the collective inheritance has been usurped by people who believe that what is theirs is theirs, and they owe no one for its use; who believe that only land-owners are beneficiaries of the Creation; who believe that businessmen and industrialists are the sole heirs of technological progress; who believe that only the educated rightfully inherit our cultural legacy.

After the inheritance or some acceptable compensation for it has been delivered to all people, then charity might be enough. But until then, we should never stop talking about justice.

Closing Words

That poem I opened with has four verses, and the final one echoes the first:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

Read other sermons by Doug Muder