All Commentary
Monday, October 1, 2001

Property Is Freedom

Capitalism Is the Greatest Force for Individual Liberation

Capitalism is liberating. Maverick feminist Camille Paglia acknowledges that it was capitalism that liberated women. In this issue of Ideas on Liberty Andrew Bernstein points out that it was capitalism that enabled black entrepreneurs to advance in spite of racism and Jim Crow. Undoubtedly, capitalism is the greatest force for individual liberation the world has known.

Why is that so? Abstract philosophical reasons can be provided to answer that question. But in existential terms, one word sums up the case: property.

Private property is central to liberty and capitalism. As F. A. Hayek pointed out, one need not own property to benefit from the institution. Without a system of private property, everyone is but a tenant and employee of the monopoly state. And when that’s your only option, you have no freedom.

How delightful to find confirmation of that theme in a movie—one that was nominated for the Academy Award for best picture in 2000. I’m talking about Chocolat. (I see movies rather long after they first hit the theaters, so forgive this belated discussion. The movie is available on tape and DVD.)

Chocolat is a controversial movie, and it is the controversy that helps emphasize my point that property is central to freedom. In briefest summary it is the story (screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel by Joanne Harris) of a mysterious woman, Vianne, who disrupts or awakens (depending on your point of view) a tradition-bound French village in 1959 by opening an exquisite chocolate shop. It sounds innocuous enough, but this richly textured story has many themes: tradition versus change, tolerance versus intolerance, spirit versus flesh, Christianity versus paganism, the Third World versus the West, feminism versus patriarchy, and others. It’s all there, sufficiently nuanced and balanced to make for interesting conversation among friends, even if it indulges in political correctness a little too often.

Luckily, I don’t have to sort out the many strands that run through the movie. Rather, I want to take a wider view and focus on the institutional setting of the story. Therein lies an irony I have not seen mentioned by movie reviewers.

Let’s begin with a rough generalization. What we think of as left-wingers probably liked the movie. As they saw it, a strong single, unwed mother of Mayan pagan descent upsets a repressed Catholic village (especially its stern mayor) by tempting the residents with a pleasure of the flesh and cultivating the few latent mavericks in town, in particular, an abused wife and a salty old woman who’s been cut off from her grandson by her uptight daughter. Vianne opens her shop just as Lent is beginning and announces plans for a fertility festival on Easter Sunday. Moreover, she befriends a band of “river rats” the town fathers have denounced as immoral undesirables.

The people we think of as right-wingers probably did not like the movie. (Michael Medved says the movie was “determined to show the horrid, intolerant, cruel nature of religious conservatives.”) This presumptuous heathen with her in-your-face manner offends the sensibilities of decent upstanding folks who didn’t need her to intrude on their time-proven virtuous ways.

The movie isn’t so black and white, and there is no overt politics or economics in the story. But if we judge the movie at the institutional level, interesting things happen. Here’s the irony: many of the people who like the movie will tend to be anti-capitalism, anti-property, and anti-profit (which is to say anti-entrepreneur), yet what happens could not have happened under socialism or even milder government intervention.

Observe: Vianne comes into town and rents a store from a resident—property rights, free trade, a tenant-landlord relationship. She proceeds to open her chocolaterie—private enterprise. She’s friendly to the townspeople and invites them into her shop, often giving her potential customers free samples. She’s not just a good businesswoman; she’s a Kirznerian entrepreneur, offering people something they don’t yet know they want. Had they been surveyed by the Gallup Organization, they might have said they emphatically did not want a chocolaterie in their town.

Mayor Reynaud, keeper of the town’s virtue, is clearly threatened by these events. But what does he do about the threat in his capacity as head of government? Absolutely nothing. Yes, he tells his fellow citizens that Vianne represents the devil and that they should resist her temptations. He attempts an informal boycott. But he does not arrest her. He does not close down her shop. We see no policeman at any time during the movie, and the words “license” and “zoning” are never spoken.

In other words, the private property of the owner and her tenant-shopkeeper are respected immaculately (with one unofficial exception). It is property that establishes the rule of law and the limits of government power. Because of property, the mayor (officially) tolerates Vianne even while disapproving of her. She is at all times safe with respect to the law. She is not even harassed. (The only threat comes from her friend’s abusive husband, whose conduct appalls the mayor.)

The Maverick Under Socialism

Now imagine this woman under socialism or communitarianism. She wouldn’t have stood a chance. She could not have opened her shop without government permission, which she would not have received. Had she tried to open it anyway, she would have been shut down and fined or imprisoned. The secret police might have taken her away in the night.

But we need not go to extremes. Imagine that town simply with licensing and zoning laws. The reader can fill in the details.

I wonder how many people of the left, as they cheered Vianne on, were struck with the thought that her activities were possible only because the town respected private property. And how many people of the right who scorned Chocolat realized that private property and free markets make all traditions vulnerable to change and even extinction. (This is not to imply that change is necessarily progress.) Through voluntary exchange, people can do much to protect the customs and practices they cherish. Indeed, private property is instrumental in such protection. But in the final analysis a free society is an unplanned order that no one controls. Thus there are no guarantees that any given custom will endure.

That’s why government is so often asked to thwart change. When persuasion fails, physical force through the state is a tempting alternative for many people. But not in Chocolat.

Many factors, cultural and otherwise, will help determine whether a given viewer inclines toward Vianne or Mayor Reynaud—or believes a reconciliation is possible. But everyone ought to be able to come away from Chocolat understanding that without private property, freedom is impossible.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.