There are many small ways in which we love each other by respecting informal property rights. Anything that someone is using, or into which someone has invested effort we respect and treat as if they have a right to it. Because they do.
Investment creates an ownership claim
The tiniest investment of labor is enough to create a property right. Consider an example of leftover pizza. The pizza in the fridge may be available to any member of the household on a first-come, first-served basis. But the slice that I took out of the fridge and warmed in the microwave is mine. Obviously. Just that little bit of effort is all it takes.
If you are hungry, it would be easier for you take the slice that’s already warmed up. If they were all still up for grabs that might be exactly the one you would choose. And it would hardly be a significant inconvenience for me. But that would be stealing the effort I had invested, however small. The time you save is time I have lost. That is something that love will never do.
Rom 13:10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
If you love me, you would never steal my investment, because you would not want me to lose that investment. Love does not seek to gain by another’s loss.
Formal and informal property rights
The right to use a certain seat is a great example. There are formal and informal systems for recognizing and assigning the right to use a seat. Formal systems are in place at major sporting events and concert halls. Informal systems are in use in our homes and in “seat yourself” restaurants.
These informal systems utilize a sort of “squatter’s rights.” It’s first come, first served. This right is not permanent, but only temporary. The limits of this right is also quite fuzzy. But it is real nonetheless. You will even see instances where someone has unknowingly taken someone’s seat, and when the original occupant returns the interloper stands up and may even apologize. The question of who may rightfully occupy the seat is not settled simply by noting who is currently occupying it.
Why do we treat a seat as “taken?” The right to return to a seat which you are “still using” is an extension of the right to use the seat at all. You have a right to return after just a moment for the same reason that you have a right to continue sitting in a chair you currently occupy. This right is necessary in order for the chair to serve its intended purpose.
Table for whom?
Imagine you are at a restaurant and you stand to signal the waiter. When you go to sit back down, you fall on the floor and discover that the chair has been moved to the next table. Clearly, you have been wronged. It may be less obvious, but the owner of the restaurant has been wronged as well. Imagine what it would do to his business if this became a regular occurrence.
In order for the chairs and tables of a restaurant to serve their purpose of providing diners with a place to sit and eat, we have to respect the right of patrons to:
1. make a claim on an empty table.
2. continue to occupy the chosen table without being harassed.
3. to return to a table after only momentarily leaving it empty.
The right of diners to occupy a table remains even if every other table is full. In fact it is when there is a line of hungry people waiting for tables to open that the right to continue to use an occupied table becomes most important.
On the other hand, loitering after dinner at a busy restaurant is not appreciated and may not be permitted. Again, the line here is fuzzy. Can you sit for an extra 10 minutes? Sure. A half hour? I wouldn’t recommend it.
Here again the ultimate purpose of the table and chairs is the guiding principle. The purpose is to provide a place for a pleasant dining experience. The purpose is not for you to hang around an extra three hours consuming free refills of iced tea. But neither is it (in most restaurants) intended for you to wolf down your food and leave the restaurant in a hurry.
Private property in land
Just as the intended purpose of the furniture at a restaurant determines how it is to be used, so too the intended purpose of land determines how we may use it. God created the land and has revealed his intent for its use:
Isa 45:18 For thus saith the LORD that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the LORD; and there is none else.
Gen 1:28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Given the intent for which God created the earth, property in land is necessary. In order for the land to be inhabited and utilized, someone must be able to occupy it and make decisions about its use. That person then is the owner.
Stealing or giving?
Love requires more than respecting the property rights of others. But it does not permit less. It requires that we are generous with OUR OWN PROPERTY. Love takes no liberties with what belongs to others. To be “generous” with someone else’s possessions is criminal.
So it is that the apostle commands the thief to have a complete change of heart about private property:
Eph 4:28 Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.
To go from stealing the property of others to giving away your own is to change your attitude towards material goods 180 degrees. The thief is not satisfied with what he owns, but thinks others could do with less. The giver is satisfied with less than he owns and wouldn’t think of stealing.
Property rights are an inherent part of the world God made. If we love other’s we will respect their rights.