« New Trends in Highway Robbery | Main | Under the ADA, We May All Be Disabled »

Mine and Thine

[Review of Richard Pipes, "Property and Freedom" (Knopf, 328 pages, $30). Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal, May 6, 1999].

Wouldn't it be great if we could just do away with private ownership of property, sharing and sharing alike in nature's bounty? Generations of radical thinkers have been captivated by utopian flights of this sort. Meanwhile, their nonradical counterparts have often taken property rights for granted as a useful but uninspiring feature of the West, an accommodation to human frailty best left to the elucidation of economists and lawyers.

The spectacular collapse of communism, with its attempt to dispense with private ownership, has suggested to many that the whole concept of property might perhaps be something fundamental, worth a closer look. In "Property and Freedom" (Knopf, 328 pages, $30) Harvard historian Richard Pipes bids to restore the idea of property to its rightful place, "the key to the emergence of political and legal institutions that guarantee liberty."

Mr. Pipes has devoted his life's work to the study of Russia, a country where the concept of property has had peculiar difficulty establishing itself. He argues that "no single factor in Russia's history explains better the divergence of her political and economic evolution from that of the rest of Europe" than the failure to develop institutions of private property like those that arose in early modern England.

In Mr. Pipes' account of the long history of intellectuals' hostility to property, actual communists hold the stage for a relatively brief time, although as the most committed faction. Revolutionaries, syndicalists and romantic nationalists all get their turn, but the surprising villain turns out to be cultural anthropologists, who by the late 19th century had begun informing a rapt intelligentsia of their investigations into primitive tribes, which allegedly revealed those happy peoples to be untroubled by quarrels over who owned what.

This idea fit neatly with the widespread myth of a Golden Age of ancestor-heroes among whom mine and thine were unknown. Later and more careful work, however, has found such a propertyless view of primitive life about as realistic as the image of carefree natives swanning about without a stitch of clothing or any thought of modesty.

Concepts of property among tribal peoples, writes Mr. Pipes, are likeliest to attach to "whatever their livelihood depends on," such as water holes in an arid climate. Cultivation of the soil, which typically raises its value, goes along everywhere with a more precise definition of property rights. Yet even hunter-gatherers recognized rights in what we call "intellectual property" -- in songs, for example, or techniques of artisanship.

The fork in the road between Britain and Russia, it would seem, came on the issue of whether the ruler could be said to own everything in the country. In England, this idea was challenged and then rejected with the revolutionary consequence that the king had no more right to trespass on an Englishman's freehold than anyone else did. Nor (eventually) could he exact financial penalties from his subjects -- or do much of anything else, such as take away life and liberty -- without due process of law. The idea that rights were something prior to government soon made England the most property-oriented country on earth.

By contrast, in unhappy Russia, the czars' claim to own everything carried only too much weight. The members of the Russian nobility often found themselves acting as collectors-of-tribute on highly revocable allotments. Serfdom persisted because the obligations of nominal landowners to the crown were too onerous to be met any other way. Whole categories of economic endeavor, such as coach inns and flour mills, were decreed to be the property of the royal family. When Lenin sought to ensure submission to the authority of his Soviets by ordering the pulping of old title deeds, he was acting in the tradition of the worst czars.

Going beyond his case histories, Mr. Pipes points to many other connections between property and liberty, including the crucial role of mercantile towns in the late Middle Ages in developing modern ideas of representative government and the role of private fortunes in providing a seedbed for oppositional ideas.

Mr. Pipes packs a great deal of material into his book, at the cost of seeming to change subjects rather often; a tone also creeps in of irritable dismissiveness toward those who've gotten these matters wrong. (Fans of John Rawls and Erich Fromm will yelp.) Practical recommendations aren't his main point, but he does suggest that courts stop treating property rights as unloved stepcousins of "real" rights, and that foreign-affairs specialists not shy away from prescribing private ownership to those who would modernize their countries.

A man with an eye for a quote, Mr. Pipes invokes David Hume on redistribution: "Render men's possessions ever so equal, men's different degrees of art, care and industry will immediately break that equality. Or if you check those virtues, you reduce society to the most extreme indigence; and, instead of preventing want and beggary in a few, render it unavoidable to the whole community." On his own he comes up with a pithy philosophical reflection on the sweeping success of "privatization" around the world since 1980: "Aristotle has triumphed over Plato."