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The Mises Review

Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.


Property and Freedom

Richard Pipes

2 2000
Volume 6, Number 2


An Intrinsic Right

Summer 2000

Property and Freedom by Richard Pipes (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999) xvi + 328 pgs.

Mr. Pipes has written a very good book, but he has made life difficult for me as a reviewer. He defends the importance of property rights throughout the book, but he does not argue systematically, in the style of his Harvard colleagues John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Rather, he presents a host of observations about property, putting to excellent use his wide erudition. How these observations fit together to make a coherent case is a question he leaves to the reader.

I propose to do so as well and will here confine myself to calling attention to a few of the book's insights. Mr. Pipes maintains, first, that the instinct to acquire property is natural to human beings. Societies that attempt radically to restrict the acquisition of property, or to do away with individual property altogether, are liable to destroy freedom. A regime that defies human nature is on the road to tyranny.

But why believe that property is natural to humans? Mr. Pipes adduces convincing evidence from child psychology. "Studies of child development have made it possible to chart the evolution of acquisitive impulses. Two psychologists have observed something parents are well aware of; namely that infants of eighteen months have difficulty falling asleep without a special toy, blanket, or other familiar object, and are clearly aware what belongs to whom . . . As they grow older, children learn to share, but the spirit of ownership remains strong, as does the desire to accumulate" (p. 73).

"If socialism goes against human nature, we will change human nature!" So an old Marxist slogan boasts. Perhaps the desire of children for property can be overcome with the proper socialist upbringing. The results of such experiments hardly encourage imitation: "Bruno Bettelheim learned to his surprise that while it was possible, over time, to inculcate in kibbutz children indifference to private belongings, this exacted a heavy price. Israelis brought up in such a Spartan environment . . . experienced great difficulty forming an emotional commitment to any one individual, whether by forming a friendship or falling in love" (p. 75).

The wish to hold property, then, our author has persuasively shown intrinsic to our nature: interfere with it at your peril. (Pipes endeavors to support his conclusion further by appeal to studies of territoriality among animals. These I confess to finding less persuasive: except on controversial and speculative assumptions, they are not relevant to humans.) And the importance of property for the human personality is not, for Pipes, a mere matter of empirical psychology. Philosophers have argued to the same conclusion.

Pipes enlists in his support the surprising figure of Hegel, hardly a devout libertarian: "Hegel already stressed the positive psychological effects of ownership . . . `It is only through owning and controlling property that he [man] can embody his will in external objects and begin to transcend the subjectivity of his own immediate existence'" (p. 72, quoting Hegel). Less opaquely, William James maintained that we consider what we own to be part of ourselves; "We feel and act about certain things that are ours very much as we feel and act about ourselves" (p. 72).

James here lends support to a Lockean-style argument for the right to own property. If I own myself, and external objects that I acquire in the "right" way become part of myself, do I not own them as well?

Surprisingly, our author declines to follow this path. He distrusts metaphysical arguments. After a brief summary of Locke's theory, he remarks: "Attractive and self-evident as it may appear, the labor theory of property is a two-edged sword, for it can also be used to assail property. How is one to justify inherited wealth which requires no personal effort, or the fact that farm laborers and factory workers do not own what they produce?" (p. 36).

Pipes's objections to the Lockean account strike me as weak. Inherited wealth stems from the right of bequest, and workers do not own what they produce because they have contracted to use property belonging to others in return for wages. What could be simpler? Nor is Proudhon's point against property, which our author mentions with sympathy, of any greater weight. Proudhon asked, what are latecomers to do, if all landed property has been appropriated? Why is it unfair if they must for a time labor for others, until they can afford to buy property from its current possessors?

But I must not be unjust to Mr. Pipes. His specialty is history, not political philosophy; and his historical observations often display penetrating intelligence. He stresses, e.g., an idea crucial to the recognition of individual property rights in Europe: Even under absolute monarchy, the ruler was expected to support himself from his own domain.

Our author finds this idea clearly expressed by Jean Bodin, often considered a leading proponent of unlimited rule. True enough, Bodin extolled in extravagant terms the prerogatives of sovereignty; but these did not include the power to impose new taxes. Natural law forbade this.

Pipes's summary of Bodin's views is excellent: "The foundation of the state is the property-owning household. The authority of the sovereign stops at the boundary of the household: imperium or potestas is never to be confused with dominium or proprietas. Bodin cites Seneca to the effect that `to Kings appertains the power over all, but property belongs to individuals'" (p. 28).

I fear that I have so far given a misleading impression of Property and Freedom. It does not consist entirely of disjointed observations about property. Two of the chapters, taken together approach a central thesis.

Mr. Pipes contrasts the systems of property rights in Britain and Russia; each had very different consequences for liberty. Pipes's chapter on Russia grows out of his long and distinguished career as a specialist in the modern history of that country.

As he sees matters, Russia was a patrimonial state in which all property was owned by the Tsar. His subjects, accordingly, lived by his sufferance. Even the highest nobles were in effect the slaves of their sovereign, utterly dependent on his will. Our author paints in bold strokes, and some may consider his account one-dimensional. Indeed, in other works, Mr. Pipes has stressed the continuity between patrimonial Tsarist Russia and Communist Russia, a thesis that aroused the ire of the famed mathematician Igor Shafarevich. But Pipes makes a strong case that the lack of personal and professional freedom throughout Russian history has stemmed from the absence of strong individual property rights.

Why did the patrimonial system develop? Mr. Pipes ascribes part of the responsibility to the "surfeit of land in Russia prior to the nineteenth century" (p. 161). Because land was available in abundance, people felt little need to work out fixed rules for delimiting separate spheres of influence over land. Incidentally, Professor John Nye takes Pipes to task for not citing the work of Ester Broserup in this connection (Reason, March, 2000, p. 69). But this criticism is incorrect: Pipes does cite Broserup (p. 42).

In contrast to Russia, Britain is Pipes's success story, and he carefully traces the resistance to royal attempts to impose new taxes. The attempts by Charles I to tax at will led to resistance, culminating in civil war and the king's execution in 1649. His successors had to recognize that taxes could be imposed only with parliamentary consent. 

I cannot see why Pipes so insistently praises the importance of this development. No doubt he is right that if a king loses the power to tax as he pleases, this is all to the good. But what is so wonderful about taxes imposed by a parliament?

Mr. Pipes writes not simply as a chronicler of the past, but also as a concerned citizen. He neatly identifies the fallacy in "social rights": "The so-called `social rights' of today are not `rights' and certainly not `entitlements,' since no one is entitled to anything at someone else's expense. They are rather claims on society which it may or may not grant" (p. 289). It is not every day that a Harvard professor advances such an opinion; moreover, he cites Ayn Rand in support of it.

 

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