All Commentary
Saturday, April 1, 2000


Private property is again getting the attention it deserves, thanks to two recent books. Tom Bethell’s The Noblest Triumph and Richard Pipes’s Property and Freedom won’t be the last words on the subject, nor should they be. The subject is too important.

The centrality of property to a free and prosperous society cannot be overstated. It’s therefore also at the center of the case for a free society. Full freedom cannot exist without property or with attenuated property. Every dictator has known this and so has denounced private property as antisocial. The identity between property and liberty is something that today’s seekers of the “third way” refuse to recognize.

The more one examines the term “private property” the more one finds packed into it. It’s been noted that the ideas of limiting government power and the rule of law necessarily follow from the concept. So do the other trademarks of classical liberalism. It says it all. The rest is elaboration.

In fact, the term is twice as long as necessary. “Private property” is redundant; “public property” is a contradiction in terms. The public is an abstraction, not an entity. It cannot own. “People are ill served by the manufacture of spurious entities,” wrote James Sadowsky in his classic essay “Private Property and Collective Ownership.” (Beware the term “environment”; it is laden with collectivism.)

If it’s not private, it’s not property. And if it’s called “public property” but is under the control of discrete individuals, as it must be, then it is de facto private, albeit illicitly acquired property. Maybe this is why the qualifier “private” was thought superfluous by so many of the early liberals.

Property is not just a device economists posit to assure efficiency. It is liberty in concrete form.

In January the Economic Policy Institute and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities issued the latest in the regular stream of jeremiads about wealth inequality in the United States. For the authors, the state-by-state report of the widening gap between the top and bottom earners is, ipso facto, evidence of injustice. In response, we reprint a classic essay from Ludwig von Mises. This one is definitely worth reading again.

Fans of paternalistic government have a simple answer for those who think the Second Amendment, which identifies and protects the natural right to keep and bear arms, is necessary in the modern world: dial 911. Richard Stevens explains why legally and practically the right to keep and bear telephones can’t hold a candle to the Founding Fathers’ handiwork.

Ludwig von Mises defeated socialism intellectually by arguing that since the planners can’t calculate, they can’t plan. After having shown that free markets and entrepreneurship are necessary in an open-ended world rife with error, Israel Kirzner extends Mises’s argument to lesser forms of intervention.

Even some friends of free enterprise think they see a good side to an eventual breakup of Microsoft as a result of the government’s antitrust case. D. T. Armentano reviews a similar case from the annals of antitrust and comes to a radically different conclusion.

The judge in the Microsoft case set out a detailed set of findings as a prelude to the penalty phase. Scrutinizing the findings, William Shughart has trouble finding anything worthwhile.

When students brought up in the theology of state-worship encounter heresy in the form of a good college course in economics, the results can be interesting and exasperating. Paul Cleveland has the details.

As the horizon of a new century approaches, are we on the threshold of a big leap in economic freedom and living standards? Christopher Lingle surveys the world and likes much of what he sees.

Politicians like power and dislike giving it up. Where then lies the hope for liberty? A trip to Ireland taught James Payne a good lesson in political theory.

The population-control lobby carries on, undeterred by all empirical indications that they are wrong to believe that our growing numbers endanger mankind. Jim Peron shows that the lobby’s own program would bring the very catastrophe they claim to want to avert.

Christopher Mayer points out that if flexibility in the face of an uncertain future is a virtue, then free trade is certainly no vice.

As for this month’s columnists: Donald Boudreaux takes a trip around the world without ever leaving New York. Lawrence Reed says that government will only disrupt the Internet if it tries to guarantee access. Doug Bandow counsels that we should keep our eyes on taxes, not the national debt. Dwight Lee writes that there is no substitute for a commitment to liberty if we want to check government power. Mark Skousen identifies a major reason why prognosticators are so often wrong. Walter Williams is wary about government action in the name of preventing harm. And Joseph Salerno, reading William Satire’s plea for vigorous antitrust prosecution, declares, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Our book reviewers look over volumes on “equal opportunity,” allegedly amateur sports, sexual equality, Hayek versus Keynes, and multiculturalism in the classroom.

—Sheldon Richman

  • 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.