Property and Freedom: The Inseparable Connection

The following is abridged from a speech delivered at “Evenings at FEE” in October 2004.

I feel very happy and privileged to be here tonight and to speak to such a large and eager audience.

I became interested in the subject of property and freedom while writing my book Russia under the Old Regime. It raised a very interesting question: Why is it that Russia—a European country by geography, race, language, and religion—virtually never managed to impose any limits on its government? It always had autocratic rule: the will of rulers rather than the rule of law. Even today you see in Russia a backsliding from democracy into authoritarianism.

I concluded that it was due to the absence—or rather a very late development—of private property in Russia.

In Western Europe since Roman times, private property was considered sacrosanct. The principle enunciated by the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca that kings rule by the will of the people became fundamental to Western civilization, together with private property, which was the main source of productive wealth.

On the other hand, the notion that property is to be viewed as an evil also goes back to the eighth century B.C. in ancient Greece. The Greek writer Hesiod spoke about three ages of man: the Golden Age, the Civil Age, and the Iron Age. According to Hesiod, the Golden Age had no property lines dividing the land among neighbors—it was all held in common.

Plato, the first communist in intellectual history, went even further, suggesting that private property causes quarrels and civil wars. He believed in sharing not only property but wives and children as well. His idea was that we would all become one and the same. We would have the same eyes and the same ears and the same sense of smell. We would lose our individuality entirely.

Plato was challenged by his disciple, Aristotle. Aristotle argued that it is not private property that causes conflicts and wars, but the desire for property. Thus if you want to eliminate conflict, you have to eliminate that desire, which is quite impossible. Private property, Aristotle said, may have its vices and is far from perfect, but it leads to fewer quarrels and wars than would its abolition.

Christianity brought about a much more tolerant view of private property. Christ never demanded the abolition of private property and never made the accusation that it was a sin. (Incidentally, Judaism also never attacked private property. Jewish rabbis and theologians argued that it is better to be rich than poor. When you are poor you become a burden on society, but when you have wealth you should share it with society at large.)

The Christian notion prevailed and strengthened. During the Protestant Reformation, Luther and particularly Calvin developed the notion that the possession of wealth is a sign of divine grace. Max Weber, the German sociologist, in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, demonstrated how Calvinist theology promoted the development of private property and the accumulation of wealth.

The Basis of Modern Socialism

A change began in 18th-century France, the country which has often been the source of the most terrible ideas. A group of French philosophers launched an argument against private property using John Locke’s theory of knowledge. Locke, the father of classical liberalism, who argued that we have no innate ideas and learn entirely from experience, never anticipated the political implications that some would draw from his theory. These French thinkers argued that if everything we are is just a result of our experiences, then through proper legislation and education human beings can be changed. Since property is the root of all evil, through its abolition people can be totally socialized: then they will not desire to own anything, but will want to share everything.

That became the basis of modern socialism and communism. Marx argued that our acquisitive feelings are entirely a result of the environment in which we live. He insisted that as long as we remained dependent on private property we would never be truly free. Only when “society” owned everything would everyone receive according to his desires and needs. According to Marx, under a communist system a person would be able to do anything he desired: he could be a literary critic today, a hunter tomorrow, a fisherman another day, and so on. “True freedom” would follow. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx summed up the definition of communism in one phrase: the abolition of private property.

Accordingly, the communist system in the Soviet Union became a gigantic educational structure to create new, totally socialized human beings. Of course, parents had to be completely changed first. If the parents did not crave private property, then the children would not either. The Soviet regime tried to practice this for 70 years, but sure enough it failed miserably.

The reality is that all living creatures, not only people, but also animals, are extremely acquisitive; they have to be in order to survive. All animals have the necessity of controlling their separate territories. When deer have their battles in the spring, they are in fact fighting for territory. A female will not mate with a male who doesn’t have territory: he must be “rich”; otherwise she cannot raise her offspring.

Our species is no different. Research has shown that one of the first words children learn is “mine” and that approximately 75 percent of conflicts among children are over possessions. The most extreme example of an attempt to eradicate possessiveness was the kibbutz in Israel. In those communes children had nothing of their own, not even socks or underwear; everything was shared. The results were terrible. When they grew up, those children could not establish normal human relations with other human beings because to them it was “selfish.” They could not fall in love because love involves possessiveness. They could not write poetry because it was not something that the group enjoyed. They made wonderful army officers because they were very brave and would sacrifice themselves for the community. But they didn’t make normal human beings.

Marx hailed a period of “primitive communism,” or as he called it “The Golden Age of Hesiod,” which, he insisted, existed in the very early stage of human history when nobody owned anything. Only with the emergence of social classes, Marx said, did the powerful begin to appropriate property and enslave others. But there is absolutely no evidence that there ever was an age of “primitive communism.” In fact, every society of the past, whether as a tribe, community, or family, imposed claims on property, which was at that time land or cattle.

Private Property and European Liberty

Private property first began to emerge in ancient Israel. When the Israelis settled in Canaan they apportioned the land among themselves by lot. (It’s interesting that the word “lot” in English has a double meaning: as a piece of land and also a raffle.) In the Hebrew Bible you find many allusions to private property. For example, God curses anyone who moves boundary stones separating properties.

Europe from the earliest times of the barbarian occupation practiced private property and adopted Seneca’s idea: kings rule and subjects own. This notion became especially deeply rooted in England, which as an island was easier to protect from foreign invasions. Countries like France, Germany, and Italy were constantly attacked and thus were willing to give their governments certain powers over their property and taxation in order to defend themselves. The English were not willing to grant such authority because they felt safe.

In most of medieval Europe the kings ran the government from their own income. They leased out their large estates, collected rent, and were supposed to use this revenue to run their courts, navies, armies, and so on. But by 1300 the English kings didn’t have enough money to do that. Since they respected their subjects’ property rights, they had to convene the House of Commons and ask, “Please give me subsidies through taxes.” The House of Commons agreed, but only with the recognition of some rights in return. And increasingly power passed from the kings to the kings and parliament, and eventually to the parliament by itself. By the early 1800s, when England was fighting battles against Napoleonic France, King George III was declared legally insane, but it actually didn’t affect the country. In reality the prime minister, not the king, was running England.

This formed the basis of European liberty: possession of property that required government to come to its subjects, ask them for appropriations and grant them power in return. Eventually property rights led to the development of parliamentary institutions and of many other liberties.

No Freedom Without Property

In Russia the situation was completely different. As Trotsky once so bluntly pointed out, “It used to be said that he who doesn’t work doesn’t eat. In communist societies, he who does not obey does not eat.” In order to survive, everyone had to become an embryo of the state. That has been the case throughout Russian history.

For a variety of historical reasons Russian czars appropriated the totality of the land. They granted the land to servitors, mostly military men, under one condition: absolute obedience and loyalty. They were allowed to live on the land and use it, and they were given serfs to work for them, but only as long as they served the crown properly. Otherwise the land would be given to somebody else. As a result every subject, from the lowest to the highest, had to loyally serve the czar for life, as a serf, military man, official in the bureaucracy, or clergyman. The spirit of individualism was completely absent and had no soil from which to emerge.

It is not surprising that for most of its history Russia had no parliaments and no need for them: the czars did not have to seek permission to raise taxes. They could do it on a whim as they wanted. Finally in 1905, as the result of a revolution, the government granted its people a parliament and accepted political parties as part of a new parliamentary system. But the notion that the parliament could have any actual power was really not acceptable. The czar was persuaded that the function of the parties was to collaborate with the government, not to oppose it. Just the other day President Putin’s assistant made a statement that political parties in Russia have to collaborate with the government, not to resist it. The idea of a loyal opposition is totally alien to Russia and the very concept of freedom and human rights has never taken root. Russia simply cannot get over its authoritarian impulses and is moving back towards authoritarianism.

My extensive study of opinion polls in Russia shows a very disconcerting picture. Most Russians attach almost no value to freedom. To them it is either security or freedom, but never both. When asked “What do you value more highly, security or freedom?,” approximately 85 percent answer “definitely security.” When asked “What value do you attach to private property?,” only about 20 percent say that property is an inalienable human right. The overwhelming majority views democracy as a joke, a façade behind which the rich and powerful rule with no attention to the people.

The result is that only 10 percent of the population is interested in or pays attention to politics. The other 90 percent are totally depoliticized and don’t care one way or the other. This makes it entirely possible for someone like Putin to appoint governors, forbid certain electoral procedures in the provinces, and take over the media—the Russian people don’t mind it. In fact 76 percent of Russians want the reintroduction of censorship on the media. Why? Because they are confused by the flow of contradictory news and would prefer to be told what to believe.

Private property is always closely connected with law, which explains Russia’s failure to develop a functional judiciary system. In case of any disagreement or contract violation, business resorts to arbitration or the mafia, since the courts will not enforce private contracts.

The judiciary system largely remains what Russians call “telephone justice,” where the prosecutor telephones the judge and tells him what sentence to impose. For example, Mr. Khodorovsky, the richest man in Russia, was arrested and jailed, allegedly for not paying his taxes. But his major crime is really the fact that he had the temerity to finance political parties which were neither friendly to Putin, nor under his control.

The absence of any tradition of and respect for private property negatively affects the Russian investment climate. Every year, billions of dollars move from Russia to foreign banks, or get invested in foreign businesses, foreign soccer teams, or what have you. Why would you invest money in Russia knowing that if the government is displeased, it will take your property, arrest you, and the prosecutor will tell the judge what kind of sentence to enforce?

This is a tragedy for Russia, but it also emphasizes to what extent private property is vital for liberty and economic progress. We must bear that in mind in our own society. Although nobody in this country challenges private property directly, it is done in a very oblique fashion through the welfare state. The welfare state is an enemy of private property. The excessive taxation used to support the welfare state is extremely dangerous.

Today in the United States, the federal, state, and local governments together control 35 percent of the GDP. This means that the government is controlling a great deal of cash, which allows it to influence public policy, tell universities whom to hire and whom not to hire, and do all sorts of things. We need to keep a very keen eye on our own government. It’s getting too rich and redistributing wealth is a sure way of robbing us of our private property rights and other rights along with them.

Dr. Richard Pipes escaped from his native Poland as a teenager in October 1939, a month after the Nazi troops marched into Warsaw. He and his immediate family finally arrived in the United States in July 1940, but most of his other relatives perished in concentration camps.

Dr. Pipes graduated from Cornell University in 1945 while on active service with the U.S. Air Force and earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1950. For several generations of Harvard students he brought alive the reality and tragedy of Russian and Soviet history. Through his many excellent books, he conveyed those powerful insights to millions of readers around the world. Among his most important books are Property and Freedom, Formation of the Soviet Union, Russia under the Old Regime, The Russian Revolution, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime, and Communism: A History.

Dr. Pipes is professor emeritus of history at Harvard.