All Commentary
Sunday, August 1, 1999

The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages

Property Rights Define the Nature of the Community

Property is a multifaceted and fundamental topic. Tom Bethell here gives us a broad survey, dealing with economic, political, and legal theory; episodes of economic and political activity; and assessments of institutional constraints and procedures from ancient Greece to virtually the day before yesterday.

Since the fiasco in the Garden of Eden, we have lived in a world of scarcity. The ineluctable state of limits implies not only frustration but also conflict. But there are many ways to compete, and communities differ enormously in how the economic/social/political game is played.

How we survey our possibilities and formulate our strategies, how we interact with each other and coordinate our efforts, is determined largely by the rules of the game. Those rules basically are subsumed under “rights to use of property.” The right to use property we “own” is necessarily limited—I cannot use my hammer to break your window—but what are those limits, how are they determined, and by whom? Property rights go far to define the nature of the community, providing constraints, opportunities, and incentives with respect to what we do and how we do it and determining how we adapt to our niggardly circumstances. Some systems of property rights are much more conducive than others to living together productively and civilly.

The implications of who has what property rights include subtle aspects of political and social philosophy. “The Western concept of human rights presupposes individualism,” Bethell writes, and individualism finds much of its operational manifestation in private rights in property. Equality before the law and freedom of contract are antecedent to a free-market economy.

All this is pursued, elaborated, and illustrated by Bethell with references to a mass of varied literature, from ancient to modern. He is centrally concerned with “the legal and political foundations that are essential to economic growth.” In an individualistic open market with well-defined property rights, options can be discovered; opportunities can be identified; negotiations and exchanges can be conducted; division of labor and coordination can be effectuated; long-range plans can be confidently formulated; and credit can be obtained. Moreover, good stewardship of assets is rational. Bethell persuasively argues that “private property is a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition” for a society to enjoy the “four great blessings” of “liberty, justice, peace and prosperity.”

Some origins of private property are found in Roman law, but our heritage comes mainly from long-developing English common law. Perhaps the operational high point of private property is seen in mid-eighteenth-century Britain. Unfortunately, intellectuals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—including the classical economists—did not adequately spell out the significance of property relations for a flourishing society.

Here, I believe, Bethell is excessively impatient with and ungenerous toward writers of a century or two ago who did not foresee the insight of a handful of analysts of our own generation. The way was left open for much socialistic silliness in both advocacy and action during the last two centuries, but he is too harsh on good economists for not being better.

The author recounts much of the utopianism provided, before and during modern times, by the Jamestown, Plymouth, and New Harmony experiments; by Sir Thomas More, Jean Jacques Rousseau, William Godwin, Robert Owen, and Karl Marx; by the fiasco of the twentieth-century communism; and by the misdirection and mismanagement of modern “emerging Third World economies.” He accounts for the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Irish famine of the 1840s and tries to explain intricacies of today’s “intellectual property” within a framework of property rights. And he devastatingly quotes the naïveté of agitators, politicians, jurists, and economists: see especially Theodore Roosevelt’s insidious distinction between “rights of property” and “rights of men.”

Seminal work on the implications of property rights is to be applauded, but I fear that such interest is not likely to be sustained. Today’s younger economists may not consciously defame private property, but most do little to defend it.

At any rate, innovative academic scribblers can use felicitous help from writers who can reach a wide, non-specialist audience. Mr. Bethell, with a style that is typically graceful but with journalistic assurance, has played his expository role well. []

William Allen is emeritus professor of economics at UCLA.

  • William R. Allen is an economist, professor and author. He is known for his authorship of economic literature alongside frequent co-author Armen Alchian.
    Allen obtained his A.B. (Bachelor of Arts) from Cornell College (1948) and his Ph.D. from Duke University (1953).

    He instructed at Washington University prior to joining the UCLA faculty in 1952. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan, Southern Illinois University, and Texas A&M University, and he has been on the faculty of the Colorado School of Banking.