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Book Review: The Noblest Triumph

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The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages
by Tom Bethell (New York: St. Martin’s Press 1998); 378 pages; $29.95.

For the classical liberals and classical economists of the 19th century, the institution of private property was considered fundamental for both freedom and prosperity. John R. McCulluch, one of the great popularizers of economic ideas in the mid 19th century, argued:

“Let us not, therefore, deceive ourselves by supposing that it is possible for any people to emerge from barbarism, or to become wealthy, prosperous, and civilized, without the security of property. Security is indispensable to the successful exertion of the powers of industry. Where it is wanting, it is idle to expect either riches or civilization.”

McCulloch concluded that private property was “the foundation on which the other institutions of society rest” because “where property is not publicly guaranteed men must look at each other as enemies rather than as friends.”

Such thinkers also considered the protection of life and property as the only real reason to cede power to government. Said classical economist William Huskisson in 1830:

“Security of persons and property is the ultimate object and end of the institution of government. Unless this is kept constantly in view, the motive for conceding authority to public officers is misunderstood…. The people will take sufficient care of their own happiness, if they enjoy full security of themselves, and remain free from all constraints that are not absolutely necessary for the security of the persons and property of other parties.”

And the great French classical-liberal economist Jean-Baptiste Say emphasized that property titles are a sham unless they are respected in practice and protected from the plunder of both private persons and governments:

“The legal inviolability of property is obviously a mere mockery, where the sovereign power is unable to make the laws respected, or where it either practices robbery itself or is impotent to repress it in others; and where possession is rendered perpetually insecure, by the intricacy of legislative enactments and the subtleties of technical nicety. Nor can property be said to exist, where it is not a matter of reality as well as of right.”

These were commonsensical truths taken for granted by the classical liberals of the last century, confirmed by both reason and historical experience. The 20th century seems to have suffered from mass amnesia, acting as if none of these truths had ever been known or articulated. Socialism, communism, fascism, nazism, and interventionist-welfare statism have all attempted to remake society and the people in it by either abolishing or controlling private property. In our time, some have tried to remind others of the old truths. Francis Hirst tried to do so in 1935 in his book Private Property and Freedom of Trade. And in 1963, Gottfried Dietze took up the challenge in his work In Defense of Property.

The latest attempt is to be found in Tom Bethell’s new book, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity though the Ages. Mr. Bethell states early on the premise upon which his study is based: “There are four great blessings that cannot easily be realized in a society that lacks the secure, decentralized, private ownership of goods. These are: liberty, justice, peace, and prosperity.”

His vista is a large one. He looks at the origin, practice, and resistance to the idea of private property from the time of the ancient world to the present. While Plato considered private ownership a danger to the best in man, Aristotle viewed property not only as crucial for the creation of incentives for work but as the basis of benevolence and generosity. The Romans gave the world an understanding of the importance of contract and the rule of law, under which people and their property might have security.

But Plato’s appeal was a strong one, and Bethell details the failure of the early American Plymouth colony when it at first operated with common ownership. England, on the other hand, became the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Bethell narrates, because of its development of common law with an accumulating legal tradition of due process, equality before the law, property rights, and freedom of contract.

But even before the full benefits of a social order based on freedom and property could show all of its potential, counterforces began to gain influence. As an example, he tells about the vision and failure of Robert Owen’s attempts in the early decades of the 19th century to set up communal societies through the abolition of private property, the traditional family, and religion.

But failure did not stop the collectivist dream. In an insightful chapter, Bethell tells the story of the Soviet experiment that resulted in tyranny and the murder of multitudes by the state, and created almost 75 years of poverty and stagnation. He also details the absurd attempts to bring prosperity to Third World countries through socialism and planning. And he points out that a major force for spreading these false ideas around the world has been the United States, through its pressure for statist-oriented land reforms, government-directed industrialization, and centralized economic controls – all in the name of fighting communism.

Mr. Bethell also presents a very clear summary of the rebirth of private-property theory among market-oriented economists such as Armen Alchian, Harold Demsetz, and Ronald Coase. Using their arguments, he refutes the environmentalist claim that government control and regulation are necessary to “save the planet” at the expense of liberty and property. And he persuasively warns of the dangers to our freedoms and our material well-being if the anti-property environmentalist threat is not stopped.

Finally, Mr. Bethell points to the perversity of the situation in which so much of the world, in the face of the failure of socialism, is trying to grope back, however imperfectly, towards some institutionalization of property rights and market relationships, while in America the ability to articulate and defend the private-property order continues to weaken. America had greatness precisely because it was the country in which individual freedom, property, and open competition were practiced most consistently. For more than six decades, however, Americans have been trading their birthright of freedom for the illusory benefits of state paternalism. We can only hope that Mr. Bethell’s valuable book will help to reverse the trend.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).