April 2002 · No. 2002-12
The Role of Private Property in Protecting Liberty
By Tom Bethell
Recent initiatives in Virginia, such as the move toward urban planning and "smart growth," or restricted growth, will weaken property rights in the commonwealth, and this in turn will undermine our liberties.
People who live in societies where private property has historically been well protected often fail to see the advantages of such a system, because they take them for granted. They are as inconspicuous as the taste of water. But such people are also good at visualizing some more perfect condition-one in which they do not have to spend so much time in traffic jams, for example. In using the political system to advance such a goal, therefore, they may fail to anticipate the loss of benefits they had never considered in the first place.
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the many advantages of a private property system were hardly analyzed at all. You might say that private property was attacked-by Karl Marx and by many intellectuals since-before it was defended. Among those benefits are justice, peace, liberty and prosperity.
Consider justice, briefly. A group of people goes to a restaurant and orders a meal. If the bill is shared equally, those who ate hamburger will subsidize those who ate steak. Separate checks would be a more just arrangement. Diners are billed in proportion to their consumption. In short, a communal system has been privatized, and justice has been introduced. "To each his due" was the classical definition of justice, used by St. Thomas Aquinas before the dubious notion of "social justice" was introduced into Western thought.
When Plymouth Colony was founded in Massachusetts in 1620, the Pilgrims at first held their property in common. They were on the verge of starvation when ownership was privatized in 1623. The change succeeded. It "made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been," William Bradford reported. The communal arrangement had not worked because it "was thought injustice."
More recently, a vast experiment in life without private property was conducted in the Soviet Union. It lasted for seventy-four years, and it conclusively showed that transferring the control of property to the state is a formula for social impoverishment. There wasn't much in the way of justice either. As for liberty, that was lost completely. An Iron Curtain had to be constructed north-to-south in Eastern Europe, and a wall divided Berlin.
At tax time, it is worth reflecting that for the average Virginian the most burdensome abridgment of property rights is probably the income tax. Our income is our property, and for young people and those with few assets, it may be the only way of saving enough to buy real property. The tax burden is a matter of degree. Americans now pay about forty percent of their earnings to governments at all levels. In most Western democracies it is higher than that. If the tax burden were to rise to one hundred percent, we would labor wholly for the state and would have been entirely deprived of our liberty. Under such conditions, of course, work would be minimal and society impoverished.
Over the centuries, neighbors and strangers have often posed a more serious threat to life and liberty than governments. It was for that reason that property rights were instituted-to provide individuals and their families with zones of privacy where they could pursue their own initiatives free from interference. That is the essence of liberty. "There can be no liberty without private property," the economist Milton Friedman has said. For this reason, the protection of property rights has historically been among the most important functions of government, and to that end laws and police forces were instituted. If governments ceased protecting property rights, liberty would be gravely threatened, at least until citizen groups formed their own protective militias.
Despite the failure of socialism, however, governments
at all levels continue to abridge our freedoms almost as much as they
protect them. And just as the inflation of the 1970s moved people into
higher tax brackets, so the environmentalism of the 1990s gave government
new rationales for controlling the use of our property. We may believe
that cleaner air or less traffic congestion will be the good effect,
but we may be sure that our liberties are also being restricted. Production
and prosperity will also tend to decline, and in the case of those people
who bought land anticipating that they would be able to develop it,
but now find that they have paid a high price to keep it idle, there
is also manifest injustice. When our property rights are restricted,
prosperity, liberty and justice will all decline together.
(Tom Bethell, an editor of the American Spectator, is the author of The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (St. Martin's Press), and a member of the Board of Governors of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy, an education and research organization headquartered in Potomac Falls, Virginia. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.)