All Commentary
Monday, October 1, 1956

No Rights without Property Rights

Reading between the lines of the news stories from Russia, or rather the commentaries on the news, one detects a note of hopefulness. Perhaps, they seem to say, the demotion of Stalin portends a measure of freedom for the Russian people. Admitting that a controlled economy is undesirable, is brutality a necessary concomitant of it? Cannot personal freedom coexist with the abolition of private property? The commentaries hint at that possibility.

Something like that reaction met the news of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918. In the early part of the century, Czarism was held to be the lowest form of political organization. Nothing could be worse! Hence, when the overthrow of the Romanov regime was announced, many Americans who were violently opposed to Marxism nevertheless hailed the event. They were sure that socialism could not last, because of its inherent contradictions; but they were equally sure that “something good” would come out of the “experiment.” The expectation was that when the smoke of revolution had died down, Leninism would prove itself to be an unworkable doctrine, and the Russian people would arrange their public affairs along lines that would assure them of the freedom they had never known under the Czars.

The expectation of the 1920′s was based on a false premise, and so is the current glow of hopefulness. The premise is that economic freedom is the necessary result of political freedom, while all the evidence of history and of logic points to the opposite. Political freedom is quite impossible where the right of ownership is abolished; and where the right of property is respected political freedom follows as a matter of course. Since Lenin and his crowd made private ownership a crime against the State, Stalinism was an inevitable consequence; if it had not been instituted by Joe, somebody else would have come up with its equal. And since there is no indication that the Kremlin intends to restore the right of property, the reported relaxation of personal repression under the post-Stalin regime cannot rid the Russian people of their condition of slavery.

Let us assume the impossible, as a mental exercise. Let us assume that Khrushchev and Bulganin confer on the Russians every political right in the calendar: freedom of speech and conscience, freedom of the press, free elections, and all the rest. The only right not restored is the right of private ownership and control of property. The State still has a prior lien on all the worker produces, exercising this claim through taxation or the regulation of wages. Out of what it appropriates the State takes care of the citizen’s needs and comforts, food, raiment, shelter, entertainment, and even leisure. All the rest the State invests in capital, in factories, farms and distribution centers which it owns and operates, and thus becomes the only employer in the country. Under those conditions, how free is the citizen?

In the first place, the citizen can exercise no choice in the selection of satisfactions. Since the State controls all the means of production, the worker is, for all his political freedoms, constrained to eat spinach if that is the only vegetable the State produces, wear hobnailed shoes if the state-owned factory turns out nothing else, live in the kind of house the State provides for him, read the books the monopoly printing press puts before him. There is nothing else he can do. The market is a place where he gets his supplies, not where he indulges his fancy. Price means nothing; for even if he bids for something he wants, the thing is either nonexistent or the State, which controls all supply, fixes a price on it that is beyond his reach. In short, he has no choice.

The same applies to his employment. He works at the job assigned to him. True, he has political freedom, and therefore he can quit his job without fear of reprisal. He will not be thrown into a slave-labor camp or punished in any other way. But, he has no savings to live on (that would be the right of property), and his prerogative of quitting work is equivalent to the right to starve. He sets aside his political freedom in favor of existence. If he believes his talents can be better employed at another job, he might, having the right of petition, call the matter to the attention of the State. But, he has no right of decision, thanks to his economic dependence on the State.

He has aspirations; thinks he can write an opera. Having the right of free speech he can tell all his neighbors about his gift, and he can even write a letter to the state-owned newspaper about it. Assuming that he digs up enough paper and ink for his opus, what can he do with it? The State owns the only publishing house in the country, also the only opera house. He cannot have enough capital of his own to exploit his work, nor is there any entrepreneur about to undertake the fulfillment of his dream. To be sure, the State grants him the right of appeal, but its control of the economy gives it the right of final decision.

He may worship God as he likes. However, since private property is prohibited, the church he chooses is owned by the State; and its clergymen, like everybody else, are beholden to the State for their sustenance. Its prayer books are printed in the monopoly book shop and thus come under State supervision. While the individual worshipper or the ecclesiastical hierarchy is not subject to political restraints, economic pressure would take a hand in shaping religion. Freedom of religion, like every other kind of freedom, would be on paper.

He can vote for Tom, Dick, or Harry—any of the names that appear on the official ballot. He may even run for office himself. Every candidate would be free to advocate this or that reform—except the right of property. They could promise, if elected, to work for a new cement factory, more old-age pensions, higher or lower tariffs, better obstetrical hospitals. The ballot, under these conditions, would be an instrument by which his subservience to the State might be made more comfortable, but it could not free him of his subservience.

That’s how free he could be under this bizarre supposition. It would manifestly be impossible for a regime of political freedom to coexist with a regime of economic slavery. For it is obvious that where freedom of thought and expression is permitted, the worker would soon set up a clamor for the right to keep and enjoy what he produces. And even if he did not have a press in which he could voice his thoughts, he could write letters to all and sundry, demanding that. their right of property be restored. Everybody works for himself, for the product of his labors, and feels robbed when his output is confiscated, no matter by whom or for what purpose. To deprive him of freedom of choice in the disposition of the products of his labors is to deprive him of the right to life. He would say so openly, under the conditions hypothetically suggested, and might even promote action to undo the hurt. Hence, abolition of private property cannot be maintained without the use of force and the suppression of freedom of every kind.

On the other hand, where the right of property is respected, political freedom is automatic. Imagine a State that recognized none of the rights of the individual except the right of ownership. This, too, is a fantastic notion, because the State could not enforce political intervention unless it had the wherewithal to pay its enforcement agents, and this it must get from production; it has no other source of income. But, let us assume for a moment that such a condition could exist. How long would the individual tolerate the disabilities imposed on him? With his property in his pocket he would promptly remove himself from the jurisdiction of that State. Or he could finance a revolution.

And so, it is sheer verbalism to speak of any kind of freedom existing where the right of property is not respected, or to separate this right from any other. We can therefore dismiss any hope that under communism—the essential feature of which is the abolition of private property—there can be any relaxation of personal controls and repressions. Stalinite brutality may be replaced by more subtle methods, like permitting the worker to starve if he does not wish to work in the mines; but freedom is out of the question. []

Treason To Freedom

The greatest enemies of democracy, the most violent reactionaries, are those who have lost faith in the capacity of a free people to manage their own affairs and wish to set up the government as a political and social guardian, running their business and making their decisions for them. This is statism, or Stalinism, no matter who advocates it, and it’s plain treason to freedom.

Maxwell Anderson, The Guaranteed Life

  • Frank Chodorov was an advocate of the free market, individualism, and peace. He began as a supporter of Henry George and edited the Georgist paper the Freeman before founding his own journal, which became the influential Human Events. He later founded another version of the Freeman for the Foundation for Economic Education and lectured at the Freedom School in Colorado.