My grandparents’ generation understood common ownership. Even in the early 2000s, they would proudly quote their membership number when you mentioned the co-op.
It is only in relatively recent times that membership of the co-op has come to mean very little. In days when every supermarket has a loyalty card, the co-op divi makes little difference and can be worse as in recent years there’s been no dividend.
At one time the divi made a real difference to the household budget. And shopping at the co-op guaranteed low prices and good quality. All of these were benefits of common ownership.
The reason I’m raising this issue is the book I shall review over the next few Fridays. “Theonomics: Reconnecting Economics with Virtue and Integrity”, edited by Andrew Lightbown and Peter Sills contains essays about economics by Christian practitioners. The papers vary in quality but it is a helpful snapshot of the thinking going on in the churches.
I’ll take a look at the more inspirational papers next time but this time, I want to respond to this passage from Peter Sills’ paper “A Christian Framework for Economics”. He quotes Pope Leo’s concerns for poverty in the capitalist system and then we find this passage:
“Pope Leo’s social concern is an expression of the divine concern for the poor rather than a political manifesto, and he was equally critical of socialism, particularly its advocacy of common ownership which he saw as destroying the natural right of property.” (Page 22) (Rerum Novarum, Leo’s encyclical, published in 1891.)
I’m not particularly concerned about defending socialism, a somewhat varied collection of beliefs. To praise or condemn socialism, it is usually helpful to explain which particular version of socialism you are praising or condemning.
Neither do I praise or condemn the “natural right of property”. People do own property and I’m not aware of any political system that does not endorse a right to private ownership of property unless it uses totalitarian methods to enforce some alternative.
Pope Leo was writing long before the Soviet Union and so it is difficult to know exactly what he meant. In the twentieth century we saw several experiments forcing populations to give up private property in favour of “common ownership”. But what we saw was not common ownership but state ownership.
I am in favour of state ownership where it is appropriate. The state must own the NHS, for example, to deliver free health services to the population. Paying for the NHS through taxation is the best method we have been able to find. It is hard to imagine any advantages to moving the NHS into common ownership.
Common Ownership and Private Enterprise
The point is different activities need to be supported appropriately. Common ownership is not the same as state ownership. Common ownership is where customers or workers own an enterprise. So, for example, John Lewis’ workers own the company. Those workers also own their own property. When they receive a dividend from the business it is theirs to spend as they wish. Whilst I’m sure this approach is consistent with some versions of socialism, it does not follow that all those employed by John Lewis are socialists!
Common ownership is an approach to economics embedded in a system where everyone owns private property. In a system that optimised common ownership (this would mean common ownership of most established businesses) there would still be some state ownership, eg the NHS, and there would still be private ownership.
Every household would own property, some financed through common ownership. But more important there would still be private businesses. And the place where they would be found is locally! Small businesses, privately owned are an efficient way of testing new ideas. There is work and expense in setting up common ownership and for a lot of new businesses, it is more economically efficient to test a new business at its owners’ risk.
The time to decide to create a co-operative or social enterprise, or use any other beneficial business model, is once you have a business. These days successful businesses are usually incorporated. It would be good to see more proven businesses exploring alternative pathways with elements of common ownership.
The Common Good?
Pope Leo went on to say:
“develop the idea of the ‘common good’ as a positive duty ‘to make sure that the laws and institutions, the general character and administration of the commonwealth shall be such as to produce of themselves public well-being and private prosperity.” (page 22)
Sills goes on to show how the Catholic Church developed these ideas during the twentieth century. My question for Pope Leo is: how does he intend to deliver on his light-weight concept of the common good without common ownership?
Common ownership is the road less travelled. It is rarely advocated by politicians or theologians even though it offers “public well-being and private prosperity”.