All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 1991

Perspective: Arguments and Facts

“[T]he capacity for individual human action derives from the challenge and strength of free enterprise.” Those are the words of Vladislav Starkov, editor of the largest-selling publication in the world, when interviewed by London-based journalist Gitta Sereny (The Independent, July 1, 1990).

In 1978, Starkov became editor of Argumenty i Fakty (Arguments and Facts), a small dissident weekly in the U.S.S.R. with a circulation of only 10,000. Now, Argumenty i Fakty sells 34 million copies a week. (By comparison, the circulation of Komsomolskaya Pravda is 17 million, that of Pravda nine million.) Starkov stays in touch with his readers through their thousands of letters. He keeps the size of Argumenty i Fakty small, thin, easy-to-hold, its articles short and serious, provoking argument, asking questions.

“A few years ago,” Starkov told Sereny, “I didn’t even know what the free market was. But then, travelling, I saw how other people lived, with different laws, and yet, all of them better than we. I realized then we’d been lied to all these years, when the West had been portrayed to us either as money-grabbing beasts or as poverty-stricken victims.”

The Soviet Union’s greatest problem, in Starkov’s view, is the bureaucrats. “Excellence is their greatest enemy,” Starkov told Sereny, “for it demands their own destruction: the ruthless pruning of millions of totally useless red-tape-ists all over this country, who have almost literally taught whole generations not to work.”

When asked what chance there was for an economic miracle and a total social turnabout in the U.S.S.R., Starkov replied, “Every chance in the world—if every adult, and every child too, in our country can be shown the happiness of individual achievement.”

—Bettina Bien Greaves

Economic Justice

The analogy between economic outcomes and games is helpful in thinking about “just” or “fair” incomes (or wages). The fairness of a game is typically evaluated on the basis of rules. If the rules of a game are clearly stated, known and accepted in advance, and impartially enforced, the outcome of the game is usually considered fair. Thus, the outcome of a game is not used as a test of the game’s fairness. The fact that the Nebraska football team typically defeats most of its opponents, for example, does not suggest that the games it plays are unfair. Similarly, justice or fairness in the economic area should not be judged on the basis of economic outcomes.

—E. C. Pasour, Jr., Agriculture and the State

Soviet Managers

Westerners often think that there is a dearth of talent and creativity in the Soviet Union. Nothing could be further from the truth. Soviet managers burst with creativity, but it is misdirected. Their talents are drained in machinations to overcome the irrational system in order to meet their plans. The official system does not work, and none but the most creative could survive in this environment and be successful. There is no reason that boundlessly inventive Soviet managers could not succeed d they were set free to work under a market system. Escaping the discipline of the market has made each manager’s life hell and has caused disorganization of production on a grand scale.

—Paul Craig Roberts and Karen LaFollette, Meltdown Inside the Soviet Economy

Free Speech and Property Rights

Let’s say that I spray graffiti on the side of my house. Certainly I have a right to do this. After all, I do have a right to free speech.

Now let’s say that i spray graffiti on someone else’s house without permission. But the police come by and make me stop. Would this be censorship? Doesn’t this violate my First Amendment right to free speech? Absolutely not! This is not a question of free speech. It is a question of my vandalizing someone else’s property. Simply put, I can spray messages on my own house, but not on someone else’s.

Likewise, let’s say that I have some paper and some ink. By golly, I can start a magazine. And I can decide exactly what goes in it, because itis my magazine.

Now let’s say that I mail a letter to the editor of Time magazine. The editor decides not to print it. Isn’t this censorship? Doesn’t this violate my First Amendment right to free speech? Absolutely not! Again, I can decide what goes into my magazine, but not into someone else’s.

The point I am trying to make is that i never look at anything as just an issue of free speech. I look upon the aforementioned situations as issues of property rights. Simply put, the owner of any piece of property has a right to use it however he or she desires, as long as it is not used to harm or threaten to harm someone else or their property. Thus, I can cover my own house in graffiti, but not someone else’s. I can decide what goes into my magazine, but not someone else’s. The only way that free speech can properly be defined is by the existence of property rights.

—Daniel Alman, writing in The Pitt News, University of Pittsburgh

Property and the Environment

It is no accident that serious environmental problems and underdevelopment both occur where a secure system of property rights is lacking. Investment and the forbearance necessary for saving will not occur if people have doubts that they will reap the rewards of their efforts. The same requirement for secure rights exists for socially desirable environmental decisions.

People will not exercise forbearance and protect elephants that destroy their crops if they do not benefit from preserving the elephant. They will turn forests into cropland rather than preserve them if the only way they can own land is by cutting trees and sowing crops (as is the case for homesteaders in Brazil). They will fail to preserve trees for firewood if the trees are available now but future rights to them are uncertain.

An owner of property has an incentive to be a good steward. If property is well cared for, it will be more valuable. Its market value today reflects the benefits to be realized in the future.

—Jane S. Shaw and Richard L. Stroup, writing in the Winter 1990 issue of International Health & Development

  • Contributing editor Bettina Bien Greaves was a longtime FEE staff member, resident scholar, and trustee. She attended Ludwig von Mises’s New York University seminar for many years and is a translator, editor, and bibliographer of his works.