The Common Interest in Property

The Jewish legal concept of pe'ah requires landowners to leave a meaningful portion of their field unharvested so that the poor can gather food for themselves. The basis for the concept comes from the Book of Leviticus, which states, "And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger." The conditions of pe'ah (which is the Hebrew term for edges or corners of the field) are intricate and strict. A landowner cannot, for example, set aside the worst section of the field; if she has two fields, she must set aside a fraction of both; the owner cannot harvest the entire field and then give a portion of the harvest to the needy. Instead, the produce must be left for the poor to take for themselves, and the amount left for them is determined by the owner's prosperity and the people's need. Pe'ah, and the gleanings of the harvest and the stray grapes of the vineyard, are not charity. They are the entitlement of the poor.

Or more strictly speaking, they are the property of the poor. The underlying premise of pe'ah and related laws is that our property is not ours alone. It is not shared, exactly: Jewish law has no trouble with private property. Owners have plain and unquestioned rights, and most of their property is strictly private. But they also have public duties. Owning property does not insulate us from the claims of others--it does just the opposite. As Joseph Singer says repeatedly in The Edges of the Field, property "is an intensely social institution. It implicates social relationships that combine individualism with a large amount of communal responsibility."

Singer, a Harvard law professor, lays out an intriguing vision of property, work, responsibility, and rights in his deceptively simple book. He establishes paradoxes that elude the black-and-white poles of policy debate. He pushes things that seem private--possessions, problems, beliefs--into the public realm. He uses ideas that seem to belong to conservatives as the building blocks for a liberal policy agenda. And while this is not the book's main goal, he provides an excellent model for how to bring religious convictions to political conversations.

Singer believes that private property is so valuable, so critical to a good life, that public policies should ensure that everyone can have a little. Property is "essential to liberty," he says, and he shows us the full weight of that assertion. It is not enough to protect the freedom of owners to use their property as they wish--which is where the conversation about property rights usually stops. "Liberty is promoted by ensuring that everyone can become an owner," he writes, neatly using a conservative ideal to fit a liberal goal, and vice versa. He also presses the conservative theme of personal responsibility into liberal service: "Personal responsibility does not only mean the duty to take care of oneself. It also means the duty to act so that one's actions do not unduly interfere with the ability of others to obtain similar ends." Property does not pull us away from the community; it pulls us into the community, into relationships with other people. It also links us to our government, which is responsible for protecting what we have. Property and regulation are inextricable. We do not usually recognize these entanglements. We forget that private property is a social invention. Singer's book is enormously valuable simply for reminding us of these facts.

Taking things a few steps further, Singer suggests there is something analogous to a property right in the right to a decent job, and even in communal protection from corporate relocation:

[T]he goal of proving stability to workers and access to employment when such stability is not possible is the same goal as the goal underlying property law: providing the security that is necessary for human liberty to flourish. The choice is not between regulation and property but between protecting the interests of some people in stable access to resources and protecting all people. Objections to legal protections for jobholders and communities are thus objections to property rights. Paradoxical as it may sound, the institution of property requires public policies that protect those in need of security as much as those who already have it.

This idea drives Singer's policy recommendations: 20 or more years of guaranteed education including preschool and retraining; job creation in distressed areas; government jobs for "those left out of the system," i.e., those unable to work in the private sector; a higher Earned Income Tax Credit and minimum wage; better child care; more worker protections; employee ownership plans; and corporate laws that balance employee, community, and shareholder interests. His policy recommendations are not groundbreaking. Readers of this magazine, certainly, have heard them before. Nor does Singer make inroads in suggesting how we might achieve such policies.

Still, he is skillful in asserting why we should want these policies. He understands that he has to reach beyond the circle of committed liberals, for whom these ideas need no justification. So Singer appeals to American values--generosity, compassion, and altruism. He uses the example of Aaron Feuerstein, the owner of the Malden Mills textile factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, as an instantiation of these values. When his factory burnt down in December 1995, Feuerstein pledged to rebuild the plant, rehire the workers, continue to pay their wages for as long as possible, and even give them their usual Christmas bonus. Workers who were laid off after the factory was rebuilt were given generous severance packages: extended health insurance, an additional month of pay, retraining, and job placement help.

Feuerstein was hailed as a hero, someone who did what everyone thought was right but what few people actually do. He complained, "My celebrity is a poor reflection on the values of today." Singer counters that our values are on Feuerstein's side, but there is "a disconnect between widely shared moral intuitions and our prevalent economic institutions and norms." We can bridge this gap between our values and our institutions through policy and law: "The law is the site where [our] values are effectuated and implemented." Here again, Singer uses a supposedly conservative premise--that policies should be based on moral values--to a liberal end. And, again as a conservative would be likely to do, Singer turns to religious values.

This makes perfect sense. The well from which many, even most, Americans draw their ethical notions is religion, not the Federalist Papers or the writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Feuerstein is an observant Jew who was inspired, even compelled, by his understanding of the Jewish legal tradition to do the right thing. Singer discusses how Jewish concepts yield new insights into American property laws. "The law presented in the Torah ... suggests a variety of strategies for ensuring that each one in the community has access to property," Singer says. Thus, not only the edges of the field, but what is dropped or left behind during the harvest, are reserved for the poor to take. There is also an obligation to give charity--and Singer points out that the Hebrew word for charity, tzedakah, is etymologically the same as the word for justice, indicating that "the duty to provide support for those in need is a matter of justice, not a matter of choice." And Singer quotes Maimonides: "The highest degree of charity ... is to strengthen the hand of another so that the poor one is able to be independent and no longer needy." Jewish law seeks to create economic actors, not benevolent rich people and grateful mendicants.

But while outlining a religious liberalism, The Edges of the Field strictly respects the limits of religious claims in a pluralistic polity. By themselves, Jewish legal concepts, because they describe entitlements rather than beneficence, give Singer the fodder for a forceful and direct argument that the poor have a right to employment, indistinguishable from a property right. But his argument, or at least its provenance, has its limits. Jewish law is not the same as American law.

So Singer turns to other major traditions, Christianity and Islam. Christianity, though shot through with exhortations to charity and love for one's neighbor, is not quite as amenable to Singer's arguments as Judaism. (Islam, because it includes a notion of obligatory charity, appears to be a better fit.) For one thing, as he notes, "[t]he Christian tradition focuses less on the concept of obligation and more on the concept of empathy for those in need." Singer feels that "the result is quite similar." But surely empathy does not have the same force as obligation. Empathy is passing and easily exhausted, whereas obligation is permanent and rigid--it does not really care how you feel. Compare Christ's injunction, which Singer does not cite--"If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven"--to the laws of pe'ah. The former is about perfection, a standard that paradoxically lets Christians (all of whom are imperfect) off the hook. The latter is a realistic standard in a recognizable world and is therefore more difficult to evade. The renunciation of all of one's property is asking the impossible, but the renunciation of a portion of one's property is not.

Of course, it is entirely possible that an individual Jew in America feels no more or less compelled by Jewish law than an individual Christian feels compelled by admonitions to Christ-like behavior. Singer is aware of the weakness of an argument from religious tradition: No religion's mandates are a sufficient basis for policy in a secular society. So he argues, as well, that "popular culture in the United States is replete with criticism of a corporate culture that puts profits ahead of any other consideration." This is not exactly the same lesson that he has extracted from the three religious traditions, nor is it quite as interesting as his linkage of property, liberty, and work.

Still, Singer does discover big questions about the clash between human dignity and profit motives, and between community and property, in movies such as The Full Monty, The Rainmaker, Big Business, and even The Jetsons. In "a riveting episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation," Singer sees "a choice between profit at all costs and humanity" in the form of a debate over the future of an android. By the time Singer gets to his extended discussion of the musical Rent, his efforts are a little strained. "The ultimate lesson of Rent is the need for 'connection--in an isolating age,'" he writes. Renting alone? Anyway, Broadway is surely not a reliable source for moral concepts. (What lesson is the musical Chicago teaching us?) The larger problem with Singer's reliance on popular culture is that popular culture contains just about any message that one might care to find. It is not a dependable ally.

Singer recognizes that religious arguments, no matter how precise, elegant, or apt, are not enough. America is a place where we do not codify creeds. One's own religion, or all religions, can at best be a starting point in public debate, and certainly not a trump card. We can bring our religious values into the public sphere, and argue from them, but we also have to argue beyond them if we are to persuade people unlike ourselves to accept our reasons.

Singer's appeals to religion and popular culture are best seen not as an attempt to find a foundation for his argument about property but as an attempt to find validations for his argument in American life. He is right to search far and wide. In his intelligent and closely argued book, Singer admirably rejects the impoverishments of either/or thinking. The Edges of the Field gives us the opposite of a cutting edge: a blending edge, one that brings together public and private, the individual and the social, religion and policy. This edge, not the edge of the field but the edge of the debate, is where we can achieve what Singer so values, "connection in an isolating age." ยค