Stop for a moment and think about the most successful economies in the world. Imagine what would happen if no one in those countries could own land or other goods they purchase. Would that impact their success?
If your gut-reaction is “yes, of course,” then you (like most) believe people have a right to acquire private property.
This is not a new concept. In fact, the Ten Commandments assume that property ownership is a natural part of the human experience. In Exodus 20:15 we read, “You shall not steal.” This clearly implies that individuals own “things” (i.e., private property) and that an individual’s property should remain theirs, protected by law.
It is easy to overlook topics like property rights when we discuss poverty alleviation. The current tendency is to focus on how to meet urgent needs rather than adjust systemic issues that act as roadblocks to individual and community fruitfulness.
But as Herman Chinery-Hesse, (aka, the Bill Gates of Africa), points out, “When one is born in any part of the world, your first wealth is the land you are standing on. If there is an issue with that land and that land cannot be monetized, you have a problem.” He goes on to say that due to a lack of clear land titles in Ghana, one can buy the same piece of property 4 or 5 times.
In recent months, my work with PovertyCure has brought me to Guatemala, Peru and Rwanda, in addition to good ol’ Grand Rapids, MI. No matter where I go or how much “poverty” I encounter, I remain amazed by the dignity of every person I meet. Each of us is created in the image of God and endowed with ingenuity, creativity, and the power of human enterprise. This is as true in Timbuktu, Mali as it is in Paris, Texas – in Cleveland, OH as it is Shanghai, China. The worth and potential of the human person is the same from the most advanced economy to every corner of the “developing world.”
So, what makes one national environment different from another? Why do some societies prosper, while others languish? I offer that the difference lies in a nation’s social norms, its institutions of justice and in the presence of rule of law, including the protection of private property.
Specifically, individuals must be able to own property, including land, and be assured of some protection for their investment. Otherwise, how can they take and multiply that resource in order to honor God and provide for their family?
This is a foundational concept within the PovertyCure Statement of Principles:
The rights and responsibilities of private property must be supported. One of the crucial lessons of development economics is that the poor cannot create wealth for themselves and their families without secure property rights. The Judeo-Christian tradition provides powerful resources for encouraging the property rights of the rich and poor alike. It shows that private property is not an artifact of greed and possessiveness, as many believe, but rather a legitimate institution rooted in our role as stewards of what God has entrusted to each of us.
As economist Hernando DeSoto says, “Once you settle the issue of who lives where and who does what with who, people start understanding the value of standard rules, that you not only need to have rules that you and your group respect, but that everyone understands… that is the rule of law.”
Studies show that when a society offers a clear title of land ownership the positive impact is both economic and social. People can capitalize on their resources and thus create wealth in a community. And perhaps more importantly, people begin to see themselves as contributors – as the drivers of their own success rather than victims of their circumstances.
Again, I quote Herman Chinery-Hesse, “We need to focus first on things like property rights … so people can take their ancestral land and borrow money against it to set up businesses and pay taxes … that is where our survival is and where our money is, and where progress will come from.”
For further reading on the Biblical foundations to property, see “The Biblical Roots of Private Property,” by Dr. Jay W. Richards. For information on the status of property rights, rule of law and other barriers to development around the world, check out the Economic Freedom of the World Index, the Index of Economic Freedom and the Doing Business Report.