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Property and Its Discontents

A central institution of Western civilization has been ignored, neglected, and disparaged.

By 4.24.08

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This article ran in the March 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

Ten years ago I published The Noblest Triumph, about the venerable topic of property and its relationship to wealth. It turned out to be a groundbreaker of sorts. The Harvard historian Richard Pipes published Property and Freedom at about the same time, and then numerous books and articles on property matters began to appear. It was clear that a prolonged taboo had finally been broken.

Property is the central institution of Western civilization. Yet for at least a hundred years it had been ignored, neglected, or disparaged. At the time, it seemed to me, few academics, economists included, understand its importance. Yet without private property there can be no freedom and without secure and transferable property rights societies will forever remain impoverished. Private property also makes a key contribution to justice, classically defined as giving to each his due.

How could the intelligentsia have been so deceived for so long? It's a question that we may well be revisiting in the coming decades, in light of the growing power of the environmentalists. They too encroach upon property rights and restrict our liberties, but in pursuit of a new cause. Notice that the Green Revolution followed hard upon the heels of the demise of the Red. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Green political agenda was proclaimed at the Rio Conference of 1992.

In the 19th century, the attack on property had been forthright. Marx's Communist Manifesto advocated the abolition of private property at a time when its central role in both economics and freedom was still not really understood. Property was attacked before it was analyzed. For Adam Smith and others in the 18th century the rights of property were said to be "sacred." But sacred things are (deliberately) not studied very carefully. To an amazing extent, progressive intellectuals of the 19th century were simply thrilled by the liberating prospect of presiding over a new social order.

Skepticism set in only when socialist regimes, by then established all over the world, proved to be impoverished tyrannies without exception. The tide didn't turn until the 1970s. Even then, the U.S. State Department was still undermining its own allies with property-destabilizing "land reform" programs in various parts of the globe. Regimes subjected to U.S.- initiated property upheavals were overthrown in South Vietnam, Iran, and Chile. (In Chile, a counter-revolution launched just in time by the notorious Gen. Pinochet saved that country from an imminent Cuban-style dictatorship.)

A similar folly nearly toppled the government we were supposedly helping in El Salvador. More recently, the World Bank encouraged the Mugabe regime down Zimbabwe's road to tyranny with a land reform program of its own. (I don't think Americans were involved in that one, but nothing would surprise me.)

With the failure of the most important Communist experiment, in the Soviet Union, it was grudgingly conceded that the socialist hand was unplayable. Only then did property resurface as a respectable topic, discussable in academic journals and conferences. The economist Steven Cheung said in 1983 that for many years property rights had been an "untouchable area" for doctoral theses. As late as 1989, the Commerce Department's Statistical Abstract of the United States claimed that East Germany's GNP per capita was higher than West Germany's -- a total absurdity.

At the end of his career, Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan attempted to find out why the CIA's statistics for the Soviet economy had been so exaggerated. I don't think he ever found out. It turned out to be about one-tenth of what the CIA had estimated. Paul Samuelson's best-selling economics textbook published a chart in edition after edition showing that the Soviet economy was growing more rapidly than that of the U.S. The chart finally disappeared in the 1985 edition.

I do admire Boris Yeltsin's great comment (made in 1991) that Communism was a noble idea but should have been tried out first in a smaller country, to see if it worked. You would have thought so.

WHAT HAS HAPPENED in the last two decades, since Communism withered? A major development is that the revolutionary brigades have found a new (green) flag to rally around. This in turn has spurred the creation of numerous local property rights groups. More generally, it has also become acceptable to examine economic and political issues through the lens of property. The Index of Economic Freedom, published by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, puts strong emphasis on the security of property in the 162 countries it examines. That index shows a high correlation between economic freedom and GNP per capita. Rich and free go together -- something that was not understood in the 1950s or 1960s.

The dire forecast of 1997, when the Chinese took over in Hong Kong, happily turned out to be wrong. Hong Kong is now reckoned to be the world's freest economy. But the most significant change of the past decade has been the huge advance made by China itself. Its phenomenal growth could not have happened if its rulers (Communist in name only) had feared that allowing people to become rich would pose a threat to their own security. On the contrary, the government understood that wealth is counter-revolutionary. Essentially, China has followed the path earlier taken by Taiwan.

Something similar is underway in Russia. There is a tendency today to vilify Vladimir Putin, for reasons that amount to little more than nostalgia for the Cold War. But Russia's major cities have been transformed by capitalism, which is to say by the growing security of private property. When I was in Moscow in 1990, I witnessed the sad spectacle of hundreds of young Russians waiting in line for over two hours to enter the one McDonald's that had recently opened. Russia now has a flat tax regime and a real economy (which it did not have under Soviet rule). The same is true of the Eastern Europe countries. Within a decade, if they maintain their present course, they are likely to become more attractive to business than Western Europe.

MEANWHILE, AMERICA'S FOREIGN POLICY establishment still doesn't know what it's doing. Wherever we administer foreign aid, ill-chosen American medicine is sure to go with it. There has been little improvement in Africa, or in Latin America. Countries like Afghanistan that once seemed to be on the path to westernization have since slipped back into lawlessness. Pakistan may be headed in the same direction.

The main error today is the belief that what these countries need is democracy. This seems to be the sole prescription, and it is a foolish one. The American destruction of the Saddam tyranny in Iraq, followed by the quixotic attempt to plant a democracy in the rubble, was only the latest illustration of this naïve faith. We seem to forget that democracy is workable only after other stages of government are securely in place.

Trying to develop a democracy before order prevails is like trying to furnish a house before the roof and walls are constructed. And before those walls are built, the foundations must be laid. Within the foreign policy establishment, these things no longer seem to be understood.

Absent civic order, a strong central power is probably the essential starting point. Then that power may be gradually relaxed and decentralized, and the country may reach a stage where law, property, and perhaps even an independent judiciary evolve. Popular voting -- with the franchise suitably restricted, as it once was both here and in Britain -- may well be necessary, but it is not sufficient. Elections should be thought of as the late-arriving furnishings that add to our comfort, but are not something that can just be put out into the open air in the hope that they will spur the development of sewer lines, water hookups, and tract housing.

It is the delusion of liberals and neoconservatives alike that we can go from the ever-encroaching chaos of Islamization to democracy as we know it by the simple expedient of setting up polling stations. If we really want Iraq to remain as one country, then a dictator surely will be needed to hold it together. That's where we came in, of course, and we didn't like what we saw.

The Americans are certainly not up to the task, and sooner or later those in authority in Washington will ask why a country (Iraq) that was created by one great power (Britain after World War I) has to be held together by another (the United States) at a time when colonialism, once admired, is now despised. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the best of this year's Democratic candidates, did say something like that but it did him no good.

CHINA, TO ITS CREDIT, seems to have grasped the idea of sequential development, and so far is managing a successful transition to a market economy, just as Britain once did. But Britain later forgot its own path to prosperity, and after World War II allowed its former colonies in Africa to sink into the mire of socialist planning and expropriation. They have not recovered to this day.

One depressing thought is that national lessons once learned and understood sooner or later are forgotten. Or they are regarded as primitive stages that can be skipped in a more enlightened age. American elites who set forth to save the world these day never did understand their own history. Amazingly, they have even allowed pop singers like the idiotic Bono to show them the way.

I mentioned that the open socialist attack on property has now been replaced by an indirect war in the name of the environment. A deeply rooted antagonism to private property has remained a constant throughout, but it's worth noting the huge intellectual shift that has taken place.

If Communism was ever to succeed, human nature itself had to be reformed. That the early socialists did understand. But they were filled with an unwarranted confidence that, because they yearned for such a transformation, it would soon happen. Human nature was like "putty," said a delighted George Bernard Shaw. Lenin was pleased to hear that.

Man was malleable. That was the great socialist faith of the 19th century, shared by Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and many others. It was a false faith, and after many struggles it died in the gulags and death camps of the 20th century. Mankind, in short, proved to be a huge disappointment to the socialist dreamers.

So much the worse for the human race, then.

THAT IS THE MESSAGE that we now hear -- it's the new anti-faith. To the progressive mind, humans went from being pliable and reformable to stubborn and abominable; driven only by greed, selfishness and avarice. We polluted the environment and despoiled our natural Eden. In short, an absurd, unwarranted optimism was replaced by an extreme pessimism. So disappointing a creature must therefore be dealt with severely: restrained, regulated, contracepted, euthanized, aborted: perhaps even zeroed out.

The title of a recent book discloses the new ideal: The World Without Us. The author, Alan Weisman, doesn't actually recommend our abolition, but he tells us what a marvelous place the world would be without us. The book's enthusiastic reception shows the astonishing level of nihilism that surrounds today's Green movement.

One critic said that Weisman has found that "theoretically wiping humans off the face of the earth intrigues rather than frightens people." It is "one of the grandest thought experiments of our time," wrote the dotty Bill McKibben. Alan Weisman said: "There is a secret longing that people have, saying 'Let's give it up. What a mess we've made just by being alive.' We've redefined original sin." Eden is reinvented -- without Adam and Eve.

Rousseau in the 18th century imagined harmonious societies without property, but they lay in the past. The Communists imagined the same -- in the future. In this new godless fantasy there certainly won't be any property because there won't be any people at all.

Who finds that intriguing? Not me.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).