In Book II of Politics, Aristotle lobbies objections against the communist/fascist government suggested by Plato (through the mouth of Socrates) in The Republic. Today we discuss the merits and problems of common ownership of goods, in older times by government control of the means of production, and in today’s world by means of long-term wealth “leveling” by heavy income redistribution.
Aristotle saw many problems with eradicating private property. Communally owned property is not taken care of as well as private property is. Laborers are not as productive as they would be if goods were not shared with them in common. Lack of private property also reduces the pleasure of utilizing private goods and the ability to create friendship through sharing of one’s private goods.
But the fundamental problem with communal goods (and this applies to modern redistributionism) is that it is fundamentally based on class warfare and greed. To be sure, many people are just trying to survive and actually need a government safety net. Not many would deny them that type of support, even prominent Libertarian economists. However, Democratic Socialism, among other types of socialism and communism, at their core preach a message of class warfare–rich vs. poor–and hold as their highest good the eradication of inequality, rather than virtue.
Bernie Sanders’ presidential message has been no less militant. His 1% rhetoric has been both misleading and harmful. It incites the “poor” (and anyone is “poor” when compared to anyone “richer”) to seek governmental power to strip private goods (money) from the “other” social class by means of legal coercion. Aristotle spoke about the wickedness underlying this rhetoric long ago. Equal distribution of property and money, he says,
has an attractive appearance, and might be thought to be humane; for he who is told about it welcomes it with gladness, thinking that it will result in a marvelous friendliness of everybody towards everybody, especially when somebody denounces the evils at present existing in states as due to the fact that wealth is not owned in common… But the real cause of all these evils [when people own private property] is not the absence of communism, but wickedness, since we see far more quarrels occurring among those who own or use property in common than among those who have their estates separate” (Politics, 1263b).
That is, those who own private property quarrel by fighting over goods because of a lack of innate charity. However, that innate sinful disposition is far more temperate when private goods are owned than when goods are to be shared. When communalism is enacted, no one wants to put in the most work, but everyone wants what they have not created. Quarrels arise because of jealousy, because the “other” has what one wants. Everyone needs their “fair share” so they will take their case to the government to coerce everyone into giving up what they have so that the government may become the arbitrator of who deserves what.
As Aristotle relates both rationally and empirically (through his experience with communal societies), private property always tempers wickedness better than communal property. It results in more happiness, increased flourishing, and a more peaceable society. And modern redistributionism of income is no different in principle than the redistribution of farmland in Aristotle’s day.
Aristotle would not be voting for Bernie Sanders.