On November 3, 2011, our nearest Communist neighbor-nation came as close to acknowledging the failure of Communism as any Communist nation can be expected to come. Cuba announced that, after half a century of state control of land, it is permitting the conveyance of real estate titles between private owners. As even the Cuban government now acknowledges, state ownership has been a spectacular failure. It has incentivized black markets and dishonest deals, produced scarcities of resources, and caused the housing stock to deteriorate. Most significantly, central government control of real estate has needlessly trammeled the Cuban people in poverty.

This development came to mind when reading Ryan Anderson’s recent admonition, published here in Public Discourse, that conservatives should pay more attention to social justice. Anderson identifies two concerns about capitalism: First, capitalism tends to promote materialism, which corrupts culture and morals. Second, though capitalism benefits the poor more than non-capitalist systems, there remains the question whether the prosperity that capitalism has created is distributed justly. Anderson invites conservatives to consider what obligations individuals might have in justice to share their wealth.

Anderson’s challenge is well-timed. Material inequality is presently a hot topic, with good reason. And he is right that the champions of economic freedom can do more to affirm the obligation that each of us has to provide for the least well-off. One wonders, is it possible to challenge both the collectivist practices that have impoverished Cubans (and millions of others) and the radical individualistic claims that are often invoked in support of free economic institutions?

It seems that any account of how to improve our system of free enterprise ought to begin by observing what we already do well. The United States, for all of its faults, is a generous nation. Set aside the aid and development assistance that the United States government spreads around the world. Look merely at the actions Americans take through our private associations and institutions. To take just a few examples, American-based non-profits fight slavery and sex trafficking; build sustainable drinking water resources in impoverished villages; provide micro-finance loans to the world’s deserving poor; create educational opportunities for under-privileged urban youth; and visit those in prison. American individuals, foundations, and corporations gave nearly $291 billion in 2010, despite the hard times. Of this, $211.77 billion came from individual donors. More than a quarter of Americans over the age of 16 are reported to have volunteered through or for organizations, and in 2009 volunteers contributed service worth approximately $169 billion.

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If social justice is primarily a matter of equal distribution of resources, then why do Communist nations such as Cuba do so little, by comparison, to promote justice? (Are there in Cuba any such organizations as those listed above?) On the other hand, it seems equally clear that a defense of free markets is not the same as a defense of justice. Charity is not a market exchange.

These are obvious facts, but one must sometimes call obvious facts to mind. Here’s another fact that bears observing: all of the organizations enumerated above, and many others like them, are faith-based institutions, run and financed by people who take religious teachings as true and obliging. They are members of faith communities, who subject their own preferences to moral truth claims, and submit in varying degrees to the authority of clergy, religious teachers, and traditions. They sacrifice in some degree their individual autonomy for the sake of some good greater than themselves. They are, in short, communal beings who act through communal means for common goods.

This observation suggests an answer to the materialism that lurks within capitalism, and which threatens the good that capitalism has achieved. If free institutions protect only the rights of the individual to pursue his own material comfort, then they are difficult to reconcile with the demands of justice. But viewed as communal institutions that serve truly common goods—ends that are both good for all and known to all, though realized in plural and incommensurable varieties—free institutions can act as vehicles of both opportunity and justice. Indeed, they might render obsolete the trench warfare between the individual and the state that pervades much contemporary public discourse about questions of justice.

Take, for example, the institution of private property. If property is viewed through the usual lens, it distends in tension between the individual preferences of property owners and the collective good of the greatest number. On this view, property must either free the individual to pursue whatever he finds subjectively satisfying, or instead sacrifice the individual’s property rights for the sake of some greater societal end. Both of these options are troubling. Property rights proponents rightly excoriate collectivist approaches to property, in which the rights and interests of some property owners are sacrificed for a greater collective good, often to the benefit of the wealthy and well-connected. This logic was on display in the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City New London, which upheld the taking of a private citizen’s home to make way for a redevelopment plan, the primary beneficiaries of which were to be Pfizer and private developers. The means were unjust and contrary to the constitutional text, and the end used to justify the means, renewed economic prosperity, never materialized.

On the other hand, state interference in property looks more attractive to many people as the gap between rich and poor grows wider, and particularly as opportunities for the poor become fewer. Some wonder why property rights should protect consumption at the expense of one’s neighbors. A particularly galling abuse is strategic default, in which a homeowner who owes more than his house is worth (and in many cases purchased more house than he needed and could prudently afford), but is able to make payments on his mortgage, nevertheless defaults in order to avoid the loss. In states that do not permit lenders to seek recourse against the defaulting mortgagor in his personal capacity, that mortgagor walks away from his obligation without cost to himself. His neighbors bear a cost, however, in depressed real estate values.

What if property could serve truly common goods, which are reducible neither to individual preferences nor to the collective decisions of political bodies? Property, in the central case, is neither an atomistic nor a collectivist institution. Indeed, when it is working at its best, property does much to promote human flourishing, enabling property owners to realize common goods both for themselves and for their families and communities. Communities pursue goods that are truly good for all, the value of which is knowable by all. Property, understood as a communal institution, can and should serve these goods.

In order to work properly, property must to a large extent be a free and independent institution. The private charity described above would not be possible if citizens were not free to exercise sovereignty over their assets. And something equally valuable would be lost, as well. Charity makes a difference not only to the material condition of the recipient but also to the moral condition of the donor herself; it makes the donor a different sort of person. But the charitable act could not have this effect upon the charitable person if it were coerced. One who is required by law to give to another is not making the other person a reason for her action. She has not established a moral connection with the recipient.

On the other hand, the law need not recognize rights to use assets to satisfy whatever desires individuals happen to have, particularly where those satisfactions cause harm. Property is properly directed, at least to some extent, toward ends that the community identifies as worthwhile and away from ends that the community perceives as harmful. Freedom to do good things with one’s property need not conflict with the obligation to act rightly toward one’s neighbors.

All of this suggests a way forward on questions of social justice. A successful account of social justice must affirm the primacy of communities, and institutions directed by communities, over both the individual and the state in promoting human flourishing. The job of the individual in promoting social justice is to act in concert with others in his or her community to serve real needs, both within the community and in other communities. The job of the state is to support and enable free institutions—the church, the family, property ownership, charitable organizations, for-profit businesses, trade groups—to do their good work. This perhaps is not all that social justice requires, but it is a good place to start.