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Property and Freedom

Property and Freedom

by Richard Pipes

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Richard Pipes, Harvard scholar and historian of the Russian Revolution, brings his remarkable erudition to an exploration of a wide range of national and political systems to demonstrate persuasively that private ownership has served over the centuries to limit the power of the state and enable democratic institutions to evolve and thrive in the Western


Richard Pipes, Harvard scholar and historian of the Russian Revolution, brings his remarkable erudition to an exploration of a wide range of national and political systems to demonstrate persuasively that private ownership has served over the centuries to limit the power of the state and enable democratic institutions to evolve and thrive in the Western world.

Beginning with Greece and Rome, where the concept of private property as we understand it first developed, Pipes then shows us how, in the late medieval period, the idea matured with the expansion of commerce and the rise of cities. He contrasts England, a country where property rights and parliamentary government advanced hand-in-hand, with Russia, where restrictions on ownership have for centuries consistently abetted authoritarian regimes; finally he provides reflections on current and future trends in the United States. Property and Freedom is a brilliant contribution to political thought and an essential work on a subject of vital importance.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A most stimulating and original book. . . . One of the most valuable volumes on property yet." --The American Spectator

"[Property and Freedom] is his most ambitious [book] ever. It is always compelling, often insightful and robust in argument." --Literary Review

"A superb book about a topic that should be front and center in the American political debate. . . . Splendid because it retains the perspective and sweep of great historical scholarship." --National Review

"        Pipes is massively erudite." --The New York Times Book Review

"        Pipes slowly builds up a strong historical case for the necessity of property rights as a prerequisite for freedoms in general." --The Washington Times

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Renowned Sovietologist Pipes (The Russian Revolution, etc.) offers a powerfully argued coda to the Cold War triumph of capitalism. Private property, his thesis runs, is a prerequisite for the development of liberal, democratic legal and political systems. The books central comparison of 17th-century England with patrimonial Russia provides a potent argument in support of this assertion. The emergence of private estates in England required a legal system, while the czars ruled by decree; dependent on estate holders for revenue, the English Crown convened parliaments, while the czars required obligatory state service from Russian landowners. British citizens ability to accumulate wealth, backed by common law, resulted in modern capitalist democracies. Not surprisingly, Pipes has little patience with socialist ideals and with what he sees as their penchant for artificially imposed equality. He explicitly states that what a man is, what he does, and what he owns are of a piece, so that an assault on his belongings is an assault also on his individuality and his right to life. As Pipes takes Rousseau and Marx to task for their attacks on property, some readers will be put off by his untempered vehemence. While Pipes begrudgingly concedes that the reformist demands of various social movements have placed valuable checks on the unfettered accumulation of property, his message is most clear when he states human beings must have in order to be. (May)
Pipes (history, Harvard U.) demonstrates how, throughout history, private ownership has served as a barrier to the power of the state, enabling the Western world to evolve enduring democratic institutions. He shows how England, as the first country to treat land as a commodity and to develop a robust defense of property rights, also became the first country to institute a parliamentary government capable of restraining the powers of royalty, and describes attitudes toward property of 20th-century totalitarian states. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknew.com)
Charles R. Morris
In Pipes' view, despite the vanquishing of Communism, "liberty's future...is still at peril, although from a different and novel source. The main threat to freedom today comes not from tyranny but from equality"....an exercise in dyspepsia that is not interested in...difficult questions.
The New York Times Book Review
Charles Murray
...[A] principled [defense] of property rights....a surprising and splendid book....[Pipes tackles] a topic that is both sprawling and politically charged....a topic that should be front and center in the American political debate.
National Review
Kirkus Reviews
Harvard historian Pipes, author of a number of seminal books on Russia (The Russian Revolution, 1990; Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, 1994; etc.), seeks here to find the reason for the virtual absence of democracy and civil liberties through seven centuries of Russian history. He finds it in the refusal of the Russian state to recognize anything akin to Western attitudes on property. The growth of legal protection for the individual in England, and later in its colonies, was closely associated with the recognition of property rights. By contrast, he contends that "the critical factor in the failure of Russia to develop rights and liberties was the liquidation of landed property in the Grand Duchy of Moscow," which deprived the Russians of the means to limit the power of their kings. But Pipes goes beyond this to contend that property rights have been critical throughout history to the development of liberty. He shows that the Marxist assumption of early communism, of property being shared in common, is historically unfounded. Surviving ancient legal codes, like the Code of Hammurabi (c.2000 b.c.e.), and Assyria (1500 b.c.e.), are very much focused on ownership. What concerns Pipes is that an awareness of this historic link has been eroded by evolutionary sociology, which emerged in the 19th century under the influence of Darwin; and by a thoughtless egalitarianism, epitomized by President Johnson's famous statement that we seek "not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and as a result." Since human beings are by nature unequal, such equality in fact can be achieved only by compulsion. Pipes may be on some unfamiliar territory, and this book lacks theassurance of his earlier works, but it constitutes a valuable and cautionary lesson from his deep study of the failed Russian system.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.16(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.78(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter One

Property can be studied from two distinct points of view: as a concept and as an institution. The two approaches yield very different results. Throughout the history of thought, property has enjoyed a mixed reputation, being identified sometimes with prosperity and freedom, sometimes with moral corruption, social injustice, and war. Utopian fantasies, as a rule, place the abolition of the distinction between "mine" and "thine" at the center of their vision. Even many thinkers favoring property view it as, at best, an unavoidable evil. The history of all societies, on the other hand, from the most primitive to the most advanced, reveals the universality of property claims and the failure of every attempt to found a propertyless community, whether voluntarily or by force. In this instance, therefore, there is an unusually wide disparity between what mankind thinks it wants and what, judging by its actions, it really prefers. Lewis Mumford explained this disparity by suggesting that man lives in two worlds--the world within and the world without, the first being the realm of ideas, wishes, and images, the latter that of harsh, inescapable reality. "If the physical environment is the earth, the world of ideas corresponds to the heavens."

We shall, accordingly, divide our discussion into two parts. The present chapter will deal with the attitudes toward property of Western philosophers, theologians, and political theorists. The chapter that follows will be devoted to the institution of property as revealed by history, psychology, anthropology, and sociobiology. The distinction, of course, is artificial and is introduced only for the sake of clarity of exposition; in actuality, ideas and events have constantly interacted. As we shall point out, every change in attitude toward property can be explained by political or economic developments.

Discussions of property from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the present have revolved around four principal themes: its relation to politics, ethics, economics, and psychology.

      1. The political argument in favor of property holds that (unless distributed in a grossly unfair manner) it promotes stability and constrains the power of government. Against property it is claimed that the inequality which necessarily accompanies it generates social unrest.

      2. From the moral point of view, it is said that property is legitimate because everyone is entitled to the fruits of his labor. To which critics respond that many owners exert no effort to acquire what they own and that the same logic requires everyone to have an equal opportunity to acquire property.

      3. The economic line of reasoning for property holds that it is the most efficient means of producing wealth, whereas opponents hold that economic activity driven by the pursuit of private gain leads to wasteful competition.

      4. The psychological defense of property maintains that it enhances the individual's sense of identity and self-esteem. Others assert that it corrupts the personality by infecting it with greed.

      These four approaches fairly exhaust the range of arguments for and against property articulated during the past three thousand years. At its most fundamental, the controversy pits the moral approach against the pragmatic.

1. Classical antiquity

The ethical treatment of property, which has dominated the discussion until modern times, has evolved against the background of a pervasive belief in the existence of a "Golden Age." In its most familiar guise, the Golden Age is the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Paradise (Garden of Eden), but in one form or another it is common to all civilizations. The outstanding quality of this mythical past is the absence of private ownership: in the Golden Age everything is said to have been held in common and the words "mine" and "thine" were unknown. Since, as we shall show in the chapter that follows, no society has ever existed without some kind of property, the vision of an ideal propertyless world must be grounded not in collective memory but in collective longing. It is inspired by the belief that inequalities of status and wealth are "unnatural." They have to be man-made, not God-made: for are not all beings born equal and, upon death, do they not turn alike to dust?

The earliest known depiction of the Golden Age occurs in a work by Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer, called Works and Days. The Greek poet of the early seventh century b.c.e.* speaks of four "metallic" ages of mankind--the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron, each latter age marked by progressive moral decline. In the earliest, Golden age, when the world was ruled by the Titan Cronus, all goods were available in abundance and peace prevailed. But in his own time, which he labeled the Age of Iron, Hesiod saw violence and the "shameful lust for gain" prevail over justice. This image of the blissful infancy of humanity entered the mainstream of Greek and Roman literature. As we shall see, the idea of the Golden Age exerted great influence on European thought of the Renaissance period, stimulating the voyages of discovery and influencing how the discoveries were perceived.

The earliest theoretical assault on property is to be found in Plato's Republic, a work which has exerted influence on all subsequent utopias. The Republic and its successor, the Laws, were not the first works to seek ways of eliminating property as the cause of social strife, but the writings of Plato's predecessors have not survived and are known only from hearsay. Plato wrote at a time when Greece was in turmoil from social conflicts within the city-states and wars among them. He is said to have been inspired by the example of Sparta, a highly centralized state in which the government prevented the concentration of wealth in the hands of the elite, and which in the drawn-out Peloponnesian war ultimately defeated and subjugated Athens. Sparta's triumph was widely attributed to her constitution, said to have been drawn up by Lycurgus, her legendary founder, which outlawed trade and industry in order to free the citizens for war.

Meet the Author

Richard Pipes was for many years a professor of history at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Marlborough, New Hampshire.

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