All Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 1961

Private Property and Freedom


Mr. Tolischus is a “free-lance thinker” spe­cializing in American history.

Private property and a free econ­omy are the material foundations of freedom. Property makes the individual economically independ­ent; it frees body and mind from servile dependence on others. Eco­nomic independence gives birth to aspirations for political liberty. Only the self-sufficient and self-re­liant individual has the courage to voice his opinions and to oppose tyranny in any form. The depend­ent serf must dance to the tune of his master. He is interested in more bread and better treatment rather than liberty as an ideal.

Neither liberty nor the pursuit of happiness are secure without the right to acquire and hold prop­erty. Property rights and human rights are inseparable. Whoever controls the means of existence of a people, whether by monopolistic coercion at private hands or through the confiscation of prop­erty by the State, has power over life or death. Alexander Hamilton said, “Power over a man’s sub­sistence is power over his will.” Leon Trotsky, the Communist, put it more brutally: “In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle, who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one, who does not obey shall not eat.” That is precisely what confiscation of private property means to peo­ple in communist states: obedi­ence or slow starvation.

The American Revolution was precipitated by material interests, namely taxation without represen­tation. John Dickinson elucidated the basic causes of that conflict most succinctly when he wrote: “Let these truths be indelibly on our minds—That we cannot be happy without being free—that we cannot be free without being secure in our property—that we cannot be secure in our property, if without our consent, others may, as by right, take it away.” If the Americans had acquiesced to taxation without representation, they would have surrendered the key that could have locked the shackles of economic servitude and political tyranny; the two go to­gether. Although precipitated by what some people would call base material interests, the American Revolution gave birth to some of man’s noblest political ideals.

Violation of legitimate property rights destroys freedom; it is the beginning of moral disintegration that leads to social chaos and tyr­anny. John Adams wrote: “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, an­archy and tyranny commence.”

Ethics and Justice Are the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom

Nature is amoral. She is not concerned with ethics; her goal is progress. In the animal world, predatory competition is the way of life. The physical struggle for existence is the mainspring of evo­lution.

Ethics and justice are human attributes. When primitive man became a social animal, the prob­lem of human relations arose. At first, rule of the strongest pre­vailed. But in time man developed rules to govern conduct within the group. These rules slowly evolved into ethical concepts which have lifted mankind, however fitfully, above the rule of brute force. They made freedom and the growth of civilization possible.

Property has played an impor­tant role in the development of ethics. Since human history began, most crimes have been committed for gain. Primitive justice was harsh. A thief was mutilated not only in ancient Babylon but, until a few centuries ago, in many West­ern countries. On Western fron­tiers many a horse-thief was hanged. By precept and punish­ment man learned to differentiate between mine and thine.

Primitive races who depend up­on the ready-made bounties of na­ture for sustenance have only a vague idea of property. Hunting or fishing are collective enter­prises, and food so obtained is shared by all the members of the group. They live under a primitive form of communism. If nature smiles, they all feast; if she frowns, they all starve.

The concept of property began to form when man became a pro­ducer, when he began to cultivate the soil, to sow and reap, to manu­facture tools. A question began to stir in the producer’s mind: “Why should I share the fruits of my labor with my lazy neighbor lolling in the sun?” That question has echoed through the ages. The equitable distribution of the fruits of labor is the central problem of social organization and of a just social order.

There is a close correlation be­tween virtue and honest labor, be­tween legitimate interest and ethi­cal valuation. Jefferson said, “Vir­tue and interest are inseparable.” Making a living by honest means is the primary moral discipline of life; it builds character; it breeds virtues of self-reliance and self-respect. From self-respect springs respect for the rights of others. The man who accumulates a sub­stance by honest effort will usu­ally respect the property rights of others because he knows from experience what it takes to acquire and hold on to property. The lazy, the thriftless, who want to share without contributing, will not re­spect the rights or property of others. Their ideas of ethics and morality are hazy.

Crimes committed in the name of liberty generally are perpe­trated by the thriftless and disin­herited—or the inheritors of un­earned wealth. It is not without historical significance that commu­nism was fathered by Karl Marx, disinherited by choice because he would not work, and Friedrich Engels, inheritor of unearned wealth. It is one of life’s enigmas that theorists who never did an honest day’s work elect themselves to lead the workers into utopia.

Unearned Prosperity

Of course, not all property is the product of honest effort. Karl Marx believed that all property is acquired by force or fraud; that revolution and the confiscation of property are the only roads to so­cial improvement. As events have proved, with the abolition of pri­vate property go human freedom, ethics, and justice. Communism’s total disregard of property rights is reflected in its total amorality and upside-down ethical concepts.

Unearned prosperity demoral­izes as surely as does the confisca­tion of property. Attempts to pros­per by such predatory practices as coercion, featherbedding, payola and fraud, government subsidies and protectionism are refined forms of thievery at the expense of the community. The taxpayer and consumer who cannot get on the gravy train must pay the freight for the freeloaders.

Unearned prosperity destroys incentive and personal responsi­bility. There is a curious parallel between the don’t care attitude of the communist slave laborer and that of the free worker who at­tributes his job security and high wages to union coercion. In both cases there is no incentive to accomplishment and therefore no sense of personal responsibility. Why exert oneself! It will make no difference whether a job is done well or badly. The idea is to get the most with the least effort, preferably something for nothing. Communist newspapers are com­plaining of slipshod goods that the public will not buy despite the shortages of consumer goods. Sim­ilar complaints of poorly made goods with built-in obsolescence, of faulty or fraudulent repair work, are increasing in America.

Unethical Procedures

The harmful effects of welfar­ism in America also are evident in various professional and busi­ness management practices, when gains or profits seem to be of­fered through the avenues of spe­cial political privilege, legal loop­holes, and unethical procedures, either sanctioned or encouraged by a government committed to practically everything except its proper role of defending life and property.

The decent citizen must not only bear the expense of unearned pros­perity but his freedom to make an honest living is thereby curtailed. The political favorite will have the inside track to success. If permit­ted to flourish, he will impose his way of life on the business com­munity. The decent businessman will be forced to subscribe to such practices or go out of business. Unearned prosperity by hook or crook multiplies the number of malefactors, big and small.

Jeffersonian democracy was de­signed for a self-sufficient agrarian society. Jefferson said: “I think we shall [remain virtuous] as long as agriculture is our principal ob­ject, which will be the case, while there remains vacant lands in any part of America. When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall be­come corrupt as in Europe….”

This need not necessarily be so. Jefferson‘s pessimistic view of ur­ban society grew from his observa­tions of the Parisian proletarian mob, a by-product of feudalistic tyranny. America‘s democratic system has developed no heredi­tary proletariat in the European sense. However, the rapid transi­tion from an agrarian to an indus­trial society is creating many so­cial problems and giving rise to some muddled thinking. To pre­serve freedom within industrial society, it is necessary to return to a free market economy by elimi­nating subsidies, coercion, and un­ethical practices as means to un­earned prosperity; by reaffirma­tion of personal responsibility and individual initiative.