The society respects private ownership of property

We have already discussed the crucial importance of private property for economic development (see 114-16 and 141-54). Here we wish to emphasize that honoring and respecting the ownership of private property must be a cultural value that is reinforced from generation to generation.

This is a value clearly taught in the Bible. Not only does the Bible command, “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15), but it also prohibits even the desire to steal, for it says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Ex. 20:17).

One must not steal from anyone, rich or poor. In ancient Israel, there were detailed laws about penalties to be imposed if someone stole an ox or a sheep (see Ex. 22:1), ruined a neighbor’s crops (Ex. 22:5), or started a fire that destroyed someone else’s stored grain (Ex. 22:6; see also Deut. 22:1-4).

Maranz reports several ways in which property is not respected and stealing is an acceptable form of behavior in many parts of African culture. For example:

Precision is to be avoided in accounting as it shows the lack of a generous spirit. Precision and rigor in keeping accounts show a lack of generosity. It is nontrusting. It is not what a friend does. Moreover, it is foreign, threatening, and indicates a lack of understanding of the needs of ordinary people.[1]

Another example is failure to repay loans. Maranz says:

Even banks often go bankrupt because individuals and governments do not repay their loans, which are in effect uncollectable. . . . Practically no one repays a loan voluntarily, even if a promissory note or other document has been signed. I think there is also an underlying concept that a bank is there to provide and loan money—its coffers are full of money, it has far more money than I do, and therefore is it not a little absurd to think of me giving money to a bank? A bank, and people of means, are there to be givers, not receivers.[2]

The Bible’s perspective is different: “The wicked borrows but does not pay back” (Ps. 37:21).

Maranz notes that even when money is stolen, and people know who stole it, there is often a reluctance to hold the culprit responsible:

A church was in need of benches. A Westerner made a donation, but was told sometime later that the money had disappeared, the church treasury having been cleaned out by the church treasurer. Church elders also informed the donor that the treasurer had just bought a new radio-cassette player. The donor suggested they sell the cassette player and put the proceeds back in the church treasury. The elders exclaimed, “You wouldn’t take a radio-cassette player away from a poor man, would you?”[3]

Such cultural acceptance of failure to respect private ownership of property has negative economic consequences. It tends to destroy incentives to work harder and earn more, because what a person earns or buys might suddenly be taken away from him by someone who thinks he “needs” it more. It also tends to prevent anyone from lending money to others—there is no certainty of getting repaid. In addition, it discourages employment because an employer cannot trust an employee to deal honestly with any funds that are entrusted to him. Therefore, the employer has to perform many routine transactions and errands himself when his time could be better spent in more productive activities.

  • [1] Maranz, African Friends, 38.
  • [2] Ibid., 152. But also note the comments by Maranz that we cited in an earlier section, to the effectthat the primary economic consideration in many African societies is that all persons might have theirminimum needs met (see 302).
  • [3] Ibid., 111.
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