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Book Review: Property and Freedom

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Property and Freedom
by Richard Pipes (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999); 328pages; $30.

In his 1848 treatise, The Principles of Political Economy, John Stuart Mill stated:

“The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical laws. There is nothing optional or arbitrary in them…. It is not so with the distribution of wealth. That is a matter of human institution solely. The things once there, mankind, individually and collectively, can do with them as they like…. The distribution of wealth, therefore, depends on the laws and customs of society…. Society can subject the distribution of wealth to whatever rules it thinks best.”

Whether property is privately owned or communally owned, whether wealth is retained by those who produce it or redistributed to others, Mill argued, was a matter of social consensus. He admitted that under present conditions men were guided by the motive of self-interest, and a seizing or redistributing of their property or wealth might have disincentive effects on their willingness to produce. But he believed that changes in the institutional arrangements of society could modify human nature as well, making men more communally oriented in their motives for action. His only fundamental concern was the potential loss of personal liberty in a fully communist society.

The idea of remaking man and society has dominated human thought since ancient times. The attempts to do so have been devastating, especially in our own century. The reasons behind the notion of social engineering and its consequences are the underlying theme in Richard Pipes’s recent book, Property and Freedom. Pipes is internationally recognized as one of the leading authorities on Russia and the Soviet experience, having written some of the best studies on Russian and Soviet history. In this new work he analyzes the history and meaning of the ideas that created the 20th century’s experiment in socialism.

He traces the changing views of property since the ancient Greeks and Romans, showing that already in Plato and Aristotle the lines had been drawn between those who saw in private property an evil force for greed and selfishness and those who have seen property as the great engine for work and creativity. He demonstrates that contrary to the mythologies of the collectivists, there never was some “golden age” of innocence in which men lived and shared in common, before private ownership “alienated” men from each other and the things of the world. Instead, Pipes shows that in both the animal and human worlds, the psychological need for and identification with property is inseparable from life.

But some men’s frustrations and bitterness about their circumstances and conditions have made them fantasize about imaginary worlds of their own making. The great utopias are all dreams of artificial worlds conjured up to be more to the liking of the imaginer. He explains the effect that such ideas as the “noble savage” had on such fantasizers; but he also explains that from the Indian tribes of North America to the Polynesian inhabitants of the South Pacific, there were no societies without property and individual senses of ownership and possession.

Pipes then tells the story of liberty in the West, especially the tradition and heritage of freedom as it developed first in England and then in Western Europe and North America. A crucial element in this story was the existence of private property and private wealth that provided arenas of autonomy for people outside of government control. It also resulted in governments’ having only limited control of wealth and income directly under their power, which meant that governments had to make “compromises” in recognizing the liberties of their subjects if those subjects were to allow a portion of their wealth to be taxed without a fight. This began the long political process that finally resulted in the great movements for individual freedom, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.

He contrasts the history of liberty in the West with the history of despotism in Russia, where a tradition of private property either did not exist or was smothered by cruel and all-controlling governments over the centuries. Russia need not have followed this path, however. Pipes reminds the reader of the history of the great city-state of Novgorad in north-central Russia, which had a developed commercial culture, a respect for private property, and a fairly democratic political order in the Middle Ages, but which was finally crushed by the tyrants of Moscow.

Pipes concisely and impressively analyzes the differences and similarities in 20th-century Soviet communism, Italian fascism, and German national socialism. All three systems shared a common hatred for classical liberalism and the institution of private property. While the Soviets abolished private property outright and imposed central planning, in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany most property remained nominally in private hands but was completely controlled and directed by government central command. His detailed summary of the Nazi economic system clearly shows that (contrary to the Marxian claim) capitalism was destroyed under national socialism.

Finally, Pipes discusses the status of private property in the new postcommunist era. While popular political rhetoric claims that the market economy has triumphed over socialism, in reality property and liberty are under continuing and worsening assault by the interventionist-welfare state. Price and production controls limit the freedom of the individual in both his personal and market affairs; the redistributive state wantonly grabs the wealth of some to serve the special interests of others; police power under asset-forfeiture laws arbitrarily threatens the possessions of everyone in the society; environmental regulations undermine the very notion of peaceful, private control over our own property; and affirmative-action laws reclassify us in tribal and collectivist terms that determine our life-chances in ways that deny us our most important property: ownership of ourselves as individual human beings.

The tragedy of our situation and the great concern Pipes has for our times is that many people do not even understand the freedoms they have lost or are threatened with losing:

The trouble is that because schools fail to teach history, especially legal and constitutional history, the vast majority of today’s citizens have no inkling to what they owe their liberty and prosperity, namely a long and successful struggle for rights of which the right to property is the most fundamental. They are therefore unaware what debilitating effect the restrictions on property rights will, over the long run, have on our lives.

Fortunately, Pipes has written this excellent book, which if it is read will help redress this lost appreciation and understanding of the importance of private property in human history.

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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).