Commentary Magazine


The Noblest Triumph by Tom Bethell

The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages
by Tom Bethell
St. Martin’s. 378 pp. $29.95

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent retreat of both Communism and socialism, scholars have shown an increased interest in identifying the factors responsible for the dynamism of Western economies. In the past, what used to be stressed was the role of religion, especially Judaism and Calvinism. Today, it is more common to emphasize culture and technological innovation, as David Landes does in his recent The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. But other economic historians, most notably Douglass North, point first and foremost to private property, which, while not an institution unique to the West, has attained here its fullest development.

Property contributes to economic growth in several ways.

Some 2,500 years ago, Aristotle observed that, contrary to the theories of his teacher Plato, common ownership of assets not only fails to eliminate but exacerbates social friction. He further noted that people take better care of objects they own than those that are public property. These observations are readily confirmed.

They are also supported by the findings of economic historians who have demonstrated, both theoretically and from case studies, that natural assets owned collectively or by no one are liable to be overexploited to the point of exhaustion, as very nearly happened in this century with some forms of marine life. Conventional pieties notwithstanding, pre-modern peoples do not show reverence for their environment: the extinction of certain large mammals has been plausibly attributed to overhunting by pre-agricultural man, while the sudden decline of Mayan civilization is believed to have been caused by the mindless destruction of forests. Another drawback of ownerless resources is the phenomenon of the “free rider,” the member of the community who benefits from the work of his neighbors without contributing his share; this was the major reason the Plymouth Colony had to abandon its original communism and privatize the land.

Among the economic benefits of private property is the opportunity it gives to those living in a capitalist society to obtain credit by pledging their belongings as collateral. In Peru, as the economist Hernando de Soto has shown, conditions improved dramatically after people were given legal title to their own land and business enterprises. And the benefits of ownership are not limited to the economic sphere alone; they are political as well, being linked to freedom and the rule of law.

And yet many Western scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge these facts. In part, this may be a function of familiarity. Private property and the rights that go with it have been an intrinsic aspect of Western civilization for such a long time that they are easily ignored or taken for granted. But there is also an active bias at work in the social sciences, many of whose practitioners have adopted the view—not always consciously—that property is a transient institution, a kind of interlude between the (mythical) “primitive Communism” of the prehistoric past and the (imaginary) advanced collectivism of the future.

Whatever the reason, one would search hard to find in Western historical, political, and economic thought an awareness of property’s importance. As Tom Bethell notes in his new book, The Noblest Triumph:

In the 1950′s, when the Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. published its Great Books of the Western World, property was not among the 102 topics in its index of “great ideas.” Arnold Toynbee overlooked property in his twelve-volume Study of History. Elsewhere, his comments showed that he saw no important difference between public and private property. William H. McNeill’s Rise of the West and Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West alike found property dispensable.

Such examples are easily multiplied. Indeed, in no general survey of Western civilization is the reader likely to find a discussion of property and its contribution to the emergence of the West as the world’s preponderant political and economic power.

This is the lacuna that Bethell, the Washington correspondent of the American Spectator, has set himself to fill. His fascinating book is not a systematic treatise but rather a loose collection of 21 essays, filled with interesting information and keen insights and linked by a common thesis:

When property is privatized, and the rule of law is established, in such a way that all, including the rulers, are subject to the same law, economies will prosper and civilization will blossom. Of the different possible configurations of property, only private property can have this desirable effect.

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Since it is difficult in a brief review to do full justice to a book so rich in evidence, I will limit myself to a few points that struck me as especially noteworthy.

  • In Bethell’s account, the vision of a propertyless world, which has exerted so great an impact on Western thinking since the middle of the 19th century, rests on a philosophical doctrine first formulated by John Locke and then given political application by Claude Helvétius: namely, that human beings are devoid of innate ideas, their thoughts and feelings being wholly shaped by sensory perceptions. This doctrine makes it possible to dispense with the notion of “human nature” and the qualities traditionally attributed to it, including the acquisitive instinct. Instead, acquisitiveness is depicted as the byproduct of a particular phase in social evolution.

From this premise, it follows that by changing the social environment, one can completely refashion humanity and produce a new type of being who cannot help acting selflessly In The Russian Revolution, I myself placed heavy emphasis on this idea as the key to Communism and every other ideology of social engineering, and I can only applaud Bethell’s attention to it. The calamitous influence this idea has exerted on modern history is far from being sufficiently appreciated.

  • In a chapter devoted to the modern conception of rights, Beth-ell shows how, in the 20th century, even liberals have learned to draw a false distinction between human rights and property rights. Although the founders of the American republic regarded property as a fundamental element of human rights, Bethell is able to cite Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 contrasting the “rights of property” with the “rights of men,” and FDR using almost identical language in 1936. The erosion of liberty in the 20th century, nearly absolute in totalitarian states and substantial even in democratic ones, has been justified by this spurious distinction.
  • Bethell voices scathing criticism of the various failed land-reform programs in the third world that were financed and managed by the United States in the decades following the end of World War II. Ignoring the fact that their own country had grown wealthy on the foundation of landed property, the bureaucrats who conceived and ran these programs (he singles out for particular criticism Wolf I. Ladejinsky of the Department of Agriculture) concentrated not on guaranteeing property but on redistributing it: “Well-intentioned people felt that they could be entrusted with Leninist means”—i.e., the expropriation of large estates—“to achieve Jeffersonian ends.” In country after country, Bethell demonstrates that land-reform programs failed because their intended beneficiaries did not feel secure in the possession of property that they had not purchased, and because in many instances the property was given not in individual ownership but collectively, preventing the emergence of a market in land.
  • In another chapter, Bethell examines why it is that private ownership is more protective of the environment than public control. He cites the unprecedented devastation wrought on the environment by the Soviet regime, but the situation is basically no different in a democracy. One reason for this seeming paradox is that government adopts a single approach to environmental protection and often reverses itself arbitrarily, whereas private owners employ diverse approaches and adjust them as the situation requires.

Even more important is the fact that public ownership is subject to political pressure:

Those in charge [of environmental protection] will assuredly not be philosopher-kings weighing an abstract public interest, but politicians worrying about the next election. Their goal is satisfying constituents, and to that end they will make logrolling alliances with other politicians . . . . [By contrast], one of property’s greatest advantages is that it has no time limit. It gives owners permanent control. Their decisions cannot be reversed by the next election, or altered by bureaucratic pressure.

In this connection, Bethell argues that in the United States, environmental problems are more common in states west of the Mississippi, where the federal government owns about a quarter of the land, than in the East, where it owns only 3.8 percent. In Brazil, he writes, the devastation of the rain forest is due not to the callousness of private owners but to the state, which owns and controls all the unclaimed land. It is the government that has built highways through the Amazon rain forest and distributes 100 hectares to any squatter who can show “effective use” of the land for one year.

• Bethell’s concluding chapter, “China, Property, and Democracy,” advances another unexpected proposition: that while economic growth depends on private property, it does not require democracy. For proof, he points to Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and, as of recent years, Communist China. But he also goes further, arguing that a nondemocratic society that allows private enterprise in effect gives up a great deal of its power. Thus, although the State Department, in its 1995 survey of human rights, characterized China as an “ ‘authoritarian state,’ in which the Communist party ‘monopolizes decision-making authority,’ ” this, according to Bethell, is “inaccurate”:

Considerable decision-making authority—the decisions that people make in earning a living: the decision to sow, reap, harvest, barter, and exchange—[has] been largely delegated to the people. Only if life is viewed as a life in politics is the State Department’s view correct.

It is, indeed, historically true that in today’s advanced democracies, like Great Britain, property preceded democracy and paved the way for it. But here Bethell surely underestimates the importance of democracy, and the rule of law associated with it, for the ultimate protection of property rights themselves.

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Any book as bold and unconventional as this one is bound to give rise to controversy, and The Noblest Triumph is not flawless. Bethell could have paid more attention to counterarguments. He does not fully discuss the complexities of ownership in a situation like the contemporary one, in which the primary asset is often not physical property but credit. He might also have devoted more space to the crucial role played by private property in the Industrial Revolution in England and, contrariwise, to the way in which the late and imperfect development of private property in czarist Russia contributed to that country’s economic backwardness.

But these caveats pale beside Tom Bethell’s accomplishment—which is to demonstrate convincingly that without property, there is no economic progress.

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About the Author

Richard Pipes is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics (Yale).




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