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Two Indispensable Lessons

Donald J. Boudreaux

The 1900s are now history. I say “1900s” rather than “twentieth century” to avoid irritating those sticklers for precision who note that the final day of the twentieth century is December 31, 2000, and not December 31, 1999.

I agree, too, with sticklers of another sort who point out that, because time measurement is a human convention, there’s nothing special about January 1, 2000 (or about January 1, 2001). Every date—say, August 24, 1938, or June 7, 2097, or any other date you care to name—is the start of a unique 100-year period (and a unique 1,000-year period, and a unique 10,000-year period…).

Nevertheless, human conventions are real; they matter because people pay attention to them. While we shouldn’t impute mystical significance to our particular contrivance for marking time, it is indeed appropriate this month to reflect on the past 100 years.

What are the most critical lessons for us to learn from that century? I offer two candidates.

Shun Utopia

First, utopian schemes are disastrous. They should be avoided like the plague that they are. The trouble with any utopia—literally, “no place”—is that, by its very nature, its advocates do not tolerate deviations from their visions of perfection. They do not tolerate processes, growth, compromise, trial and error, or that vital form of experimentation that Virginia Postrel calls “play.” This trouble is magnified a millionfold when the utopian scheme is enforced by the state, for then the arrogant task of defining and enforcing perfection is monopolized. There’s no longer the comfort of competing utopias—the ability to leave utopia A for utopia B (or, far more sensibly, to avoid utopiaization altogether). When the state is in the utopia business, it alone defines and insists upon the standards that must be met. History proves the state’s ruthlessness at slaughtering anyone who might remotely not measure up.

Consider the twentieth century’s premier utopian scheme—communism. In exchange for unlimited state power, it promised everyone greater prosperity, security, equality, liberty, and cultural refinement. Instead, it delivered only destitution; its people were made “secure” only in the way that prisoners are secure; the masses were equally impoverished while their rulers enjoyed bounties of special privileges; liberty was crushed; and the resulting culture was hideous and grotesque.

Fascism and Nazism, of course, were utopian evils as well. They, too, justified unlimited state power as the means to earthly paradise. They, too, delivered destitution and terror.

What Thomas Sowell calls “the quest for cosmic justice”—the quest for utopia—inevitably leads to earthly hell.1 If we learn only one lesson from the twentieth century, let it be that utopian visions are terrible, dreadful menaces.

Keep Democracy in Perspective

The second lesson of the past 100 years is that democracy alone is insufficient for a society to be truly free and prosperous. Private property rights are far and away the most important bulwark protecting freedom and ensuring prosperity. Democracy, as such, guarantees neither. While this lesson is just as true as the one about utopia, it isn’t as widely understood. After all, most of us alive in the West have been bombarded with paeans to democracy. Schoolchildren are taught that Western nations are free because they are democratic. Indeed, they are taught that freedom is synonymous with democracy. Voting = freedom = voting.

But voting does not equal freedom. Voting is merely the act of yanking a lever (or slipping paper into a box) every few years to register one among thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions or hundreds of millions of preferences for this or that candidate. The chance that any one vote will affect the outcome of any election is practically zero. No voter ever really chooses his or her representative-at least not in the way that each of us chooses an occupation, a house, a church, a college major, books to read, or a spouse.

In our everyday, nonpolitical lives—equipped as we all are with our private property rights—we routinely make choices that count. If you choose to buy a Ford rather than a Volkswagen, you get a Ford. What you get among the available options does not depend upon how others choose. You get what you want; everyone else gets what he and she wants. Not so in elections. You get only what a majority of the voting group wants. Thus, every time a decision is made collectively rather than individually, no individual is free. Each is a slave to the majority.

De-romanticizing democracy is frowned upon today, but I believe that it must be done. Democracy might be the most appropriate means of choosing government officials, but that does not imply that democracy equals freedom. Freedom requires more than the right to vote; it requires that each person be as unrestrained as possible from the arbitrary will of others—regardless of whether the others are conquering tyrants, hereditary oligarchs, black-robed judges, or a majority of neighbors or countrymen.

Private property is the indispensable protection from the arbitrary will of others, even when this arbitrary will results from a majoritarian election. Private property gives to each of us not only the assurance that others will employ themselves and their resources in ways that create prosperity for all, but also that each of us has a space that others cannot violate.

For evidence that private property rather than democracy is the key to prosperity and freedom, I point to India and Hong Kong. In India the electoral franchise is wide and elections have long been regular, but property rights are weak. For most of the post-World War II era, in contrast, Hong Kong had no democracy, but property rights there have been among the strongest the world has ever seen. Indians are poor and shackled by a massively corrupt state; the people of Hong Kong are wealthy and free.

Private property, not democracy, is the great guarantor of prosperity and liberty. And because it decentralizes power, it safeguards us from madmen with utopian hallucinations.

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